What I learned from listening to 40 product leaders from South East Asia

Networking has become a bad word.

It means saying “So what do you do?” repeatedly and superficially at after work meetups while half-listening to a speaker talk about their work.

I’ve faced my share of superficial conversations. As a frequent outsider at these events, I spend at least 3 to 4 mins of a conversation looking at the puzzled face of the person I’m trying to talk to as they try to repeat my foreign-sounding name awkwardly or try to parse my accent.

It doesn’t have to be like that. Meeting people from your industry can be meaningful and conversations can be real.

 Arriving in Ubud, Bali for a 3 day retreat with 40+ product people :D

Arriving in Ubud, Bali for a 3 day retreat with 40+ product people :D

I recently spent 3 days in Bali listening to personal work stories from 40 product leaders, founders and cofounders from Singapore, Indonesia, Malaysia, Australia and HongKong.


This is what I learned:

Everyone is struggling to make their work meaningful

I met Dan and Jo from Hong Kong. They’ve been working on a solid, actionable framework for Making Meaningful Work or MMW for more than 20 years. It was inspiring to hear their story.

After three short sprints we came up with an initial framework of ideas for working with our teams with a lot more heart.

I found several people in the group who hate the term “soft skills” as much as I do. The term soft skills is just a horribly dismissive way of talking about the most important part of leading a team — being human, listening and caring.

The focus was on actionable, positive things to do for your team. And how to develop healthier, sustainable and more meaningful ways of working.

“It doesn’t have to be crazy at work.

It really doesn’t! We aren’t machines that can be equally productive every day, every week and every year.

You’re not a car that can always “go the extra mile.”


Level 4 listening is hard

 Going from factual listening and downloading to deeper empathy and generative listening

Going from factual listening and downloading to deeper empathy and generative listening

We’re continuously distracted by smartphone notifications from our friends, family and work.

I’m frequently tapped on my wrist by my Apple Watch, reminding me to stand if I’ve been sitting too long.

Michael put up this sheet early on during the event, telling us to try and practise Level 4 Listening. With a stranger that’s tough, and in todays tech world, that’s even harder.

As a designer I’m formally trained in empathic listening. But listening and being empathic during a 2 hr usability interview and doing it constantly is a different thing.


Empathy only takes you to Level 3 listening

For example, I listened to a hiring manager talk about how they judged someone for leaving jobs every year or “job hopping.” And later regretted it.

Level 3 listening means you can hear their story with true empathy, leave your self and your judgements out of it, truly feel the other persons anxiety and point of view.

Level 4 listening is more generative. You build on base empathy with a deeper sharing of ideas and feelings. You swap stories. For example, I shared a story of my own personal bias during hiring, and when I realized it. It’s important to avoid jumping directly into solutioning during this level of discussion. Just reflect, share and listen.


I’m not the only one with Creative FOMO

 Fear of missing out for creative people

Fear of missing out for creative people

What is creative #fomo? The feeling that out there, there is a better and sexier product and a more genius team that you can work with.

Where you can do better design things in a better way.

I’m always looking for people with good taste. I’m always in a #fomo about doing better and better work.


It was heartening and validating to hear similar self doubt from non-designers. Though it did take some time for people to open up about it.

It’s about people, not processes

After a number of years of experience, all leaders from all fields reach this same conclusion.

People are so important!

I think this tweet sums it up:

Deep, meaningful conversations means you cannot avoid the other persons politics

 Comic by  Will McPhail

Comic by Will McPhail

Keeping things polite is impossible in a group of 40 people in Bali trying to practise level 4 listening and sharing and spending all their free time together.

It’s okay to have uncomfortable or even hurtful conversations or to be in groups of people where people have sexist or racist beliefs — that’s reality.

Really listening requires suspending your own impulse to correct, to dismiss, to shut down. Navigating this is a challenge, because you don’t want to betray your own values — but you want to give people enough space to open up and feel comfortable having their opinions challenged and scrutinized.


P.S. This is for work. This is putting other people’s feelings ahead of your own, and it’s important to be mindful of why you’re doing that. You are getting useful insights and you have a goal, but it shouldn’t become your default way of operating. That isn’t healthy.


Do by not doing

I learned a bunch of Chinese sayings during the retreat. The one that stands out is Wu wei or 无为 — which loosely translates as “Do by not doing.”

dont-react.jpeg

An important part of being a leader is to know when to let things resolve themselves.

Reacting constantly is probably going to make things worse.

A product manager from the retreat shared a personal story on Day 2. A problematic person in another department was making trouble and creating a negative atmosphere in that department, which was affecting his own work, his team and his timelines. Although he tried for weeks to “fix” this, eventually the problematic person left for unrelated reasons.

The problem resolved itself on it’s own.

A startup is like a sinusoidal wave pattern, just get to the next wave

 (A fancy way of saying there are ups and downs and thats ok)

(A fancy way of saying there are ups and downs and thats ok)

Finally, reach out to your community and be open to people reaching out to you

A solid support system is key to thriving in your industry.

How do you reach out? A lot of people just aren’t sure.

We’re consumed by “busy-work” and miss out on real connections around us. It’s easier to just coast through meetups without having a deeper connection and its easier to avoid truly listening to the other person.

If you look around you, its amazing to see so many people willing to reallyhelp you and talk to you.

All you need to do is be open and vulnerable to that connection.

TLDR

  • Networking can be genuinely and deeply connecting with people

  • Everyone is struggling to make their work meaningful

  • Deeply, truly listening is hard

  • It’s ok to be in uncomfortable or hurtful conversations — that’s reality

  • Do by not doing or 无为

  • Reach out and be vulnerable, it is super rewarding!

Thank you for reading! This was originally published in UX Collective on Medium in June 2018, so this is a repost.

P.S. The G&T Product Meetup in Bali was organized by Michael OngMike, and team. Huge thanks to them for having me :D