The Future of Work
Updated: Apr 30
Episode 013: Susan Liao:
"...whether we're product folks or builders or engineers or designers, whatever our role, when we're creating something for other people that the other people, so to speak, have a voice in what we're creating. And so tactically what that might look like if you're doing customer discovery or you're doing a design session that you're structuring an invitation to those that will be or may be impacted by the product that you're creating to be part of the idea or at least to have their voices heard."
JJ: Hello and welcome to Product Voices. What is the future of work? I have a very special guest with me today to explore these possibilities.
Susan Liao is a champion of inclusive leadership and product on a mission to make the future of work, the future of leadership, and the future of foundership accessible to all by advancing full representation of women, women of color, and LGBTQ+ people of color as startup leaders. She's an experienced, equity centered coach, facilitator, and founder of Startups for all, a trusted community of purpose driven founders, knowledge workers, and social entrepreneurs from unrepresented population. Susan holds a BSE in computer science from Princeton University and resides in Portland, Oregon.
Susan, thank you so much for joining me.
SUSAN: Thank you, JJ, for having me. I really appreciate having you hold space for this conversation today.
JJ: Yeah, it's really going to be a great conversation, and I'm looking forward to it. So what does the future of work look like to you?
SUSAN: That is an awesome question. When I think about the future of work, I think about vision and thinking about there are two actual questions that come to mind, which is what might be if nothing changes versus what might be if there is change. And I actually posed this question to my community of founders. And the future of work, to me is a time, a world where we see everyone rising together and thriving together is what I like to say. So where there's a world where we all have opportunity. For economic growth, for advancement, where our work and life coexist in harmony.
JJ: Wow. That is quite the goal. And one that should absolutely happen. How do we get there?
SUSAN: Yeah. I don't know. To be honest, I like to say small action for big change, just in general, kind of that's my perspective on life have big vision. But in terms of the destination, I know the destination may change, but it's really about kind of, what can I do today? What do I have control over today? What are the decisions I make that will help me at least move in the right direction? So for me, that starts with just mindset and belief and empowerment and just, again, kind of believing that there is an alternative future, in contrast to just being accepting a status quo.
JJ: Yeah, let's talk about that for a second. I don't want to gloss over the fact that the future needs to look differently than what it does today. I think you and I have our perspective of the world. And depending on where you're coming from and who you are and what your perspective is, you may be be closer to this than others. And I feel like you and I both are. But there are people out there listening who are perfectly fine with the way the world is today. It was made for them in many cases and in many ways or at least even myself, I certainly am privileged in certain ways, and the current state of the world benefits me in some ways. And so there's no question that there's lots of people out there who don't necessarily understand why things need to look dramatically different than the way they do today. So let's talk about that. What's your perspective? Why does the future of work need to look different than what the current norms are and the current way that we do things?
SUSAN: Yeah. Well, I think another lens that comes to mind is how could it be better? So not necessarily that we have to change what's not broken or fix what's not broken, but that how can we improve, how can we do better?
And just for context for the listeners, I mean, the history of my own origin story I identify as well. I'm a Taiwanese American, so my parents immigrated to the US from Taiwan. I was born here in the US, but I grew up in an environment where there were multiple languages spoken. Also, English was not my parents first language. So when I was young going to school and I needed a doctor's note or that sort of thing, they actually had me write the notes myself in English, and then they would just sign it. And then when I went to College, I also had to pave my own way in terms of figuring out financial aid and that sort of thing.
So my perspective around is, I think, influenced just by my own challenges growing up as a child. Immigrants, I call myself second generation. Some people call it first generation, but just having to assimilate to a different culture. And then I think those things have carried on through my own experience in College and also in work. My perspective is thinking about what are the struggles that I experienced. And I believe there are other people that maybe have experienced similar struggles Googles. And these days, I think about what is the difference that I can make in the world to help other people like me, because now I do feel like I am in a position of privilege where I have access to networks, to connections, to resources that might be helpful for people that don't have that access. So thank you for sharing that context. And I think we are all influenced by where we come from and how we grow up and who we are as people. And sometimes those influences fit nicely with the world and the way the world has been structured. And sometimes they don't. And sometimes we have parts of ourselves that fit nicely in parts of ourselves that don't so much.
JJ: So let's talk a little bit about what the future looks like and what are some of the tangible ways that the future of work and kind of the future of life, if you will, is going to look different. If we commit to that, we need to make it better for everyone, right. And we know there will be some steps taken. What does that end goal look like? Do you have some perspective on that yet.
SUSAN: Yeah. Well, one small action for me is looking at language and inclusion and kind of the mindset around what are words? How do we establish shared context to build connection? And how do we structure our invitations such that whether we're product folks or builders or engineers or designers, whatever our role, when we're creating something for other people that the other people, so to speak, have a voice in what we're creating. And so tactically what that might look like if you're doing customer discovery or you're doing a design session that you're structuring an invitation to those that will be or may be impacted by the product that you're creating to be part of the idea or at least to have their voices heard. And so even sometimes even doing co creation.
So I just held a brainstorm session around. Kind of defining the theme for an on conference that I'm holding later this year. And I could have just kind of invited a few of my close friends, tossed around a couple of ideas, but instead what I did was extend the invite it to various people and kind of the different communities that I'm part of. And it does take time to do a lot of this kind of individual macro outreach, but it is important to me that they have the opportunity to take part in the brainstorm session.
JJ: I think that's a really good example of bringing multiple perspectives into the fold, and I think that's so important. I think in product management we talk about that all the time. Like, who are we building it for? What problem are we solving? Do we have their input? But it takes on even more of an importance when the people building the product don't live in the same perspective as the people that are building the products for. And that happens so often. We've got lots of examples of products and services and campaigns and that sort of thing kind of really missing the mark because they didn't have the right people in the room.
And so I think your point is really important that whether it's teams having a diverse group of folks building the products and or having the diverse world that we're trying to build products for involved from the beginning. So I think both of those are really important. And I'm hoping, let's be honest, we still have a diversity problem in product management and in product development. Right. And so I'm hoping that organizations still embrace and continue to try to bring different perspectives and bring different people into the room when they're building products in the first place, because I think that's an important step in obtaining this future of work that we're talking about.
SUSAN: Yes, for sure, and especially for founders. I mean, there's so much with COVID, at least in the last year or so, I think there's been a huge growth in entrepreneurship and folks being a little disgruntled with their day job and figuring out where perhaps their full talent or their superpowers aren't being completely tapped or kind of utilized to their full ability. And so we have passions to drive purpose in other areas, whether that's around improving, doing good to the Earth, improving opportunities for all or around. And I'm just kind of throwing out some impact areas based on that other founders in the stars for all kinds of ecosystem are working on.
But whatever kind of the social change that they're looking to make when they're developing their MVP or say, doing outreach to do some initial customer interviewing, I like to ask, well, think about your first 100 customers. What might they look like? And are you satisfied if they all represent a certain persona or certain demographic? Is that in alignment with your values and kind of your mission for your organization? I've been in this position, too, right. When you're the founder kind of being scrappy, you're getting some initial feedback, stay on a survey or even your first prototype. You might just, again, reach out to the people that you know. But the people that you know aren't necessarily the folks that you want to reach with your product.
And I also like to use meal food analogies, much more so than sports analogies. And I like to say it's also say you are running a food truck and you have a new recipe that you want to experiment with. And taste is subjective to a certain point. And it might be easier to Cook for your family first and see what you think. But your family might not be the folks that really represent the population of the community around you. For example, my sister actually is a classically trained chef. She's a little more kind of critical around certain things. And you think she'd be a great kind of assessor of my own cooking ability. But we each have our own biases. So when I make dumplings, like a veggie version of dumplings and I substitute tofu instead of meat, it definitely goes against kind of her own, like, core values of, like, using the real stuff. But, you know, if my audience is vegan or vegetarian audience, the criteria might be much different.
JJ: Yeah, absolutely. So I want to talk about something. You and I had a conversation recently, and you used this term and brought this up, and I've just been fascinated about it ever since. So you told me that the future of work includes holding space for unimagined possibilities. I just love that. Holding space for unimagined possibilities. Tell me what that means to you.
SUSAN: Yeah. This phrase kind of came together through actually a few different brainstorm and kind of exploration sessions with folks in my a future work circle. And for me, holding space first, just as a term, as a phrase is something that has been relatively new to me five years ago, if you ask me what's holding space, I would kind of look at you in great confusion and be like, I don't know, is that just like holding nothing? Is it holding air in the virtual world? I think it's even more maybe relevant now. We're holding space is just saying in your day. For me, that means just allocating time and thought and energy to just be present and then unimagined possibilities for me is about another kind of frame could be kind of that never been done before. Like things that.
It's not even about what's possible. It's the things that you don't know that could be possible. And how do you know what you don't know? It's kind of like the chicken and the egg thing. And I think that comes through kind of connecting with people who are different from you and starting to learn about different experiences. And when you kind of bring that all together, holding space for unimaginable possibilities is about gathering an invitation to bring together people from different communities who maybe are meeting for the very first time. And in that space, in the conversations that ensue, it's really fostering a sense o welcoming and kind of gravitation towards surfacing what's different among all of us, and what are those different perspectives that together actually collectively might actually lead to something completely new that hasn't been imagined by anyone in that room? Yeah, that's amazing. So it seems like part of this future of work, or at least an underlying of this future vision, is for all of us to get out of our comfort zone and to get out there and meet different people and see different perspectives and embrace some of those different possibilities and different collaborations. Would you agree with that? Yeah, for sure. It's building upon other people's ideas. It's about asking what are we curious about? And these are all prompts or questions that have come out of the expiration kind of brainstorming sessions I've had with my colleagues, celebrating kind of discovery and thinking about power for all. What does it mean to have the power of everyone, harnessing the power from everyone? There's just so many questions, and I think so many questions, I think that help inspire kind of hope, enjoy in that core belief, again, that things can be better than they are today.
JJ: Yeah. What do you think we can do to prepare for and drive that future of work? And, you know, it's going to be may be different for different perspectives, but what do you think some of the things that we all collectively and then maybe we individually can do to start the ball rolling and then to be prepared to successfully navigate that future?
SUSAN: Yeah. That's kind of how to be prepared or how to move forward. I think it goes back to what you're saying, JJ, about being kind of comfortable with being a little uncomfortable, being comfortable with having confrontations that might be a little bit awkward where there's language or words that people are sharing with you that don't quite sit right. Sometimes I like to use the word prickly like it feels a little nutshell. It's not necessarily good or bad. You just know, it's kind of like if you're running your hands over the surface, something of a prickly plant or something like that, it's not quite comfortable, but you're still curious about what it is. So I think being comfortable with being uncomfortable is huge. And then, yes, start to interrogate everything around us in a way that might be confrontational, but still it's necessary because we do want to know.
We want to be curious about what we don't know. So celebrating courage, I think having just holding those values in mind and being okay with not yet being outside of your comfort zone, if you were to advise someone or suggest to someone some resources that can be used as they're trying to learn more about how to navigate this and how to prepare themselves and how to get comfortable with being uncomfortable and all of these things.
JJ: Are there some resources I know you yourself have created some resources that we will share, but are there some others and other resources and assets that you found that have helped you as you've been learning about this.
SUSAN: Yeah. Well, even just in terms of if anyone listening is in a position where you're leading a team or you're hosting a group or you're holding space like you're hosting a potluck luck. Even one of the books that I absolutely love around gathering and just thinking about the people structuring invitations, that sort of thing is The Art of Gathering by Priya Parker. If you Google her name, she's done a couple of Ted talks. I love all of her insights that she shares also on Instagram as well. So Priya Parker's Art of Gathering, there's also a book called Power for all that just recently came out. It's research based and gives you a good graph of just what is power when you think about power, and what does it mean to start letting go of power?
JJ: Perfect. And we will link to those books and those resources on Product Voices.com so that anyone who's interested can check those out. Susan Leo, thank you so much for joining me and having this conversation. It's such an important conversation, and I think we're all learning, we're all navigating. Nobody really knows what's going to happen in the future, but I certainly hope that your vision comes to fruition and that we can all succeed together and the world looks a little bit better than maybe it does today. And that includes better for everyone. So I think that's a wonderful thing.
So, Susan, thank you so much for joining me.
SUSAN: Thank you, JJ, for having me. It's been a pleasure.
JJ: And thank you all for joining us on Product Voices. Hope to see you on the next episode.
Startups for All - Our Vision for the Future: https://startupsforall.org/vision
The Art of Gathering: https://www.priyaparker.com/thebook
Future of Work 24 Hours: https://www.futureofwork24hrs.space/
Equity-Centered Community Design (ECCD) by Creative Reaction Lab: https://www.creativereactionlab.com/our-approach
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