Who better to lead User Experience than an anthropologist? Meet Natalie Hanson. She’s a Principal at ZS, where she provides human-centered strategy, research and design for clients. In addition to a master’s and Ph.D. in Anthropology, she also has a master’s in Whole Systems Design. She’s the sponsor of Pride@ZS, the company’s LGBTQ+ Employee Resource Group. As a result of her involvement with the group, Natalie has found a growing inspiration in her life, saying “I’m now more vocal and political and engaged than I’ve been in many years.”
She recently talked to Fairygodboss about her many interests, how rewarding she finds reverse-mentoring, and how she feels supported by her company in all her endeavors.
Tell us about your job. What are your main priorities at work?
I lead our User Experience (UX) team at ZS, as well as a couple of technical delivery teams. We provide human-centered strategy, research and design for software and custom-developed client solutions. Along with my leadership team, I set the vision and direction for the group, and ensure the team is excited and equipped to deliver on the market demand.
What were you doing previously/what has your career path looked like?
I am trained as an anthropologist. I have a master’s in Whole Systems Design, and a master’s and Ph.D. in Anthropology. I’ve spent my whole career in technology organizations; my interest has always been in bringing together my understanding of business, human behavior, technology, and design.
What drew you to work at your current company?
I wasn’t looking for a new job at the time – ZS came looking for me. I had hit the glass ceiling in my previous company, and in order to progress, I would have had to give up my focus on UX. I was unwilling to do that, so I was at an impasse career-wise. The opportunity to build something new at ZS intrigued me, as did the opportunity to work in healthcare. It was also a chance to report directly into the C-level, which was enticing as well. My wife gave up her job, and we moved with our two boys (who were 2 and 4 at the time) to the Chicago area. It was a huge change both personally and professionally.
What’s your favorite thing about your job?
In management consulting, I often find myself awash in a sea of engineers and MBAs, and humanity often gets lost if my team is not engaged. For me, UX is both my work and my avocation; I’m passionate about ensuring that the work we do takes human needs, preferences, and behaviors into account.
In addition to my passion for the work, people management and coaching is something I truly enjoy. I love helping to groom the next generation of UX leadership and creating an environment where talented young professionals can learn and thrive.
Tell us about your work as global lead of Pride@ZS. How did you get the position, and what are your responsibilities?
There has always been an LGBTQ+ community here, of course. As I got to know members of the community, I realized there was an opportunity to elevate this group and was happy to sponsor it.
The more I got to know the community, the more energized I became about getting involved and making a difference. I felt the warmth, the sense of belonging, and the pleasure of reverse mentoring. It’s been one of the most positive and rewarding roles I’ve played at ZS I’m now more vocal and political and engaged than I’ve been in many years – not just for LGBTQ+ matters, but for Inclusion & Diversity topics more broadly.
Tell us a bit about your side projects as a writer and jewelry maker. What do you do, how long have you been doing it, and how do you fit it into your schedule when you have a full-time job?
I do keep a blog and I also have a book contract to write about user experience research methods and advanced scientific data visualization. I also work with Rosenfeld Media to curate their conference on UX research. These days, I find most of my writing is focused on LGBTQ+ issues. Or, on issues in our healthcare and food economy that result in chronic health issues for many Americans, myself included.
Management consulting demands long hours, and my work life is no exception. But I am still restless, eager to learn, and that desire for Beginners’ Mind is what led me to jewelry-making. I took a class about 18 months ago, and I loved it. Jewelry work takes lots of practice to be average, and years of practice to be good. I enjoy not being the expert, and of course creating beautiful pieces of jewelry is motivating too! In the Spring I’ll launch an online store and I hope to offer some small collections for sale.
Can you talk a bit about how your company is supportive of employees’ lives outside of work? What kind of flexibility and support systems have you taken advantage of at your company?
ZS is amazing in regards to flexibility and support. I have faced significant health challenges in the years since I joined, and I truly feel blessed with the guidance and support I received. I was encouraged to do what was right for my health and I have been working a reduced schedule for a couple of years now. I don’t feel like it has affected my career progression or my ability to have an impact. No one has made me feel bad, or less-than in any way. In fact, I’m regularly encouraged to prioritize my own self-care.
When the pandemic hit, many team members came to me. A single dad who was struggling to manage the demands of work and time with his son. A young woman who was helping family members (who don’t speak English) navigate pandemic relief for their small business. Another woman has serious chronic health issues and no child care. I feel they were able to come and speak with me because I had been open about my own limitations and choices. I was able to help them make flexible working arrangements or establish a reduced schedule that enabled them to navigate their own challenges. I feel so blessed that ZS provides an environment that not only supports me but enables me to do so for my team.
Do you think that being able to pursue your side projects and passion makes you a better and more productive employee? If so, how?
Yes, for me I think it is critical. As my career has changed, I’ve gone from being a practitioner of a craft to being a leader of a large team. But part of what drew me to UX in the first place was both the intellectual aspects of the work and the creativity. As I moved into senior management, I felt I didn’t have an outlet for the creativity. Getting to work in a studio again, learning new materials, new tools, and building online friendships with other craftspeople has been a wonderful evolution in my life. When I come back to work, I am energized, refreshed, and ready to tackle challenges.
What’s your number one tip for women who are job searching but are unsure about whether they’re pursuing roles that are “the perfect fit” for them?
Prior to ZS, I was in a job that I loved, but I also knew I was stuck. So, rather than just looking for a new job, I spent a lot of time getting clear on what I wanted out of a job. I didn’t look at jobs, I looked inside myself first. I read job descriptions, I talked to many people who were doing the work I wanted to be doing. And then I wrote a new resume and revised my website to reflect the job I was looking for. When ZS recruited me, I knew there was a fit between what I wanted and what they had to offer.
What’s the most memorable piece of career advice you’ve ever received?
In my case, I think it was the advice I didn’t receive. I was told that if I wanted to be a Vice President, I would have to give up on the field of User Experience. I was unwilling to do that, and that clarity — along with the reputation I had established for myself in my chosen field – allowed me to step into the role I have today.
Similarly, when I first joined ZS, I was in a role where there wasn’t an obvious path to partnership. Once I learned the company and showed what I was capable of, I imagined and described a new role I could play and made my case to senior management. That led to the job I have today. So, I would say for me, it’s been more a question of getting clear about what I want and imparting that vision in such a way that others trust me to bring it to life.
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