Nurturing Local Talent

Whilst discussing the growing AsiaPac tech scene during a panel at #mtpcon Singapore in 2019, how to nurture local talent formed a large part of the conversation. One year on we look back at the advice shared by this group of product leaders.

mtpcon singapore discussion panel
At #mtpcon Singapore 2019, Colin Pal, Kaia Lai, Renato Silva, Priyankka Mani, Silvia Thom and Francois Le Nguyen took part in a panel discussion

Leading by Example

The conversation about local talent began with a question – rather than fly talent into the region, can we do a better job of nurturing local talent?

Silvia Thom, Senior Director of Product at Zalora kicked things off by sharing her experience of growing a team in Singapore. A few years previously, when she was trying to grow her own team there, she actively went out to meetups to explore the product community.

To her surprise, the community was fairly small, so she started attending local meetups, and later began helping the organisers at her local ProductTank. “I was starting to give back and to see how we could grow this community.” Next, she turned her attention to her company. “I thought, ok, I cannot go out there and just hire ready-made product managers, we really have to start developing a career track.”

This meant Silvia had to think about how to bring in someone new, such as a fresh graduate, and to guide and mentor them internally, as well as offer external help like attending conferences and workshops.

“People say ‘I can’t get product managers, what should I do?’ I get this question a couple of times a week. The solution, she said, is not always to bring in people from overseas. Instead, it’s about training local people up and mentoring them internally.

mtpcon singapore workshop
Attending workshops can help early product managers to learn and develop new skills

Accepting Outside Help

If you do need to bring talent in from elsewhere, Colin Pal, then VP Product at Photobook suggested that it’s not always a negative. I think one of the things that really helps is to not see this phenomenon, or this situation, as a problem… some people see this as foreigners coming in and stealing jobs.” He explained that hires from other countries can help to boost product practice at your organisation.

“Speaking as a local, it has really enriched things for us to see how things are done elsewhere. It’s not something tangible, it’s not something someone wrote in a book maybe in London that’s far away,” he said, “it’s literally people who are here, in the here and now.” It’s the responsibility of local product managers to make the most of these people, of their knowledge and experience, he said. “If you’ve got great people who come from more established markets or more developed practices, pick their brains!”

Encouraging Proactivity

Renato Silva, Director of Product at Tencent, commented that the responsibility for nurturing talent doesn’t have to solely fall to you.

He explained that we tend to think that it’s our internal job, our internal responsibility only, but in reality there are lots of opportunities to learn and share ideas thanks to the efforts of the product community. As a product manager, new or experienced, you simply have to get out there, take advantage of it and give back what you can.

“The ProductTank example is a great one,” he said. “We’re now in more than 200 cities, so if you’re not yet involved in one of those communities where you live, try to do that. Try to bring knowledge from a conference like this, or from wherever, into your local community and try to nurture your own local community so that over time they will get more interested, improve their craft and even maybe become the next hires for your next super project.”

Advice for Future Product Managers

If, as you read this, you realise that you’re the talent to be nurtured in the scenarios described above, we’d love to know your thoughts. Share your experience, questions and concerns in the comments below so we can continue the conversation, and take a look at these additional pieces of advice from our 20i9 panellists.

Be the Rebel

For Renato, a key piece of advice is to be a rebel. “Ask why for everything,” he said. “Don’t just take everything for granted or execute whatever people are asking you for, ask them back – why? Why should I do this? Why is this important? Where is this going to take us? Absolutely ask everyone. Be the person asking the questions.”

Keep Customer Needs top of Mind

As well as asking why Kaia Lai, Head of Product Marketing at Grab, recommended asking another, specific question, that being – how will this product help who you are trying to serve?

“From a customer’s perspective, you should always be asking why this is right for them.” This is important, she explained, because product leaders who have been flown in from outside the local area might not have the local nuance needed to ask that question. “It’s really really important that we think super super customer first and really understand the kind of vision we’re trying to tackle so that we can create the right solutions.”

Find Your Identity

Based in Kuala Lumpur, Colin has seen that product managers in Asia don’t always give themselves enough credit.

“As product managers in Asia, we need to find our identity,” he said. “We are not the same as product managers in Europe, we are not the same as product managers in the US. Trying to imitate is not the sincerest form of flattery in this case. We need to know what we want to take and what we want to learn, but also know the areas where we think we can lead.”

With this in mind, think about what you’re good at and where you might need help so that you can hone your craft and take it forward.

Follow Your Passion

Anyone who works in product management will know that becoming a product manager isn’t as straightforward as taking a course, or getting a certificate or degree. In most cases, the people who really want the role seek out the opportunities and learn by doing. To that end, Silvia recommended that you follow your passion, even if it’s currently only a hobby.

“Find a topic that you’re passionate about or a problem that you want to solve. I think that’s very important and where it can start,” she said. “Try to do some mock-ups or some user research and just see how you feel about it. See if it really excites you.”

Once you find that, she explained, it can be just the spark you need to find your direction, a new job, or perhaps even a job within your current company.

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