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Embracing People From Non-Traditional Backgrounds

Company Culture
Diversity

18 March, 2021

Sergio Rodriguez
Sergio Rodriguez

Head of Product - Payments & Finance at ManoMano

Sergio Rodriguez, Group Product Manager - Payments and Finance at ManoMano, shares how helping managers embrace people from non-traditional backgrounds is beneficial for business, and particularly product management.

Problem

Product management has many facets and requires a set of different skills. There is no pre-defined career path that will make someone a successful product manager. That is why diversity, and more specifically, embracing people from non-traditional backgrounds, can bring a unique value to your business.

However, many product leaders are reluctant to embrace people whose background or past career path diverges from the norm. They fear that it will entail more work on their part as they will have to mentor new hires for a longer period of time. What managers fail to see is how their unique background can be beneficial for business.

Actions taken

Job descriptions

Everything starts with job descriptions. Before we go ahead with creating those, we should distill what we, in fact, need. For example, if we need someone who should talk to customers and gather insight, we should be looking for a person that is empathetic and inclined to take care of others. If they have any support or sales experience, that would be a big advantage. On the other hand, if we need someone to work with particular stakeholders capable of providing regular updates or developing business cases, being experienced in project management or any consultant roles would be rather helpful. Or perhaps, if we need someone who would be working closely with Engineering, we would benefit from a person with an engineering background. In addition, I am personally indifferent to if a person has a CS degree or is a self-taught developer; I am more interested in what skills they would bring to the table.

Once we dissected the job description to better understand the skill set and experience we need, we should further refine it. A critical step is to prioritize a-must skills and differentiate them from those that we are willing to teach a new hire. Teaching new skills can be part of individual mentoring, a company-wide program already in place or even a personal development goal for the new Product Manager.

In the end, I am particularly considerate about the wording itself. I would use only bias-free and inclusive wording for job descriptions. For example, I try to exclude any stereotypical adjectives associated with male or female characteristics like “aggressive approach to a project.” I also like to analyse the job description with a Gender Decoder ([http://gender-decoder.katmatfield.com/]) tool. It was built by a woman, based on a scientific paper which explained how certain words are more associated with male stereotypes and therefore tend to reduce female applicants. I try to balance the number of masculine and feminine words. There are other solutions out there but they are not free.

Onboarding

By the time a new person joins your team, you should have the onboarding material prepared. For someone from a non-traditional background, books, articles, or podcasts are a great source to familiarize with the domain. I would always assign them a senior PM to whom they can talk to and learn from, but I would also encourage them to connect with their junior peers to discuss their common challenges.

I compiled an extensive list of resources for our newcomers from non-traditional backgrounds, and I would block time to discuss the most important topics with them. I would spend some time asking questions, doing exercises, or analyzing business cases with them, which is an investment that pays off long-term.

Their onboarding should be the first step of their career development. Early on, you should have the list of skills you expect them to acquire and a plan for how to achieve that. And most importantly, track their progress.

Lessons learned

  • Managers should prioritize what the skills necessary for a particular position are. Be prepared for a trade-off. If you need a person with a specific industry background, be ready to give up on some other skills that you will turn into nice-to-haves and willing to teach them.
  • Be open to numerous advantages that diversity of different sorts can bring to product management. Product management has many facets, requires many different skills, and is constantly evolving. Diversity can just add to it.
  • Companies could benefit immensely by hiring people from non-traditional backgrounds. They bring not only fresh ideas but insights specific to certain social groups. Sometimes you will get an insight from a specific industry or segment that no research can reveal with such precision and authenticity.

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