The Self-taught PM – an interview with SEEK’s Naresh Sanchana

Written by Published in Interviews, Product Management

Naresh Sachana is a Head of Product for Strategic Initiatives at SEEK Asia and a speaker for the upcoming Product Management Festival Singapore 2018. Read on to learn more about Naresh’s journey from manufacturing operations to product management and how he built out his teams based on investing in people rather than just skills.

Our readers like to see how senior product leaders get to where they are. Could you tell us a bit about your professional journey?

I spent the first 7 years of my career in a very different kind of start-up – setting up manufacturing operations for a medical device. I specialised in process and productivity improvements and practiced Lean Six Sigma and other process improvement methodologies to reduce waste, improve productivity and output etc. When I joined JobStreet (now SEEK Asia), it was to lead a regional Process Improvement role where I worked with sales and customer service leadership in the region to increase the effectiveness of their organisations and to create better value for our customers. After a year, my role expanded to leading an Operational Excellence function across the organisation where I then worked on improvement initiatives in HR, Finance etc as well.

At the end of 2012, the founder and CEO of my company said he’d like me to be head of a new product team that he wanted to create – modelled after successful Silicon Valley companies.

Why me, when I had no product management experience? Given that agile product management was still pretty new to the region, he looked for attributes that he thought was critical for someone to be successful in this role – passionate, customer-focused, outcome driven, creative problem solver, strong influence etc.  He was right, and I used the same concept to hire and build my own team, which consisted of people from diverse backgrounds, and none of whom had product management experience. Many of these original team members are now actually heads of products in other companies today.

I had to self-learn how to be a product manager and in turn had to be able to guide the team I was building. Thankfully I had a lot of guidance from my CEO, and we established a playbook – a set of books, videos, articles etc that defined our approach to product management as well as the culture and values of our team.

After 2 exciting years, I was encouraged to take on a country head of sales role to learn how to sell to customers and grow our revenues. Right around that time, Australia-based SEEK acquired JobStreet and merged it with its former rival, Hong Kong-based jobsDB, to create SEEK Asia. After just under 4 months in my sales role, I was asked to come back to lead the newly merged SEEK Asia product management team. It was an easy decision for me as while I enjoyed learning from my sales role, my passion was always to be in product. My new role presented an interesting challenge as the team was now doubled in size, comprised of different cultures and working styles, spread across multiple locations, and of course, consisted of previously fierce competitors!

I spent 3 years working closely with the product managers to create a strong SEEK Asia culture, and a team that was focused on creating customer value through measurable outcomes. As the team grew to 15 product managers, we realised we needed more leaders in order to lead and support our team towards becoming a high performance agile organisation. It was a year ago that we organised our teams into domain teams, which focused on the continuous improvement of our platform, and initiative teams, which focused on strategic initiatives that could create a step change in customer value. Due to my years of experience in several different areas of the business and through different stages of growth, I took on the role of heading the strategic initiatives team.

I’ve been with the company for 8 years now, and I still enjoy what I do, mainly because I truly believe in the company purpose (improving people’s lives through better careers), and I’ve had the opportunity for many role changes that has always kept things challenging and interesting.

One thing I’ve learnt in building and managing teams is the importance of hiring the right people, and I still favour looking for passionate, customer focused, outcome driven, creative problem solvers with strong stakeholder management (quite often these come in a package) over just experience and skills because the latter can always be learnt if you invest well in people.

You had spent a number of years in the “physical product” space. How difficult (or not) was the transition to the “virtual product” space? Any tips for folks making that transition?

Interestingly I was asked that in my interview! I would say that it’s important to find the commonality between what makes you successful in your role in the physical product space and how you can apply that in the virtual product space. For me, that was my knowledge and experiencing applying process improvement methodologies in my previous role (people and machines) and my confidence in being able to do the same in an online business (people and platforms). My background also helped a lot when I moved to product as many agile product management concepts and tools actually stemmed from process improvement methodologies (lean, kaizen, kanban etc).

A few basic tips I’ve found to be useful:

1) Know what your key transferable skills are to your new role/company (in my case problem solving, data driven approach were areas I was good at and would benefit me in my new role).

2) Seek to understand your new environment and then reflect on learning (even if you’ve been doing something for years, it can be different in each company so take the time to learn how things work).

3) Adapt to your new environment and don’t just use what worked in your past role/company (I was in an ISO certified manufacturing environment and would have failed if I tried to introduce highly structured process, complex documentation etc in my new company).

4) Be humble, transparent and collaborative (You will make mistakes and don’t be afraid to admit them, seek help and work together with others to improve).

Could you share a couple things you love and/or find challenging about your job?

What I love about my job:

– I believe my company purpose of ‘Improving lives through better careers’ is a noble one and the thought of positively impacting the lives and livelihoods of millions of people in the region is a huge driving factor for me.

– I like the fact that the job industry experiences a lot of change, so there’s always an interesting challenge for us in terms of increased sophistication and therefore expectation of users, emerging global competitors and disruptors, changing economies and creation of jobs in the different markets etc.

What resources have helped you (or inspired you) in your career?

When I first started self-learning product management, the following resources were really helpful and became part of our playbook, and I still refer to many of them til today and would recommend these resources to anyone who’s in product management and hasn’t read them:


– Agile Product Management With Scrum (Roman Pichler)

– Inspired (Marty Cagan)

– The Innovator’s Dilemma (Clayton Christensen)

– The Lean Startup (Eric Ries)

– Start with Why (Simon Sinek)

– Don’t Make Me Think (Steve Krug)

I watch YouTube videos by Steve Blank, Clayton Christensen, Martin Fowler, Alexander Osterwalder, Ash Maurya, Henrik Kniberg etc to learn more about philosophies, methods and frameworks that can help improve the way we work and create value for our customers.

Naresh will be speaking at Product Management Festival Singapore 2018 on Building and Transforming High Performing Teams. Visit us to learn more about the speakers and schedule for the upcoming event.

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