Attracting and Retaining Top Product Talent

One of the unexpected gifts of the pandemic has been our launch of (virtual) peer groups of Product Leaders. At least once a week, we get the chance to convene small groups of product leaders to discuss their challenges and share experiences. We cover a variety of topics such as how to better catalog and use customer feedback or how to reduce custom development. A very frequent topic is talent. Especially, how to attract and retain good product talent when you are not a tech company.

Yes, there is a lot of talk in the popular press about the “Great Resignation” and the Microsoft study that found that 41% of the global workforce is considering leaving their current employer within the next year.  However, the Product Leaders we work with, who largely represent service companies that are transforming into digital product companies, have been facing talent challenges long before the pandemic.

The challenge is that digital product management is a field where there is more demand than supply. This makes it very difficult for non-tech-native companies to attract experienced product managers with technical product experience.  However, there are a few tactics that seem to help:

Grow Your Own

The organizations that have had the most success in attracting and retaining good product management talent have gotten better at growing their own digital product managers. First, they have identified the adjacent fields that tend to cultivate the most important product management competencies. These fields include management consulting, marketing, and customer success. They understand that it is often easier to teach the technical skills a good digital product manager needs, rather than teaching the other required competencies such as business acumen, commercial acumen, customer empathy, communication skills and the ability to execute.

They also invest in developing the skills gaps of their team, both through formal training, formal coaching, and a lot of applied learning.

Choose Performance Metrics that Create a Great Culture

The non-tech native organizations that are retaining their best product managers have created a culture where making mistakes is okay. One way to do this is to evaluate Product teams based on a mix of leading and lagging measures, not just lagging measures. My favorite leading measure is the rate of learning, especially for Product teams who are developing new products. It looks at the number of experiments the team runs or the number of insights gleaned, and it measures whether or not the team is quickly learning. Measuring the rate of learning alongside lagging metrics such as Return on Investment of new products, gross margin and churn/retention rates, not only helps strengthen the culture of innovation, it also measures and rewards Product teams on levers they can control.

Stay Flexible

Product Managers with strong communication skills can be very effective in flexible and remote working arrangements. A recent large-scale survey of Product Managers across industries found that a very large majority of product management professionals don’t anticipate going back to the office, even after the pandemic subsides.  The survey found, “35% think they will stay primarily remote, while 41% anticipate a mix between remote and office-based work. (-think you should either write out both or use % for both for consistency)." We believe that if you are not already planning to let your product teams work partially from home, it will be hard to attract and retain top talent.

Develop Career Paths

A recent McKinsey survey of Product Managers found that only 35% of the product managers understand what it takes to advance at their companies, and roughly the same number feel sufficiently coached and mentored. Part of creating a career path is articulating the skills that Product Managers need to advance, as well as the roles that they could move into within product. It also includes providing both training and coaching to develop the skills needed for the next role (which ties back nicely to the ‘grow your own’ approach). 

If you need more support building the skills in your team, we’ve recently launched SPARK, our new product innovation capabilities development program. In it we:

  1. Assess - We assess your organization’s current capabilities using our Product Innovation Maturity Diagnostic 
  2. Design a New Product - We lead your team through a series of new product design sprint exercises to both teach customer-centric, tech-enabled innovation skills, but also to design and test a new product simultaneously, so there is a tangible outcome from the effort.
  3. Codify - Your team receives a customized Innovation Playbook to follow for future new product explorations.

Unlike traditional innovation or product management training, we teach your team skills while practicing them, create a customized innovation playbook to follow in the future, and provide the coaching to ensure the playbook is used. Please let us know if you want more information about SPARK!