They say the hardest part about Harvard is getting in. The same thing is true of Google, McKinsey, and other storied employers: If you can outlast the gauntlet of gotcha questions and “why-are-manhole-covers-round” brainteasers, you’ll almost certainly get an offer.
Yet in lionizing these interviews, we do ourselves a disservice. The best interviewers don’t try to embarrass you; they ask questions whose answers actually matter to the position at hand. Here are two such questions that every product manager (PM) should have a ready answer to — and that every PM interviewer should be posing.
Question #1: Will You Fall on Someone Else’s Sword?
Picture this: You’re working with the engineering team on a high-profile project. At a critical juncture, you urge option A; they prefer option B. In the end, your recommendation is rejected, and the product ships with option B.
Immediately, it’s clear to everyone that this was a mistake — and a big one. What do you do?
On one hand, you may feel compelled to say, in spirit if not in word, “Told ya so.” After all, you were right; they were wrong. Why should you shoulder the blame for something you opposed?
On the other hand, you may be tempted to try an indirect tactic. In a private message to your boss, you note that there was internal disagreement about options or that option A was not universally embraced. Notice the passive, mistakes-were-made voice? It allows you to drop hints without pointing fingers.
Which approach is right?
While this buck-passing may make you feel vindicated, it’ll never help you succeed in the job. Indeed, these approaches are not only misguided; they also reveal a fundamental misunderstanding of a product manager’s role.
A PM, like a ghostwriter, like a chief of staff, must be careful not to let their ego leapfrog their equanimity. After all, product management is not about the manager; it’s about the product.
To that end, the best PMs take responsibility — always.
First, they know well the first rule of PMing: Even when it’s not your fault, it’s still your fault. Let me explain.
As a product manager, you’re ultimately responsible for the success of the product. If it fails, that’s on you. In this case, despite your efforts, the fact remains that you didn’t build enough trust with your colleagues. You didn’t explain your point of view convincingly — with data and case studies.
What’s more, notice what the original two approaches emphasize: Who’s at fault. To be sure, figuring out what went wrong is important, but your immediate priority should be to rectify the situation; after-action reports come later.
Finally, the minute you throw an engineer under the bus, you lose trust forever. By contrast, the best PMs enjoy robust relationships with their colleagues because their colleagues know that the PM has their back. As one of my teammates likes to say, A PM should be an umbrella, not a funnel: Your job is not merely to minimize the rain, but to divert it entirely.
Indeed, had option A been implemented, the best PM wouldn’t have taken credit; they would have credited and celebrated his teammates. A PM is nothing if not “humble.”
So what’s the correct answer to the above scenario? A PM must share success and individually accept failure. In short, they must raise their hand and say to anyone who asks, “My bad.” Embrace this mindset, and you’ll not only ace the interview; you’ll also thrive in your career.
Question #2: How Do You Deliver Bad News?
Here’s another conundrum I pose to candidates. Your counterpart in sales or customer success comes to you with a request: One of the company’s biggest customers wants a new feature. In fact, the customer views this request not as a “nice to have” but as a “must have.”
Yet after crunching the numbers, you conclude that the benefit isn’t worth the cost. How do you communicate your decision?
On one hand, you may be inclined to shoot them an email. Or maybe you deliver your analysis through a phone call. Perhaps you ask to meet your colleague in person.
None of these approaches is wrong per se, but they’re all missing a make-or-break next step: You haven’t volunteered to tell the customer yourself. That’s how you take ownership.
After all, no one likes to be the bearer of bad news, especially those whose paycheck depends on telling customers “yes.” This aversion goes double for those who disagree with the verdict; why should they be put in a position to defend something that jeopardizes their relationship with a big customer?
They shouldn’t. On the contrary, as the decisionmaker — as the product manager — you must both explain your decision and own it. Candidates who do this demonstrate the traits that characterize every forward-moving workplace: Candor, courage, and camaraderie.
Note: Your colleague may decline your offer; they may think it’s better if the message comes from them, since they have the customer relationship. That’s perfectly fine; the point is that you offered. In doing so, you demonstrate not only the courage of your convictions but also empathy.
Teach to the Test
As a hiring manager, you don’t want your future employees to spend their time preparing for the interview. You want them to spend their time preparing for the job.
The most effective way to facilitate this behavior is by planting your questions in everyday situations. Don’t make up hypotheticals. Don’t fling forth time the equivalent of SAT prompts. Build your interviews in a way that reflects what’s important — humility, trust, and ownership — and you’ll build a team that can handle any problem with poise and polish.
Karl Rumelhart is Chief Product Officer and Executive Vice President at Gainsight.