Maverick Nurse. Ended Up in Marketing.

If you get hit by a bus and find yourself on a hospital bed, you will want a nurse like Tommy Foo. Tommy started his career as a nurse. In his amazing-race journey, Tommy is now at Grab as their Head of Driver Marketing.

Grab is a ride-hailing app. We bring people together to make life better, including our drivers. They are our partners. Each of them is a small enterprise. My role is to market to drivers in a scalable way.

Tommy is allergic to meaningless work. Throughout his career, he has made tough changes. Good news is he learnt how to get better at making changes, and he shared with us how.

From nursing to marketing

Tommy’s nursing career was short-lived. “I enjoyed nursing, however when I advocated for my patients and stood my ground, I ended up stepping on toes. I spent most of my time writing reports.” He left after a year. “I did not enjoy pushing papers and following policy blindly at the expense of my patients well-being all in the name of self-preservation.

Naturally drawn to photography and copywriting, Tommy pursued a degree in marketing and advertising. A self-taught designer, he freelanced in website design. Upon graduation, he had two choices: either grow his small set up, or go out and find a job.

He is glad he decided to seek a job. Tommy joined Creative Technology, a Singapore-based audio company. “My time in Creative is one of the best times in my career. We had a fantastic boss, Othniel Liew, and team, Richie Low, Terence Ng, Daniel Looi and myself. We are tight knit even until today.”

Marketing premium sound had an inherent challenge. “Most consumers are content with sound that is “good enough”. We were really struggling with an acceptance of mediocrity. They do not know they want it until they have heard it.”

“We were very product focused back in those days. We had a point of view – that our latest product, Sound Blaster X-Fi, was able to deliver true 3D sound stage in any device you might have. This 3D sound stage is dynamic and respond to you on the fly in any gaming environment. How do we communicate such a complex idea in a three-second pitch and make it believable? We realised soon enough the only way to communicate sound is experience. When we launched the Sound Blaster X-Fi, we went down the direction of getting people to try.”

After eight years of marketing to consumers, Tommy was fascinated with the nascent development in Digital Marketing. His knowledge only scratched the surface and he wanted more.

Here, he faced his next big change. He found a Digital Marketing role in a business equipment company selling to businesses, not consumers. “Not only was I learning about Digital Marketing, I had no idea how the a B2B marketing organisation functioned. Why is there a channels team? What on earth is a lead funnel, MQLs, SALs?” It was a steep learning curve, “The first six months were hard. Learning both new company culture and inherent B2B marketing workflows are something I had to contend with. All these while needing to meet digital leads generation and conversion targets. I managed to learn along the way while hitting my targets.”

Learning from mistakes

Not all of Tommy’s transitions were successes. Previously, he jumped into a Business Development role in a software provider. He quickly found out Business Development is not for him. Coming from a Marketing Communications background, he did not have the necessary context or contacts. As the company was newly set up in Asia, there was no structure he could rely on.

“Before jumping in, it is important to know what success looks like and that you are able to play by your strengths.”

Once you’ve found a mentor, never ever ever let go

Mentors play a huge part in Tommy’s success. When he joined Blue Coat Systems, an Information Security company, his boss, Darryl Dickens was the mentor he needed.

Darryl was a different kind of boss from the beginning. “Darryl hired me as a Campaigns and Marketing Operations Manager. I knew nothing about Marketing Operations. On my first day, I asked him why did he hire me. Darryl wanted someone who can rise above the details of Marketing Operations and manage it from a business perspective.”

“He said, “I want you to manage the marketing team not as a marketing team doing marketing, but managing marketing from a business perspective. I learnt to move my focus from the Pay-Per-Clicks (PPC) and such, to instead, revenue and profit. It gave me a completely new perspective on managing marketing and operations. I learnt to see it from a business owner’s perspective and what ultimately mattered.”

“He also showed me the different ways to engage different audiences. When he walks into a room, people will turn around. He was able to command attention and rally the team to his vision. I watched and learnt how he prepares for conversations. What I learnt in that two years, I couldn’t finish learning in five.”

“The moment you find yourself a career mentor, never ever ever let them go.”

Be ready for change

Ageism is a topic that matters hugely for Tommy. “Business is always looking for younger and cheaper talent. Hiring for less to do more. It is a concern for young and old talents alike. It is not a conversation of “if”, but “when”.”

“Furthermore, Internet of Things and cloud computing will change the entire landscape, think about what happened with the invention of steam power, wireless communication, personal computers… While many jobs will disappear, many new jobs will appear. Older professionals need to lead that change by staying constantly relevant, and provide insights and value to the business. You need to take on a “Lean Forward” persona.

Tommy provides these four key steps.

  1. Awareness.
    • What are the latest trends in your industry, how is it moving as a whole? How are you or your company involved in that?
    • At some point will your job, company or industry become redundant?
  2. Reputation.
    • Your reputation within and outside your company are important.
    • People inside your company are your collaboration levers, no one creates change alone. The ability to rally and motivate a team around your vision is crucial.
    • People outside your company are your sparring partners. Sharing challenges and perspective around best practices with peers. Work together to find  solutions around a perennial problem.
  3. Engage.
    • What is your point of view in your field? You should be able to participate in thought leadership conversations among your peers.
    • How are you able to add value to your field, your industry? How can you be involved in that force for change and improve your field?
  4. Vision.
    • Where do you see yourself in the next 5 – 10 years? Start to plan.

“Nothing ever stays constant. If the change happens, are you prepared to move? Stay ready.”

Thanks Tommy for sharing your story and valuable insights.


Curious to learn how to stand in your circle of power and unleash the force for positive change? Join the Fight Club monthly newsletter. Sign up for the newsletter here.

About Roger Grant, CEO of PERSONNA

Roger helps people unleash the force for positive change to deliver transformational business growth.

He has more than 20 years of experience leading small highly empowered teams to create innovative customer-centric tech services, including the launch of Nokia’s first enterprise mobile device support service.

Photo credit: Tommy Foo

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