Chetana is an experienced product design leader that has led large-scale design and research at renowned companies like Yahoo, Netflix, and Scribd. Presently as the Director of Product Design at Coursera, Chetana teaches us how to become excellent storytellers and hold influence over our teams.
Listen to this episode (or read the transcript below) to learn about Chetana’s journey from an individual contributor to a manager.
1 Has there been a memorable manager or boss or leader that you remember favorably?
I can clearly look back at the time when at Yahoo, which is where I always say I grew up. Everything that design school didn’t teach me, and one of the main people that were responsible for teaching me at the time was my manager. I was trying to understand how to be promoted because I was new to corporate America and at the end of the one-on-one, the piece of advice my manager gave me is to operate and work at the level of the next position. Be that person you want to be and then all I would need to do then is put the title on you. They taught me not to look for permission that you’re going to be promoted or think that someone’s going to recognize you because you can always ask for forgiveness later and it has been a guiding light for me and a boss or a manager who can see me for who I am, as opposed to pigeonholing me with bureaucracy or politics.
2 Did you avoid jumping into management because you were worried you would miss your craft?
At that stage, I was certainly staying with what I knew best, which was to solve design problems, then to make staff use my design toolkit to solve those problems because that’s what I knew.
There is really no training or wasn’t at least then in terms of stepping into design management. As I work with a bunch of my mentees, I’ve noticed that you’re thrown into the situation because the company needs a manager because they’ve hired a bunch of designers, so you end up stepping into the role of manager without even realizing it.
Ultimately, I felt like my point of view was not being understood because I didn’t have a certain authority or certain title, so I started listening to that voice and I started to find a balance between solving problems by using interaction design, visual design, and product design. Now, I eventually started to identify this niche where I started to solve problems by talking to the people that were working on those problems and that gave me a total high.
3 What were some bad management practices that you knew you wanted to avoid when leading a team?
One is to recognize that my role is about not only caring and looking out for my team, which is my direct reports. But it’s equally important, if not more important for me to know how to manage and lead upward. My boss, my cross-functional partners, the stakeholders, the executives, that took me a while, that only took me a while in terms of prioritizing their needs, prioritizing their expectations for me, and then being able to be that glue between my own my direct report team and then the team that I was reporting into and the reason I realized that as a mistake is because I had my initial nature as a leader of such care and concern and protection but it wasn’t necessarily something that was empowering my team or even giving me the latitude to make certain tough decisions.
4 How do you proactively make time in your calendar?
Paul Graham talks about maker mode and manager mode. I have not succeeded in that because my calendar still looks scary. But I’m proud to say that my designers and the individual contributors on my team are striving in partnership with me to make sure they have quality maker mode time to make stuff and are not always in meetings because meetings can also be meetings while you’re making stuff. But somehow all the meetings we hold now are about talking and sometimes talking over top of each other and not even having a meeting agenda. So no, I haven’t been able to solve it. And I do now seek out to be at companies to be at places where there is emphasis and value in how we meet, and how we spend our time in meetings. And then I’m not measured by the busyness of my calendar.
5 What are your thoughts on the influence that a manager should have and how can you tell if you’re successful as a manager?
I love that question, even today, more than anything, especially for the design discipline, the significance of being influential has become more than I would have ever imagined when I was in design school myself. My roots and my early education was in biology and my side hustle or passion was art. When I look back, I could have been an artist painting a huge canvas and selling it for millions of dollars. I don’t need a growth plan, and I don’t need metrics. The thing about being a designer is you’re solving problems that are measurable, that have a success metric that truly make the world a better place and it has a rationale to it.
Now when I’m in a design, management, or leadership role, the one thing I realized about influence is that you could be an awesome designer with your craftsmanship, you can be an awesome engineer with your knowledge about the code and the domain and the business, but both of those things are short-lived. If you can’t pitch or sell or communicate the work that you’re doing, you won’t be able to have any influence. Influence is when you’re able to move your agenda and have people believe in it.
6 How did you learn how to become an excellent storyteller?
I found the design thinking and the design process, whether visible or invisible, to be super helpful for most of my career trajectory and pathways. The thing about developing a design point of view starts with first knowing what my core values are, as a person and as a leader. In my case, I actually put myself through coaching or working with someone who could help me really crystallize my values. I’ve done a bunch of workshops to be able to have that courage and clarity because it’s what matters to me.
7 Why are values important in making you a great storyteller?
Storytelling is about being engaging and grasping someone’s attention in a way that is new for them. I think that the thing that draws somebody into a strong narrative is who the character is, what happened to the character, the climax, and the anticlimax so if I peel the layers back and identify that I don’t have a unique point of view, I won’t have a good story. If I don’t have a point of view that is rooted in who I am and my values, then I’m just talking about what someone else wants to hear from me. I’m not saying what my story is or what my truth is.
8 What are some things that you’ve learned that actually work when it comes to promoting innovation amongst your team?
The way I think about it normally is to look at the meaning of the word and really get to the core of what it means to be innovative. I’m going to peel the layer back and say to you that innovation is something that’s improving or replacing what has not been working well. You need to start with at least understanding what the problem is. I always empower and encourage my teams to first make sure we’ve really understood the problem that we’re trying to solve.
9 Have you used the framework of cross functional teams onboarding cross functional teams to get teams to work better together?
At Coursera, one of the things we identified as part of our growing pains is we are hiring left, right and center and with this growth is this quintessential problem of onboarding our new employees, especially in a remote setting. How do we onboard them? How do we create a shared understanding of who we’ve been and where we want to go? And it’s one of the key initiatives that fell on my lap in terms of driving. What could the onboarding experience be for our new employees in a way that is sustainable and scalable? And so, I am really thrilled and excited to share a little bit about a project that I have worked on with an external vendor, a dear friend of mine. She runs a startup called Improv Effect and together along with cross-functional members, and my team have designed an onboarding experience that is rooted in the customer experience of Coursera.
We first solved the basic requirements of onboarding, which are the hardware, the software, the meetings, and being part of the slack communities, and the whole tactical checklist. But the innovative moment for me in this project collaboration was, how can we take this must-have requirement and make it a more delightful, memorable experience for these new hires? And in order to do that, the problem statement we came up with was designing the entire internal onboarding experience mapped across the Coursera customer journey experience. We’re currently testing it and it allows for our new employees to go through the experience, our customers go through and feel that pain.
Whenever I join a team, as a design leader, I do spend some time initially doing internal onboarding workshops and have the conversations around meeting with the sales team and sharing with them what product design does, sitting in on some customer calls, so that we can see what pain our customer support team goes through and so on. There is a huge focus on sharing knowledge internally and respecting what each function can bring to the delivery of the experiences we want for our external customers. That’s how I think about the value and significance of onboarding internally.
10 Do you have any words of wisdom or parting advice for managers or leaders that are looking to get better at their craft?
I think the one thing I will share for budding managers and even managers who have been seasoned over the years on humbleness is, really make the time to manage yourself well, so that you can lead better. I don’t think of my job as managing other people. Sometimes I even wonder who I am to manage anyone, I’m here to lead you. I’m here to guide you. But I do owe it to everybody who I interact with, to manage myself better or to have a sense of self-awareness that I bring to the table and to my work.