Headcount cannot ship products
How to navigate a hiring crunch when you need to grow your PM team
“Headcount cannot ship products” —Sun Tzu, Art of War
You may have heeded Peter Thiel’s advice that competition is for suckers and found an edge where you will have no competition or will leave them in the dust. There is one area, I’m afraid, where every growing company finds themselves in a messy dogfight with everyone else: hiring talent. This one is a zero-sum game.
It takes 3+ months to hire the Product Manager you want, and 6-9 months to assemble a small team of PMs and get them going. If your 2022 headcount was approved at the end of 2021, expect no more than a quarter’s worth of output at best from that headcount in 2022.
If you, as a PM hiring manager, are going to be spending the next 6 months on growing your team, here are some hard-learned lessons. This is a post about tactics.
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On time management
You need to spend 80% of your time on hiring, and the remaining 80% of your time doing the work of the PMs you need to hire. Yes, this is a poor joke.
Firstly, hiring is the most important thing you can do right now and it needs the 80% allocation. Think of it this way: if there is a fire, multiple people in the org can chip in to deal with it, but no one else can hire your team. Let’s look at how to manage the other 20%.
Resolving fires, working in the trenches with your team, product discussions — these are seductive siren songs, more so because recruiting is like sales and product people tend to take to sales like a cat to water. Having a firm set of rules to protect your hiring time is the first line of defense.
First: let your team know what your plan is. I’ve learnt the hard way that it really is not obvious to people around you how much of your time hiring is going to take, and frankly, deserve. It helps to create a coverage plan — names of people to whom different questions or asks can be directed at. You’ll be surprised how often people from other functions (a tech lead, an EM, a designer, for instance) are more than happy to volunteer some of their time.
Second: Retention is more important than hiring — don’t forget the PMs you manage. This means considering 1:1s, feedback / coaching sessions, career conversations to be sacrosanct.
Third: The second cohort of people to make time for within your 20% are customers. If your hiring will continue for 6 months, it is far too long to be away from them and if you lose touch with them, you are not going to be making great decisions.
Fourth: One high-leverage activity is finding process hooks where you can weigh in on key decisions or catch stuff falling through the cracks. These are very dependent on your team’s product development process, of course. But a common mistake (and this might be controversial) I see PM leaders make is not tweaking that process to allow for their own involvement. If the buck is going to stop with you, you need to make sure the process works for you.
Ultimately, the people around you will have to shock-absorb your absence, so it helps to acknowledge that!
Recruiting as a funnel
Recruiting is like sales. That product people would rather do anything other than sales is a good candidate for the understatement of the year. It is why time management is the first section in this post, but I digress. The implications of recruiting being like sales is that you need to think of your hiring pipeline as a sales funnel, and manage it accordingly.
A funnel might look like this:
→ Phone interview
→ Take-home exercise
→ Onsite round 1
→ Final onsite
The single most important reason to track this funnel is to create accountability for yourself and anyone involved in hiring. The funnel itself is only a map: it can tell you what is going on at any given moment and what you can reasonably expect to happen. It is easy to lose your way without it. Never ceases to amaze me every time I see a hiring manager barge into the fog of hiring thinking they can make it out on the other side without navigational tools.
So, how should you use this map?
It will be empty or at least sparse, as you kickstart hiring. Fill it with desired numbers you would like in an ideal state. These will tell you what pre-work is needed (for example, sourcing or blocking time with the interview panel). These become intermediate goals that help you track progress week-to-week.
Once candidates are flowing through the funnel, drop-off rates at every stage become pretty clear and allow you to optimize your hiring process. For instance, a large drop-off after the final round tells you to filter more strongly earlier in the funnel. An abnormally low drop-off rate at any stage might suggest that that stage is redundant.
As with any growth program worth its salt, the funnel will help you evaluate channel quality (of sourcing, in this case). If candidates from inbound applications on your careers website have a larger drop-out rate mid-funnel than employee referral candidates, you know it may be a good idea to shift time and money from improving your careers site to your referral program.
The funnel will also tell you how many interviews you likely need to do before you can close a candidate. It is useful to estimate how much interviewing hours you are going to need from your cross-functional peers and set expectations accordingly.
Coming back to the first point, the funnel should be the anchor for a weekly ops meeting for your pipeline. Are you running at interviewing capacity this week and expect the same next week? Do you need to change your sourcing tactics and/or volume? Can you shorten the process for candidates? Are you on track for filling the open roles by the quarter you expected? Note: while these are operational questions, a weekly recruiting meeting should also ask about and improve candidate experience and interview process. One of those rare recurring meetings that are very, very high leverage!
In my experience, hiring for product management is more bursty than other functions and when such a burst comes, PM hiring managers often have to rebuild atrophied muscle.
Scouting not sourcing
Sourcing is a poor word to describe what you need to do as a hiring manager. Sourcing is better suited to an industrial age manufacturing process where you knew exactly what raw materials were required and you went out to find the cheapest, most reliable, highest quality supplier you could. A better term for what we do is scouting — identifying talent.
Scouting is a mindset, not a process. You are constantly looking for talent, even if you don’t have a current opening, building connections, understanding their spikes and career aspirations, and being opportunistic in getting exceptional talent on board.
Talent is unevenly spiky. When you look through a list of requirements written down for an open role, no individual will be good at all of them. The mental calculus a hiring manager frequently runs is not only “will this person fit this role” but also “will this role fit this person”. Specifics of the role and surrounding scaffolding are variables as much in play as candidates themselves.
But I promised this post would be about tactics.
Ultimately, when it comes to competing in such a heated market, only two things matter — differentiation and speed. A massively underutilized edge (as of this writing) is the hiring manager getting actively involved in sourcing. Your future star PM is getting dozens of recruiter emails a week. You need to get your email in front of them asap and have it come from you. In a sea of recruiter emails prompting “are you interested in role X”, a thoughtful email from a hiring manager prompting “how can company X help accelerate your career goals” stands out as a starting conversation.
It is easier than ever to scale this with tools like TopFunnel or Gem that allow you trigger a somewhat personalized cold email with 1-click from a LinkedIn profile you liked. There are ways to make the follow up more efficient too, but efficiency notwithstanding, the main thing to realize is that this is a fantastic use of your time. While your team can deal with ongoing product fires, they cannot engage with candidates for you. This early engagement pays off when you find yourself at the other end of the process convincing the candidate to accept your offer instead of the FAANG offer where you cannot match the $s.
Partner with your recruiters on this, and ask them to think of your time as a resource they have available to deploy for the maximum ROI.
Being actively involved in this process and building the scout mindset is a lot of work, no doubt, and is a chasm every great executive crosses — realizing that hiring is job number one. As you scout, you not only build a deep network but also get a sense of the talent out there and what it would take to win them over to your side. It allows you to think multiple years out for building your team.
During the hiring crunch, however, everyone is focussed on filling this year’s quota. It is easy to drop exploratory conversations and time for scouting. This is a common mistake — by focussing solely on the short term you are relegating your future self to again have to focus solely on the short term next year.
Creating a hiring process is large undertaking. While these tactics will help you kickstart a flywheel, the wheel itself is made up of a candidate evaluation rubric, leveling criteria, panel structure, debrief structure, reference check practices, comp practices, closing tactics, and probably a few other things I’m forgetting here. If you’re at a small, growing company without these set up, writing down some guiding principles or how-to’s for each as an MVP of the process will avoid thrash later.
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