Foundations in product management that gravitated towards People & Culture
Kitty: We touched on your career journey earlier, but how did you end up being involved with People and Culture? Was it what you expected now that you're out on the other side?
Deanne: 20 years ago when I started my mobile entertainment career, I wanted a relatively high-paying job so I started as a product and project manager for mobile content. The products were pre-iPhone era, so SMS, MMS (yes, I go way back!) I noticed whenever I went into a new organisation, I’d gravitate towards management (even if the title was Project or Product Manager). I liked focussing on the team I was handling and how their natural inclinations or strengths would benefit the product we were building. Over time, that evolved into an Operations-centric role.
Recently at Kumu right before the pandemic started, I joined the team as head of overall operations. That really opened my eyes to all aspects of how People & Culture can positively affect revenue or growth rate of any organisation.
DIY and self-research: the key to getting the most relevant, practical solutions for HR at a startup
Kitty: If you look back and reflect on all the various companies you've been with, what support or resources do you wish you had? Whether it's HR or “Ops people” doing HR things, have you seen much support out there for Southeast Asian startups?
Deanne: There's a lot of DIY and self-research whenever you're in People Operations and HR, especially in the Philippines. I struggled to look for benchmarks in salary grading, job descriptions, typical career paths e.g. for mobile developers or product owners. Are these certificates really necessary for building a person's career?
Until the last 2-3 years, you did it yourself. You looked for your own resources, you asked your peers, you searched for internet articles or reports. You'd be lucky to get something for free, most of the time you had to pay for the reports. I wish back then, apart from the job portals (maybe LinkedIn has it now), that there was some sort of industry view e.g. how many people are transitioning from one industry to another? More data-driven resources, less anecdotal, because that would’ve really helped me on the recruitment side. Where do I find potentially stellar performers? What universities are they coming from?
From the perspective of developing talent in the team, there's not a lot of guidance in soft skills management. There’s Coursera, but it’s very specific skills-based training. If I wanted to train our future managers, I wouldn’t know where to send them because it’s usually generic e.g. 7 Habits of Effective People. We need more substance beyond that, it has to have granularity and practicality on how people actually use the things they learn today, immediately, the next day.
Why HR can’t just copy and paste conventional ‘tech startup’ playbooks into a Southeast Asian context
Kitty: Totally feeling that. Even if it’s live learning or hands-on, generally the content is written for a Silicon Valley context. There's no cases or scenarios that are unique to Southeast Asia.
Deanne: I'm glad you highlighted that because most articles e.g. from HBR, or even the podcasts out there, don't really consider Southeast Asian culture. We're more meek and less aggressive. There's this face-saving culture that needs to be taken into consideration whenever you have difficult conversations with your team.
It's taboo and people don't usually talk about it, but when negotiating for raises, people will squirm in their seats. Even though this is the money you'll be providing for your family, people don’t feel they’re able to speak up and explicitly say what they need from the company. I think those are very under-represented topics.
Kitty: It’s something we've noticed, because our learning design team often evaluates the material that's out there. It tends to be more individualistic, but in Southeast Asia it's about relationships, it's about family, it's about the culture that organisations operate in. You cannot make a decision on one individual alone. There's this web of social relationships and context that you have to factor in.
Deanne: Especially in the tech startup space, it's a very small group. Most of the time, the people you work with, you’d have a common friend or you've worked with them in the past. That type of connection is not easily cut. Often decisions can’t be black or white. When you're in that situation, for example with layoffs, it's difficult to distance yourself. Okay, this might be a high-performing person but I've known them for ten years and know he can bounce back. In those types of scenarios, it's difficult to find guidance.
Kitty: The playbooks or best practices are written for a different context, it’s true we can't copy and paste into our context here.
Learning from three waves of layoffs: listen and observe what people do, go with the flow
Kitty: The next question, since we mentioned layoffs, is about restructuring. In what ways can HR or People and Culture use it as an opportunity to be even more strategic with talent development?
Deanne: We recently had three waves of layoffs in Kumu, we are now less than 50% of our biggest size early last year. It was a difficult learning experience for us, one that I wish we didn't need to go through (but we went through it three times!) With each time to be fair, I think we improved, especially with the last wave.
What we learned is we need to give people the option to leave. It's more of a learning experience for the organisation than the employees. We observed that people who want to stay will find ways to look for new revenue sources, to optimise costs or look for new partners. The biggest learning for us was to listen and observe what people naturally do or prioritise day-to-day, what tasks and projects they do first thing in the morning. Then we try to map that to a relevant contributing role the company needs.
The biggest learning for us was to listen and observe what people naturally do or prioritise day-to-day, what tasks and projects they do first thing in the morning.
Most of the time, these aren’t traditional clear-cut roles like business or marketing. We had to think of more creative scopes, rather than being boxed by specific titles. If we know a person has a strategic side, but is more of a writer than a vocal leader, then we'll try to fit them into a slightly different role that’s attacking the same problem. Of course we couldn't do that for everyone, there's bias for people that you have more exposure to and in a remote work set up, that can be tricky.
People leaders have to lean into their instincts. It’s scary because there's no data backing it and there's no comfort that this 2022 report says this is what we should do. It's from years of experience and past mistakes that we learn to cultivate our gut when placing the right people in the right spots.
People leaders have to lean into their instincts. It’s scary because there's no data backing it and there's no comfort that this 2022 report says this is what we should do. It's from years of experience and past mistakes that we learn to cultivate our gut when placing the right people in the right spots. Just accept that there's no playbook, there's no mandate from the investors. It's really you leading the team and you have to own that. I think that's how a brave leader should tackle this rapidly changing environment. We don't know if there will be another recession, how long will this last, will there be a crypto revival very soon or will the winter be forever?
The situation now is forcing us to not predict the future and just go with the flow.
The situation now is forcing us to not predict the future and just go with the flow. The best way to go with the flow is to observe what people are already doing and not fight them, just give them work that they're already doing anyway. If there are gaps, those are the tougher conversations e.g. if you have way too much of this then you have to cut from that, or maybe you need to hire more. Prioritise people you can shift around and are willing to be shifted, then map out the gaps from there.
Kitty: This reminds me of the Eastern / Asian mindset versus the Western mindset. The Western world is so scientific, everything must be predicted and controlled and measured because apparently that's more accurate.
Whereas in most non-Western cultures, it's empirical because it's still based on observation, as you described, but it's not always predictable and that's okay. I think that's what the chaos of the last two or three years has taught us. Just because we can't predict what's going to happen, no one's going to die. We're still here. Embrace the chaos.
Deanne: Yes, it's going to be there for a while, so we might as well learn how to swim with it!
Building a learning culture that goes beyond a structured curriculum or classroom experience
Kitty: That segues nicely to the next question about the role of learning to help navigate something that's always changing, always fluid, always evolving. If you read HR literature, it talks about transformation and navigating disruption. But in a startup, disruption is just something you're born into, there's no lack of disruption.
What's the role of learning, or at least a learning culture, in all this?
Deanne: Learning is not a traditional classroom experience, it's not signing up for a course on Udemy. It's repetitive observation and learning from firsthand experience, evaluating mistakes or successes. What works well for teams is to have regular post-mortems and being very upfront about what worked, what didn't work, what we can do better next time. If we do it often enough, we get used to hearing the painful words and (I know it sounds horrible) it's more palatable. It becomes routine and you don't take it too heavily the first couple of rounds. Eventually, you learn to accept it.
If people see their leaders think of learning that way (outside of the classroom, out of the box, in a practical setting) then they'll learn in a similar fashion. You don't need to enrol in something formal to learn, you don't need official mentors. You can observe how your CEO handles a discussion or writes their emails. I know it’s counterintuitive to the HR L&D experience because there’s usually a structured curriculum or pathway. It’s best if a team is armed with HR leaders that can teach without an outline and have proper context on how a startup typically thrives.
On HR leaders’ crucial role in bridging the gap between the business and its employees
Deanne: There’s usually not much overlap between HR and the product operations of the startup. HR is quite administrative and more like compliance work, it’s seen as a support function and service provider to the business. They don't have a lot of context regarding what goes into the product-building. But if your HR leaders are aware of the other side, they can effectively coach on what kind of support you need. Do we need more support in terms of technical skills or do we need more support in handling change management? If it’s something they do every day, if they have more exposure to how things are being run as a startup, then they have more context on where to push the team to learn more.
If your HR leaders are aware of the other side, they can effectively coach on what kind of support you need. Do we need more support in terms of technical skills or do we need more support in handling change management?
At Kumu, our Chief Product Officer Crystal was a part of Reforge. We all idolised her and wanted to learn from her without her literally teaching us (as that's not the best use of her time, we need her to think about the product!) So we collectively decided to copy whatever she's doing, blogs she's reading, podcasts she's listening to, courses she's teaching, we started reading the same articles she read. Eventually we acclimatised to how she thinks, we knew her context whenever she referenced a certain thing.
HR can have a greater influence on the people that they're working with if they try to understand the mindset of the company's leaders, the CEOs and the C-level. They can bridge the messy middle from the C-Level to everyone else, so it's a more cohesive experience.
Kitty: Do you sense that it's chicken or egg because less experienced HR leaders don't have the confidence? The way they see themselves is the way the business talks to them or talks at them. So if HR leaders were intentionally developed professionally, they’d realize, oh, the L&D budget is for me too.
That's something we're figuring out. What are the skill or competency gaps that a HR leader needs to be. This person that you just described, do you have any thoughts on that? What are some non-negotiables?
Deanne: They need to understand the context of the business and see themselves as a core part of that. They know how their contribution to growing individuals or groups in the company helps support the business goals, rather than a mere support system that helps things run.
If they think they're integral to that success, they'll be empowered to speak up and really enforce their recommendations. “This is why we need training, because this will give us additional revenue”, or “This will open up partnerships”, or “If a certain percentage of our employee base are confident in analysing their own data, we don’t need to depend on a core group of people doing business analysis and can build a data-driven team culture”. They can make recommendations like that.
Sadly, I see HR being shoved to the side more and more, similar to finance. They're not your assistants, finance is there to put guardrails and ensure the business will thrive in the next couple of years. The same thing with HR, just that you're managing the brains, not the finances. I think that shift needs to happen soon, the mindset that HR is not just a department to make things happen.
Kitty: Yes, It's more than just an internal service provider.
Ambitions to pave the way for what a “People-centric” CEO might look like
Kitty: I really enjoyed our chat. there's one more question, which is just what's in store for you? Like, how would you like to grow professionally and personally? We're halfway through the year, scary as that sounds.
Deanne: Next thing you know, it's 2024 around the corner. Recently, I started my own game development studio called Stanelmo Studios. Our dream is to make the first Filipino-centric game that breaks into the world charts. It hasn't been done before so we want to highlight Filipino culture and mythology and eventually expand that to the rest of our region. Even if Disney and Pixar are already representing our culture now, there needs to be more of it. It's good to see a rise in our watermarks being seen on the big screen.
I'm transitioning to a more business-facing role, but still with People and Culture as my anchor. I don't think I can take that away, it’s just how I am. I want to see if a CEO can be a people-first CEO and not a business-first CEO. For a while, I thought I might just be a COO, because traditionally the CEOs are more of the finance strategic guys and I'm not like that. But I want to see where this goes. What happens if your CEO is people-centric?
I want to see if a CEO can be a people-first CEO and not a business-first CEO. For a while, I thought I might just be a COO, because traditionally the CEOs are more of the finance strategic guys and I'm not like that. But I want to see where this goes. What happens if your CEO is people-centric?
Kitty: That's our dream too, to see People-led leaders in the C-suite!
Deanne: It's an experiment we know. I'll update you several months from now.
Kitty: We'll be excited to see where that leads.
Deanne: Thank you.