I believe in starting a conversation with fellow professionals and learning from their experiences. Making their perspectives available to the whole community is one step forward in spreading the message about topics relevant to UX’ers, Designers, and curious people. That’s why I have started a project of #UXFika – lightweight conversations with inspiring people over a cup of coffee (or two!).

This week’s guest is Katja! Katja is a co-founder of the Experience Design Studio Human Deluxe and a founder of Female Leadership Program, which helps women accelerate their careers with techniques from Entrepreneurship, Psychology, Design. After attending the programme myself and seeing how Katja loves to see humans grow, discover their personal leadership style, and encourage to own your way of leading, I wanted to share her perspectives with you! Let’s talk more about the importance of finding your own personal leadership style, owning it, and growing your natural strengths.

How did you get interested in personal leadership?

I think I never called it personal leadership in my early career, to be honest, but while working in various corporations, startup roles, and building my own business – I started exploring what leadership means to me personally.

It is about finding your very own way of inspiring others and challenging yourself to achieve something that is bigger than yourself. I believe there are many people out there that have ideas and visions and quite often I see that they are falling into rigid structures at work or in their private lives that prevent them from realizing their ambitions. I always find it interesting to break through that and explore how people can use their unique qualities and strengths rather than falling into the trap of fulfilling external leadership ideas.

In addition to that, I never liked categorizing leadership by styles or adjectives. True leadership is about finding your own way and feeling comfortable with that.

Was there a trigger, a moment when you realized you know more about leadership?

A few! Firstly by starting my own business and teaming up with two designers to build a Design Studio from scratch. Entrepreneurship is life school. Because everything you build and do has an immediate effect on the lives of others. And if it doesn’t, you need to pivot – fast.

I learned a lot by running the studio because part of my work was facilitating lots of workshops with my clients, visualizing ideas, guiding people through a process, and taking responsibility for a critical outcome. That means building trust, communicating ideas, leading it. It was a moment when I realized that I would have loved to have these skills earlier in my career – and maybe other people would benefit from learning that as well.

Katja and students in Female Personal Leadership Programme. Can you spot me?

What was your first recollection of experiencing great leadership?

That’s a very good question and I know that you are good at getting inspiration from other people and role models and documenting that in your blogs. I really admire that.

For me personally, it’s a little less tangible, but there are many amazing people that are mentors, coaches, role models. I think it is great to learn from them and get inspired, but not follow anyone blindly.

For many years, I tried to mirror the behaviors of other leaders, figure out what is working for them and replicate it. Sometimes it works. However by trying that, I encountered imposter syndrome and always felt that it was not me 100%. And it prevented me from taking full pride in my achievements.

That led to the realization that I have to find some of these answers myself – so I get a lot of inspiration outside because I’m a naturally curious and sociable person, but I always urge myself to look for answers within myself and experiment in my daily life. This way, I managed to develop a leadership style that I can really own, not replicate.

What had the most significant influence on shaping you as a leader?

Even if my background is from communications, design methodologies and design thinking really helped me to embrace my own creativity, find and adopt tools to discover myself, and let others grow too. I believe in the power of visualization and changing perspectives – for everyone.

Secondly, breaking the rules and starting my own business has shaped me as a leader. In my family, no one has their own business, everyone is very much focused on safety. But I was for a long time flirting with the idea of starting my own business.

Katja and Human Deluxe Team
When I was studying I had a startup, then I joined corporate jobs because I thought it was the right thing to do and the way to go. It was awesome, but it also taught me that I had to loosen up, break the rules, build my own journey. So I left the corporate world and started my own business.

Lastly, my personal interest in applied psychology and interpersonal relationships helped a lot, because I am naturally curious about human beings. Since I was small I always needed people around me, I always wanted to get to know others and hear their stories. Even if I don’t consider myself an extroverted extrovert, I gain lots of energy by connecting with people – and connecting people.

What has been the most difficult decision you’ve had to make as a leader?

I have always struggled with decision-making, so for me, every decision is difficult. For a long time, I tried to find consensus with everyone – running from person A to person B and managing stakeholders in the best way I could to align everyone’s expectations.

However, it can stress you out and it is not always the most efficient way to find a solution. I really wanted to find more decision-making strength in myself and that has been a skill I tried to hone for many years.

From personal experience, walking the Camino Santiago, 360km from Portugal to Spain, helped me a great deal. At the beginning of the journey, I was stressing myself out about all the decisions I had to make because there were different paths that I could take – and I feared that my entire experience would change based on those decisions (which village to go to, where to stay, how long, etc.). Over time I realized that I wanted to enjoy the trip and take this pressure from me by always wanting to know what is the right thing to do. I started following my intuition and live in the moment. It was a very extreme practice for me to only listen to my mind and body. It was very hard at the beginning of the trip, but I had a great learning experience.

There is a saying: everyone gets what he or she needs during Camino de Santiago – because you are so isolated and focused on yourself. I learned to own decision making and follow no one but my own intuition. I translated that into my professional life too and I have a stronger point of view now!

What do you see as the primary role of a leader?

I think the role of the leader is not to follow, but to create his or her own direction, and engage others to contribute. A leader does not do that for himself or herself, but for something bigger and more important.

Many people confuse leadership with management, but it is not the same thing. There are many managers that are not leaders and leaders that do not manage people or processes directly.

Nowadays the leadership image is very much defined by our past and present experience. If you ask people about great leadership – many will mention diversity, innovation, but all of us are still biased. Research shows that our mental image is still defined by males and western leaders. Why is that? There are too few diverse leaders, there are stereotypes, and unconscious bias when it comes to leadership ideals.

We should challenge that and embrace new ways of leading in unique, personal ways. Leadership is about using your own strengths – regardless of your position, gender, ethnicity, or which school you went to.

What do you see as the single biggest stumbling block for leaders?

Leadership norms that we have in our heads – what type of skills we have to learn and how we have to be in order to succeed at work. This outdated leadership benchmark is also shaping most leadership development offerings by the way. How to become more assertive, more this, more that. It can make people feel small if their natural leadership skills are different – and undermine their impact.

Oftentimes, companies only invest in leadership when you are already managing people, so either way, it is best not to wait for that, but instead build support structures around yourself.

Many women are desperately looking for female mentors that can help them navigate a male work environment for example. Mentorship is great, but we can’t order it. It does not always come naturally and often it does not survive.

We need more diversified offerings through training and upskilling, self-reflection, and community support to invest in one’s personal and professional growth.

If you could give our readers one piece of advice on leadership, what would that be?

We always try to think about what is the next skill we want to learn to improve ourselves. I would like to challenge that thinking and ask people to think of anything they already hold within themselves – without fully using it to their advantage.

Look at your unique qualities and strengths, and also at what is keeping you from being your best selves and work on those answers.

Also – don’t jump into a solution immediately, but experiment on the way. Try new things and you will realize that every time you do something differently, your environment will also change. It’s empowering and exciting!

Are you curious to grow as a leader and would like to join the next programme that Katja starts on March 17? There are still some places left! You can find more details here!

Extra bits

Recommended book:

Predictably Irrational by Dan Ariely

Best way to disconnect for you:

I am still learning to do it more consciously. I started practicing no-screen Saturdays and it is pretty intense and hard to do, but it is very helpful.

If you could have a conversation with one person in the world, who would it be?

I would love to talk to Kamala Harris and would definitely accept a date with her! But probably the line is long at the moment.

About the UX Fika Series

In UX Fika series of blog posts, I talk with people that inspire me and whom I look up to as my role-models. The motivation behind doing this is, you might see some patterns and hopefully you’d be able to learn from the amazing people that I have had a chance of learning from.

For my international friends, FIKA is a Swedish concept, a state of mind, an attitude and an important part of Swedish culture. It means making time for friends and colleagues to share a cup of coffee (or tea). With no rush, full immersion and being present in the moment. That’s why I thought “UXFika” is a perfect name for meaningful conversation with UX leaders I look up to.

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Want to take part in UX Fika and share your story?

I always proactively get in touch with industry leaders and interesting people! If you would like to have a Fika with me, get in touch. Drop me a message here.

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