How Adobe Cultivates Customer Empathy To Build Better Products With Thibault Imbert [Podcast]

In this week’s episode of Starving for Insight,  I’m joined by Thibault Imbert, Director of Growth for Adobe’s Creative Cloud division. We sat down to chat about customer empathy: what it is and how organizations can use it to build better products.

We also discussed how important it is to talk to your customers face-to-face, and why building a diverse team of people who are really self-aware and ready for a challenge is so important for growth and insight.

Scroll down for the full transcript, and be sure to leave your comments below to let us know what you thought of the discussion.

Listen to this episode and subscribe to Starving for Insight on Apple Podcasts.

 3 Key User Experience Takeaways

  • Everything starts with empathy, and it’s so important to understand the problem your customers have.
  • Go and meet your customers face-to-face. Otherwise, you’re operating within your own shell and biases.
  • Learn how to say “I don’t know” if you want to be a great leader.


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Time Stamped Show Notes

[00:00:18] Introduction

[00:01:58] Empathy

[00:02:35] Goal of article

[00:03:14] Definition of customer empathy

[00:05:14] Voice of customer

[00:06:23] First step of framework

[00:06:33] Hiring

[00:07:24] Power users

[00:08:09] Non-users

[00:09:00] External customers

[00:10:20] Marketing

[00:11:58] Current users

[00:12:52] Follow Me Home

[00:13:46] Meeting in person

[00:15:20] Facebook Group

[00:16:33] Churn users

[00:17:07] Slack channel

[00:18:23] Product context

[00:19:56] Quarterly visits in person

[00:21:01] Growth

[00:22:33] Bias in hiring

[00:23:53] Self-aware of bias

[00:25:06] Adobe Cloud, Creative Cloud

[00:26:29] Failure of growth

[00:27:04] Spark

[00:29:51] Brian Balfour

[00:32:48] Executive buy-in

[00:34:00] No growth

[00:35:16] Photoshop

[00:37:28] Decision-making

[00:41:43] Attributes to success

[00:44:12] Good leaders

[00:44:50] Vulnerability

[00:48:05] I don’t know

Full Episode Transcript:

Ashley: Hey everyone, welcome to this week’s episode of Starving for Insight. Today, I’m joined by Thibault over at Adobe and Thibault, why don’t you tell us a little about yourself and what you are doing over there?


Thibault: Hey, sure. Thanks, Ashley. So, first, thank you for having me. I’m very honored. Quick intro on me. I’ve been at Adobe for 10 years now and started as a sales engineer and then moved to product management. Recently, moved into growth which is the blend of marketing and product and data. Before that, I was a developer and an engineer. Yeah, that’s pretty much my background.


Ashley: Thank you, yes. So, one of the reasons I really wanted to have Thibault on here today is he wrote this series of blog posts for Growth Hackers, it was called, “The complete guide to building customer empathy,” and our mutual friend, Danny had sent it to me and said, “This is awesome. You have to read this.” I saw that you gave a talk on Growth Hackers as well and it was great. You’re doing some really interesting stuff over there at Adobe. Would you mind telling me a little bit more about the customer empathy framework and telling the listeners a little bit about it? Perhaps they haven’t seen it before.


Thibault: Yeah, sure. So, really, it started as a conversation with other people about– We talked a lot of about growth and the data and what kind of hacks, the tactics… but what I wanted to do was to go back to a topic that we often don’t really– That’s not really discussed heavily in the community, at least it hasn’t been so far, that much. It’s really the empathy, and why do we do the things we do, and how do we actually put the voice of the customer back in the center of everything we do. Because I really believe that it starts– Everything starts with empathy.

I don’t think you can be a good product leader or marketer or customer support or– Anyone that’s working on a product has to have that empathy and really understand the problem that the customers have. So, the goal of the article was to walk people through the process, and how you [can] develop frameworks that you put that voice of the customer back in the center of your organization so that as much as possible, that voice is exposed. Because often it really helps everyone go back to the foundations, the basics. Everyone has an opinion, but really, at the end of the day, it goes back to the customer, the problem they have and how they feel about your product.


Ashley: That is so well said. I’m really curious because I’m asked this sometimes too, and I don’t have a great answer for it, but how do you define customer empathy?


Thibault: Yeah, that’s a good question. I think customer empathy for me is being embedded within the problems that people have in their everyday life and understanding why your product is making their life easier and better, and really blend with the users in the sense that it’s not you pretending, “Oh, I’m going to talk to some customers today and I’m going to get a feel of what it is to use my product.” It’s actually you becoming a user of your product, becoming part of the community and really feeling the pain that the customers have yourself, so that you can have as much authenticity as possible when you also talk to customers. Because customers will feel, how much you know about the space. How much do you know about the problem? If you come off as a little bit external to the thing or not even knowing how to use your own product, it really falls down and for me, I’ve been in meetings, and in conversations where a lot of people have opinions but a lot of these people might not have used the product at all. I say it’s so critical that everyone who voices an opinion on the road map, the marketing, anything about the product is using the product every day.


For me, customer empathy is really blending with the users in an authentic way and being that constant voice from the customer in your organization, because a lot of the conversation and the battles I’ve had on my product career is the voice of the customer is always what gets people back to the right track in the sense that, “Okay, that’s how people feel. It’s not me with ego or me with a title or the loudest person in the room.” When people hear what people say about the product, it generally has a dramatic impact on people’s emotions in the team and wanting to build a better product.


Ashley: So many interesting takeaways there and so, I’m just going to part and parcel some of them. I have to ask first. What tips or advice do you have from your experience that actually serve as the ways of the customer in your organization? That’s always one people struggle with, and I think you have such an interesting take on this.


Thibault: Yeah, so, for me, Ashley, as I said the first step for the framework is really becoming a user, from marketing to product managers. And it starts from the hiring process. Sometimes, you hear people say, “Oh, we really have to hire someone.” “Well, that person is not really a fit.” “It’s all right, we need hands.” No, no, no. You need to set the bar high because everyone needs to really understand the product, understand the space, or even if they don’t know the product, which is totally fine, but you don’t show up at an interview to work on a product without having used the product. It’s a show-stopper. It’s always been for me, crazy to show up at an interview and, “Oh, have you used our product?” “Oh no, not really.” Well, that’s the wrong start.


So, it started by becoming a user, hiring the right people with the right enthusiasm and curiosity. And for me, it starts there. Then, through the entire process around the framework that I’m covering, it’s really about then understanding the users and their early adopters. The people that will become your power users, trying to understand who they are and what they do and then. Then you’re really going to start sitting in kind of like a community and really blend within that community because that’s how you learn a lot about the competition, because your early adopters are generally people that have used other products because they are always on the tip of the spear in the sense that they always try the new things. So, they are trying your product, they can tell you what’s hot in the space and so, you can learn a ton.


Then, once you have that, obviously the biggest, the most important is understanding the people who are not using your product. So, there’s a large part of users that will come to your product and they’ll leave and it’s tempting to just go and talk to the people that love your product. It’s gratifying, there’s a little bit of an ego boost, and it’s okay. But it’s really important that you start talking to the people that have turned and really try to understand what’s happening. So, there’s this entire loop that I cover through the framework where you go through these steps and what you try to do is all these learnings, all these insights, all these conversations should not happen in a vacuum with a salesperson and a marketing person and a PM going into meetings in a closed room and sharing Evernotes’ notes through a Slack channel, it’s not that.


I mean it’s literally opening the community and having that at the center of the organization. By having external customers in your Slack channel with a channel like VOC, voice of the customer, where people can see support questions. Maybe a Facebook group, invite all the engineers to a Facebook group where you can see all the conversations from your users and really make this entire flow of feedback and empathy be part of everyday of the team in the everyday work. It shouldn’t be an effort to go listen to the voice of the customer, listen to a recording, no, no. It’s part of your feed, it’s part of everything you do. And that’s where magic happens because then empathy is in the center of the organization.


Ashley: There’s so much actual stuff in there and I’m just going to try sum it up and you can just let me know if I’ve got it. So, empathy, that’s the center of everything. We’ve talked about product and a lot of product examples, would you agree it’s also for marketing and growth as well, or do you find empathy is more important than product?


Thibault: Yeah, know, I think it’s for everything, Ashley. That’s what I’m trying to really emphasize when I talk about that, that product and marketing to me is the same thing. Marketing is an extension of your product experience. We live in the world where every touch point, everything you say, whether it’s on the landing page of the product, on the re-targeting Facebook campaign or whatever on social, everything you say needs to have a soul. It needs to sound authentic. I think it’s extremely important that it’s for the entire organization.


Ashley: No, I couldn’t agree more. So, it starts with empathy. The very first place it starts with you is who you hire. So, it sounds like you are a fan of the school of thought, “Hire slow, fire fast.” You have to find people who come in, and if they’ve never used your product, that’s a deal breaker for you. So, that’s kind of one of your gatekeepers when you are hiring.  And then after you really get into working with the users and all those qualitative things we can talk a little bit more in detail, it’s also equally important that it sounds like it’s a place where you think people often miss and I see that as well, people who don’t talk to their– Sorry, people who don’t use your product.


Thibault: Yeah, and I’m going to continue, if you want, to the next steps–


Ashley: Yes.


Thibault: Of the whole process. So, you just mentioned, talk to the churn users. That’s the fourth step of the loop is talking to these users. And again, often when you work in big companies… it doesn’t have to be Fortune 500 but as startups grow… it’s tempting to outsource that stuff to other teams or even outsource it, and you lose that connection. You make it something that’s on the side and that’s not really part of what the team does. So, I really encourage my team, my growth teams working at Adobe who work on products, to really go and meet the customer face-to-face. We got inspired by what Intuit did a long time ago, something called, ‘Follow Me Home,’ where the founder was asking people in the parking lot of supermarkets, how do they actually file their taxes. And he was basically asking them, “Hey, can you actually show me what you’re going through?” I thought that’s product management one-on-one but sometimes, you forget to do these things. You’re like, “Well, you know, let’s fire a Zoom conference call and then, we’ll call and Skype that person.”


Yeah, you can absolutely do this and you should and it’s great. But what I’ve observed is that it makes such a huge difference to actually meet people in person. I know you might say, “Well, that’s not scalable.” It’s not that you just do that, but you need to do it in addition to the digital stuff you do. The surveys and the conversations on Zoom are great, but meeting your user in person… where you go and you meet this person who is trying to use your product in an RV in Ohio, and you live in a bubble in Silicon Valley on a $2,000 computer. And you think, “Well, I don’t understand why these people are churning,” and you might discover a that a lot of your users actually have a slow connection, they have a completely different way of using technology, but you cannot feel these things until you actually meet the person. See their environments and build empathy and understand how they work and this, seeing the person, meeting the person for real makes a huge impact on the team.


It’s not a note that you’re sharing on Slack. It’s like, “Oh my God, we went to see Jenny last week in Nevada, and she’s working and she’s doing this job and she’s using our product at night. She’s got one hour, because she’s got a yoga school and she needs- -” Basically, it makes such a huge difference when you actually meet people in person. So, that’s something I really encourage my team to do. And we do that for every single product .


Ashley: Okay, I think that’s huge. I think a couple of things you suggested before that I wanted to highlight is how you mentioned, the real magic happens when you don’t have to think about empathy. So, a couple of quick ways you do that is you have external customers in one of your company’s internal Slack channels. And you have a Facebook group, you can also invite the engineers, anyone else to be a part of that group. I believe that group for you is a community group for members or a VIP group.


Thibault: Yep, absolutely.


Ashley: So, that’s kind of the excuse? Is the user research group, if they know it’s a user research group or is it a VIP group for —


Thibault: No, and that’s a good question. What we’ve done is two things. One is that we set up Facebook groups where there is an insider group, for VIP. We invite our power users and most– They are our ambassador. And so that’s the pool of users that we grow, we nurture, they are special in the sense that they are power users. We, obviously, work with that in terms of beta, getting featured feedback but it’s an amazing stream of conversations to really understand how they think and the problems they go through.


Then, obviously what’s dangerous is that you start developing a product only for these users. And then, you end up completely missing the big opportunity. You might have 2000 early adopters who are highly retained, but you might have 150,000 churn users. So, you’re completely missing the opportunity. You should be actually talking churn users. So, what we do is we also have global community group where it’s welcome to everyone and teams can do the things that they feel is best. But we have both so that you can also see both sides of the coin.


Ashley: All right. I think that’s huge because you can really bias yourself if you’re only doing one but to have both–


Thibault: Correct.


Ashley: Is your Slack channel also for VIP Insiders, how do you frame that?


Thibault: So, I haven’t done that personally in our growth initiatives, the Slack stuff. We have product teams that have done it, invite people on Slack, we have done experiments where we have people coming over on Slack and doing daily challenges where we have people sign up for two weeks and then they go on Slack and we have coaches and trainers coach them and teach them how to use the product. Really, high touch, vital experience. And of course, for product teams that are building new products or shipping new features, we’ve had teams do that. There’s no standardized way to do it but it’s pretty common.


Ashley: Yeah, no, thank you for digging in there. I have to go into your next batch of valuable insights now. Those are just two actual suggestions that I really wanted to highlight. So, when it comes down to it, you have to see the customer in person, or in a Zoom call or a video conference call. That’s good. And you have surveys and quantitative and qualitative research as well. But you have to complement, in your opinion, that with an in-person visit because there is so much context it sounds like. You’re missing out if you don’t go in-person and it can’t be replaced with a video call, correct?


Thibault: Absolutely, absolutely. You have so much local, regional, cultural context. If you are scaling your product to go in India, in Japan or in France or whatever region of the world and you’re developing this product in Silicon Valley or in a city where you are not the user, you have to go and be with the community, be with the users and embed yourself. And even better, hire people that are from these different regions to really help you build the product that really resonates and feels right for everyone. You need to build a product for everyone, not just for the people around you.


Ashley: No, I think that’s so well said. And again, it doesn’t necessarily have to be, and I think you said this, USA versus Japan. It’s San Francisco versus Nevada, it’s San Francisco versus San Jose, San Jose versus L.A. or another small town. It’s varied context and I think that’s huge. If you don’t mind me asking, how many times per year does your team generally try to meet with customers in-person at their locations?


Thibault: For instance, for the Follow Me Home example, we’re trying to do it every time we kick off new ideation. Right now, to be honest with you, we’re not setting up a specific cadence but probably three times a year, going once a quarter, basically. We’re trying to purely go there and visit customers, but also trying to answer some key questions that are really more higher level. Sometimes, it’s very tactical, sometimes it’s just more high level. But once a quarter is the cadence we are looking at right now.


Obviously, right now, every product team at Adobe has done this for years. It’s just that from a growth standpoint, I really want to make sure that when we think about growth, it’s tempting to think about marketing tactics and all these things. But for me, growth is an extension of a product. It starts with a great product, and so it’s important that everyone who works in growth has a deep, deep understanding of the product because that’s also a great way to build that empathy, that social capital with the product team. When you go to the product team and when you say, “Hey, we’re going to actually run an experiment inside your on-boarding and we’re going to try this,” the product team has to believe you understand the product, you understand the users and you understand what you are doing, or there is going to be this natural antibodies rejection. “Okay, here come the marketers with their stuff, it’s spammy, whatever.” So, it’s extremely important to have that history and baggage with you so that you have that trust.


Ashley: I think that’s so well said. One of the things you mentioned a bit earlier is that a definite gatekeeper when hiring is knowing how to use the product when locking that interview. But in general, I believe your philosophy as a team is you have to be users of the product first. How do you guard against the bias that happens? You mentioned this in the framework as well that your customer isn’t necessarily an engineer living in Silicon Valley, so how you use the product and how someone else uses the product is different?


Thibault: It’s a very good point. It happens when you hire and there is some bias in your hiring, you might be tempted to hire people that are really strong technically, but actually you realize that these people are not bringing a different perspective on cultures or psychology or things like that. And so, what I think is important and what we are trying to do is to be diverse in your hiring. Also, challenge yourself with hiring people that– For me, when I hire for growth, I don’t hire necessarily for the skills. I’m hiring for capabilities, and is that person capable of gaining the insights and of getting the skills but the most important is the mindset. Often I say, I can teach you Sequel or Hadoop or I can teach you statistics, but I can’t teach you to not be a jerk, right?


It’s something that’s very important. You can’t change people and it’s so important that you hire people where you feel they can also challenge themselves and understand and be self-aware of that bias. So, you’re coming in, you make that much money, we all live in a bubble here, we’re going to be building this product for everyone, the world is not us. How are you going to go build the product? I think it’s important that you have people that, even if they are not necessarily representative of all the people – because that’s impossible, you’re not going to have your teammate of every member of every country in the world, doesn’t make sense. But it’s really self-awareness and people understanding how to fill the gaps by challenging themselves.


Ashley: Again, that’s very well said. And I think one of the things that you built into the process automatically is by doing those in-person customer visits, really helps gives that context to the team that they are not the user and remind them of that.


Thibault: Exactly.


Ashley: So, one of the things I wanted to really chat with you about is, you are the head of growth for Adobe Creative Cloud, which is a lot of different products in one. But when you created this framework for Adobe and it was so successful, this is for Adobe Spark. And based on the success, you’re now the director for Adobe Cloud. So, you’re transitioning from basically a start-up within a big company to more organization-wide, which is a huge challenge and I definitely want to make sure to talk about that. One quick thing I want to talk about first in our pre-game chat, I was going to ask, what’s a good inside story that you’d like to share? You mentioned, “Well, we can talk about some of my mistakes,” that would be the best thing ever.


Thibault: It’s very satisfying to talk about the things that worked great. It’s really like a vanity thing. It’s great, you talk about all the amazing things and hacks or things that have worked and that’s great. And honestly, I’ll admit it, I love reading these blog posts. We all do. They work really well I’m sure in terms of traffic. But I was tempted to create a website literally, ‘Failure of Growth’ or something like that. It’s probably a terrible marketing strategy in the name but I think ultimately you learn from failing. And in growth, most of what we do is failing. But the whole point is failing quickly so that you can learn from that and then, you sometimes have some home runs. So, what I wanted to share with your audience listening to the podcast is I’ve done a lot of mistakes and one of them was– For instance, let’s talk about Spark.


Spark is a really interesting product that Adobe created a few years back, and the whole vision was and still is to go and reach a broader audience. The people that don’t necessarily have the skills to learn professional tools. I take the example of that yoga coach in Nevada. She has one hour in the evening to create a newsletter or create a graphic for Instagram. She is an entrepreneur, she’s working, she’s doing everything by herself and you can’t have her pick a book for Photoshop and then, learn Photoshop for a month. Most of these people will say, “What is the quick way from my mobile phone or on the go or on my commute to actually do that stuff?” And so we have to step back and think about different products. When we created Spark, I was a product manager, I was building Spark Post which is this graphics app which basically creates images for social media.


I realized quickly that we needed to do growth because there was a lot of questions coming to my mind and I didn’t have answers. It was a lot of data. It was more of the quant because I was very deep in qual but not enough in quant. And my general manager back then, who really trusted the process and really invested in growth and I think he’s a big part in actually having Adobe invest in growth because he gave me that chance to actually build a growth team inside Spark… and I told him back then, I didn’t have the framework. I didn’t have the process to do work, to do growth in a scientific way. I had the empathy, I had the passion, I had a lot of the skills but I didn’t have the framework to really focus on the right things, how to do growth and how to build a growth machine. So, I can give you some examples. For instance, one of the biggest mistakes was thinking that you can just do growth by attacking it from the outside by just looking at tactics. “Oh I read this great article about push notifications. We should probably do push notifications,” and you’re like, “Well, yeah.”


Yes, push notifications do help, but is that the most important thing to do? And, secondly, what is really your framework for implementing that? How do you make so that you’re really going to have the biggest impact? So, I did the mistake of running towards the tactics. And I think a lot of us in growth, when you start, you do the same thing. And then, second mistake was really not being able to prioritize the right things. One of the things I learned from Brian Balfour from Reforge is this quote that I love. You really want to change the culture, the mindset to stop thinking from, “Is this going to work?” You want people in your team to think, “Is it worth doing?” And that’s so important. Yeah, it might work. Push notifications might work, but is it really what we should be doing right now? Is that the biggest opportunity?


I didn’t have these pieces, and so when I moved to Creative Cloud and the VP of Creative Cloud marketing told me, we’d love for you to do growth. I didn’t have that framework but I was like, “Oh man, this is a fantastic opportunity. I just can’t say no.” This was super scary but I said, “Yes,” and then, for the past nine months, I’ve been really much more scientific about this and developing a framework so that we can do growth for 20 products on the portfolio. When you build a growth machine for 20 products on a five billion dollar business, you can’t just go with throw stuff at the wall and say, “Hey, why don’t we do this? Why don’t we do that?” You have hundreds of people on the field asking you, “What should we be focusing on?” So, you really need to be developing a framework that you can give to your team and say, “This is how we are going to operate and this is how we are going to scale.” Otherwise, it’s just chaos.  


Ashley: So many great things to unpack there. Just first, for those who don’t know, quant and qual. Quant is quantitative data, hard numbers, and qual is qualitative data which is qualitative research. Just a quick note there. So, it sounds like you are in the middle of this right now, sounds like you’re in this new role and you have the skills that you can’t teach and you’re building this framework from scratch. I’d love to learn a little bit more about that and how you are getting this buy-in to this new type of thinking as well. That quote from Brian, he writes some pretty prolific essays online, they’re great. He’s the former head of growth for HubSpot as well. That quote, I haven’t heard that. I think that’s fantastic. It’s a really good frame of reference. Not will it work, but is it worth doing. I think that’s huge. Could you maybe tell us a little bit more about taking what worked within the start-up, and now getting buy-in and expanding and building that framework from scratch and how you still managed to keep the empathy alive now when you’re doing to across 20 products in a five billion dollar revenue for your organization?


Thibault: You touched on something that’s extremely important and I mentioned quickly, you need to have executive buy-in because growth is something that is still new. When you hire product management– If you create a new start-up and you tell your board, we’re going to have product managers, yeah, that makes sense. No one is going to challenge that. But when you say we’re going to have also a team with engineers, scientists, and marketers and it’s called growth, maybe in the Valley, it’s like, “Yeah, okay, of course, you need a growth team.” That’s hot. Actually one of the mistakes is to have a growth team when you don’t even have product, when it’s too early. But in other regions of the world, like say, Europe, it’s probably a little bit less common. I would even argue that even in Silicon Valley, there’s still a lot of companies that would say, “What is growth? Don’t we already do that? Oh yeah, you mean it’s marketing, right? It’s marketing of the product.”


Everyone is doing growth, everyone should be thinking about growth. That’s also another one you’ll hear. “What are you talking about? You’re talking about experimentation and building a great product and fixing all these problems. We have the marketing team, we have a product team, they all do that every day, they live and breathe growth.” That’s something we’ve had in one of the decks that we shared with our executives. If everyone says that they are doing growth, the reality is that no one is really doing it, because you don’t really have a team that’s accountable. When things fail, it’s not really anyone’s fault. Well, it’s okay. The problem is that it’s not even exciting or rewarding because you don’t have any really clear goals. What we did with Spark, my boss back then, general manager of Spark, said, “Hey, we’re going to do growth and I’m going to give you a small team with one designer, a few engineers and let’s see how this is going.” But before we got to that, what triggered him to give us some people was that myself as a product manager, I was doing growth without that title, without that mandate. But I was basically getting one engineer and myself to do some tweaks in the product that triggered some question and curiosity from management. “Oh, that’s interesting. What if we did more of that?”


That’s really what I encourage my growth leads to do when we start. Let’s say you create a growth team for a new product or an existing product. Let’s say Photoshop, a huge brand, huge product. And then you create a new growth team. I recently encouraged my growth lead, I said, “Make sure you start focusing on the low hanging fruit.” It’s so critical that you don’t set a North Star that’s really impossible to reach because you’re going to lose the momentum, people are going to start losing faith and interest, the team is going to start asking questions like “is that really the thing that I want to be a part of?” So, you really want to start focusing on the low hanging fruit. I would say even borderline vanity metrics, but at least prove the velocity and the fact that the team is able to execute extremely quickly. You say, “Hey, with that velocity we can figure out the right focus and framework.” And then you basically want executives to say, “Hey, show me what you got. I’ll give you one more person and come back in a few weeks.” So, really, it starts with getting your quick wins.


Ashley: Now, I think that’s huge. I think that applies to bringing any new type of thinking or philosophy or way of working, and we’re talking specifically about growth and customer empathy. That’s counter-intuitive to a lot of advice that people will tell you, in terms of focusing on metrics that matter versus focusing on vanity metrics in the beginning, just at that POC, that proof of concept. I think that’s not something you hear a lot and I think that’s a huge win for anyone trying to get buy-in for a new type of initiative or methodology, regardless of whether it’s customer empathy or growth. I think that’s pretty great advice there.


I don’t want to keep you too long because I know you have a big presentation today to the executive team but I do want to ask you quickly, this has been so full of so many great tidbits of information… but a little bit more on the personal side, can you tell me maybe a little bit more on how you go through a process of making decisions? Any criteria or set of habits that you use when it comes to making decisions that you can share?


Thibault: I wish I had a very smart answer to this. I’ll just say that what I’ve learned in the past year, especially building a team and having more people working in my team and reporting to me, is that, the first thing I ask myself now is, do I need to take this decision? Because my role, ultimately, is to take less decisions but smarter ones. And it’s tempting, especially when you are new to management to not let go of that. Yu still want to control a little bit of everything. So, you’re going to be like, “Hey, we’re going to do this,” but actually you have very smart people working for you and it’s not really encouraging. You need to give people space to grow and develop and so, you’re going to get a lot of social capital and trust by actually letting your team take some of these decisions. For me, that’s the first thing: do I need to be the person making that decision?


Second is, how important is that decision and do we need to make this decision now? What is the impact of this decision? If it’s something that’s just low risk, I can just make the decision and just execute. Even if I get it wrong, it’s all right. One of the things that’s very important is to recognize later that you made a mistake to your team and actually be open about it. I think it’s extremely important. I read this article recently where the author was suggesting that we should keep track of all the mistakes that we made and at the end of the year you start looking at what were the right ones and what were the good ones and what was the process, what was the reason you got it wrong? I think it would be very interesting because sometimes, maybe it’s an ego thing, maybe it’s because you didn’t have enough information. So, I’m going to start thinking about doing that. I’m going to start thinking about the decisions I made in the past, and I think it could be interesting to also develop yourself and be a better leader.


Then, there are the decisions that are really important for the business. Like right now, at Adobe, we’re building this growth organization, it’s a big business and there’s a lot of teams that are excited to work on growth and you want to make sure that you don’t screw this up entirely. So, for this, it requires a lot of observation and conversations with also other leaders from the industry. Going back to the data and really working on a framework, on a plan for even sometimes a month, but taking the time to really put all the chances on your side. I think observation is a huge one, especially. I mean for everything, but in growth you often just think that you can figure it out yourself. But there’s a lot of people, smart people that maybe have figured it out or made some of the mistakes you made.


So, looking at the window, going out and talking to other leaders in the industry and saying, “Hey. That’s what I’m struggling with. How did you do that?” It’s very comforting sometimes to see that others have made the same mistakes and hear how they solved it. So, that’s my thought process.


Ashley: I think that’s really interesting and I may grab that link from you about that article that you mentioned. We can do a follow-up episode if you decide to track the decision-making habits, I think that’s a really great thing to do and really interesting. I’d be really interested to see the results of anyone doing that. To see what kind of patterns they came up with.


Just quickly and we’re going to wrap up here, if you had to attribute your success… and you’re very humble but you are incredibly successful in what you do… what habit would you attribute most to this success if you could pick one?


Thibault: I think the most important thing, I would say is probably the hustle and the ability to get people to rally behind a goal and a vision and socialize it. Be a person that people want to work with. I think it starts there. There’s this quote, I don’t know if it’s true, from the CEO of Netflix, where he says, “You can’t afford jerks. It’s too expensive.” I think you can have some very smart people in an organization but if they are not people that people feel are uplifting, it will have a toxic impact. They might be extremely smart, driving a lot of sales, but you might have a bigger compound impact by firing that person and having someone who maybe performs a little bit less but is a very uplifting and social person. Someone that people feel excited about working with and actually have everyone in the company have a morale boost.


For me, it’s one of the things that comes from the community. When I started at Adobe, I had a blog and I was really involved in the community, I wrote some books and I was a teacher. I was teaching programming at school and so I’ve always been sharing things, writing articles, writing books. And what I’ve done in my job is really communicate and communicate. Really, provide– How to put this? Get people excited around a vision and also help people be part of it and also be successful in their own way. I think what happens is you can naturally lead, because people get excited about a vision and then you can start building your team. So, often what I tell my reports or people around I have a conversation with is, you shouldn’t really worry about getting credits for what you do. Sometimes, people can get worried, “Oh, you know I’m doing all this good work. I’m afraid I won’t be really rewarded for that.”


I say good leaders, good product managers or good leaders or whatever you do–  For me, the foundation is you give credit and you take blame. That’s extremely important. And by doing this, you get a lot of trust, a lot of respect and naturally you will be able to lead. The other thing I wanted to say is being vulnerable. That’s something that took me a long time to figure out. What made leaders that I would see inside, outside in my career, great leaders? For me, it’s really the people that can become vulnerable and expose themselves and taking risks. I think that’s something that we don’t talk often enough and maybe it’s something I should write about. How important it is to be vulnerable in your decisions, because I think vulnerability is what gives authenticity and what ultimately gives your team a sense that you are a human being, that you are like them, that you have some power but at the same time with vulnerability. I think it’s something very subtle but it’s something very interesting to think about.


Ashley: That’s really interesting to think about. I haven’t heard it quite framed like that before. So, now I have to ask you if being vulnerable is part of being a good leader, do you have an example of that? Because I think a lot of people will have trouble doing that, myself included. Do you have an example of when you’ve done that or a tip to be able to make yourself a little bit more comfortable being more vulnerable with your team?


Thibault: It’s so tempting to go in a meeting and not really have an opinion. “Oh yeah, well, this is a very good point. Yeah, yeah, Jennifer, what do you think?” You really never take a stance in saying, “Okay, you know what? I think this is great but what do you guys think, given all the feedback you guys provided, why don’t we do this? If you know, there is someone to blame, it’s going to be me but we’re going to do this and we’re going to figure it out.” I think, generally, people are like, “Okay, let’s do this.” The fact that you openly say we might be wrong but we’re doing this because we are learning and you know what, even if we fail, that’s all right, it’s on me and I made this decision and we’re going to do this. It gives you so much social capital with the team because they feel you’re taking a risk and then, at the same time, giving some air cover for your team and that’s huge.


I really think it’s important to be able to make these decisions, take risks, expose yourself . Because at the end of the day, you can’t process if you are not making these decisions. So for me, when I was a product manager, it was acknowledging that I didn’t have the responses. I remember I wrote an article a long time ago about product management, ‘My Top 20 Pieces of Advice On How To Be A Good Product Manager’. And I learned so much, but one of the things I think I got right back then, was you have to be able to admit, “I don’t know.” I don’t know but we are going to figure it out. Being able to say I don’t know instead of “Well, you know, I think we should do,” where literally everyone in the room knows it’s bullshit. Just saying I don’t know also makes everyone feel you are authentic. That’s something I try to do and right now, at growth, we’re doing it for Creative Cloud on a bigger scale, much more risks. I try to be as open about things and I think that’s– I think people appreciate that.


Ashley: I’m just going to try and sum that up very quickly because it was so good. Now I wish we had another hour to talk! But one, don’t hire jerks. And if you are a jerk, just stop being a jerk. I think that’s just pretty good general advice and if you ever do figure out a way for people not to be jerks, I’m pretty sure you’ll be an overnight billionaire.


The second thing is, I think this is a huge one, is to be vulnerable, whether you’re a leader or not. If you don’t know something, you can just say, “You know what? We might get it wrong, we’ll figure it out.” I think a lot of people make decisions and we think they just know what to do but ultimately if you ask them, “Talk about that decision from three years ago.” “Oh, I had no idea. I was just hoping to figure that out.” But actually telling and sharing that with your team builds so much social capital, and if you don’t know something, just say you don’t know and it’s the same thing. My background is law and when you’re coaching someone for a deposition or trial, you don’t know something, you say you don’t know. It’s the same thing. You don’t know, just say it. It’s not that big of a deal. It’s better to be authentic and honest and true than trying to make something up. I think that’s such huge advice. Did I sum that up right?


Thibault: Absolutely. In growth, a lot of the time, often, you just don’t know. It starts with, I don’t know but we’re going to see, we’re going to figure it out, we’re going to discover, we’re going to get some data.


You need intuition and you mentioned that in the past, product sense, product intuition. Often, people get scared when you say, “We’re going to be testing things,” because they feel like their vision or intuition or gut feeling is going to be taken away. It’s all right. You don’t build an Airbnb from AB testing.


You build Airbnb or Adobe because one morning, you say “Hey, you know what? There is a problem with the storage file. I think there should be a better way.” Or, “I think there’s probably a better way to draw and design on a computer.” And you create Illustrator. But it’s along the way, being able to say I don’t know and testing. It’s really important, otherwise you end up doing this very dangerous dance of gut feel driven vision. Today, in the world we live in, we’re building products for the world and you’re not the world. So, it’s very important to reduce the risk by testing and saying I don’t know otherwise, most of the time we are wrong. So, it’s important to say I don’t know.


Ashley: I think that brings us back to, we talked about Brian Balfour. I think he did a piece a while back. Basically, the three ingredients or the four ingredients when you are running tests. It’s really quantitative data, qualitative data, and the third is gut instinct. It’s like they are a trifecta and used together instead of one in isolation and then you test what your guess is based on those, that trifecta.


Thibault: Exactly.


Ashley: You brought up Airbnb which I think is a great example to close things out because Brian Chesky, one of the co-founders of Airbnb actually said, “They didn’t build Airbnb by AB testing.” Which I think some people would like to believe, but it had early customer visits, a Follow Me Home and they got handed the 10-year product road map from one customer on a Follow Me Home visit. So, I think that’s a great example and a good way to end here.


Thank you so much for coming on here today. I have about 20 more questions that I want to ask but I think maybe we’ll have room for another episode in the future. The show goes where it goes. It’s fantastic career and leadership and management advice as well, vulnerability and saying I don’t know. And some great criteria for helping make decisions, because no one has the perfect process for that. It’s all growth and finding what works for you and learning what’s worked for other people. So, thank you so much.


Thibault: Yeah, it was pleasure, Ashley. I hope it’s going to be valuable to everyone and thanks again for having me.


Ashley: No, I have no doubt that it will. And a lot of the resources we mentioned in here, we’ll make sure to link that up in the show notes. Good luck on your meeting later today and thank you again.


Thibault: Thank you, bye.