Becoming a More Inclusive Leader by Embracing and Celebrating Neurodiversity
Product management is one of the best jobs in the world but it comes with great responsibility. If we are building products, we must ensure that we are putting inclusive products out in the world. And for leaders, inclusive leadership is paramount to a successful team and positive culture.
In this personal, poignant, and impactful episode, Stephanie Leue, Chief Product Officer of Doodle shares how she has become a better, more inclusive leader by learning about, embracing, and celebrating neurodiversity at home and at work.
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Intro (the incomparable Sandra Segrest) 00:03
Welcome to Product Voices, a podcast where we share valuable insights and useful resources to help us all be great in product management. Visit the show's website to access the resources discussed on the show, find more information on our fabulous guests or to submit your product management question to be answered in our special q&a episodes. That's all at productvoices.com. And be sure to subscribe to the podcast on your favorite platform. Now, here's our host, JJ Rorie, CEO of Great Product Management.
Hello, and welcome to Product Voices. Product Management is the best job in the world. Yes, I am biased. But I really do believe that in this role, we can have such an impact on our organizations. And frankly, it can be a lot of fun. But with this comes great responsibility. If we're going to build products, we must ensure that we're putting inclusive products out into the world. And for leaders, inclusive leadership is really paramount to successful teams and a positive culture. So today, we're gonna be talking about inclusive leadership, what that means what that looks like, and how we can become inclusive leaders.
My guest is Stephanie Leue. Stephanie is Chief Product Officer at Doodle. In the past, she has been in charge of product operations, product management and design at places such as Hypoport and Contentful. She's also previously Senior Product Manager at PayPal. She's also a product coach and advisor. And frankly, just an all around guru. If you follow Stephanie on social media, you know her great insights. Besides her awesomeness in product, she's also a mom of four children between the ages of seven and 20. And currently getting ready to move from Berlin to Zurich. Wow, Stephanie, thank you so much for joining me.
Oh, thanks for having me today. I'm really excited to join your podcast.
And you know, you've got a lot going on right now. So I'm glad that you've found the time for the conversation. So first, let me just kind of start with what inclusive leadership means to you and why you think it's so important.
Absolutely. And maybe I start with a little personal story. First, I'm probably quite new to the topic of inclusive leadership itself. But I'm not new to the topic of including people into our everyday life. And it happened when I became a mom, I figured out that two of my children actually fall into the autism spectrum. And I didn't know and it was really challenging to get a diagnosis. But I always felt that my children are like, very different from other people. So around, I think, 15 years, I started to read books about neurodiversity, gifted children, ADHD, everything that somehow is related. And that explains how some people's brains are wired, actually, and how they function just to understand like, what's going on with my children? And why are they so different from other people, actually. And just recently, I got a final diagnosis for my youngest son. And we now have the proof that he has Asperger's autism. And during this whole process of getting a diagnosis, you also start to understand certain patterns in your own behavior that probably also indicate that you might be neurodiverse or more neurodiverse than you ever thought in your life before. And so the whole process of understanding how autism works, how people with neuro diverse brains function, helped me to a better understand myself, but to also change the way I look at other people and how I lead teams and help others to grow. And that's the background on why inclusive leadership is so important to me. And what exactly does it mean to me because that was your initial question to me. Inclusive leadership means that we basically assume people we work with, always have good intentions. And if we start to view at people around us through the lens of optimism and positivity, we can help them to grow actually, and inclusive leadership for me starts with this mindset. And then we can take it from there in order to understand like, if they have good intentions, why do they do behave in The way they behave, actually. And that's for me the key point in changing how we lead diverse teams,
Thank you for sharing that. So you have a, you have a very personal story behind this. And you've found the the strength in the research and, you know, all of the things that you needed to not only change your home life, but but also obviously, you know, drive your, your work life as well. So, why do you? Maybe not why but how do you think some leaders are missing the boat, if you will, on providing an inclusive environment? Is it because they don't have that personal experience yet? Or do you think there are some some other hurdles to really providing an inclusive environment?
Yeah, I would assume that many people, including me, honestly, we live in a bubble, right? Like we're influenced by the people around us by the books we read, by the experiences we make. And based on all of the environment we're in, usually, we make certain decisions, or we evaluate people around us based on what we know, because we can't evaluate others on things we don't know, actually. And I can only speak from my own experience that before I started this whole process of trying to better understand my own children. And then as a next step, trying to reflect my own behavior and my own life and my own experiences, I would not have been able to have this kind of inclusive mindset that I developed over the past couple of years. So I would say, it starts with self reflection. And that is something that I observe in younger people who start quite early to reflect on their own behavior and the way they work and live with other people. And some people start like, really, really late in their life. And some people never start to reflect right. But self reflection, from my perspective, is the first entry point into becoming a an inclusive leader, who also understands why people around them are the way they are.
Yeah, self reflection is so important. To your point, what other advice would you possibly give to leaders? You know, have you seen some ways that organizations and leaders in your in your own career or otherwise have been able to really build an inclusive environment? What advice would you give to leaders who know they have some some progress to make here but aren't quite sure how to get started?
When I was very early in my career, I often struggled myself to join lunch breaks was my colleagues. And that is I as I know, Now meanwhile, due to my own neurodiversity, I'm personally completely overwhelmed. As soon as I join larger groups, or if I'm going into restaurants, those are situations that are really challenging for me, like partially, I wasn't even able to sleep the night before such events, right. And I always felt like I'm wrong, because for everyone else, it seemed to be so easy. But for me, it was not. What I would have needed back then, is most likely a manager who does not give me the feeling that I'm wrong, or that I do not belong to the team just because I'm not able to do certain things. Joining lunch breaks is only one example. There were other examples. Also, in my day to day business life, like for example, in meetings, I had really hard times to speak up. It was easier for me to share my opinions in one on one Smith with my manager. And if I would have a manager who understands that just because people try to avoid certain situations, doesn't mean that they are not valuable members to a team. And I think my number one advice for managers who are probably new to the topic is again, start with a mindset of everyone has good intentions, and when they don't behave the way that you think they should behave. Try to understand the reasoning and don't try to project your own opinion on them. But rather try to understand like, what is driving them and probably even ask them, right? There is a reason for why they are the way they are. And the more room we give those people, and the more we help them to reflect on certain situations, the better we can help them to grow.
I love that example that that you gave, and it's a perfect way to, you know, think about how not everyone is the same. And as a leader, we can't force people to be something that they're not and, you know, to do things that they're not comfortable with doing. And it's to, you know, as you said, it's not that they can't be incredibly valuable, it's just not in, in the same way that everybody else does things. So I love that I think that's really important. And I really, really embrace the, the idea of starting from a point of everybody is coming with good intentions, and just because they're doing something different than than we would, you know, we being the leader, or even others on the team, it doesn't mean that there's anything wrong with that at all. So I think that's, I think that's really powerful. I want to flip it for for a minute, and I want you to, to, to talk to me a little bit about how you would advise people, right employees or individuals, and I mean, maybe even, you know, thinking about your own children when when they get into the workforce, like how will you advise someone who may be neurodivergent? Or maybe someone else? And in some other sort of minor minority group or, or what have you, you know, how can they best interact in an organization be themselves and really flourish? But also kind of help others understand how the environment could be better? Right? I wouldn't hesitate to I don't think it's their responsibility to make the environment better. But But is there something that that individual folks who, who, again, are neurodivergent, or minority groups, or something of that nature can can help make others understand how the environment could be better?
This is really an interesting question. And I'm probably not the right person to give any advice to, like minority groups, in a sense, right, like diverse neurodivergent people? Probably not even a minority group. Meanwhile, it's true. My observation, right, it's thinking, I don't know what your observation is. But to me, it feels like the more I learned about neurodiversity, the more I think that everyone somehow is neurodiverse. In a sense,
I agree with that, actually. And I think that's a really good point. And the way I couch that was probably not not accurate, or probably not the best way, but because I think you're right, I think that it whatever. I don't know, this statistics, but I do think that, you know, neuro diversity or neuro divergent people have been around us forever. And we're just now at the beginning of kind of understanding that, that that's the case. And to your point, I think there's a lot more than we know, including ourselves, in many cases. So. So let's, let's just focus kind of on that because the truth is, majority or minority, the world, the systems that are in place, are still for the most part, at least in my experience, catered to and tailored for, quote, unquote, you know, non neurodivergent people, right, whatever that looks like at one point. So, you know, are there some ways that neurodivergent folks can potentially make themselves more comfortable make themselves better, you know, in certain environments?
Yeah, absolutely. And I think that, again, is a journey. And I can only speak from my personal experience from the last couple of years. I know that I myself always felt like I'm different from other people. And I didn't know why. Because I felt like I behave like everyone else. And I am no way in no way different than the people around me. And only after reading all of these books, and observing how two of my four children behave different from the other ones, I finally figured out certain patterns. And so my own learning journey just began a couple of years ago. And since then, I'm trying to better understand the whole space. And I think this point in time where you first figure out that you are not functioning in the way that other people are functioning and that you probably do not fit into a box like everyone else. That is the first starting point and honestly It left me in kind of a chaos, because suddenly I was questioning on who am I? And like, what does it mean now that I'm different? Like, how do I treat this. And what I did back then, was to just trying to understand what this whole neurodiversity thing is all about, and also observing my children trying to understand how they feel how they are different. And I think one of my key insights from the past years is that most likely, the biggest shift that we can foster ourselves is to normalize being neurodivergent. Because like, you're not sick, just because your brain is wired in a different way. You are perfectly right, right? If I see how smart my children are, and how they view the world, and how they question things, and how they contribute to discussions, and how they behave and how they are, this is massively valuable. And I love every single day with them because they broaden my horizon. So being neurodiverse, from my perspective, does not mean that we are wrong, nor that we are different or sick, like we're just an addition to an already wonderful word, right. So instead of feeling different, or sick or outside a box, we should rather normalize neurodiversity. And we normalize it by talking about it. And by telling other people how we feel. And that is something that I try to do more and more in my day to day life, like this podcast today, for example, is my first official way of talking about neurodiversity. But I also do this in my workspace. So I tell people around me that probably sometimes I'm not going to join parties, not because I don't like the people in my company, but because I really struggle with the noise and the smell, and the many people and the interactions, because I might be completely overwhelmed by all of this. And by sharing how I feel, and why I probably do not show up, I do not have to mask myself, which again, would feel strange to others, because they will figure out that I must, but also for others, suddenly, they start to open up to me, which is great. And in this way, I suddenly also learn about people around me that probably have ADHD, or are gifted or fall into the autism spectrum as well. And all three of them, by the way, have many similarities. So that's why I also think that there is a majority of people around us who are more neurodivergent than we think, actually. And these two things probably help like, first really figuring out that we are different and accepting that it is okay to be different. And number two, as soon as we are good with who we are and how we are, we can just start normalizing it and talking about it more.
I love this advice and this perspective so much, I think it will help so many people. So many teams, I just I think it's amazing. And I'm so glad that you're talking about it. And I, I do hope that we get to a point where we don't consider you know, anything, not normal or not good. It really is just, you know, everybody is their own person. And like you said, their brains are wired the way they are, and can bring so much incredible value. So I love that perspective. So I mentioned in the beginning, you know how it's, it's really important for us, as you know, leaders and then anyone in product to first set up the environment for for inclusion in kind of safe spaces. But at the end of the day, we're people who build products, right and put products out in market. And so let's turn a little bit and talk talk a bit more about building products that are more inclusive. And at a minimum, you know, not not exclusive. So how does your own experience this personal experience that you've been sharing with us? How does that experience with neuro diversity influence how you build products?
Yeah, that's an interesting question as well. And something that I just thought about today, and kind of came to an interesting conclusion. And maybe again, some background. I'm personally a big believer in solving users challenges and problems and not delivering features and I think all of us are right like we all try to us. gave the feature factory. And we all try to rather deliver great experiences instead of features that someone thinks need to get built. And so we are currently at Doodle in the process of shifting from building features based on data and insights, or whatever kind of process towards really being driven by insights, research, and by solving users problems, actually. So we're doing massive research meanwhile, and we integrated continuous discovery into our day to day life. And now the teams are working with all of the tools that we read in great blog articles. And here in podcasts like we're working with opportunity trees. Meanwhile, we are very outcome driven instead of output driven. And when you do this, and when you do work in a product team, that is in a discovery phase, and that is really serious about talking to customers. Usually, we all have this bias when doing research, and when building products, right. And I think when you start to learn more about neurodiversity, or minorities, or people with specific challenges, this broadens your horizon, and it helps you to do research in a different manner. So for example, you can suddenly start understanding certain users behavior from a different angle. And you can try to ask yourself, why does this user behave that way? Is he probably or she probably using the product in a different way, because they have accessibility challenges, or, because they are you are diverse. An example from my, from my day to day, we're building a scheduling tool. And if you're scheduling meetings with others, this is really, really challenging for neurodiverse people, because you have to open up, you have to accept uncertainty, you have to mentally prepare for an upcoming meeting. And if my team understands that neurodiverse people have a different mindset, when it comes to scheduling meetings, they will also better understand why certain users behave the way they do. And I'm sure that we can find similar examples in many, many other products. But looking into an experience from this angle as well, is really mind blowing, because it adds a different layer of complexity to your product. And it helps you to build products for an even broader group of users.
That's such a really practical and great advice. I mean, it really embeds building inclusive products in our ongoing mechanisms, which I think is maybe important in the beginning, I tend to hear a lot of, of product teams kind of think of these types of things, how do you build ethical products? How do you build, you know, inclusive products, they think of that is very subjective, and very difficult to get their arms around. But if you just embed it in your ongoing mechanisms, like finding, you know, using continuous customer discovery, and, you know, these these mechanisms that we already use, the systems that we already use, and embedding our desire to find some some issues with the user experience or what have you. I think that's a really great way to, you know, not overwhelm ourselves with trying to do something different. It's not even doing something different. It's just using the tools that we have, for more impact. I think that's really awesome advice.
I absolutely agree with you. And I think it adds another layer to accessibility, we're talking a lot about accessibility. And this is really important. And I think way too many products too far away from really being accessible for all of their users. And there's a lot of work to do. But I think, understanding people whose brains are wired in a different way, and incorporating this into your research and into the way you build products, also helps us to meet user needs that you've probably never thought of before. And this can just help you to build even better products.
Absolutely. Absolutely. So, so last question for you, Stephanie is what resources have you found most valuable now? I'd love to hear some more about the resources that you've been been using as you've been learning about neuro diversity and other things, because I think that will probably help help some folks out there, myself included. So any resources that you would like to share about that or any just general product management resources that you have found valuable over your career?
To be honest, I haven't done too many product management trainings. Nor did I read too many books outside of the classics like Marty Kagan, and theories or Taurus. But I'm a big fan of broadening my own horizon by reading books from different backgrounds. So I'm very interested in books around behavioral design, for example, which I think is extremely helpful to also better understand different user needs and add another view in how you build products. So behavioral design, definitely something that I would highly recommend. I did a coaching certification, which I mainly did to improve my own leadership skills. But meanwhile, I also figured out that that helps me to ask users better questions in interviews, and to become a better listener, which from my perspective, is a highly underrated skill as a product manager, to not only talk and convince people and be an amazing storyteller, but to from time to time, maybe more often than not lean back and just listen. So the coaching certification was definitely great for this. And then all the books around gifted children, ADHD, Asperger's, autism, I have plenty of them. I'm unfortunately horrible in remembering titles and authors. But I'm happy to provide a list of things that I've read in the past couple of months and years, because I'm reading a lot. And I can only recommend to read as many books from other disciplines as possible, just to make sure that you leave your bubble as often as possible.
Yeah, again, such wonderful insights. I too, agree that there are certainly some some great product books out there. But I'm a big believer and finding inspiration from from other fields and other folks as well. So I think that's wonderful. And if you do come up with that list, feel free to send it to me, and we'll include it in the show notes and on the product voices website. Stephanie Leue, this has been such an amazing conversation. Thank you so much for sharing your personal experience, your leadership experience, and helping us all understand how we can be a little bit better at being inclusive leaders. Thank you for joining me.
Thanks for having me, JJ. That was really fun today.
And thank you all for listening to Product Voices. Hope to see you on the next episode.
Outro (the incomparable Sandra Segrest) 28:06
Thank you for listening to Product Voices hosted by JJ Rorie. To find more information on our guests resources discussed during the episode or to submit a question for our q&a episodes, visit the show's website productvoices.com And be sure to subscribe to the podcast on your favorite platform.