Katja Forbes - The Journey Into Design Leadership

Katja Forbes - The Journey Into Design Leadership

My guest in this episode is Katja Forbes, Managing Director of Designit, Australia & New Zealand. Katja is also on the Global Board of the Interaction Design Association.

Katja was recognised as one of the Top 100 Australian Professionals 2020, Top 10 Australian Women Entrepreneurs 2018 by My Entrepreneur Magazine and named one of the 100 Women of Influence by Westpac and the Australian Financial Review in 2016.

In this episode she talks about her journey to design leadership, learning to let go of the tools and start managing people, building up her own company through to being acquired.


Andy Polaine 00:09

Hi and welcome to Power of Ten, a podcast about design operating at many levels, zooming out from thoughtful detail through to organizational transformation and on to changes in society in the world. My name is Andy Polaine. I’m a service design innovation consultant, coach, trainer and writer. Power of Ten is also about interesting people and their journeys into design. Today’s interesting person is Katja Forbes Managing Director of Designit Australia and New Zealand. Katja is also on the global board of the Interaction Design Association. Back in 2014, Katja founded Syfte, a specialist business in research and experience design. And then in late 2018, her business was acquired by international firm Wipro, and she was announced as managing director of Australia New Zealand for Designit. Katja, Welcome to Power of Ten.

Katja Forbes 00:55

Well, thank you so much. I love getting introduced and always just makes me feel so special and accomplished.

Andy Polaine 01:02

So did I get Syfte right?

Katja Forbes 01:04

Yeah, it’s actually that’s pretty good. So Syfte is a Swedish word that means purpose. I was looking for a good name for my company. And trying to to find something that resonated with me personally, I guess in looking at my my heritage, which is Scandinavian. The word I really wanted, which is a Finnish word, sisu, which sort of means strength and gumption, but of a very female variety. Sisu. Yeah, that’s a great Finnish word. However, it is a great Finnish word and so a lot of organizations had already kind of claimed it. So I went hunting for something else and came up with Syfte, which is purpose and it was a purposeful business. And so that seemed the right one to go with.

Andy Polaine 01:48

Right? We were just talking before that. That Sisus, you probably wouldn’t have gone down so well in Australia. It would have been “sighs you”

Katja Forbes 01:54

Oh, God. Look, Australians. This is a gross generalization, but Australians have a lot of trouble pronouncing anything complicated. I speak of lived experience here. My name is Katja. Okay, now, there were no other Katjas in my school when I was growing up, there was no other Katjas that I knew. And so my name just got completely brutalized by all of my school friends. And so, you know, I feel like I can’t even brought it on myself again, choosing a little bit of a difficult company. Syfte is not like a straightforward so yes, it’s it’s a more difficult choice, I guess to go with with something that is non English first. However, it spoke to what I was trying to do. So I’m good with that.

Andy Polaine 02:42

That’s good. And well, now is the name retired now?

Katja Forbes 02:45

The name is retired, it is retired and because Syfte became Designit, Designit Australia and New Zealand. And so as part of that we, it was a it was an acquisition of humans and contracts and assets and things like that. But it was not an acquisition of the brand, because the Designit brand is actually super strong already, particularly in Scandinavian countries. Yeah. So I mean, there’s there was no need for them to acquire an Australian brand. They just they needed the place to stand up design at Australia, New Zealand, and we were that place.

Andy Polaine 03:21

Right. So I was trying to think when we met and I think we might have met just as you’d founded Syfte, I think in around 2014, maybe a UX Australia or something. That’s where I think or you might have met.

Katja Forbes 03:32

I remember no, I met you in a workshop that you are giving at UX Australia.

Andy Polaine 03:37

Yeah, that was at UX Australia, right? Yes. So I reckon it might have been around around then I’d have to check on her back, look back at the date. So I don’t know maybe hadn’t quite started it then. Tell me a little bit about your journey, because, you know, the the last, what sort of six years have it been pretty steep meteoric rise into leadership. But tell me about how you got to the point where you thought, I’m going to start my own company.

Katja Forbes 03:59

I spent some time like I spent 10 years in London, first of all, working for all sorts of different organizations, starting with sapient, which taught me how to be a consultant, and experienced that I would, I wouldn’t trade for anything. I learned so much in that organization, the five years that I worked with them. And then I worked a little bit client side in in places like Yahoo, Thomson Reuters. And then coming back to Australia found myself of literally going back in time, because London was so far ahead in terms of design practice. At that time, we’re talking 2010. And so I came back to Australia and found that I was having to have conversations that such as I would have never have had when I was in the UK, particularly around inclusion and accessibility and just basic fundamental digital access for people with a disability. This was all new. It was super new in Australia at the time, and I came back here and didn’t quite know where to land. I didn’t know anybody anymore. 10 years away from the country where you grew up is a long time, had a lot of trouble fitting in all of my friends from school and they’d gone on and had kids and we’re doing things that I couldn’t relate to anymore. And so I found the easiest way to try and find my feet was to jump into some freelancing. And so that’s what I did. And I freelanced for a few agencies here. And then like, you know, all good freelancers ended up at a bank. Australia is very strong in its design practice in our financial services sector. And I was lucky enough to start out at one of the strongest now, the Commonwealth Bank and worked there for a number of years as a freelancer, and kind of got to the the end of of wanting to work on just one project or just one product or just one industry sector. And so left that consultancy gig and started up my first business with a business partner. And we tried to make a go of inclusive design as a practice, but I think we just we went a little bit too early, and so wasn’t the raging success that we’d hoped it would be. And now I watch in awe as organizations like Intopia here in Australia are ragingly successful in having inclusion and accessibility as their practice and making a business out of it. So I learned some really good lessons in starting that business. And then after that business wasn’t as successful as I hoped, I went back to come back and just sort of just sit here and breathe for a bit and figure out what I’m going to do. And landing in my lap at that time was one of the largest and most challenging contextual inquiry projects that I’d ever been offered. And it was to go and have a look about how all staff in Commonwealth Bank used their CRM technology. And I was like, all the staff, like, Yeah, all the staff, we want you to go and look at all 18 departments. And I was like, woah! Can I get some people to help me with that? Because that’s a pretty big job. And also maybe, can I go and get my own people, because I’ve got some really good people I think it’d be great to work on this. They said, yeah, sure, that’s fine. But you have to be a Pty. Ltd. – so an incorporated company – otherwise, we’ll get superannuation liability. And I was like oh, okay, so I started my company. Not every origin story is, sexy and amazing. Mine started with trying to avoid superannuation liability.

Andy Polaine 07:36

But you know, there’s someone else’s avoidance is your gain then.


And it was an amazing project we did 107 observations of people doing work all over Australia was fascinating. And then they said, Oh, could you have a look at this for us as well? And I was like, oh, I’ll have to get another person. Could you have a look at this too? Yeah, absolutely. But I’ll need to get another person. And then I had seven people working for me. I was like, well, I probably should get another client if I want to keep this company sustainable.

Katja Forbes 08:05

So all of it was kind of happy accident, hard graft as well. And opportunity being in the right place at the right time with the right people, I actually employed a number of people straight out of General Assembly, who we’re transitioning from the current projects, or current current jobs in, you know, working for Accenture as business intelligence analysts, and re-skilling themselves and user experience designer gave them their first shot out of that. And I’m so proud of that crew of people and where they are now, one is at Google, you know, that they’ve they’ve dispersed themselves all around, you know, different parts of the design practice in Australia. And I’m super proud that I was able to give them their start, my favorite thing is offering people a job. As a business owner, that’s, that’s one of the most gratifying things I think you can do, which is create jobs for people create work for people facilitate spaces for great work to get done. I mean, I’ve been off the tools for some time now. I wouldn’t ask me to design anything, because I literally have been away from the hands on practice for such a long time that I think there’s better people to do it. But I know that I’m very capable of creating a great space for work to get done. That’s of terrific quality, and for people to learn, and for people to really, you know, stretch into different parts of our craft and our practice.

Andy Polaine 09:29

So let’s, I mean, let’s talk about this because there’s two strands there, which I’m imagining have sort of woven together as part of your DNA as a leader. And one is you mentioned before that that your time at Sapient taught you to be a consultant because there’s there’s definitely… I mean, you were kind of very self aware of you know, we were a bit too early for the accessibility and inclusive design and so forth. There’s a, you know, being able to speak the right language and tell the story in the narrative of what you’re trying to sell, ultimately, but actually the kind of change you’re trying to create to people who may be needing that change, you may be probably not ready for that change is a large part of it. And then the other side is the people skills. So now you’ve spent a lot of time – when you said you were off the tools, I was thinking, well, maybe you’re just kind of zoomed up a level in the sense that you’re interested in people and how people tick and how they use their tools and form part of the role of being a leader and setting up an organization and maintaining that culture. How much of that resonates with you? Is that is that a kind of fair summary of it? And which which bits do you kind of really lean on a lot?

Katja Forbes 10:38

I think the zoom out aspect of it absolutely resonates, I would say that I’ve done a bit of leadership training. And something from that leadership training, which I have absolutely used in my practice of the those abilities, is the concept of being you know, up on the balcony or down on the dance floor. And leading from the balcony, strategically, you know, working on the business, rather than being down on the dance floor. And being in the business. There’s points in time where you know, as a leader, you do have to get down on the dance floor and boogie because people, you know, stuff goes wrong, people need you people need you to escalate to and also sometimes, you know, hold their hands as they get through difficult stuff. But the concept of being zoomed out, I absolutely do resonate with that. But I call it being being up on the balcony. And you know, taking that bird’s eye strategic view of what’s going on and what people are up to and, and how things are going.

Andy Polaine 10:41

So I’m interested in what that transition was like for you. I wrote this piece a little while ago. And it’s something that I have a lot of people come to me for, for coaching about this Design Leadership Dip, which is this moment where you’re kind of starting to let go of your tools and your kind of skill in those, which is often part of your identity very much as a person and certainly professionally. And then you’re sort of moving into this leadership role. And you’re not quite so good at that either. So there is this dip in the middle of where you are sort of rubbish at both for a while. And for some people, it’s really existential crisis for other people sort of sink a little bit and then swim and fly. How was it for you that journey?

Katja Forbes 12:13

I feel like I’m of the school of so long as I’m one page ahead of everybody else. And they don’t know that it’s only one page that I’m ahead. I’m good. I have got it.

Andy Polaine 12:25

I can tell you’ve been a teacher.

Katja Forbes 12:28

Yes, that is very true. I have I’ve taught design, both at General Assembly and at University of Sydney. But I’m also a very… I don’t need a lot of preparation, I don’t think and I think it just comes from comes from so many public speaking engagements, so many talks, so many presentations, so many leading of workshops, so many being up and facilitating and I’ve had this conversation with Steve Baty actually about, you know, well conversation slash disagreement, about you know, what, what are we as design practitioners now, because I find in my practice, and directly, you know, contributing to my transition to leadership, that facilitation, and the ability to get people to listen and talk and get to consensus and align and, you know, get shared understanding through creating artifacts or whiteboard, whatever that is, whatever that facilitation looks like. I really feel like that is a very important part of the role that we do as design leaders, and also design practitioners, you know. I know that Steve’s point of view on that is more like, “well, why did we go to design school if all we do is facilitation?” and I think that there’s there’s different parts of the craft that kind of come together there. There’s, there’s the hands on part of the craft, there’s the creating the design, magic part of the craft, there’s the understanding humans part of the craft, there’s the creating tangible artifacts, so that we can all move forward and create something and put the rubber on the road. But I think that facilitation is absolutely a part of the craft and, and a very important part of it as well. What we do, it might not seem you know, esoteric to us, because esoteric to a lot of people. They don’t understand how we work through the design practice to get to solving problems, and coming up with different ways of doing things and new approaches and things like that. And it’s a bit of a mystery, magic black box, for a lot of people who don’t spend their day to day in the kinds of problems and spaces that we do as design practitioners. So our job and where facilitation really comes in there is demystifying all the stuff that’s in that magic black box, and helping people use the tools of design to solve their problem, not kind of keeping it as this is my special magic bag of tricks and you don’t get to play with it unless you hire me and pay me a whole lot of money. And then when I’m finished I’ll pack all my tricks back up in my bag, and I’ll take it away and all the value will walk out the door with me. So I think that in that transition, taking the say, more practitioner level, running of workshops, presenting my designs, defending my designs, I’ve had meetings in the banks where I’ve sat with a committee of 20 people going through my wireframes, one by one button by button, you know, interaction by interaction going, “why did you do it like that?” and being able to facilitate that group of people through to consensus that I do know what I’m doing, and I haven’t done it the right way. And taking that sort of lower more junior practice, through facilitation through to, you know, public speaking and presentation, that’s been instrumental in my ability to be a good leader. Because if you can’t tell your own story and tell the stories about the things that matter, and that are important, nobody’s going to buy anything is selling doesn’t matter how good it is.

Andy Polaine 16:02

Yeah, absolutely. Yeah. I noticed LinkedIn is asking me what your top skill is. And one of the options is wireframing here, so I click on that. LinkedIn, so random. So, yeah. I mean, absolutely. I think… there’s another thing I wrote, which is that I kind of realized that with my coaches looking about saying, but how do I manage stakeholders how to do this is and also how to manage a studio and a group of designers, it’s slow motion facilitation, the same thing you do in a kind of week, er in a day or two days. It kind of stretches over weeks and months and years, in terms of… you know we talked about inclusive design right at the beginning of you know, who’s who’s being included and excluded, which is something you’re kind of very acutely aware of in a room, at least, it’s harder on zoom. But in a room of, you know, of people, you literally you see some people sitting off to the side, you see someone who has a table where there’s a group of people, and there’s one person who for whatever reason, isn’t involved. It’s very visible. And I think part of the role of leadership in design is kind of trying to have that same view of, well, maybe it’s looking from the balcony, and I have that same view of, you know, who’s dancing together? Who’s standing at the wall? Who’s who’s kind of sitting on their own in the corner?

Katja Forbes 17:17

Yeah, how can we get the sense of belonging for everybody, when everybody is so completely diverse, and from different, different backgrounds, and therefore different lived experiences, and that is definitely the case.

Andy Polaine 17:29

So I love metaphors. And sometimes they they keep giving and giving, and sometimes they break. So let’s try this one, though, which is, you know, with the dance floor metaphor, you know, it’s very hard to get everyone dancing all the time. I mean, there’s, there’s a kind of, you know, there’s there certain tracks when the alcohol level is kind of high enough, which gets sort of every, well, maybe everyone dancing, but generally you’ve got people who have got different styles of music that they like, and they’ll ask the DJ for different things, and half the dance for leaves and the other half comes on. In your design practice, you know, in the in the studio, when you’re managing that, how, how do you kind of make sure there’s, there’s music for everyone.

Katja Forbes 18:07

That involves a lot of listening, active listening to the people who make up our design studio family. And this is glib, I know, but designers have a lot of feelings. As a group of people, we have a lot of feelings, and not in any way, shape, or form, ever dissuaded from feeling all the feelings and sharing all the feelings. So there’s, there’s kind of a consistent active listening mode that what I find that I need to be in in order to make sure that everyone feels like they are heard and included. I think for us, we’re sort of centering around particular, particular values that resonate for us at a local level, I mean, design, it has a set of global values and things like that. And all of those are worthy. But there are some things that resonate more for us at a local level. And, you know, some songs that we like to play more than others. For us, we are incredibly passionate about sustainability by design, I know that if I bring a sustainability based project into our studio, everyone will get up and dance everyone. And so being cognisant of what people individually value and what we value collectively, really helps to get that that great, I guess, participation from everybody in in the studio work and in wanting to move the studio forward. And we do a lot of introspection as well. I mean, at the moment because you know, COVID has helped us with our, you know, time to introspect due to our pillar client Qantas no longer requiring our services. Yeah, so I mean, we’ve have had some really good time to be introspective about our practice and how we run as a studio and how we operate as a group of people and the design directors in… well the solitary design director I have, he has been instrumental as well as our leads in creating operating models for our studio around values. And making sure that people are always working towards what they might have indicated is interesting for them in their own personal development. So, we have very strong talent development practices within designers that that are set up to ensure that people are paying attention to their development that the US as leaders are paying attention to development as well. And that we’re trying to foster work in the studio that is going to contribute to it, and also contribute to the things that we value. So that would be my answer for that one, we’d be aligning it around values is how we get everybody up and dancing.

Andy Polaine 20:47

Yeah. But it’s often I mean, it’s often quite hard to the values or even coming up with values is is the easy bit right?

Katja Forbes 20:56

Super difficult to get it right, though. super difficult. I mean, we still haven’t got it right. But we’re still trying.

Andy Polaine 21:01

But also keeping it alive and keeping it intact in the face of all the other pressures is really hard to you know, in what way do… Can you talk about the ways you can make that sort of quite tangible in terms of people’s lived everyday experience of – I was gonna say going to work. Remember when we used to go to work? – of turning up on Zoom or Teams?

Katja Forbes 21:25

Yeah, I think for us, we’ve used the time that we have had available to us to really immerse into some pro bono work, finding things, people actually seek us out, they seek me out and say,“Can I pick your brains?” And this is one of my leadership tips. So when people asked to pick your brains, if you want to remain accessible, that’s fine. But if you want to protect your most valuable commodity, which is your time, choose one hour a week that is available for brain picking, and say this is the time that is available for brain picking, you can do it at this time or not at all. And if they’re serious about actually engaging and getting advice or information from you, they’ll make the time and they’ll make it at the time that suits you. So I have people coming to me saying, could I get some some ideas from you about this pro bono project or this thing that I’m doing or, you know, coming in that sort of approach. And if I think that it’s something that my team is going to be interested in, I’ll take it to them. And say, we’ve got some capacity, this person is asking for this is there someone who’s interested in taking it forward. And we’ve got a project that we’re just kicking off with an organization called Artists Against Poverty, who have been very disrupted by COVID, because they generally have done their fundraising, which delivers outcomes for women in our in Indonesia, through micro financing. And they’ve been very disrupted, because their fundraising has been events based, you come to our exhibition by the art that you see at the exhibition, so we’re helping them through that disruption. And there’s also the ability for my crew to bring to the table, pro bono work that they would like to have us consider, and then we’ll go through, we’ll consider the merits of it, we’ll see what we might be able to do to help them we’ll get approval and spending things for free. And then, you know, either take the project forward or not. And I think allowing for those kinds of social benefit interactions and social benefit projects. And also, you know, they don’t all have to come through me they can come through the team as well. I think that one is, is definitely a contributor to our, you know, our overall studio vibe and, and people feeling like they, they are more than slamming together a bunch of wireframes for an insurance claim process. That said, Andy, there is also value and social benefit to be found in very unassuming design practices. Because if you want to make the day better for someone who needs to put in an insurance claim, because their house was burned down. And this is really the worst day ever, and your insurance claim process is really frictionless. And you made that bet that matters. There’s something in that that’s super unassuming and super small, and will never ever make it to the front of the guardian. But it matters. And I think there’s that detail practice that that can be very socially beneficial,

Andy Polaine 24:23

Which is the answer to Steve Baty’s question, actually,, I think which is, I think that yes, design has become more and more about facilitation, particularly on a strategic level. I mean, there’s so much in kind of what you just said, part of it is I think, yes, designers maybe where they’re kind of feelings on their sleeve a little bit more than other people in sort of corporate business environments. I don’t think it’s true that designers have more feelings than than anyone else, right? And I think one of the things that is we always need to remember is that everyone has feelings and you know, a lot of the… a lot of the pressures that often come from you know, high up execs and C-Suite is not coming from a place of heartlessness, it’s actually a lot of it is coming from anxiety and fear. And that drives a lot of the kind of stuff. So, hence, the need to facilitate that and understand “what’s driving this behavior that I’m perceiving as negative, and how there’s something around the communications of what we’re doing this making this person feel uneasy and anxious?” And therefore, they’re starting to get a grip tighter and actually kind of make it worse. So there’s a, there’s a kind of bit about that, that I think is really crucial, where some of the some of the tools that you use and the lens through which you view people as a designer, are very, very helpful in that in that leadership role, and then kind of talking to stakeholders and the rest of it. And then down the other end, I’m really glad you said that, because I think there’s a there’s a, I’m gonna, I know we’re talking about leadership quite a lot, but it also gets quite fetishised in the sense that they’re sometimes just fixing an everyday annoyance for someone, you know, and it can be quite small, you know, the, the corner of the thing that you constantly catch your hip on every time you walk past it, that that kind of thing grinds, people down, and especially you started off talking about your experience with Commbank and the kind of employee experience with enterprise software, which is, you know, legendary for being awful.

Katja Forbes 26:13

Oh god, the stuff that I saw out in the field.

Andy Polaine 26:16

Yeah, right. So you face some of those things and you really do make – and, aggregate the kind of effect of that – you make people’s lives better, you make everyone work a bit better, and over the kind of thousands of people who work with that stuff, you know, it actually has a kind of big payoff. So, you know, I think that that – to answer this go back to Steve’s question – I think that’s the two levels of zoom that I will talk about, because I’m obsessed by levels of zoom, which is that the details affect the big picture and the big picture effect the details and you need to be able to kind of go between the two.

Katja Forbes 26:45


Andy Polaine 26:45

You are also a well known and much fated face in, you know, you’re Top 100 Australian professionals 2020, Top 10 Australian women entrepreneurs by My Entrepreneur Magazine, 1 of the 100 women of influence named by Westpac and also the Australian Financial Review. So there’s a lot being around you, as a leader and a lot around us entrepreneur and a woman in leadership. You know, I coach a lot of women in leadership, too. I’m interested in what your experience has been, you know, I saw a slight kind of eye roll, as I was reading that kind of stuff out from your bio, we talked about it a bit before, it’s always weird kind of reading your own bio and thinking I’m not that person.

Katja Forbes 27:27

Yeah, I do feel like they’re talking about someone else.

Andy Polaine 27:31

So, well, let’s talk about this imposter syndrome, or as it’s originally known as imposter phenomenon, actually, the original researcher who looked into it, which I much prefer, because it sounds like a thing that comes and goes rather than an affliction for life. How much have you been cognizant of being a woman in leadership in this role? And then how much has that been sort of made evidence to you by maybe some of the clients or stakeholders? Or how much has it been something that you’ve thought, doesn’t really play a role, it’s just a kind of happenstance?

Katja Forbes 27:59

It absolutely plays a role. I mean, when I was listed as one of the 100 women of influence in 2016, my initial reaction was, well, they must not have had enough women apply. I didn’t understand how I was worthy of getting on that list. And if you look at some of the women who were also on that list that year, you know, Dr. Karen Phelps, you know, Gina Rinehart, I think was on that list that year, but I felt like an absolute imposter. And literally, I did think they just must not have had enough women like that. Yeah, there must have been desperate to include me. So that imposter syndrome, it’s definitely valid and, and it has afflicted me to some degree. I think I’m better now. I think I’m… I have a better sense of my worth, a better sense of my value, I guess, and confidence in my ability. I think I’ve gone… You know, as we’ve talked about sort of a very meteoric rise into leadership. It was at sort of, I don’t know, a 40 degree angle while I was running, sift, and doing my own thing as a sole director for a small company in Australia. And then I joined Designit, which is a global organization, and it has gone to like, I’m almost at like 85 degrees of going up in terms of things that I’m learning opportunities I’m being given. And I think that that has actually… the last two years I’ve learned more about what I’m capable of, than I think in in the majority of the rest of my career in my previous career. Being a woman in leadership is… I don’t know as I was watching Jane Caro last night on Q&A in Australia, which is an Australian current affairs where they have notables talking about politics and things like that. And Jane Caro is a commentator, particularly on women’s role in society and how, you know, they are either ad advantaged or not. And her diatribe last night was literal fury, about the situation that many older women in Australia are now finding themselves in terms of being truly poor in their old age due to how they’ve been affected by COVID. Looking down the barrel of homelessness, and…

Andy Polaine 30:28

… and superannuation inequity,

Katja Forbes 30:30

Exactly superannuation inequity because you know, you take the departure from work if you choose to have a family, or you may take a departure from work, and therefore your superannuation is always going to be less than your male counterparts,

Andy Polaine 30:42

And you get paid less, so you’re starting lower.

Katja Forbes 30:44

You know, all of all of the things, Andy, all of the things. And so as a woman in leadership, and as a woman, just you know, traversing the world, My belief is the standard that you walk past is the standard you accept, which is the Chief of Armies statement, and, you know, I’ll call it out, I’ll call bullshit on sexism, I’ll call bullshit on bad behavior, I will, I will do it. But let me tell you, it’s exhausting. It’s exhausting. And, and, personally, and, you know, women friends that I have, we sort of sit on this throne of rage, the rage filled cushion that we sit on, and we kind of tap into it when we need it, to really, you know, call it because it’s, there’s a, there’s a word for it. It’s called feminist fatigue, it’s where you’ve just been feminist all day, every day, and it’s really, really tiring, and nobody thanks for it. And generally, what you’ll end up with, if you really, you know, make it your job to call things out, is being in a situation of, you know, people like van Batum, or Clementine Ford, who had just abused on a daily basis, you know, threatened with, you know, rape or, or, you know, being murdered, because they are standing up for women and standing up for women’s views. And so, like, why would you bring that on yourself? But equally, how could you not? Because, you know, I just wanted, you know, to say men behave better, just behave better, and do better? Yeah, not all men. But that’s not the point. You know, definitely.

Andy Polaine 32:23

No definitely, I mean, and, you know, that’s the work to be done. And, you know, my friends of color and women of color, you know, Tannara Schneider, an ex-colleague of mine on the podcast a little while ago, and she said, you know, there are times when, obviously, she will, again, it takes the energy to fight that fight. And there are other times when she’s like, don’t, don’t bring me in to be your representative of this or representative of all women or people of color, do your work, do your homework, you know, and, and do it yourself.

Katja Forbes 32:54

I do find myself being brought into meetings where the stakeholder is a senior woman. So if it’s, if it’s a C-level woman, I’ll get tapped on the shoulder by some of my sales colleagues and going “Hey, can you take this one?” Okay, can you come along with me good to… good if you could come and do this. And I’m like, “what you want me to do the lady dance in front of the lady?” So that’s not how it works. Like, I have to actually have to have something that that person is going to value for me to have a conversation with him or her. It’s irrelevant, my gender, in what I bring to that meeting,

Andy Polaine 33:27

Although the only thing is I would say there is you know, you maybe there’s a I will come, but you’re going to do the work and I’m going to give you feedback on on what you did, you know, that could be… if you could be bothered to…

Katja Forbes 33:37

Make it an assignment?

Andy Polaine 33:39

Yeah, basically, but then, you know, that still places a lot of kind of energy on on you to to do that work and not have the self reflection.

Katja Forbes 33:47

Yeah. And I think the one that really irritates me the most is when you you get told that the way that you are claiming your space or making your point about something that’s sexist, or you know, the behavior that’s bad, you get asked or told to do it nicer, otherwise, you know, they won’t get anybody to engage with your viewpoint. And I’m like, why should I have to defend my fundamental human rights nicely? What? Why is that a thing? Why do I have to diminish myself and my voice in order to make you, not you personally, but you whoever I’m calling out feel comfortable and okay with being called out and willing to listen to what I’ve got to say? Why do I have to make myself small so that you can feel okay with that?

Andy Polaine 34:39

So the the whole thing of kind of be quiet, don’t rock the boat, don’t have a voice or turn your voice down is… So I’m interested in it because because it gets it’s an external script, obviously it gets socialized to be an internal script for a lot of women in leadership. Men have a kind of different thing I think, which I think men are driven a lot more by fear and anxiety than any men will give credence to or admit to. And it’s sort of, it’s actually what causes a lot of that kind of bad behavior and some of the aggressive behavior too. You know, and in fact, a lot of the reactions to women standing up, it’s a fear reaction as much as anything else. I’m interested in if there was a sort of moment or experience you’ve had, or what you draw upon to not take on that internalized script, or whether it was there for a while and there was a moment where you thought “no, well, sod this I’m not going to do this anymore” or if it’s something that’s grown on you or whether it’s always been with you.

Katja Forbes 35:34

I can I can pinpoint the exact moment, I was living in London, I was working for Sapient. At the time, we were working with an English bank, on a fairly technical, actually, project. So a lot of the people were from the tech side of it and also there were the business stakeholders as well from from the bank. And I remember being in the in a meeting, I was running the whole show, like I was running the project, I was running all of all of the facets that this meeting was actually called about. And I got into the meeting, and everybody came in and sat down, and the man from the bank next to me that people had started discussing things and he looked at me and he said, “are you going to take some minutes?” And I, yeah, and I was like, I’m, I’m not having this. And this is, this is the first time I can really remember calling it out. And I just said, “Why, because I’m the only woman in the room?” And it was really satisfying to just watch him like curl up into like something a slug that I’d put salt on. And I said, I’ll take notes for myself, but you know, I’m, I’m not here for the minute take, you’re here to facilitate the session. This is my job here. And that’s the first time I remember, like really standing up for myself and going screw this. I’m not going to not going to be that cast in that role, I guess. And ever since then, like I don’t you know, I don’t do it all the time perfectly and I’m not, you know, I didn’t fight every battle. I mean, I think in terms of fatigue, you have to choose the hills, you’re going to die on. Which which hills are worth dying on. And that’s a good leadership tip is also you know, choose the hills you’re going to die on. Because sometimes sometimes it’s not worth it. Sometimes you can’t, you can’t actually have any impact. And then you just might need to just take a rest so you can come back and fight for something that you really, really care about. That was that was the turning point. That was some early 2000s. I guess I just turned 30, no, I was late 20s. Hmm. Yeah. So it was fairly, you know, late on to develop that.

Andy Polaine 37:44

Well, not not necessarily.

Katja Forbes 37:46

My 16 year old step daughter is already better at it than I was at that age.

Andy Polaine 37:50

Good for her, you know, not particularly because, you know, I know women who have a much older older than you are now and we’re still have that kind of anxiety, I guess about speaking up, not because they don’t see the outrage of it, but because, you know, you know, this CLM - the career limiting move - you know, of you know, that that’s going to negatively reflect back upon me. And it does, you know…

Katja Forbes 38:14

Yeah, I mean, I’ve been called abrasive by my peers, you know, and yeah, and that was recently like, and, and it’s and it’s by someone who probably thinks he’s a good guy, and not sexist in any way, shape, or form. But yeah, I was called abrasive, and that really hurt.

Andy Polaine 38:35

Yeah. Yeah, it’s, um, you know, it’s not something we’re gonna kind of completely unpack. I mentioned the… you mentioned age, may I ask how old you are?

Katja Forbes 38:45

I am 46 and a half. I’ll be 47 next year.

Andy Polaine 38:49

I love the way you said that like a kid - I’m 46 and a half, 46 and three quarters!

Katja Forbes 38:53

I’m pretty excited about getting old. I’m like, I’m fine with it.

Andy Polaine 38:57

I’ve been talking quite a lot in this podcast, about the second half of life. And there’s a there is a kind of shift in those kind of late 30s, late 40s in that sort of period of time into a different role. And it is common for people to move into a leadership role in that time. So, you know, you were probably one of the, you know, top… there’s all these kind of, you know, top 40 under 40, and all of our top 30 under 30. I’m looking forward to the, the, you know…

Katja Forbes 39:23

Top 50 over 50?

Andy Polaine 39:25

Yeah, or something, you know, I feel that kind of youth and entrepreneurship is somewhat fetishised having been a, you know, top 10 Australian women entrepreneur, what are your feelings about that? Not that you’re getting old, but you know…

Katja Forbes 39:38

I’m deeply at peace with my age, I have no issues. In fact, I think I just get better. The more that I know more I understand my power and the better I can be at all the things I turned my hand to. I’m good with that. I think we absolutely. We do fetishise youth in entrepreneurship and if you are able to be a successful entrepreneur or just successful as a young person, then it’s it’s, it’s somehow a minor miracle that’s worthy of massive celebration, which, you know, it seems churlish to not want to celebrate people’s successes. I’d be very keen, you know, like you are to see some celebration of someone who was over 65 and kind of thought that they were at the end of their career and then had, you know, a spark and an idea and they were able to spin up a successful business. I think that’s also a great story worthy of celebrating, I don’t think we should, we shouldn’t you know, not celebrate one at the expense of the other. I think there’s plenty of room to celebrate all but I think one definitely does get a lot more attention, because, you know, as a society, I mean, if we can get really, you know, psychological we fetishise youth, in general, youth and beauty and, and all of that is absolutely aspirational. And what we all want to be, you know, people - not you and me, because we don’t care, we’re happy to get old, but…

Andy Polaine 41:12

Are you saying I’m not youthful and beautiful anymore?

Katja Forbes 41:14

You are youthful and beautiful. You have a fine face of hair.

Andy Polaine 41:22

Grey hair.

Katja Forbes 41:23

No, it’s all right. I am in the same boat. It’s just that I’m not willing to give it up yet. and will continue to…

Andy Polaine 41:31

I tell you I’m not going to dye my beard, that’s for sure.

Katja Forbes 41:33

Oh, that’s, that’s like next level beard.

Andy Polaine 41:35

I don’t have to worry about my hair, it’s skin color.

Katja Forbes 41:38

But it’s true. We fantasize youth or in general. And also absolutely in business and entrepreneurship, I think there’s only certain places where gray hair is appreciated. And it’s usually only of a male gray hair. Female gray hair is not appreciated anywhere. And I, you know, I don’t fight that fight at all. I can’t be bothered. It’s it’s not not important. But I would like to see the story of the the person who thought that they were at the end of their career, and they spun up a business. And let’s celebrate a list of Top 10 of those.

Andy Polaine 42:12

Yeah, I mean, in many respects is a lot harder to do when you’re in your 50s, because you’ve got all the established responsibilities of, kind of, you know, family and mortgage and all the rest of it in a way it’s you don’t have much to lose in your 20s.

Katja Forbes 42:25

Yeah it’s harder to take the risk.

Andy Polaine 42:26

You eat a lot of pot noodles, but otherwise you kind of, you know, and live in a kind of cheaper rented, shared apartment. I mean, risk is definitely a kind of adventure often for the youth. But I think it’s a thing that as you get older, you get a little bit more scared or to our detriment, actually, I think it’s one of the kind of things that people… gets people stuck in that second half of life is they don’t feel like they want to take the risk anymore.

Katja Forbes 42:49

Yeah, I can I can understand that. But also, I don’t, I’m not that person, either. I will, I will try anything and see what works.

Andy Polaine 42:58

I’ll interview you in 20 years time, and we’ll see.

Katja Forbes 43:00

Okay, deal!

Andy Polaine 43:04

So let’s make coming up for time. First of all, as you know, their podcast is named after this Ray and Charles Eames’ film Powers of Ten, about the relative size of things in the universe. So the final question is, what small thing - either something that’s overlooked, or something that could do with being redesigned - would make a outsized effect on the world?

Katja Forbes 43:23

How far back in history can I go? Well, it should be something that is kind of could be redesigned or is currently still relevant now, put it that way. I think the fundamental premise of social media is something that should have been redesigned. Or at least in its in its outset, anybody, somebody, anybody, thinking about the unintended consequences of the change, let’s let’s let’s go for a neutral word, the change that it has brought about to our society, our social interactions, our understanding of truth, our democracies, and I really feel like there was a moment in time in the generation of social media and and particularly in the monetization of the data that is collected in social media, where there could have been a better conversation about unintended consequences, and different design directions taken. That would be my thing that we could have done better and would have had a remarkable effect.

Andy Polaine 44:32

Yeah, yeah, absolutely agree. We haven’t even talked about design and AI and all those things, but you know, not enough red teaming of ideas and concepts of, you know, how can this be abused? And how could this… how could we hack this? How could you.. how might people… how might this get out of control?

Katja Forbes 44:48

I feel like the next one’s coming and this is this moment in time, which is Elan Musk and his neural link project that he’s working on. Where you know, he’s talking about downloading memories. into like a robotic self and, you know, being able to write to the brain and this whole brain interface. And I feel like there’s – well, I know for a fact because I watch the press release from end to end – there was nobody there talking about ethics. And just because we can does it mean we should, there was nobody there. When they asked the question about what’s the the most important problem that neural link has to solve to realize its true potential the answer to that was we need to find the right thin wires to stick into the brain. Nothing about ethics, or the ethical minefield that’s laying around that project. And I really am deeply concerned that we’re at an inflection point, similar to where we were when Mark Zuckerberg decided, you know, he wanted to create something so he could figure out who at his University was, you know, single or not, we’re at an inflection point where somebody’s got to be asking those questions. Otherwise, I feel like we’re gonna have another - in 10 years time -another set of unintended consequences and end up with biological inequalities and you know, all sorts of things.

Andy Polaine 46:04

Yeah. desirable, viable and feasible needs and ethical on there as well. Although I would argue that it’s… that should be under the desirable thing really.

Katja Forbes 46:13

Well, we could have another whole podcast about that. We just don’t have time.

Andy Polaine 46:20

We’ll save it for another time. Talking of social media, so where can people find you online?

Katja Forbes 46:23

I am findable, obviously, on LinkedIn, and that is an easy way to get ahold of me. I’m also findable on Twitter as @luckykat. And I’m also on Instagram. First Name, Last Name, easy to find.

Andy Polaine 46:40

I’ll put some links to it in the show notes. Katja, thank you so much for being my guest on Power of Ten.

Katja Forbes You’re so very welcome. Thank you for having me.

Andy Polaine As I’m sure you’re aware, you’ve been listening to Power of Ten. My name is Andy Polaine. You can find me at @apolaine on Twitter, or polaine.com, where you can find more episodes and sign up for my newsletter Doctor’s Note. If you like the show, please take a moment to give it a rating on iTunes. It really helps others find us. And as always get in touch. If you have any comments, feedback or suggestions for guests, all the links are in the show notes. Thanks for listening and see you next time.