Sound the alarm: we are in a reskilling emergency.
In January 2020, the World Economic Forum announced that the Fourth Industrial Revolution is transforming jobs. Consequently, there is a need to reskill 1 billion people by 2030. That's not all. By next year, 42% of required core skills are going to change.1 The velocity of disruptions is staggering, and anyone can be caught unprepared, even the most knowledgeable or well-connected ones.2 Upskilling and reskilling become of utmost importance, especially in tech organisations where collaboration and rapid innovation are the currency. Companies are leveraging coaching programs to provide top-down or peer-to-peer insights to employees and solidify human relationships in an otherwise tech-heavy culture. Instead of using conventional command-and-control practices, managers are taught coaching principles to provide guidance to employees3 and develop agility.
In this conversation, Kevin Yuen, Head of Product in Lalamove Hong Kong, shared his realisations on the importance of coaching as he navigated the product management frontier here in Asia. Kevin started as a Product Manager in Lalamove. He rose to the ranks of Product Team Lead and now, as Head of Product. His experience details the challenges faced by product managers here in Asia with a dearth of coaches tailored for his specific talent pool. The road to product management success was never defined for him. However, he shares the keys of what he discovered along the way. With these keys, he unlocks insights on coaching, self-improvement, and leadership.
Self-reflection for Self-coaching
We often expect progress to show us tangible and concrete proof that we are improving. Blame it on school or maybe Star Wars, but we anticipate a teacher or wise old Yoda to grade or guide us on our journey. However, mentors and coaches do not magically appear when we need them. We will not always have someone to lean on and tell us what we need to do. Sometimes, our best recourse is to look inward, reflect, and determine our next steps.
Kevin discovered that this was the key in his career. Starting from product management and ascending to Head of Product, he realised that product management coaches are scarce. He considered how the role of product management is still raw here in Asia. In Hong Kong particularly, Kevin admits that there are not that many people you can learn from. The product managers in HK are not trained in the traditional sense, unlike the product managers in the US or Europe. Resource persons on product management who can coach you on the matter are difficult to find. As a result, he was forced to figure things out by himself. In the absence of a coach, he became his own coach. If he wanted to improve, he had to rely on self-reflection for self-improvement.
After talking to several people across industries, Kevin realised that there is no real right answer on how best to do his role. He shares, “Everybody has their own thoughts. Everybody has their own ideas. Coming up with your own [idea] is as good as learning from others. Sometimes it’s about that self-reflection that you need to do that makes these skills or values or things about product management that become a lot more concrete.” Product management, he says, is not a list of dos and don’ts that you need to tick off. Doing this will not make you understand why you are doing them in the first place, and you do not capture the essence of their importance. Instead, he points to building convictions and context of why people give career advice: "But if you self-reflect, you try to think about what these people are talking about. You listen to talks and after listening to these talks, you try to think why they come up with these reasons…that’s how you become better.”
For Kevin, the turning point in doing self-coaching was not when he became Head of Product. He admits he still has his daily struggles, but the inflexion point was when he realised the importance of self-reflection and the awareness of doing it regularly. Self-coaching helps him gain momentum. At first, he was only doing it monthly, but he observed that he changed and improved. He applied this learning and drilled down to more granular timeframes to self-reflect – from monthly to weekly to daily to even hourly. He shares his indicator of how he knew he already formed a habit, “When you hit that point that after a meeting, you do self-reflection, that’s when you realize this is where you start really learning to get better and improve.” He asks himself two simple questions: What did I do well? What did I not do well? From there, he develops points on what he can do better next.
Honesty is (Still) the Best Policy
Tempting as it is to tell our directs what to do, coaching as an exercise requires us to guide, but not tell. Kevin explains, “A lot about being a leader is not telling people what to do and helping people realise it themselves.” Directs may probably follow the advice the first or second time and forget about it soon after. They would not gain a deep understanding of why they had to follow instructions. The alternative is for them to figure things out by practicing self-reflection. We can help them by asking questions to prompt reflection, and providing honest feedback. As they explore answers within themselves and dig deep for insights, they will build convictions that shift the way they see things and instill lifelong lessons.
Training others to habitually practice self-reflection also involves keeping honesty in check. If we continue lying to ourselves about a job well done, we fail to bring ourselves to that point of real learning. Being a leader also means allowing yourself to be vulnerable enough to have those hard conversations with yourself and others. Modelling intellectual honesty encourages our directs to open up and shows them that we are also susceptible to mistakes. The two simple questions consider two aspects – the things we excel in and need to improve on. Kevin observes that this usually plagues young leaders who are afraid to be honest with their directs. They end up veiling their intended message. Giving feedback does not have to be brutal but it must be honest – honest but critical.
Make Time and Make it Count
Hypergrowth organisations grow so rapidly that leaders may find themselves stretched beyond their capacity to coach employees. Kevin adopts a different view: “I will make time because I think it matters to have that relationship with each and every one of them… It shows that I care about them. You’re not just an employee number to me. You’re a person. I would love to make time for you so that we can have these real conversations. I would love to help you grow… I do these to ensure that they know that I am here if they need me.”
For Kevin, coaching is about setting aside time in your busy schedule and making the moment count. He considers it significant especially for juniors as having the right manager can influence the trajectory of your career path. Regardless of whether a direct is being honest or guarded, the important thing is to make time and create a safe space where trust and relationships can thrive. You can start with casual questions like asking about their weekend or their wellbeing. Then, you can move on to specific topics framed by the two simple questions: What did you do well? What did you not do well? The key is to understand and build a connection with the other person. When trust and relationships are present, you can be sure to dive into these conversations deeper.
Kevin admits the frequency of him doing skip-level meetings are low, but he makes sure to make that hour count (for a team of 40, it's quite a feat!). He sacrifices his lunches and spreads these meetings throughout the month. Seeing the relationship and the person grow, he finds that low frequency does not matter if the quality of the relationship is evident.
Coaching builds a culture of self-learning by asking ourselves and our directs difficult questions which require honest answers. Though the process is slower than just directing our employees with instructions, coaching builds convictions and confidence for them to press forward with decision-making.
- In the absence of a coach, turn inward and learn how to practice self-reflection. Be consistent and self-aware in doing it. Make it a habit and increase frequency.
- Coaching others into doing self-reflection is only effective if you are honest. Do not be brutal but be honest – honest and critical.
- Carve out time from your busy schedule to build trust and relationships through one-on-ones. Make these moments count and you won’t have to worry about frequency.