Hire Starfleet Officers, Not Jedi Knights: Building High-Performing Product Management Teams

Over the years, I have had the privilege of managing a number of product managers in technology. A few lessons have emerged. At the core is my belief that the best product managers are those who are hungry, humble and hard-working rather than those with pedigreed backgrounds. I would prefer having Starfleet officers over Jedi knights. Starfleet officers (more from the TNG universe than the J.J. Abrams universe) are people with above-average abilities who succeed through teamwork. Jedi knights are people whose main qualification is having a specific biological attribute at birth, the presence of midichlorians, the lack of which would exclude others from that profession regardless of interest or work ethic.

Product management is hard work. Idea generation is a component but success lies with execution. Unique ideas cannot succeed without diligent execution while excellent execution can lift derivative ideas to success. In addition, truly unique ideas are rare. Your best bet is to make sure your team can execute with urgency and attention to detail.

Many new product managers come in with stars in their eyes being sold on the idea of being “CEO of the product” and making high-level decisions. They miss the point about writing clear and detailed requirements with acceptance criteria and definitions of done. They miss the point of outlining all edge cases and fully understanding the end-to-end customer experience for all users (no, it is not okay to wait until integration testing to uncover those). They miss the point about seeking out customer input for their decision making. They miss the point about the mountain of work required to build truly exceptional products.

The successful product managers are the ones who embrace the fact that product management is a craft that requires hard work, an open mind and extreme attention to detail. They embrace the idea that the most effective high-level strategies often emerge only after working through all of the details and working with their end customers. They love to learn and they are willing to learn from anyone, anywhere, including from peers and juniors.

Those who fail are often those who believe companies hired them for what’s in their heads or on their resumes and not for their ability to learn. One person I managed struggled as he believed it was below him to understand each and every item on his backlog. He believed that, with his fancy MBA, he was more suited to paint broad-stroke strategies for the engineering team who would be responsible for execution. Another product manager with a fancy MBA and experience at a top-tier strategy consulting firm was assigned to SEO and sketched out grand strategies but then wrote the following requirement (I wish this were an exaggeration but, sadly, this is real): “User story: as a company, I would like us to rank high in search so that we can generate more traffic and make more money. Acceptance criteria: we rank high in search.” She argued that the requirement does technically conform to the structure of how requirements are written and she was unwilling to learn otherwise.

This brings us back to the difference between Starfleet officers and Jedi knights:

In summary, Starfleet officers are team players made up of substance and drive. They bring out the best in people. Jedi knights, on the other hand, have super-human abilities but are arrogant and difficult to work with. They may achieve as individuals but rarely enhance the overall effectiveness of the team.

Finding Starfleet Officers

On paper, Starfleet officers and Jedi knights share similar characteristics. They both frequently have good educational backgrounds and a track record of accomplishment. The best way to distinguish is during the interview. Look for natural curiosity in the form of follow-up and clarifying questions versus bold assumptions in understanding of the questions asked on first pass. I also like to ask directed questions (though in a friendly and conversational manner and after we go through the “tell me about your major accomplishments” type of feel-good questions). These would include the classic weakness and mistake questions and the classic learn-from-others and personal growth questions. Avoid candidates who do not have thoughtful answers or try to blame outside circumstances or try to give an example from when they first started their job such as (this one is made up): “I didn’t know where the fax machine was during my first week on the job so I needed to ask someone and they really helped me out.”

One interview I gave a long time ago was going extremely well for the candidate but I sensed a dark side in a complete absence of vocally self-critical. I probed in multiple ways for some semblance of humility or openness. Response to the biggest documented weakness question was around some minor feature launch that did not move desired KPI’s. When asked in a follow-up for lessons learned or alternative approaches that could have been taken, she simply said she would not have launched the feature.

I also like to give “interview mulligans” if I’m the last interviewer of the day. These are opportunities for the candidate to re-answer any question given during any interview of that day. Weaker candidates are often fully satisfied with their responses and feel they did a great job throughout. Better candidates will often be self-aware enough to know where they could have done better.

Conclusion

Who would you rather have on your team: (1) a person who persevered to be the only freshman to ever win the Starfleet Academy marathon on Danula II and who would later become a true leader or (2) some whiny crybaby who sulks when he is not allowed to go to Tosche Station to pick up power converters? I know who I would choose.

Product management professional passionate about making the world a better place through technology.

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