May 21, 2023 4 min read

Thoughts for In-The-Job-Market Product Leaders

old-fashioned job posting board

I’ve had a lot of discussion over the last few months with product leaders looking for their next opportunity.  Some of this is normal exec-level churn (the half-life of a CPO role is about 20 months) and some from the recent wave of tech layoffs.  As a sounding board for many going through this, here are a few ideas...

1. Pace yourself.  A VP Product or CPO job search typically takes 3-6 months, and the current hiring market isn’t typical.  Plan on needing 6-9 months to find your next full-time adventure.  That suggests a look at your household finances: can you ride out an extended period of slim earnings?
And if you’re still employed, consider a “quietly look while staying in the current thing” search.  It’s much easier finding your next thing from a semi-stable situation, and you won’t deplete your reserves.

2. Be good to yourself.  In my experience, a job search isn’t a full-time effort.  Recruiters and contacts don’t return your emails faster if you wait at your desk:  IMO, 2-3 hours/day is diminishing returns.  So plan something every day that’s fun or life-affirming: get some exercise, visit a museum, take your kid to a NWSL or UEFA game, study Portuguese or jazz or ikebana, take a walk in the sunshine.  Whatever floats your boat.  Rest and mental health are essential, plus you’ll interview better.
Also consider ways to keep your hand in the product game.  Mentor an unfunded start-up.  Coach some up-and-coming PMs.  Give a talk at a nearby MBA classroom or be a judge for your local incubator’s pitch night… a way to make you feel valued, keep your product brain working, and create some sharable anecdotes.

3. It’s not just you.  Job searches amplify self-doubt, anxiety, imposter syndrome, isolation.  It's good to unburden yourself with a trusted someone.  Or find a couple of peers in a similar situation for some mutual emotional support and a weekly check-in.    

4. Reach out to folks in your personal network that you've lost touch with, especially other senior product people.  Knock together a list of colleagues that you’d genuinely want to catch up with, and drop them a line.  Plan to chat mostly about life and news and kids and whatever, with a little “I’m in the market, looking for X or Y, if you happen to hear of something.”  No pressure.
Also: product peers may be getting calls for unposted-but-relevant opportunities. If they’re not in the market right now, they should be happy to send recruiters your way.

5. Find a back channel to interesting/interested companies.  Remember that recruiting is a sales process: interviewers and HR will be on their best behavior, framing their company and opportunity as perfect.  Likewise you may not want to ask really tough questions of the people judging you.  More like first dates than serious relationships.
So…  use LinkedIn or your personal network to find a product-related person who isn’t on the interview roster, and get someone (like me) to broker an honest, low-pressure conversation.  Buy them lunch.  Ahead of any actual interviews, I’d be probing in two areas:

“Tell me about the business, your customers, what challenges a new product leader might face.” This gives you valuable insights ahead of any eventual interview. (Imagine a company that’s struggling with international pricing and channels. I’d leap to hire the candidate who just happens to talk about her approach to worldwide pricing.) Good product people naturally do some discovery before pitching real customers.
“Tell me about team morale, staff turnover, PM empowerment, how folks feel about the company.” About half the time, I hear that current product folks are unhappy, sales execs break the roadmap weekly, the CEO had a bad childhood, or some other red-flag story - which means I don’t want to work there. Great way to weed out bad opportunities and save emotional energy for better ones.

6. Don’t depend on job portals or internal recruiters: I frequently see general recruiting/HR folks who are great at filling higher-volume sales and engineering roles, but don’t know what product managers/product leaders do...  so move poor-fit candidates and SMEs with zero product experience forward.  And most PM job descriptions are a mess.  (Project?  Program? Product?)  And online job portals tend to be keyword-driven, out of date, randomly rejecting strong candidates.  My communications engineering friends call this lossy.
If you know someone in a product or technical role at an interesting company (or just met one, #5 above), ask them to send your resume/CV directly to the hiring manager or exec search team.  In good organizations, that increases your visibility by 30x.

7. Part-time, consulting or side gigs are OK while you're looking for a full-time thing.  Short-term opportunities pop up, and you can sometimes convert a "we've put this position on hold" into an interim or temporary role.  Keeps our tools sharp and bank accounts balanced.

8. Watch for bait-and-switch. Intentionally or not, some leader-level positions with purportedly large teams turn out to be individual contributor positions.  Or player-coach roles directly owning one part of the product set while managing 1-2 PMs who own the rest of the portfolio.  I’d probably walk away from a prospective employer who mis-describes the job scope, or who redefines the role during the interview process – suggests either serious job confusion or dangerous internal politics.  (But if money is tight, consider it.)

And For Those Of Us NOT Looking Right Now…

It’s always a good moment to respond helpfully, to reach out, to pay it forward, to unwrap an extra kilo of empathy.  We’ve all been on the other side of the interview table, and we’re likely to be there again.  Let's be generous.

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