XXII.1 January + February 2015
Page: 71
Digital Citation

Lessons in customer experience leadership

Catherine Courage

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In 2009, I joined Citrix as VP of product design, charged by CEO Mark Templeton to transform the traditionally engineering-driven organization into a leader of design excellence. Central to my journey were the principles of design thinking and the idea that by deeply understanding customer needs, opportunities for innovation would emerge. Although Citrix had already established a strong position and reputation in the IT industry, design thinking would be instrumental in unlocking its full creative potential and driving more profound change for its customers. Over the course of five years, my charter to transform the user experience of our products has evolved into an SVP of customer experience (CX) role reporting to the CEO, with a charter to deliver on the company vision of creating exceptional end-to-end experiences for our customers across all areas of the business.

back to top  How I Got Here (and How You Can Too)

To borrow a metaphor from Facebook's Sheryl Sandburg, I came to my role as SVP of CX not by climbing a ladder, but by pivoting, jumping, and twisting my way up a jungle gym. I'd studied psychology in college, finding I was more interested in the experimental side than clinical practice. I was fortunate to discover the emerging field of human factors—the design of systems around human needs—and spent time researching areas such as the way we drive cars. The Internet boom soon lured me to Silicon Valley, which I loved enough to stay after the crash of 2000.

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It was at Oracle that my passion for people-centric design became a career. I honed my user experience skills there for five years, focusing on becoming an expert in work practices, project leadership, and methodologies such as usability testing, surveys, interviews, and field visits. I also taught these methods to others through workshops, an experience that helped strengthen my understanding, and co-authored a book, Understanding Your Users, with my coworker Kathy Baxter. I invested significant time in understanding the roles and intersections of engineering, project management, and interaction design. Crucially, I always raised my hand to lead a project or team, which helped further develop my leadership skills and gave me a taste of the management path I would later pursue—beginning with my subsequent move to, where I saw the opportunity to build a new user experience (UX) team from the ground up as a part of a small and rapidly growing product team.

When Citrix reached out to me about the VP of product design position, I had no intention of making a change. A large and still-growing team had been established at, and there was still more to do in my role as a director. However, a savvy recruiter persuaded me to meet the company's executives. In Mark Templeton I found a truly kindred spirit. Not only did he have an undergrad degree in product design, but he also allowed our scheduled 30 minutes to stretch into two hours, showing me just how serious he was about making design a cornerstone of the company's strategy. It wouldn't be easy—this was a large, 20-year-old corporation with a worldwide R&D organization and no existing centralized design function. It would mean taking a leap of faith—first, that they would live up to their promises of a commitment to UX, and second, that I could deliver the goods.

If I were to look back in time, I never would have believed that I would become an SVP, but that didn't reflect a lack of confidence or ambition. I've always believed in the importance of owning your career. You can't wait for things to happen—you always have to be looking forward, seeking opportunity and challenge. Always make sure you're learning from people in roles you find interesting and be proactive about finding out where you need to grow and improve. Join committees, lead projects and initiatives, and find ways to show that you're ready to take the next step. As more people become familiar with your strengths and capabilities, you'll have more supporters and advisors to help you advance.

Career growth is powered by passion, but there's also an important role for practicality, the tactical things you need to do to move forward. Fear comes into play too. That twinge of doubt you feel can be a sign that you're pushing to the next level. Don't let it hold you back. If Citrix hadn't worked out for me and I'd found myself back on the street within a year, I would have brushed myself off and found a new opportunity, but the potential rewards were tremendous, and far more significant than the fears I felt.

back to top  CX at the Executive Level

As I grew into my position as an executive in CX, I discovered several ways in which the role differed from my previous UX leadership roles. Primarily, it was a shift from more tactical design leadership to a focus on influence, accountability, empowerment, and culture.

Influence is a huge part of the job of a CX executive. While I'm the direct leader of the CX organization, my effectiveness is tied to my ability to make things happen where I don't have direct control or authority. This begins with having empathy for the people you work with and understanding their perspectives. You can't just tell them how to design their products and services; you need to know why they've been doing things the way they have, what priorities and constraints define their work, and how they currently think about the interactions between their product and its users. Those conversations are substantively valuable for informing your own work, but they're also key for building trust and goodwill. I've never stopped asking people across the business questions and I continually encourage them to always be candid with me. This is a significant part of my role.

Influence is also earned through credibility. When I first joined Citrix, I was a team of one, and I had to deliver something of real business value quickly to show that I was about more than just listening and understanding. It's ideal to start by working with a team that already understands what you're trying to do. I found a project with that sweet spot and within a few months helped them build interactive prototypes like nothing we'd ever done before. People around the company took notice, and soon they were asking to have my group work with their teams as well. When your work speaks for you, influence follows.


Accountability comes with the job description—you have to be ready to articulate a vision for your team to follow and others to relate to, and hold firm when things go wrong so CX as a discipline doesn't become a scapegoat. At Citrix, our vision is to create world-class products and services that drive an exceptional customer experience, and it's on me to make sure that happens every day. I'm also accountable for the strategic imperatives of the business. As a member of the CEO's team, I have to be able to articulate the role of CX and how it affects our business in a meaningful way. I need to make sure the business's goals are understood by my direct team and that we translate those imperatives into meaningful goals that cascade down throughout the CX team. It's important to ensure that we all understand and speak about them the same way.

By investing in cultivating a culture of design thinking among all Citrix employees, we have been able to harness their creativity to deliver a transformative experience for our customers.

Of course, accountability implies measurement. You've got to develop a set of metrics, make sure your team understands them, and share that framework so others can hold you to them. That's the hardest part of my job, but it's critical. We use Net Promoter scores extensively, and also set benchmarks for each release: How quickly can people get a product up and running? What is the ease of use on the most important tasks for the product? Work with product teams to choose the factors that will be the most meaningful and get people's attention, and be rigorously critical in the way you assess them.

At the same time, you can't let data cloud the big picture. The vision of your CEO and executive team also matters. Sometimes you're reaching beyond what customers are telling you to do, and it's a mistake to let measurement shut you down prematurely along the way. Not everything will work, but having many projects working in parallel—some more obviously successful than others—will result in the best products over time.

Empowerment is critical. As a leader, you define the culture of your team, but you've also got to give them the chance to own the work, succeed, and take credit. It can be hard to give up the intensive hands-on role you're used to playing in CX, but you can't get involved in every detail or you'll be overwhelmed. Set a direction, establish a tone for the right way to work—the processes to use and the standards to meet—and make your expectations clear. Show them you'll back them up through thick and thin. If you've hired the right people, they'll come through for you.

Equally important is to create a safe space for creativity and experimentation. I worked with facilities to replace the Citrix design team's high-walled cubicles and conference rooms with a more open and collaborative space. Called Working Better by Design, the initiative introduced low-tech spaces with whiteboards, works in progress posted on walls, and stickies everywhere. It puts our ideas out in the open where they can cross-pollinate, and it sparks "aha" moments for people passing through from other departments.

Above all, convey the importance of failure—how much you learn by failing, and how much you lose when the fear of failure stops you from experimenting. Highlight stories of people who have made mistakes along the way to creating a great product. Make sure people know that you will never throw them under the bus when things inevitably blow up—you'll protect them and explain to management what happened, what we learned, and how we'll move forward. In the meantime, remind them that constant feedback and interactions can help them avoid big failures—there's real power in the notion of "fail fast, fail early."

You can't foster a sustained commitment to CX in an organization without making its impact and value clearly visible. This can be an exercise in CX in itself. Make it easy for people to see the difference by showing them before-after comparisons—in our case, of the old-school tree-based consoles we've replaced with dynamic, responsive designs under a consolidated look and feel. We also let our work speak for itself in a Design Matters to Me website, where we showcase our latest efforts, our partnerships across the company, and the best of CX in our industry. I look for ways to provide windows into CX elsewhere in the company, such as by adding a paragraph to another group's newsletter or joining their meeting for a brief update, or providing an update at a meeting of our board of directors. This kind of thing is easy to overlook, especially when you're busy, but it's critical to your ongoing success.

Culture evolves when people truly embrace CX and make it part of the way they think and work daily. Mark Templeton knew that transforming Citrix into a leader of design excellence wouldn't happen overnight. By investing in cultivating a culture of design thinking among all Citrix employees, we have been able to harness their creativity to deliver a transformative experience for our customers.

When I joined Citrix, the company was about engineering, new releases were about features, and design meant pretty icons. And we were not yet thinking about creating an end-to-end experience for our customers. None of the researchers, designers, writers, and program managers I hired would be able to effect change unless we made CX part of our corporate DNA. I worked across the organization to drive change through trust, credibility, and respect. Influence, as described earlier, was a key part of this effort. I spent one-on-one time with company leaders and held town hall meetings around the world to help people understand the value of this investment and how they as teams and individuals could drive change. To make CX investment relatable, I got people talking about companies that deliver great experiences in their lives—Apple, Target, Virgin, Disney, Ritz Carlton—and asked them how they felt about Citrix products. I wanted them to see the connection and understand what we were aiming for. I shared our vision to evolve our culture to embrace design thinking in everything we do, guided by five core principles:

  • Focus on human goals
  • Make it simple
  • Inspire delight
  • Exhibit craftsmanship
  • Deliver unique value.

We have to do all five of these things, every time, in every part of the company—not just products, but in HR, finance, marketing, facilities, and everywhere else, from the boardroom to the mailroom. This company-wide commitment is reinforced by the visibility I mentioned earlier, the constant communication of the value of design for our business, and the continual understanding of customer and employee perspectives. I didn't win everyone over on day one, and there were certainly skeptics along the way, but I've been happy to see how receptive people have been.

back to top  Summary

Although I came into Citrix with a charter for product design leadership, the charter has grown considerably as people have realized just how important a company-wide CX focus is to our success. It's been extremely gratifying to see design thinking come to life across our products and services, and to see how much we've transformed the experiences we deliver to our customers.

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Catherine Courage is senior vice president of customer experience at Citrix. She is responsible for championing exceptional design to drive innovation. Her team partners with functions across the company to deliver an outstanding experience for both customers and employees.

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The Digital Library is published by the Association for Computing Machinery. Copyright © 2015 ACM, Inc.

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