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Building in Public 3: competency frameworks that help product managers flourish

How do you measure a product manager’s performance? And how do you make sure the criteria you’re using is setting them up for a successful and rewarding career?

At Hotjar, we believe competency frameworks should be empowering. They should help others give feedback, provide transparent guidance about the expectations of a PM's role, and clearly signpost how they can reach the next step in their career.

Behind the scenes

Last updated

7 Oct 2021

But creating frameworks like that is easier said than done. Trust us, we know, because we’ve recently gone through the process. The journey was full of unexpected challenges and complications. Which is exactly why we wanted to share it with you; so you can learn from our mistakes.

So, without any further ado, here’s episode three of Building in Public, all about PM competency frameworks. Enjoy.

Oh yeah, and don’t worry too much about taking notes. At the end of the blog post we’ll be sharing a Notion that has all the information from the criteria in it for you to look through at your own pace.

If you’re not somewhere you can watch a video (or are just in a reading mood) below you’ll find a lightly edited and tidied version of the transcript of the video.

Creating a PM competency framework

Setting a competency framework

“Hi, I'm Megan Murphy, the VP of Product at Hotjar, where I lead our design, data, and product management teams. Today, I’m going to talk about setting a competency framework for product managers (PMs) to flourish.

“Product is a rapidly growing field and still nascent in many ways, which means not all companies have modern competency frameworks in place.

“A common issue for many PMs is that the only route to a promotion is to go into people management. This risks leaving yourself victim to the 'Peter principle': where employees are promoted to their level of incompetence.

“By creating solid competence criteria, you can avoid that fate, and make sure progression happens in line with the strengths of each PM. This is mutually beneficial as you get better work from them and they get a more fulfilling career.

Disconnecting people management and progression

“At Hotjar, we intentionally disconnect progression from leadership. This way, people are able to earn promotions along either an 'individual contributor' or a 'people leadership' pathway. At each level, both routes merit equal seniority and compensation.

“So, excellent leadership is never worth more than excellent individual contributions. And this is important at a place where we include the level and salary range on all of our job descriptions.

“We assess performance against a very simple framework inspired by Ravi Mehta's excellent product manager shape. I blended together Ravi's competencies and the way he visualized them with Hotjar's three performance criteria:

  • Impact

  • Execution

  • Expertise

“This helps me draw distinctions between the expectations for people managers and for individual contributors. It also helps me fit it together a little bit better with Hotjar.

Let's get granular

“Under each of the three performance criteria above, there are four categories.

[Note from the editor: this next bit deviates from the video a little more, but all for the sake of getting crucial information to you in the best way possible.]

In Impact:

  • Business outcomes:

    how does their work impact on the overall business objectives?

  • Influence within Hotjar:

    how are they able to rally colleagues from across the business around a common goal?

  • Mentorship & knowledge Sharing:

    do they ensure learnings (from both successes and failures) are shared?

  • People leadership:

    are they able to motivate, equip, and coach people to do their best work?

  • In Execution:

  • Prioritization & scope management:

    can they balance competing priorities to focus on clear units of work that delivers value to the customer?

  • Delivery & reliability:

    are they able to manage commitments, expectations, and blockers in order to deliver on time and in full?

  • Collaboration:

    how well can they work with other disciplines and departments to multiply customer and business value?

  • Communication:

    how well can they communicate decisions, needs, and feedback using the various mediums at their disposal?

  • In Expertise:

  • Voice of the customer:

    do they exhibit curiosity about both the problems and needs of customers and the ways to meet them?

  • Data fluency:

    how well do they understand our performance, and our business through a quantitative lens?

  • Business acumen:

    do they understand challenges and constraints we face as a business and have ideas how to overcome them?

  • Market prowess:

    are they able to understand the market we operate in and find opportunities without becoming competitor-obsessed?

Capable, not just qualified

“Now that we've run through each of our three different competency areas and the categories within them, let me tell you something a little bit more personal…

“One of my mentors continuously reminds me how important it is to hire people who are capable, not just qualified. (I could hear his voice in my head as I sat down to write out these competencies!)

“If I found an incredible candidate who wouldn't fit squarely into an existing role, there needed to be space for them in other ways. So I knew that part of this process would be expanding the levels of seniority within the team.

“Originally, we started out with just three levels: PM, Senior PM, and Principal PM. And that's pretty out of date, given the extent to which we're scaling. We've now added a whole bunch of other levels (that you can explore in more detail in the Notion):

Mapping the competencies

“So, we have our product manager competencies and we have our basic framework. So how do they map to each other?

“We've mapped our expectations for each level to these diagrams to create an easy reference map for what's expected from PMs at each level. So for example, an Associate PM’s diagram would look like this:

“Whereas a Director of Product's diagram would look more like this:

"We've also articulated what we're calling the PM operating context, which compliments the chart by giving the person an idea of how they work within Hotjar. This contains things like how you work autonomously within the context of a squad, and how you contribute regularly to the broader product team.

The importance of concrete examples

“Now here's the bit that I was not prepared for. We had our framework and I thought it was ready to go. But after talking to colleagues in a couple of different disciplines, they candidly shared some feedback that I wasn't ready to hear.

“It was great in theory to have this beautiful visualization, but in practice, it would still be really tough to evaluate the performance of each product manager consistently without concrete examples.

“So, even though it would mean a heavier investment of time and energy into the competency framework I'd spent already two months working on(!), I knew they were right and I needed that feedback.

Different roles, different measurables

“So I asked two folks on the team to help me flesh out a couple of examples for the competency at each level. Now, these will be based on your own needs, so I recommend coming up with your own; but to get you started here are a couple of the ones that we came up with:

Regarding data fluency:

  • An Associate PM would be expected to be eager to find and understand the metrics that matter for their product area.

  • A Senior PM would share these findings generously to help others better inform their own work.

For market prowess:

  • A Group Product Manager would be expected to demonstrate a solid understanding of Hotjar's broader market position and competitive landscape. They would leverage this understanding to guide the PMs they lead to see how those squads are uniquely positioned to solve customer problems overlooked in the market.

  • A Director of Product would be expected to coach the PMs in their tribe to understand not just Hotjar's market and category contexts, but also tangential ones that present adjacent opportunities.

A quick recap

“To wrap it up, this exercise ended up taking far longer than I'd expected, but I mean, we're talking about people's careers here. This is big, important, and meaningful stuff for every product manager who will be evaluated against this criteria.

“This is important, not just for the product managers, but also for their colleagues to understand how to give useful feedback. And even though it took more time and effort than I planned, I'm really proud of where we ended up.

If you want to follow this method for yourself, here’s a quick recap:

Start by setting criteria for success across categories that work for your business. At Hotjar, we use impact, execution, and expertise. Then, find a way to map out competencies to show competency areas of each level of seniority.

Then, set the operating context of that role's requirements. When you map this to a graph that shows real examples of what each competency looks like, before you know it, you'll be on track to foster a high-performance culture that articulates expectations for everyone to keep reaching and growing.”

Make it work for your team

We hope our journey of building a competency framework for PMs helps you on your own.

And in that spirit, here’s a resource that we hope will help you leapfrog some of the toughest bits of the process: Hotjar’s seniority criteria Notion.

In there you’ll find the career progression paths, core competencies, and seniority levels. Handy hint: once it's loaded, look for the button in the top right corner to duplicate it. This should let you create an editable framework for your own use.

If you do end up using this framework, please report back to let us know how you get on.

And as always, make sure to check back here soon for the next episode of Building in Public.

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