THE BLOG

Women in Business: Catherine Courage, Senior Vice President, Customer Experience, Citrix

05/16/2015 07:10 am ET | Updated May 16, 2016

As senior vice president of customer experience, Catherine Courage is responsible for championing exceptional design to drive innovation at Citrix. Her team is responsible for company-wide brand, advertising, social, web, product design, information experience, and business process reinvention. Their mission is to partner with functions across the company to deliver an outstanding experience for both customers and employees.

Courage began her career at Citrix in 2009 as vice president of product design. Her determination and passion to grow design as a core differentiator led to the competency becoming a company-wide initiative and to the elevation of her role to senior vice president of customer experience.

When Courage isn't evangelizing design at Citrix, you'll find her discussing the topic at TEDx, Stanford's d.school, the California College of the Arts, Tech Women and Design Management Institute. She co-authored the book Understanding Your Users and her work has been featured by Harvard Business Review, The Wall Street Journal, and Fast Company.

Prior to Citrix, Courage held other design leadership positions at Salesforce.com and Oracle. She holds a master's degree in applied sciences, specializing in human factors, from the University of Toronto. In addition, Courage is an active board member for the California College of the Arts and Leukemia and Lymphoma Society.

How has your life experience made you the leader you are today?
I grew up on the east coast of Canada in the small town of St. John's, Newfoundland. My first job was delivering daily newspapers. Each day after school whether there was rain, shine or a snowstorm, I had to physically carry 50 papers around the neighborhood. It taught me early on that discipline and hard work are required to be good at any job. I was grateful and proud to have that opportunity and I've learned to appreciate all the jobs that I've had throughout my career.

After graduating from the University of Toronto with a Masters in Applied Sciences, I became curious about technology and wanted to see what all the Silicon Valley 'fuss' was about. The thought of moving to California and working in tech was scary, but the opportunity was too exciting, so I used my excitement to overcome my fear. It's been 15 years since I packed my bags and moved and it was one of the best decisions I ever made. If it didn't work out, Toronto would still be there. I've never been afraid to take chances, even when they presented the unknown or scared me.

How has your previous employment experience aided your position at Citrix?
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 user experience and design. I co-authored a book, Understanding Your Users, with my coworker Kathy Baxter during this time, which taught me a tremendous amount about disciple.

Early in my career, 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 Salesforce.com, 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.

At Citrix, I had the opportunity to take what I learned along my career and apply it to a large established company (20 years old with 7,500 people when I joined). As someone who was hired to introduce a new approach to design and customer experience, I quickly learned about the importance of change management. Six years later, I've been able to see the transformation of one of Silicon Valley's most successful technology firms into a leader of design-driven excellence and innovation. It's been an exciting and rewarding journey.

What have the highlights and challenges been during your tenure at Citrix?
When I first joined Citrix, CEO, Mark Templeton issued a challenge: Make Citrix a leader of design excellence by transforming the traditional engineering-driven company into one whose very DNA is built on the fundamentals of design thinking and doing. Design thinking was an ideal framework for us to use because it focuses on developing deep empathy for customers and creating solutions that will match their needs as opposed to just dreaming up and delivering technology for technology's sake.

We started by training our product organizations and built a team of design professionals and researchers who could go out and understand what was on our consumers' minds and the opportunities that we had in the areas where we compete. However, we soon found that a customer-centric approach was applicable to everything we were doing and we wanted to scale it across the business. As we started to do that, we realized that Citrix, like many companies, has different sub-cultures and the approaches that we tried in the product development area didn't necessarily apply to other parts of the organization. This was an important lesson as we started working with different teams across the business.

To date we've trained almost half of our 9,000 employees in a customer-centric approach to problem solving using an approach that makes design thinking meaningful and relevant to everyone, regardless of division.

What advice can you offer women who want a career in your industry?
If I was to look back in time, I never would have believed that that I would become a Senior Vice President at a tech company, but that didn't reflect a lack of confidence or ambition. First, I've always believed in the importance of owning your career. Often women work hard and wait for things to happen--you always have to be looking forward, seeking opportunity and challenge regardless of industry. Always make sure you're learning from people in roles that 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.

Second, I believe fear comes into play in career advancement, too. I think this can be a challenge for women who may tend to let that feeling of fear hold them back. That twinge of doubt you feel is most often a sign that you're pushing to the next level. My advice is to embrace it rather than letting it hold you back. I always tell myself that if for some reason this new role does not work out, I'll brush myself off and find the next opportunity. It's important to remember that the potential rewards of taking the chance you are considering are tremendous, and far more significant than the fears and risk you may be feeling.

How do you maintain a work/life balance?
Finding work/life balance is all about deciding what is important to you personally, and finding a way to make those things a priority in your own life. Work is very important and I spend a lot of time focused on it, but not at the cost of the things I love outside of work. I love the outdoors and physical activity. I strongly believe that making it a priority actually makes me better at my job. It allows me to clear my head and decompress. I often solve some of my toughest problems when I am out for a run or a swim. I think accountability is also key since I am very commitment oriented. By that I mean, if I plan to volunteer on a board, compete in a triathlon or have Thursday dinner with a friend...I'll be there. If I don't think I can follow through on a commitment I make, then I say no from the get go. Too often people take on more than they can handle because they want to please, and then it's impossible to maintain any sort of balance. And worse, you can end up doing a number of the things, but doing them poorly because you can't give the effort 100% of your focus. This is why I believe learning to say no and turn things down is an important skill.

What do you think is the biggest issue for women in the workplace?
To me, one big challenge is getting women into jobs in STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics). We can't wait until college to engage them - that's too late. We need to help young girls understand that careers in tech are incredible. Being in tech doesn't mean you have to be an engineer writing code, though that is certainly a great career if it interests you! But, there are a whole host of related areas a girl can get interested in and pursue as a career field. In addition, jobs in tech provide great career paths, compensation, benefits and flexibility. I think the best way to combat this challenge is through exposure. We need to bring girls in to the workplace and run career workshops to get hands-on exposure to tech and other STEM fields. At Citrix, we've run sessions for young girls to demonstrate the role of art and creativity in our tech world. The most rewarding part is when a young girl visits our design studio and leaves saying "I want to work here."

How has mentorship made a difference in your professional and personal life?
This question makes me reflect back on my first mentor. I had recently arrived in Silicon Valley fresh from grad school and my manager presented me with the opportunity to have a mentor. Believe it or not, I was actually a little insulted. I thought, "I know it all! What do I need a mentor for? I already have a manager - I don't need a second one." I quickly changed my tune after my first conversation with Joe, my newly introduced mentor. I soon realized that this relationship would be very different from a typical manager. My mentor was someone I could have very open and candid conversations with about my skills, ambitions, workplace politics, and whatever other career questions were on my mind. No matter what I said, I trusted Joe and knew I would not be judged. Our conversations were always held in the strictest confidence. My relationship with Joe, now going on over 15 years, has been one of the most valuable relationships in my life, both professionally and personally.

Living in Silicon Valley I often take for granted the accessibility of tech mentors like Joe who have many years of experience in the field. It's nice to see that there are formal programs like EverWise available today to connect people to mentors, and I would suggest that anyone looking for a mentor try to develop this type of relationship.

Which other female leaders do you admire and why?
I was very lucky to be surrounded by a group of great female leaders from birth. My mother is one of four sisters. She completed her PhD while raising three children, and her three younger sisters each completed a doctorate degree. I grew up thinking I could do anything I wanted! I watched them work hard and earn their accomplishments, which made me believe I could and would achieve success like they had done. I could not have asked for better role models than these four women.

What do you want Citrix to accomplish in the next year?
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 customer experience 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 adopting customer experience as a core tenant, not just a "nice to have," has transformed the experiences we deliver to our customers.

Now that we have a strong customer experience team, and the whole company has embraced the idea of design thinking, the challenge is to maintain this momentum, and further strengthen our focus on customer experience as one of our most strategic differentiators. We believe customers will choose us and stay loyal to us because of this customer focus. We plan to build and scale what we have done to-date, making 2015 a year full of promise for Citrix.