“I don't think of my job as managing other people. Sometimes I even wonder who am I to manage anyone. I am there to lead you. I am there to guide you.”
In this episode
In episode #56, Chetana Deorah shares how the way you walk, talk and even how free or busy your calendar is matters, when it comes to your team’s perception of you.
Chetana is an experienced product design leader who has led large-scale design and research at companies such Yahoo, Netflix, and Scribd. Today, Chetana is the Director of Product Design at Coursera.
In this episode, we cover how to become a better storyteller and how Chetana builds empathy with cross-functional teams.
Tune in to hear Chetana’s journey from a direct report to a manager.
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Growing up at Yahoo
Leaving your craft to manage
No manager versus a bad manager
Maker mode and manager mode
The power and value of influence
What storytelling is really about
Onboarding through a customer journey experience
Not a manager, a guide, a leader
- Follow Chetana on Twitter
- Maker versus Manager, Paul Graham’s Essay
Aydin Mirzaee (Fellow.app) 00:07
Chetana, Welcome to the show!
Chetana Deorah (Coursera) 02:05
Thank you, Aydin, an absolute pleasure to be invited and be a guest here.
Aydin Mirzaee (Fellow.app) 02:09
Yeah, I’m very excited to get started. I know that we have a mutual friend, David Hong, who you were just explaining to me how you originally met. And so I’m very glad to get to meet you and very excited about our conversation today. I know that you have an extensive leadership background, you’ve worked at companies like Yahoo, and scribed and Netflix and today, you’re Director of Product Design at Coursera. I have taken many Coursera courses in my own life and am very excited to dig in with you. But normally what we do is we actually start with a question to kind of, you know, set the tone, which was in your career and you know, being at all these different companies? Has there been a memorable manager or boss or leader that you remember favorably?
Chetana Deorah (Coursera) 02:58
Sure, it’s an amazing opening question right there, especially for a career trajectory of more than 12 plus years, I can clearly look back at the time when at Yahoo, which is where I always say I grew up everything that design school did not teach me, Yahoo taught me and one of the person one of the people who are responsible, and the teaching was clearly my manager. And it was a moment I recorded a one on one where maybe for the third or fifth quarter, I was again trying to understand what it takes to be promoted here. And I could see the helplessness for my manager in terms of not everything. And that decision was in a manager’s control, there was a calibration, there was a cross functional, sort of number crunching, and I was still new to the whole corporate america totem pole. And at the end of the one on one, the one piece of advice my manager gave me is shape nudges, operate and work at the level of the next position. Be that be that person you want to be. And all I need to do then is put the title on you. And you have to be able to acknowledge you with that. But don’t look for this permission, that you’re going to be promoted or someone’s going to recognize you. You can ask for forgiveness later. But jump right into today. That has been a guiding light for me and a boss or a manager who can see me for who I am, as opposed to pigeonhole me with the bureaucracy or the politics or what have you.
Aydin Mirzaee (Fellow.app) 04:37
Yeah, I was gonna say that is amazing, because I remember a 22 year old version of myself too. And I asked the exact same question from my manager. I used to work at this company called Nortel networks. I don’t know if you remember it, but I got the exact same advice that you did. And so that’s so amazing. That is the it’s been 20 years, but it’s the first time that I hear someone Now, Scott, that same advice, too. So that’s pretty awesome. Thank you. So that’s interesting. So that’s what you heard first. And so I gather that what you learn from that is that you don’t have to wait to get the next role in order to operate that way. And, and you can make some mistakes and like you said, Ask for forgiveness.
Chetana Deorah (Coursera) 05:19
Absolutely. And I think that aspect is what allowed me to unleash and explore my career path in terms of I could continue being an individual contributor continue to excel in my craftsmanship as a designer, or what was coming to me naturally was the sharing what I knew, was empowering other people with what I knew or connecting the dots. And when I heard this, it suddenly unblocked me, I suddenly could do what I wanted to do and be who I wanted to be. And then I was able to have my one on one with my manager, with more aspiration and more creative ideas. And, of course, my manager also had to then empower me and clear the roadblocks along the way. And that also is what led me into finally recognizing, and one of those interview moments way down the road after Yahoo, or Rite Aid. Now, this is your moment, this next role is going to require you to be 100%. In a manager role. This is not one of those 60% hands on design and 40% management, which I was holding on to for as long as I could, because that decision making was like, Oh, let me just avoid it as long as I can. But having heard that piece of advice, or that unleashing, it empowered me to take that risk and jump into what it would mean. What does success look like? If I’m not designing? If I’m not building things? How am I going to define what I’m doing?
Aydin Mirzaee (Fellow.app) 06:56
Yes. So that’s really interesting. I mean, just the notion of being this player coach, where you’re still doing the hands on work, but then you’re also doing a little bit of management, it sounds like you avoided jumping in. Is that because you thought that you would miss your craft? Or was it you were just worried about the risk of jumping into management,
Chetana Deorah (Coursera) 07:17
Great point Aydin, at that stage, it was certainly staying with what I knew best, which is to solve design problems, then to make staff use my design toolkit to solve those problems. That’s what I knew. There is really no training or wasn’t at least then in terms of stepping into design management, most often. And I see now, as I work with a bunch of my mentees, you’re thrown into a situation of, well, the company needs a manager because we’ve hired a bunch of designers, or you to step up and step into the role of managing without even recognizing, am I the right person to do this? Now I look back and I say that I’d rather be on a team where I have no manager than have a bad one. And maybe somewhere down our conversation, we will get to that. So for me, it was this self awareness and this maybe even imposter syndrome. Would I be good at this because I hadn’t necessarily had the most empowering and encouraging experiences with previous managers. I also happened to be someone who grew up in India and a very entrepreneurial family. And so every time I would talk to my dad on the weekend on the phone, and share with him my experience with a particular manager, his response would be, well, if you are your own boss, you could hire them. That’s how you could solve for it. So I’d become very mindful about whether I know myself well enough to then make an impact in other people’s lives. But I also knew that he was there, the Bible was there. I always found myself wanting to be heard and understood, because I would see a conversation happening. And I had a point of view. And I felt 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 finding a balance between solving problems by using interaction design, visual design, and product design. Now, I started finding this area where I started solving problems by talking to the people that were working on those problems. And that gave me a total high.
Aydin Mirzaee (Fellow.app) 09:46
That’s amazing how you bridged the gap in that way. And so I guess who was it after? Yeah, who was it that scribes the first time that you were leading the design team?
Chetana Deorah (Coursera) 09:57
Oh, yes. Going back memory lane. So the other thing to share with you, Aydin, that has been a big influence in my leadership is my nights and weekends I’ve gone in teaching design to middle school and high school inner city youth with a nonprofit organization that I’ve been part of for 10 years now called Interact project. And this aspect of my life, where nights and weekends would go in teaching design fundamentals of design, the goal there was to give these kids the possibility of design as a career. After Yahoo, I did give myself some time to bother my passion for design education at a startup accelerator. It doesn’t exist today as startups go, it’s an experiment. It may succeed, it may not. It was an amazing business model. And through that accelerator program, I really got to hone in on my skill to teach design and really do that mentoring piece. Which is what brought me into my first role at Betfair. And then there are liftopia, startups that today are not that well known. I did start in a principal designer role at Furthermore, the mobile team at Betfair and the sort of OKR given to me was to build the mobile design team in the US. So Betfair is a UK based company. And I told myself, Wow, I’ve never been hired, I knew how I could do the hands-on job, which was the mobile design experience. So I’m back where I started with taking on this challenge of building a team. And that is what brought me into just the joy of conversations like you’re having with me, and assessing who do I need to bring to then deliver the promise of the mobile app after that there was no looking behind. liftopia was the next one and then scrubbed, and then moving forward.
Aydin Mirzaee (Fellow.app) 11:58
Yeah. And that’s awesome. And so, you know, one of the things that you said earlier in passing was that you’d rather be on a team with no manager than a bad manager. So let’s dig into that. Like, what are some things that say, a bad manager would do that you, for example, wanted to avoid when you start to lead a team
Chetana Deorah (Coursera) 12:19
Absolutely. gives me goosebumps, to think about what all I may have been through, and am I doing that now to my team, and just having that point of reflection. I think this is also so true for parenting, or Parenthood, we always assume the way our parents treated us, we don’t want to do that to that key to our kids. But the thing I have learned in terms of mistakes, even I made early on. 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. It is at Netflix that I learned this notion of is your team, a family or is your team, a sports team that helps define the culture in which you show up as a leader. So that’s one in terms of, you know, those managers or bosses who over-index in the team being very protective about them or caring to a degree where you cannot really have a tough conversation with them. I think that a lot of this also had to just do with my cultural upbringing. I just, you know, loyalty and care and concern with every employee of your team and the way things happen in India, at least then, the other thing and in retrospect is I always assumed I know who I am and I know how I want to show up. My leadership is coming from a place of integrity and the reality of who I am matters most. I was very wrong. When you’re in a leadership role, how you speak, how you work, how you keep your calendar busy or full, available. Not really spoke to the perception in which I showed up to my team and to my peers and my stakeholders. And I didn’t realize that. And when I learned about that to add to actually my director of HR, you know, in a one on one meeting, he was amazing to me, it was an eye opening moment that oh, my God, I walked so fast. This is what she called out to me, Jake, now, you’re so hurried, when you’re walking from one meeting room to the other meeting room, that the team has the perception that you have no time for them, even though I know you’re the kind of person who will drop everything, to meet with anybody who needs to talk to you, because I know that about you. But the reality of who you are, and the perception of who you are, is magnified when you’re in a leadership role.
Aydin Mirzaee (Fellow.app) 15:52
Oh, that’s such an interesting story, which is, you know, I get it, which is, you automatically assume Well, people know me, they know that they can come talk to me about anything but these other things, people create these other perceptions about it. That’s super interesting. And you kind of mentioned your calendar as well, like how busy your calendar is, instead, you proactively, I suppose to make time,
Chetana Deorah (Coursera) 16:18
I wish I could say that I have taken that lesson, that learning and done something about it. So much of this has to do with the corporate culture we’re working in. I don’t want to make this a blame game. But honestly, Aydin, the definition of being a leader and manager in Silicon Valley, tech companies seems to be tied to how packed Chetena’s calendar is. And I’m working actively, even now, in this notion of maker mode and manager mode, one of my most favorite articles from 1999. by Paul, I think his last name is Graham.
Aydin Mirzaee (Fellow.app) 16:57
Yeah, Paul Graham.
Chetana Deorah (Coursera) 16:59
He talks about maker mode manager mode. I have not succeeded in that my calendar still looks scary. But I’m proud to say that my designers and the individual contributors and my team, we are striving in partnership with me to make sure they have quality maker mode time to make stuff and are always in meetings, also. Because meetings could be meetings while you’re making stuff. But somehow all the meetings we are in are about talking sometimes on top of each other, sometimes without an 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 meetings. And then I’m not measured by the busyness of my calendar.
Aydin Mirzaee (Fellow.app) 17:56
[AD BREAK BEGINS] Hey, there before moving to the next part of the interview, quick introduction to tell you about one of the internet’s best kept secrets, the manager TLDR newsletter. So every two weeks, we read the best content out there, the greatest articles, the advice, the case studies, whatever the latest and greatest is, we summarize it, and we send it to your inbox, we know you don’t have the time to read everything. But because we’re doing the work, we’ll summarize it and send it to your inbox once every two weeks. And the best news is completely free. So go on over to fellow dot app slash newsletter, and sign up today. And with that said, let’s go back to the interview. [AD BREAK ENDS]. One of the questions that I did want to talk to you about was the power of influence, because one of the things that we tend to talk about is, like you said, the way that you measure your success as a leader starts to change, right? When you’re a designer, it starts with you’re building things, and you can see the things that you’re building or the problems that you’re solving. And now you go into for maker mode to manager mode. And, and maybe now it’s a little bit more about influence. So I guess one of the questions around this is, you know, what are your thoughts on the influence that say a manager should have and like, as a manager, how do you know that you’re successful? Or like, how can we define the success of managers in general?
Chetana Deorah (Coursera) 23:21
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, ever imagined when I was in design school myself. I often think about it this way. You are aware of this, my roots, you know, my early education was in biology, science student moved into what was my side hustle passion with 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. So now, when I’m in a design, management or leadership role, the one thing I realized about influences. You could be an awesome designer with your craftsmanship. You could be an awesome engineer with your knowledge about the code and the domain and the business. But both of those are short lived. If you cannot pitch or sell or communicate the work that you’re doing, and that is where influence comes in. Influence is where you’re able to move your agenda and have people believe in it. Help people see you for who you are and be heard and be understood. And in my role as a design leader, the way I have been working with my teams, is in order to influence, you need to have a point of view, you need to be able to show evidence for what you believe in, and not just an opinion. So I do think influence is different. When you have differences, when you have an opinion, which may be rooted in culture, maybe rooted in religion, there are biases that also come into that kind of influence. I’m really talking about influence that is rooted in data that is backed by qualitative insights that has quantitative measurements to it. And then you’re able to go into an executive meeting or a, you know, pitch that you’re making for a startup and share your point of view. So that’s how I think about the value of influence. And why today it has become so ubiquitous, because you don’t really need to go to design school to be a rockstar designer, any of the high performing companies in the valley today, it starts with your ability to position yourself, promote yourself and create the influence around what you bring to that particular candidate.
Aydin Mirzaee (Fellow.app) 26:18
Yeah, so that’s interesting. It sounds like you know, there’s, obviously like the design aspects, but you also have to be a great storyteller. And in order to be a storyteller, you have to start with having a point of view. Is that something that you you developed over the course of time? or How did you learn how to get better at that,
Chetana Deorah (Coursera) 26:38
I found the design thinking and the design process, whether visible or invisible, to be super helpful, and most of my career trajectory and pathways. The thing about developing a design point of view, I think, starts with first knowing what my core values are, as a person, 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 just have that courage and clarity. Well, this is what matters to me. And it’s too bad, if I’m in a leadership cohort, or at a company where this doesn’t matter where it doesn’t matter to them. So to be okay with what matters to me, what the first thing. The second is what I just touched upon researching, being curious, understanding, what were what I believe in stands visa V, someone else’s belief. Am I feeling weakened by that? Or am I feeling empowered by that, even though I may be the only one in the room? Who believes in that? So that’s a second place just having an assessment of where I stand visibly someone else? And then the third is communication. Am I good at writing? Am I good at speaking? Or am I good at leading and facilitating, which is my medium for communicating that point of view or my values in order to exercise my influence? So these are the three sorts of elements that come to mind in terms of areas where I have worked on, I haven’t published this page on my website, but I do have my core values written up, I do refer to them. Oftentimes, when I have to make a decision. I’m very data informed and curious, which is probably also why there was a time in my life when the only thing I wanted to do was to be a doctor. And in terms of the communication piece, eight and honestly, it’s an area and continuing to work on, in terms of trying to be succinct, trying to be Chris, in my writing, and then also in my conversations.
Aydin Mirzaee (Fellow.app) 28:52
Sure, that’s really interesting. I’ve never heard someone say that, you know, knowing your core values is an important part of being a great storyteller. Why do you think that’s important? You know, companies have values and people notionally, maybe they know that they have some values. But why are the values important in making you a great storyteller?
Chetana Deorah (Coursera) 29:13
I love that question. And I’m so impressed by your power of listening and connecting the dots with me today. So thank you for that. So storytelling is about engaging in grasping someone’s attention in a way that is new for them, when they’re done that stories are there. But I mean, if you go down the whole, you know, structure of a well written movie script or an engaging story. I think the thing that grasps somebody with a strong narrative is who the character is, what happened to the character, the climax, the anticlimax. So if I peel the layers back, if I don’t have a point of view, that is unique. What’s gonna be my story? And if I don’t have a point of view that is rooted in who I am, which is where my values come in, I’m just saying what someone else wants to hear from me. I’m not saying what my story is, what my truth is. And as I’m sharing this with you, I’m probably getting goosebumps myself. Because the first nine or 10 years of my life in the US, I would struggle with even coming to terms with who I am and how different I am from everyone else around me. Even just the fact that I am that woman of color that they’re talking about in an Executive Room, because DNI has become an OKR. Sorry, for the acronyms, diversity and inclusion has become a key objective and key result for the company. So it took me a while to realize I don’t have any story to tell, because I’m not rooting in the core of who I am. Because I was afraid, I was afraid that what I’m going to say is going to be so different from this other person who thinks differently than me, who even speaks English differently than me, because I grew up with the Queen’s English in India, we speak American English here.
Aydin Mirzaee (Fellow.app) 31:16
Yeah, I was gonna say thank you for sharing that. And that makes a lot of sense, right? Like to understand that, you know, for a story to be engaging, it also has to be unique. And for something to be unique, it has to be uniquely you. And that’s tied back to your values and, and your upbringing and everything else. And that’s a very, very interesting way to put it. And, and thank you for sharing that. I thought that was awesome. So one of the things that we also want to talk about, you know, as a design leader, you know, one of the things that you’re constantly doing is, you know, you’re inventing the future. And so an innovation is a thing that a lot of people talk about, but it’s a thing that you were doing on a daily basis. So what are yours? What are some of your thoughts on, you know, managers who are maybe looking to, like, make their teams or their organization be more innovative and like to foster more creativity and ideas? What are some things that you think that they could do, or things that you’ve learned that that actually work that you would recommend?
Chetana Deorah (Coursera) 32:20
Sure, a word that has always been around the block with product development, product design, and probably even overrated or underestimated to have an innovation culture or a cultural innovation? So the way I think about it normally, and you may have noticed this with me with most of your questions, I look at the meaning of the word and really get to the core of what does it mean to be innovative. I’m an innovative design leader, I find it very humbling before I can even say that for myself and I, I catch myself working with design teams where we’re being innovative, but we haven’t really solved the problem in terms of its pure functionality. So I’m going to peel the layer back layers back and say to you that innovation is something that’s improving or replacing what has not been working well. So you first need to start with at least understanding what is the problem. One might say the iPhone and the introduction of the iPhone is one of the most innovative product launches out there. And it’s true, because they not only solved the basic functionality of a phone, which is to dial a number, be able to have a voice conversation Connect human beings, miles and oceans apart. But they took it to the next level, which is the innovative aspect. But innovate innovation cannot happen at the cost of making the basic task, which is the intuitive use of a phone not usable. So I always am empowered and encouraged my teams to first make sure we’ve really understood the problem we are solving. And that is again where curiosity comes in the data comes in once we have understood the functionality that is a must have. Now can we go that extra mile? Now can we add that 20%. So Google has 20% time in the week where you spend on research and development and be innovative. There are many other companies and cultures that foster this space for innovation. But I look at it to really understand the problem to be solved and then apply the tactics in order to take it to the next level. Just don’t do it or the compromise of the basic functionality.
Aydin Mirzaee (Fellow.app) 34:49
Yeah, I think that’s a really interesting way to look at it, which is like no matter what the problem is, a innovation is you know, replacing something with a new way of working but Even in order to do that, you just have to understand it first and understand what the table stakes are and like the things that you have to solve. So had you also applied this to the way that your teams operate. So beyond the actual problems, but say, you know, one of the things I know you have some opinions on is just cross functional teams onboarding cross functional teams, like, have you used this framework to get teams to work better together?
Chetana Deorah (Coursera) 35:28
This is a very timely question, Aydin, because very recently and 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 to your point about our conversation about innovation, 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 set up called improv effect. And we together along with cross functional members, and my team have designed an onboarding experience that is rooted in the customer experience of Coursera. So to the point of innovation, we first have solved for the basic requirements of onboarding, which is, you know, the hardware, the software, the meetings, you should be part of the slack communities, you should be part of like 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, that was sort of the problem statement we came up with, we designed the entire internal onboarding experience mapped across the Coursera customer journey experience. So it’s right on pilot, we are testing it. And it allows for our new employees to go through the experience, our customers go through and feel that pain, what could be more of a sort of innovative doubling down in how we solve this problem. And to your point about internal onboarding, this is how I think about it. We spend so much of our time and energy in understanding our product customers that we forget, we are working together 40 hours of the week, we spend more time with each other than we do with our families. Most of the time, do we know each other in terms of our internal dependencies and what each function does. So whenever I join a team, as a design leader, I do spend some time initially to do internal onboarding workshops, the conversations around, let’s go meet with a sales team and share with them what product design does, let’s have the product designer team sit on a bunch of customer calls, so that we can see what pain our customer support team goes through. So is there internal sharing of knowledge and building a respect for 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. Because we take it for granted when we’re hiring people. Everybody knows what the other function is doing is very difficult, especially in a digital tech, where whatever you learn is outdated, like the next day. So I find it really helpful and internally fulfilling to create the empathy within the teams internally.
Aydin Mirzaee (Fellow.app) 36:57
Yeah, I think that that’s very well put, right, like, especially as designers, there’s this concept of you’re building empathy with your customers. And I really like that you’re, you’re basically saying as different departments, it makes sense to build empathy with each other. Because at the end of the day, yes, you’re solving things for your customers, but you’re also solving problems for the other teams that you interact with. And so it’s almost like how could you not build empathy with them if you truly want to, you know, deliver impact to everyone around you wonderfully summarize chayton This has been super, super valuable, so many great insights. And I think we dug deep on a bunch of those and heads, even some realizations on on this in this conversation, so, but one of the questions that we like to end with and something that we ask all of our guests is, for the managers and leaders out there constantly looking to get better at their craft of leading teams. I know you had mentioned that you have a bunch of resources, and you know, that we’re going to include in the show notes, but any parting words of advice of word of words of wisdom that you would want to leave for everyone out there
Chetana Deorah (Coursera) 40:38
Sure. Nuggets from these years of experience, mistakes. 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 am I to manage anyone, I’m there to lead you. I’m there 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 that I bring to my work.
Aydin Mirzaee (Fellow.app) 41:21
That’s great advice and, and a great place to end it. Chetna, thank you so much for doing this.
Chetana Deorah (Coursera) 41:26
Thank you so much Aydin, and Supermanagers for this conversation and for bringing ways in which we give back to the community.