The Power of Growth Design – with Kate Syuma | 🎧 Design Aloud

In this episode, Kate Syuma, a seasoned growth advisor and former Head of Growth Design at Miro is joining us. She practices thought leadership and leverages her diverse expertise to mentor designers, guide leaders, and provide strategic counsel to startups. Her focus spans various areas, including product-led growth, UX design, user research, leadership, hiring, and scaling businesses.

Design Aloud Podcast | Season 03 Episode 02

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Episode details

🔍 Our conversation with Kate explores growth design, focusing on product-led growth strategies. We also delve into Kate’s path to becoming a leader in growth design and the fundamental requirements for success in this role. Additionally, we discuss “Growthmates,” Kate’s insightful podcast centered around personal and professional growth mindsets.

When the input from the business is coming to you start thinking about hypotheses first, not the solution. This is the main mental model shift because as designers, we start thinking about solution. It’s very natural for us. However, here you need to start thinking about the hypothesis.


I need to understand who I am personally as a human in order to lead people and to understand who they are, and help them understand who they are and what they want.



[00:00:00] All right. Thank you, Kate for this, for taking your time for this podcast. I’m really excited for this conversation. So let’s begin. If you could describe yourself using three emojis, what would you choose?

Kate: Hey everyone. Hey, Karthik. Thanks for having me today. I love this question actually, because I’m a fan of emojis. I’m trying not to overuse them. You know, like there is a lot of things behind emojis and they actually mean a lot of things in different cultures as I’m trying to be careful. However, I have probably top three favorite emojis, so I will probably send them to you.

So my first and my favorite one is like this. ✨ (sparkles). You know I put them everywhere. It’s like sort of magic. It describes inspiration and I’m trying to translate some inspiration to the people [00:01:00] I’m talking to and gather it from different sources. So if I post something, make sure you will see this emoji.

The second one is like this 🙏 (pray). I think it’s about gratitude. It’s about appreciation and overall like. I think I’m doing a lot of self-awareness activities and I love it. I just love to describe my feelings with that emoji.

The last one is, you know, just a random emoji. 💜 It’s a heart, but it’s like sort of violet color. I love this color. If you open my website, you will see, or on my LinkedIn page, it’s everywhere. I have a lot of clothes. I have a lot of like decoration in my apartment with this color and I just love it. It represents like creative mind, enlightenment and, you know, peace.

So these three are my favorites.

Karthik: It’s also very luxurious.[00:02:00]

Kate: Yeah. I would not maybe connect myself to the luxurious meaning of that emoji or that color. But …

Karthik: Luxurious, I mean, very abundant feeling like a very content feeling, let’s say, but amazing. Yeah, I was curious about two things.

One, I want to point a fact related to the prey emoji. I don’t know if this is true, but I think it started off as a high-five emoji between two people. But eventually it ended up becoming a pray emoji. But yeah, that’s a fun fact.

Kate: I love high five meaning as well.

Karthik: And I was curious about your self-awareness activities because I’m into these things as well. What do you do specifically if you don’t mind sharing?

Kate: Absolutely. This is my favorite topic as well. If you want, we can dedicate the whole podcast to that. It’s part of [00:03:00] personal growth, which is essential foundation. So I think one of the very basic activities that I do for several years is journaling. And I’m doing that every day, like three minutes in the morning, three minutes in the evening.

It’s called a six-minute journal. So there are some questions that you reflect on, like what I’m grateful for what’s going to be great today and what is my intention for today. So this is. It’s very good for the morning and to set up some, you know, mind for the day.

I also do yoga quite a lot. Actually this apartment and this room is my space for yoga as well. You see like a lot of plants. I create this environment for me to feel good.

Also I do psychotherapy, but it’s a different type of…, it’s quite a unique type of psychotherapy, which is called psychoanalysis. It’s coming from young [00:04:00] practice. And I really like it. I’m doing that for more than three years, I think.

And I just love reading about that, reflecting a lot on myself. Last but not least, this year I gave myself a gift for my birthday it’s called a book about yourself and it’s a very deep self-reflection exercise. You’re doing this for at least four days, you’re diving very deep into different parts of your past, of your present, of your intentions about the future and who you are. You’re also doing the research about yourself. You are asking the people who are very close to you in your network different questions. And that was probably one of the most intense activities that really opened my eyes to some parts of me that I, to be honest, forgot about.

Karthik: That’s amazing. Wow. I have so many questions

Kate: We can record another [00:05:00] podcast about that if you want.

Karthik: Yeah, but I really get the point of journaling, like you started. I think the first thought of the day and the last thought of the day really matters. And if you’re very intentional and very attentive towards these things, I think it makes a whole lot of difference. I totally get it, and it’s something that I want to improve on as well. So,we will definitely talk about this maybe in another podcast hopefully.

Speaking about growing. Do you have a dream job when you were growing up, when you were a child?

Kate: Of course, I think everybody had. When we were children, we were asked like who we want to be when we we’ll grow up. You know, my answer to that question was – I wasn’t fully self-aware that time, I was just reflecting my parents and I thought like, okay, I’m going to be like my mother and she was in the beauty industry.

And I didn’t think [00:06:00] about, you know, some ambitious goals. I remember there was a child in my kindergarten who wanted to be a president. I thought, “oh, that’s funny.” But then later on, I remember that when I was studying at school, I was dreaming about some things like, okay, I want to start studying in another school that is way better than this one. Or I want to enter this university or I want to pass these exams. And I really treated these things like dreams. You know, I was thinking about that a lot, visualizing how I will be studying in that new school with this, you know, new things, new environment, new people. And I just realized that probably I treated dreams like goals. And I started like even wishing my friends, dream big and make their dreams come true, these things for their birthdays.

However, now looking back to that, I [00:07:00] think I just didn’t have a lot of time to be a child because of that. I just treated everything as a goal. And now, being an adult, I think I’m trying to get back to this, childish part of me and actually dreaming about things that are not goals and like probably differentiating these two things.

Karthik: Very interesting. Yeah, I was curious how do you stay, let’s say innocent or without any filters right now as an adult, because you have a lot of things that you filter down and essentially yeah, you don’t dream just for the sake of dreaming, how do you do that?

Kate: You know, it’s very good question. And I think the answer to that is not straightforward. But in order to start dreaming again, you need to get back to this inner child. And that is hiding somewhere very, very deep [00:08:00] inside of you. And I think these practices that we were talking about earlier really helped me to get a bit closer to that part.

I’m not in very deep contact yet, but I’m trying to get there because this inner child is opening up a lot of creativity, a lot of energy, a lot of, you know, capacity. Even for you to do stuff creatively and for us as designers, it’s essential. However, without that contact to your roots, we will not dream again.

And even if we think we are dreaming, it will be probably not the dream. It will be like yet another ambitious goal that we are trying to achieve. Yeah. So getting closer to that really helps. And now I’m dreaming just about some simple things, actually, that sounds simple, like living in a good environment, creating a beautiful natural space around me and just being healthy, being [00:09:00] happy and things like that.

Karthik: Absolutely. Okay. We’ll talk about this further again. I’m really enjoying this, but to center attention to the topic at hand – how did you get into growth design? What is growth design?

Kate: Oh yeah. It’s a good question. Hmm. You know, it’s interesting that now I think it was so natural. You know, like I was always like this thing, the person with the growth mindset. And for me, anything that has a word growth within that absolutely attractive thing to dive in. And I remember when I started working at Miro six years ago, I’ve been the third designer in the company. We were like 55 or something like that. And we just started building the growth Sub function of the business, product-led growth. [00:10:00] And it started like, of course, with the product, but of course, to deliver something, you need to design the experience.

And I was so curious about that. So, I started working with our head of growth. I was the only designer who was doing the growth experimentation and design for that. And it started supernaturally. So I think for me, it was like a great opportunity. So, I started tackling that with user onboarding and other experimentation around the funnel.

And just to explain maybe to other folks who don’t know what growth design is or didn’t hear about that earlier. I think I call it, it’s a 5x design. You know, there is this definition of 10 X engineer or like this fancy wording but I believe that growth design is actually 5 X design because it’s combining within itself, like various subjects, like user [00:11:00] research, data analysis, product management, product design you know, other like fields. And it’s not like you need to do a little of that or a little of that. You really need to be equally experienced in different subjects in order to deliver good experiments.

And this is what I really loved about that field because I was always generalist, I think and I was curious about different subjects and I was very attracted to the growth design. And now I think I would like not to separate growth design from product design. I really believe there is a huge overlap and I would say product design, good product design should be somehow growth-oriented because it’s not enough anymore to deliver just the great tangible outcome.

You’ve seen how the user experience and user interface design evolved. So it started with like [00:12:00] specialism in like very, very well developed craft. But then, for example, today, nowadays, product design is also like 5x design or something like that. So I wouldn’t even differentiate that. I would say good product design is somehow connected to the growth design and design is a good product design.

Karthik: Absolutely. Yeah, it’s a very unexplored term, I would say, right now. So how does anyone get into growth design?  You spoke about being a generalist. Is there some sort of specialized specialization required or can a regular product designer get into this field easily? What’s your take on this?

Kate: Absolutely. So I think if in your company or on the product you are working on, there is an opportunity to do some experimentation or to start thinking about product-led growth model, it’s an opportunity to be [00:13:00] a growth designer, right? So you can be specialized in product-led growth.

For example, you can understand the funnel, understand how to experiment with the funnel, what are the methods… You can do a lot of user research based on the user onboarding experience, engagement experience, how to convert users and avoid dark patterns. And you can be a very, very well-specialized growth designer in that case.

Or if your company is doing a lot of experimentation or you have space to do experimentation, you can also start thinking beyond the actual product design process. You can start thinking about hypothesis. So like, what I’m going to test, what I’m going to validate, what is the solution for that? And you just, instead of thinking of the solution or a user problem per se, you start thinking about hypothesis and you start with that actually on any project.

You know, input from the business that is coming to you start thinking about the [00:14:00] hypothesis first, not the solution. And I think this is the main mental model shift because as designers, we start thinking about solution. It’s very natural for us. However, here you need to start thinking about the hypothesis and until you really define the hypothesis and you are aligned on that, it’s not a good idea to dive into the solution. It will be not connected to the hypothesis and what you want to test. It will make you biased, and you will try to you know, figure out the hypothesis for the solution that you already have in mind, which is not a good idea.

Karthik: Yeah, absolutely. And I think in the long run, it costs the business a lot and we’ve had such experiences at UX studio. My follow-up to this was at least that UX studio, we follow a certain processes for all the clients, the majority of the clients and it’s catered around [00:15:00] usually building prototypes from whatever were discovered through the business requirements, and then test these prototypes, do a usability test.

How is this process different from growth design? Is there any difference or…? I was just curious about that.

Kate: Yeah. I think this is like pretty natural and connected part to the growth design when you validate your assumptions, your hypothesis with users, with prototype testing and things like that. Probably the main difference from working with clients is that in product design or in product environment, you can also validate these hypothesis at scale internally. You can launch an experiment and how we say internally, it’s like the experiment is user research at scale because user research is like you can talk to 10 customers, okay, 20, but [00:16:00] the experiment on production is about like how it will impact the behavior or metrics for thousands, millions of users, depending on your product.

And this is how you learn and you get data from that. And as a designer. You need to interpret that data. Okay, what is happening? Why, for example, this experiment wasn’t successful? And what was maybe wrong in my solution? And understanding deeply, like, okay, why we have a drop on this onboarding slide?

Maybe the drop is happening because users didn’t understand this text or header. Or maybe because… the visuals that I’ve added to this onboarding slide were to interrupt in and like users started like you know, interacting with these visuals and it’s led to poor results. So this is the main difference that you experiment on production.

You understand the data and then [00:17:00] you iterate. I think in studio life, it’s also possible if you are in a very, very close touch with your client. After you finished your design, you are not finished. You wait when the client will test and we’ll get back to you with some results. I think this is what I’m doing like as an advisor, for example, I’m trying to see what is happening after the actual advice, right.

And help to iterate on that. So this is how I think some also existing studios that are focused on product-led growth are working with clients. They are not just finishing on like. This is it. These are the hypothesis and solutions by their weight until these results will come and how they can iterate on them.

Karthik: Yeah. It’s essentially building a really good strategy for the client, let’s say, and it’s also, with studio life, it’s an added way. There’s an added variable of client restrictions and client communications, which you need to just [00:18:00] fair. Can you recite or think about a case study like a growth design experiment, case study that you can share with us, a small one, like the onboarding one that you mentioned just so our listeners can understand this a bit further.

Kate: Yeah, absolutely. Let me think about that. Yeah. Onboarding is a good one, actually, because it’s on top of my mind. I’m trying to finish the article that I promised to so many people. So I’ve started working on onboarding. It was our first area to experiment on when we started product-led growth and over time, over these six years, I think we launched more than 100 experiments and it transformed over time.

So I think, I would probably not mention the example that was six years ago because it’s a bit outdated. I would mention how the team is experimenting on that right now. The team – product manager and product designer who I’m leading.[00:19:00] So actually what is happening, they always start with data.

So you just start with your questions to existing data because we are not super early product. We already have enormous data. So we start with data and we see, okay, what are the segments, for example, that are struggling the most with the user onboarding with the first session or the first experience where we see the biggest drop.

And let’s say we have like, creators of the accounts who actually start working at Miro and there are joiners who were invited to Miro and there is a big difference between the behavior of these two segments. So first, we defined which segment we’re gonna focus on. Then we try to understand what are the problems within these segments that we are aware of, and hopefully, we have a lot of problems that we are aware of otherwise we go and do user research.

However, there are some existing problems. The product manager and designer and the cross functional team, they start [00:20:00] ideating on hypotheses. So they start just thinking how to solve these existing problems for the segment, knowing the segment and generate a bunch of hypothesis. Then they also prioritize them nicely and ruthlessly, because we don’t have a lot of resources to experiment and define, for example, the scope for the next quarter.

It can be like 10 hypotheses to experiment with. And the designer starts thinking of the whole user journey. However, keeping in mind these 10 hypotheses. I love it because you can map out the user journey, which is connected and consistent, and the solutions should be consistent with.

Your solutions can be tested separately, you know, otherwise, if you just combine all of that 10 hypotheses, enormous revamp of the whole experience, it will cost you a couple of quarters to execute. So then there [00:21:00] are like different solutions for that. And there is unmoderated user testing for these solutions. I really love this method because it’s very fast. You can launch your tests in the evening. In the morning you have results. You iterate on these solutions and then you launch an experiment. While the experiment is like running, you’re working on another solution.

Karthik: That’s amazing. I didn’t know you did unmoderated tests before I just thought was creating hypotheses and then just doing experiments.

I was curious: for a specific experiment or a specific concept that you’ve validated how many variables do you have in these, let’s say, designs or concepts? Because you have, let’s say, ten hypotheses and for each hypothesis, they’re just one change or how do you?

Kate: Yeah. Yeah. Sometimes it’s a Frankenstein, you know, like it’s like 10 hypotheses, three [00:22:00] variations for each one.

But the goal of using this unmoderated testing is to narrow down the solution. And, for example, if we have a hypothesis to launch ABC version or not like ABCDE, otherwise we would test it forever. And with this unmoderated tests –  I think Kate is a designer who is working on that right now – she’s doing a pretty flexible approach.

So she can launch three tasks for one hypothesis, understand what is working. Well, what can be combined, what can be further improved and then kind of condense it in sort of AB test or ABC test, depending on our ability to test it on time. So, as a designer, you need to be very informed about different limitations.

So, if you have limitations on the segment size, you cannot test five versions. If you have a limitation on time, you cannot launch five [00:23:00] versions. If you have a limitation on whatever, like localization, you cannot launch another version. And you still, you need to watch a good experience and you need to be creative in order to combine what is possible to combine.

Karthik: Yeah. This is amazing. A thought that just came to my mind: as a designer keeping these constraints or keeping these things in mind is…. we’ve kind of become, at least me, I kind of become ignorant of these things, keeping these things in mind.  Just going on autopilot, but I was listening to a podcast and there’s I don’t remember the name of the illustrator, but he did the illustrations for Naval Ravikant’s latest book, The Almanac of Naval Ravikant. And there he mentions that he has a lot of constraints in terms of there’s going to be black and white, there’s going to be line drawings [00:24:00] and all these things. But still, when these constraints happen, you are becoming more creative rather than the opposite.

Which is pretty interesting because I always felt that the more constraints you have, the more restricted you are and the more closed you are, but it’s the other way around. If you start thinking the other way around, I think it brings out a lot of creative solutions. I think, like what you mentioned, it’s very relevant when you have these things in mind about localization or the target audience, the age, let’s say all the demographics, and then you just start designing for them.

I think it’s much more creative than just doing it in an open space.

Kate: Totally. Yeah, absolutely. And I think this is probably not something that I also was used to in the very beginning. However, over time, I realized that in the end as a designer, your job is, of course, to solve the user problem, [00:25:00] to make it a great user experience, but also to solve the business problem.

And I started measuring this success just from a different perspective. Of course, there are some non negotiable rules that I also needed to educate the team and the engineering team to help them become more user-centric, like, we will not execute poor quality, and this is what is poor quality. We will not execute a dark pattern, and this is what is dark pattern. And with that, you are, as a growth designer or person who is designing for the team, who is measuring the success through business, you can see this. And then this is what is driving you to be more to make trade-offs actually. So you become more like…  I’m all also saying like, at some point I became probably half designer, half product manager, because you just become more flexible to [00:26:00] different trade-offs and you understand the perspective of a product manager, of an engineering person… And you are more like your mind is more flexible.

Karthik: Absolutely. Yeah. You mentioned, product-led growth multiple times and I was curious about what that meant. And I think it touches upon what you just mentioned about having this mindset of a product manager, engineer, and also a designer at the same time. Do you need special skill sets for these or how do you learn to have this product-led growth mindset.

Kate: Absolutely. Yeah. I think this is a great field, and this is a very interesting field that I really love. So product-led growth is actually the concept that appeared I think in 2015 or in this time when companies in Bay Area… products actually that were created that time [00:27:00] started experimenting, and started, you know, adding more leverages and more ways for their product to grow apart from a very traditional sales led model.

Because if you have a product, you can, you can have a sales team. They will find clients and they will handle the deal for this human touch approach and things like that. Of course there was a growth hacking happening that time. But then it transformed to actually some methods and methodologies that can help your product grow through the product itself. This is why it’s called product-led growth.

What it means that your product can actually handle the acquisition part, you can create product led acquisition solutions. Your product can handle the actual purchase and monetization aspect. You don’t need a [00:28:00] salesperson. You can create the pricing page. You can create a subscription model or freemium model, or free trial model, or combine all of them.

So, your people who you acquired will go to the product, will subscribe, will pay, and it’s handled internally all within the product. But most importantly, probably not actual mechanics, but that the product itself can generate its growth because you’re creating a good product and it’s like, you know, generating this stickiness.

So if the user starts working in that product, the user wants to continue, and you create certain mechanics, why the user wants to continue, why the user wants to pay. You create some healthy limitations in the free version, so users want to pay for the next version. You explain this whole concept internally inside the product, you don’t need a salesperson who is explaining that to every single user. If you want to scale to millions of users, it’s not scalable. So this is the product lead growth.

Karthik: [00:29:00] So you create a bigger funnel so that you can cater to specific folks who want specific needs through that.

Kate: Exactly.

Karthik: Interesting. Thank you for sharing this.

The next thought that I have in mind is about AI. Because a lot of the products now are diving deeper into AI, for example, Notion has this AI element to it. What is your take on that?

Kate: We couldn’t miss that topic. Yeah. Everybody’s talking about that.

Karthik: Is Miro having an AI element by the way?

Kate: Yeah, we also have it. We have it for some of our templates. So, it’s beautiful for ideation, I think. And this is the main use case, right? So I’m using AI for ideation, for learning, [00:30:00] to polish my writing to learn faster.

And I think for us, for anyone and for designers, of course, it’s an advantage. It’s a great pillar. Not the pillar actually. It’s something that will speed us up in terms of doing some stuff better. So, for example, if you’re thinking about content design, you can do it very fast right now. If you think about segment or the audience or something else, you can get some support in terms of how to formulate the good questions for my user research project and things like that.

So our toolset will be way more enhanced. And then, the question is “what should we do?” Right? If AI is doing so well with the majority of our tasks, what should we do?

And I think the synthesis part. Which is like the main, step in [00:31:00] anything, right? In research, you need to synthesize. In the design solution, you need to synthesize. In experiment, you need to synthesize. So yeah, it will be our job to do the right synthesis. And it’s also coming from the philosophy.. (I’m also doing a course on philosophy right now), so I think I’ve read yesterday, it was the concept, how the thinking process is happening. And this final step is synthesis.

It was essential from a long time ago. So I think this synthesis is our job. And to do the synthesis coming back to this question about like generalism versus specialism. I think it’s it’s good to be a generalist to some extent. To do this synthesis, right? Because you need to extract information from different sources, subjects and synthesize it very well.

However, this specialization is also  [00:32:00] an open question for me. I actually think that it will probably create the need for us as a design industry to think about our personal growth. What is this one thing that we really want to specialize in? And it’s probably not like I want to be an excellent UI designer or I want to be an excellent in that UI design. It will be optimized, like other things will be optimized. It will be probably something like domain-specific.

So, for example, I want to be an expert in product lead growth. And design for that, or I want to be an expert in designing productivity tools, or tools for creators, or understanding some domain very deeply. This will be a new specialization for us.

Karthik: Wow, that’s very interesting. I never heard this domain-specific specialization. I always thought it was around skillsets [00:33:00], but this is a very interesting thought, to be honest. Being a specialization, having a specialization in a domain, yeah, the right way to look at and also acquire a lot of skills. And I totally agree with the point or the philosophy of like making sense of data.

Maybe AI can do it in two, three years, four years, 10 years… But I feel like a human touch to making sense of things. I think it’s, and having some conscious effort put into it, I think it’s a very human touch and it’s up to us to do that. So I totally agree there.

I think we spoke about designing experiments and your initial days at Miro and it was, it was good to know about this. And also you, you’ve slowly transitioned into becoming a leader within Miro. How did that happen?

Kate: [00:34:00] Yeah, it’s interesting that you said I slowly transitioned. For me, it felt like it was so fast. It happened like, wow. I was, I think it happened naturally.

However, I didn’t expect to be honest for myself to transition to design leadership so fast anyways. So I think for the first three years or so with Miro, I was doing the design across different parts of the product. Product-led growth was one of them, but I also was designing for the enterprise part of the business.

It was a pretty crazy combination because during one day in the morning I was thinking of how to experiment on onboarding and make it fast and furious. And in the afternoon I was like with enterprise folks, thinking seriously of admin experience that we are going [00:35:00] to execute for another year.

You know, and at some point I think I went crazy. I felt like I cannot do that. It’s not good for my mental health. It’s like, it’s too much. It’s too contrast. And I just dedicated myself to growth. I made that decision. And also I was doing user research. So it was, I think I had three years, like enterprise user research and growth.

At some point I just started leading some projects. It was more like project leadership. So there was a project about design system that I led. There was another research project that I led. I started organizing some groups of people around this project. So it was very fun. And my manager was giving me a lot of projects to lead.

So I was very happy to do that. And at some point, I just realized I always created these growth plans for myself, these Miro boards where I visualized my growth path, and I realized that I really [00:36:00] want to try it out intentionally, not doing that just naturally how I did that, just playing with leadership, but I really want to do this transition intentionally.

So we talked about that with my manager. It was also connected to my relocation to Amsterdam, I think, and I had a plan. So I had a plan for like six months or so to transition to formal leadership. And I had certain goals and certain criteria, how my success will be measured, how I will measure my success.

And it was connected to hiring first, so I needed to hire the team. I needed to organize existing couple of folks in the team. I needed to lead some projects and produce a good quality result. Not myself, unfortunately, but through the people who I was leading. And it was for six months. And it was also happening, I think in COVID and it was also happening during our [00:37:00] hyper growth.

And that was absolutely crazy. That was absolutely crazy. You know, I did that. I did hire three designers in six months. There was like performance improvement plan for one designer in my team. And we did that. There was another challenge that was happening.

So I think after six months, I felt, wow, I’m so happy. I’m ready to be a design leader. The most difficult part passed away and now it will be just a pleasure for me just to be a leader, but I was wrong. I think that was the easiest part. That was the easiest part to hire designers.

I thought, oh, I hired excellent people. What should I do next? They will be just doing the great design job. But no, actually I learned so much after that, you know, and during that journey that it’s not enough just to [00:38:00] hire people, even if they are excellent or they seem to be excellent during the interviewing process, they will have their own specific challenges during the actual work, during the hyper-growth environment.

So I was learning by doing at the same. Time the actual transition was an experiment. So after six months, I think we concluded with my manager that the experiment was successful. So I can, I can go further. I was also happy with that. And then I started like just being a formal leader, but before being a formal leader, I think I was informal leader for at least a year, right?

I don’t believe that this switch can happen super fast. Like your hands-on designer, your whole life and then in six months you become a leader. You at least need to be informal leader for a year or so, then you need to do some formal transition and make an experiment around that. And even for ourselves, it’s a good [00:39:00] chance to actually validate if this is what we want to do, because now I think there is a plenty of opportunities for people who are designers who are hands-on designers, but who want to lead to lead, but in a different perspective. So you can be a project leader. You can organize a teamwork around the project rather than leading people because people leadership versus project leadership is absolutely different skillset and different job. Right. So yeah.

Karthik: Interesting. I have a lot of follow-up questions.

The first thing is you mentioned about COVID times, hiring people. Also the hyper-growth within the company. It must have been a really challenging and stressful phase, if I’m not wrong. And especially to transition into or get into the mindset of a leadership role.

How did you tackle that? What steps did you [00:40:00] take during these challenging moments?

Kate: Of course step number one, I have a methodology, you know, that’s straightforward. It’s like something that I see now from that perspective, it will be very different for every person. But I think one thing that I did that really inspired me first to do that,  like, give me some energy to do that. I was reading a lot, and I read three books and I recommend them to everyone all the time. It’s like Radical Candor, it’s The Making of a Manager from Julie Zho, and the third one is Dare to Lead from Brenna Brown. All women leaders, amazing books, inspirational.

I was just sold to that idea. And then talking about this mental capacity, right, to do that transition. I think I intentionally also started doing the psychotherapy. I told you, like, I started doing that three years ago. So, that was in my [00:41:00] transition moment. I realized it would be tough. It will be difficult for me. I have never handled so many like human conversations you know. Understand how I support people, how I lead people. I need to understand who I am personally as a human in order to lead people and to understand who they are and help them understand who they are and what they want. So I started doing the psychotherapy that time.

And then I think I was just learning by doing, talking through all the challenges with my manager, with other folks in the company. They were uncomfortable conversations. They were like vulnerable conversations, but I was just pushing it forward. And making mistakes. It’s the only way. You cannot avoid them, you will make a lot of mistakes. And just, you know, accepting that fact first, and then being like, [00:42:00] open minded and growth minded. You learn after each mistake, you iterate.

It’s absolutely, as I said, again, like experimentation and growth-related approach to your job and to your career. And it really helped, I think over time, to get more used to that, to get more comfortable with that.

Because at the point when I had like 11 people in my team, you need to manage 11 people. It’s a lot, you need to start with something. Usually you start just leading one person. Then in a year you lead three people. I started leading four people in six months. It was, it was like pretty fast for me.

It felt like I just jumped in into leadership. However, it was also fast learning afterwards.

Karthik: It’s very interesting and I’m really glad people [00:43:00] have this space within the company to experiment and explore. I think that really also matters.

You also mentioned that you, I don’t know if you kind of missed it, but you mentioned that there were outcomes not done by you, but with the people you manage, how did that transition feel like you’ve always done things where there was outcomes, but how was it to have outcomes done by people who are working under you?

Kate: Yeah, absolutely. I think this is also an interesting way how I would phrase that the people are not working under me. I’m working with them. And we are all thinking about that, like, experience, but they are producing that and this is their success and this is their outcome.

And this is what drives these people who are individual contributors. They are driven by producing very high quality [00:44:00] outcome, and seeing that on production and seeing how customers interact with that. I think the pivotal question that everybody needs to ask themselves is like, what drives you?

And for me, I was driven by something else. I wasn’t driven just by producing the outcome and seeing how customers interact with that. I was more driven by also organizing the teamwork around that. So for me, it wasn’t painful to see like, Oh, it’s not my outcome. It’s not something I did. It’s something that somebody else did.

And for me, it wasn’t painful for me. It was natural. So I think the difficult part was handling the design reviews because it’s like something you’re doing very often and sometimes subconsciously. You just start for example saying your idea rather than asking people what they think, and that was something that I needed to control more thoughtfully.

So, I created the list [00:45:00] of questions that I ask rather than telling, you know, sharing my idea right away. And it was like a bit more painful to re-educate myself, how I do the design reviews. However, again, being also open for the feedback, what a team is thinking about that, what they want to hear.

Sometimes I also remember I maybe switched too much to this, like asking questions instead of proposing some ideas. And I learned from the team that they actually like when I share some ideas, this is the value I can bring. Like poking also about what is the unique value design leaders can bring to the company.

I think this is exactly the value, creative aspect, creative thinking. And this is what you’re hired for, not just to ask questions and you need to balance that. And you need to balance it. Not only on design reviews with very multicultural, [00:46:00] cross dimensional, cross functional group of people, but also with every individual, because some individuals, they really want to have enormous space and they want to be creative themselves. And, you ask them questions, but another group of people need some coaching and you ask questions, however, you’re also sharing some guidance and you need to balance it. And this is very, very cool, right? It’s like a game.

Karthik: Absolutely. Absolutely. I think that marks I mean, it’s a sign of a really good leader, I would say.

And you’re not a boss per se, but you’re a true leader where you understand what others want rather than what you want to give, let’s say. I think it’s a fine line, and it’s really hard to understand, and I’m slowly learning about these things as well. Like when somebody comes to you and says something very important, to understand what they actually want from that conversation, rather than just blindly giving your thoughts to that.[00:47:00]

Again, it boils down to being very intentional and being very attentive. Do you have any pointers or bullet points to become a good leader, let’s say? I mean, you mentioned these books – I’ll obviously link them -but according to you and your experience, what marks a good leader? What are the requirements of a good leader?

Kate: Oh yeah, this is a very difficult question. I think I will try to cover it doing some reflection on the goal. I think overall – and I wasn’t that person in the very beginning, these are also the lessons that I’ve learned along the way – being vulnerable, very important.

You are a person, human being. You need to talk like a person, not like a robot. You need to show your emotions. You can feel excited. And sometimes I think I just showed only that part. Like [00:48:00] I’m overexcited. I’m just, you know, a high energy person creating this high energy in the room and everybody’s high energy. However, this is not the truth. And sometimes if you have a critical feedback, for another person it’s unexpected. So we’re so excited about everything. It’s, it’s not expected for them. And it’s, if it’s not clear, if it’s not transparent, it’s not kind, kind to another person.

This is what Brenna Brown is writing about. Like clear is kind and clear is unkind. So transparency, showing some sort of vulnerability if it’s a difficult situation. I think it’s important to, how to say, to care about everyone authentically, to actually know them as human beings, understand that they are characters. It’s beyond. Probably something [00:49:00] that is expected in your company or your job. It’s not written in performance review, but it’s something that will create the connection between two human beings.

And then this person can trust you and you can trust this person and you can help this person grow. Because for me, to be honest in the end, the role of the leader is about two things: is to help people grow, who are doing this job and like doing that job great. And also to help the business grow. Sometimes there is a difficult connection between these two.

Sometimes it’s difficult to match these two. For example, business wants to be fast and just launch everything super fast. And these designers want to focus on high quality, being more thoughtful or otherwise it’s for business quality. And like execution speed is not that important. So quality is important.

Execution speed is not that important, but for designers, speed is [00:50:00] very important. And if there is a mismatch, for you as a leader to find the match or to create the match, it’s difficult. And for me the goal is, of course, to achieve the business results, however, help the people grow in that environment.

It’s the most difficult thing.

But let them go is also the job and also the methods or two, how you can help them grow. Because sometimes they can grow outside. So yeah, I think for everyone, it will be a unique set of bullet points, you know, there is no, unfortunately playbook how to become, even if there is the playbook, I wouldn’t trust it.

I would say do it yourself, trust yourself, create the environment for you that helps you do it. You know, sometimes there is a phrase like ecologically means like ecologically for [00:51:00] your mental health, for your everything you have and learn along the way. And it will be your personal.

Karthik: Yeah, it’s good that you mentioned everybody understanding the individual, individualistic side of people appreciating that. And once that happens. Yeah, it eventually brings different parts for a different ways of handling things, but I just wanted to understand yours.

Kate: And there is a book, Culture map. I think everybody can read that and get more educated with this topic. But I think communication style is like the most important thing to adjust first and to understand, to talk through, to also observe.

So like. You need to be very, like, research oriented to notice that some person reacts not that well to this certain style or this question. And be also open with that. For example, I explained to some folks who I speak English with, like, [00:52:00] I’m not fluent, I’m not a native speaker. Tell me if I said something that is, like, off. I will try to iterate on that. I will try to learn. It’s very important for me actually. And I’m open for any feedback. So being open for that and learning along the way. I think the problems are coming from misalignment on communication part. Most of the times.

Karthik: yeah, thank you for sharing these leadership qualities. I really appreciate it. It’s something that I personally am pondering on and I will take away a lot of good points from this, a lot of the points. Also, the books that you’ve recommended, I’ll share the links below.

To the last segment I was curious because you mentioned that you also had this relocation happening. Where were you before and how did you move to Amsterdam?

Kate: Yeah. So, I think I have a very contrast experience in my life.

I lived in Russia and then a couple of years ago I moved [00:53:00] to Amsterdam. I didn’t live anywhere else. I was traveling a lot, of course, but didn’t live anywhere else. So, for me it was like black and white transition, you know, because it was such a big difference. I started noticing many, many things that are designed so well, or are so thoughtful.

So, for example, I think here the urbanism is like top level and whatever is happening on the street or reconstruction of the road, it’s first very user-centric. So they are gathering a lot of feedback about that, like what we gonna do, what kind of trees do you want to plant here from the neighborhood. And then they apply it, and then they also show the progress, and I was so surprised by that.

And also I like how experimental they are. So for example, there is, like, reconstruction [00:54:00] of the road happening right now, and they want to… Make it more narrow. So it will be less traffic, especially in the city center. They want to limit the traffic. And instead of like reconstructing the whole road right away they put some plans in the middle of the road and it doesn’t work right now at this full capacity. So they’re observing how. Like bikes, people cars are handling that new design and it’s like MVP.

And then if it works well, they will next year, they will do a bigger reconstruction. And there are people actually who are watching what is happening. They have cameras, like all of that. It’s like a real life experiment happening right now. That’s amazing.  And this is, like, absolutely mind-blowing for me how they care about people, how user-centric they are, how the design of the city is designed well for people to live [00:55:00] in that city. So I’m happy with that relocation that happened and happy to be here in Amsterdam.

Karthik: That is a really nice example of experiments, let’s say. And I’m happy that the theme of this podcast is experiments, growth design.

Absolutely love it. Can to your podcast?

Kate: Oh, yeah, I think I’m so flattered, first of all, that you wanted to dedicate a little bit of outro section to that. The podcast that I’m making right now is called Growth mates and it’s about growth, of course, but we are also experimenting with the theme, with the topics.

And we started doing that with the combination of personal and professional growth. So we are talking to leaders in design, in product management, in user research and folks from companies. In our first season, we had[00:56:00] Alan from Pinterest, we had Adam from Atlassian, the episode will be launched soon.

So we had also people who transitioned from design to become a founder of a company. And very, you know untraditional growth stories as well to unpack them to to show what help these people to find their way. We really enjoyed that.

First season for us was just random topics, random ideas and experiments. And now next season, we want to be more thoughtful, like using our learnings, applying them. And doing that well. So yeah, stay tuned. And of course, we are happy to explore new speakers and guests and sponsors.

So I will be working on that as well when I have time.

Karthik: Yeah. It’s essentially making the funnel bigger and just, just making it narrow and it’s called Growth mates for all the listeners. We’ll share the link soon and any other link.

So yeah, thank you. Thank you Kate so much for this. It’s an amazing conversation, I really enjoyed it. I hope we can do another podcast about mindfulness, self-awareness, meditation, growth hacks for life. I really enjoy that and I also really enjoyed or appreciate how you mentioned folks instead of just guys. I really noticed that and it’s something that I’ve been doing as well.

Yeah, it’s it’s a nice way to address people. So, yeah, thank you so much. Do you have anything, any last words to share with us?

Kate: Thanks a lot. It was very, it was a pleasure for me. And it is, it’s an interesting observation that I mentioned folks and guys because it was very subconscious. I didn’t realize that, which is good.

Yeah, and I hope that some of the bullet points or learnings will be helpful for your audience [00:58:00] and good luck for the next steps with your podcast as well. I know how difficult it is to find time to do this, you know, sometimes like promotion marketing on the other job that sometimes, you know, it’s not something we are used to do and appreciate you doing that and appreciate you invited me as well.

Thanks a lot.

Karthik: Thank you. Thank you so much.


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Design Aloud

Design Aloud is a podcast hosted by UX studio. Through this podcast, our goal is to spotlight UX and other disciplines that emphasise people and their needs in the realm of design.

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