Self-awareness is a critical trait for all product managers to have. So, it makes sense for companies to test for self-awareness as part of the interview process.
One way to test for self-awareness is through the question “What are your areas of improvement?”, which is another way to say “What are your weaknesses?”
I’ve been asked this question in nearly every single product management interview I’ve had. And, when I interview candidates, I also make sure to ask this question as well.
Why Ask about Weaknesses?
Why do hiring organizations ask this particular question?
It’s because it’s a fantastic question to learn the following information about you as a candidate:
- How self-aware are you?
- How self-driven are you?
- Do you demonstrate humility and openness to feedback?
- How do we as an organization help support your growth?
So, as you address the question, be sure to keep the hiring organization’s deeper questions in mind. That way, you can ensure that you answer the question behind the question.
The Myth of the Weakness Question
Before I dive into a framework for how to best tackle this question, I first want to address a myth.
Many candidates fear that the weakness question is meant to knock them out of the interview process. That’s just simply not true.
Think about it from the employer’s perspective. They’ve already invested tons of time in screening resumes and in scheduling time to speak with you.
If they wanted to eliminate you, they would have done so earlier.
The reason the employer is asking about your weaknesses is because this question will actually reveal your strengths instead.
The thing is, when people hire product managers, they’re looking for strengths and spikes, not to eliminate you based on a weakness.
A product manager who is okay at many things is not as valuable as a product manager who demonstrates unique talents in certain areas but also unique flaws in other areas. Similar to how college applications focus on spikes instead of well-roundedness, product organizations also focus on spikes instead of well-roundedness.
After all, product organizations consist of multiple product managers. So, a portfolio of spikes is far more valuable to the organization than multiple copies of generic well-rounded people.
So be confident and transparent in your areas of improvement, because that actually takes you a long way towards acing the product manager interview!
Now, with that myth out of the way, let’s dive into the framework for how to ace the weakness question on the interview.
First, when talking about your areas of improvement, be sure that you have examples to back them up. You want to demonstrate awareness, so you want to use tangible examples.
Second, talk about how investing in your area of improvement would have changed an outcome. In other words, are you aware of the most impactful gaps?
As an example, many product managers lead with the weakness of “I wish I were more technical”, but it’s rare that technical knowledge would fundamentally change the way that a product decision was made.
We want to see that you understand where to focus your time, rather than just calling out random weaknesses. You should actually want to improve in an area of improvement - that’s why we call it that.
Third, after you talk about your areas of improvement, be sure to discuss mitigations. In other words, how did you shore up that gap, or how are you planning on improving in this area?
Do you rely on other stakeholders to cover for your gap? Or are you actively training yourself to close the gap?
Here’s an example that I can draw from my own experiences.
One area where I’d like to improve is to be stronger at providing feedback on user experience designs. That is, when I work with design to craft a solution with a novel user experience, I don’t have strong opinions on how to improve the designs. While I can provide the user mental model relatively well, I struggle to consider affordance and intuitiveness of the flow.
As an example, when creating a CRM mobile app, one of the experiences that I implemented was a lightweight user onboarding flow for new users. When working with less experienced designers, I failed to consider that the dates in the screenshots would quickly become out of date.
A senior designer had to intervene to point out that the screenshots would become stale within the next few months. I acknowledge that his feedback made sense, so I worked alongside engineering to implement a way to dynamically generate the dates in the walkthrough based on the user’s current date.
If I had been better at providing user experience design feedback, we could have caught this upfront and saved a few days of design iteration. Given that my team at the time was highly strapped for design resources, these lost design days were a significant cost to us.
While I’m not currently strong at user experience designs, I try to close this gap in a couple of ways.
First, I try to give my design counterparts significant lead time to iterate so that they can explore multiple alternatives.
Second, I ask real users to run through the prototypes before we implement, so that we can catch problems.
Third, I actively participate in our design reviews so that I can learn about gaps in my product decisions, and so I can incorporate these learnings into future decisions.
Analysis of Example Response
Notice how when I speak about my area of improvement, I’m not picking something that’s trivial such as “I work too much” or “I’m bad at work-life balance.” I’m selecting an area that I actually would like to improve in, where it actively provides business impact.
Also note that I have a thoughtful game plan for how to cover for my weakness, and how to grow there.
Too many times, I’ll hear candidates say “I wish I were more technical” without elaborating on why they feel technical ability matters, or how they’re looking to improve.
When evaluating candidates, I want to understand whether you are self-aware, whether you understand the impact of your areas of improvement, and whether you’re proactive enough to have a game plan.
Other times, I’ll hear candidates say “I wish I were more detail-oriented”, again without elaborating on how understanding particular details would have helped them deal with past obstacles, or what game plan they have in mind to become more detail-oriented.
Remember that no product manager is perfect! You shouldn’t feel bad for having areas of improvement.
In fact, you should feel proud and empowered, because you’re proactively identified an impactful growth area and you have a game plan for providing more impact in the future. If you have those components, you’re already stronger than the vast majority of candidates.
Another thing to remember - while a person’s current abilities do matter, their growth capacity is just as important.
As an example: imagine that you currently have 100 points of skill mastery distributed across all of your skills, and imagine that you gain 30 points of mastery every year.
If you’re up against a candidate who has 150 points of mastery right now but has no growth potential, you’ll beat them in terms of skill level within the next two years - and every year after that, you’re more valuable to the company than they are.
So, think carefully about the areas of improvement you’d like to talk about on the interview. If you don’t have any right now, then consider whether you’re developing as fast as you’d like to as a product manager.
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