Manager 101

How Laura Leads with Empathy at Happy Money

May 27, 2021

This week we spoke to Laura, Director of Product Design at Happy Money. She shares her best tips for remote management, leadership lessons from anti-racism lectures, and the importance of balance.

Corine Tan & Annie Yan
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5 min
This week we spoke to Laura, Director of Product Design at Happy Money. She shares her best tips for remote management, leadership lessons from anti-racism lectures, and the importance of balance.

Get your questions answered.

We’ve had the pleasure of working with some of the best and brightest remote managers in the world. These leaders not only move their company forward in leaps and strides, but they also live by values of empathy and radical candor. Every Thursday, we share their learnings and stories.


This week we spoke to Laura, Director of Product Design at Happy Money. Happy Money is a fintech startup providing financial services and tools to help borrowers become savers. Her team helps design features for over 100,000 members, and so far these members have paid off more than $2 billion in debt thanks to Happy Money’s help. Beyond an expert product designer, Laura is a fantastic remote manager. We spoke to her to learn about how she leads her team.


Hi Laura! Let’s start with the basics. What’s your typical day look like? Got any favorite tools? 

Google Meetings + Zoom? Haha. It actually varies quite a bit depending on the needs of the team. Because we are fully remote, sometimes it really does mean my day looks like many meetings and a lot of time in Zoom. That meeting time can be spent on anything from:

  • Virtual workshop facilitation with virtual whiteboard tools like Mural or Miro;
  • Collaborating with the team on narratives, storytelling, and strategic design direction work using Google Docs, Google Slides, or Figma;
  • Getting on a call to have discussions with key stakeholders and team members to ensure we have alignment on a project;
  • Or conducting 1:1 sessions peppered throughout the week to check in with the team to ensure we’re meeting both company and personal career growth goals.


When you’re not working, how do you spend your time?

I’ve got an amazing 7-year-old son who keeps me very busy as well as a small zoo of pets including a dog, a cat, frogs, and 2 aquariums full of assorted aquatic creatures. I also collect hobbies, so you can also find me knitting, gaming, playing my piano, cooking, or binging the latest K-drama on Netflix.


You became Director in October! What was the biggest difference between being a Designer and a Director?

The most significant difference for me has been the type of work to be done. 


Rather than looking at how I can solve problems for Happy Money members through UIs and experiences, I’ve shifted my focus to solving problems for the team. Things like: How can we ensure we’re working on the most impactful stuff? Is the work we’re doing aligned with overall business goals? How do we ensure our UX outcomes, where and how we provide value to our users, align to tangible, measurable business value? These have become much more of a focus for me now. 


In addition to that, I really want to ensure that my team has what they need to create the best work of their careers. So I also spend a lot of time helping them find opportunities for growth and learning within their projects and protecting psychological safety on the team. 

Laura's quote on protecting psychological safety.

Has your remote workflow changed during the pandemic? If so, how?

Absolutely, some in hopefully less permanent ways than others. 


Like I'm sure most parents have, I've struggled to find a balance between helping out with virtual first grade, working, and just having time for myself. I've always been prone to workaholism because I love what I do, so I've really had to try and intentionally create space for when I'm working and when I'm not. What this actually ends up looking like is not your typical 9-5. It does mean I have to block and protect time during my day and only commit to essential meetings when it's school Zoom hours. 


Other times it means I'm picking up and working on things really early in the morning or really late at night. And within all of that, there are times where I need to just make space for my own mental health. At Happy Money we're incredibly fortunate to have a formalized program for Health and Wellness days that everyone can take once a month. The only rules are no work and spending time doing activities that will help you reset and recenter.  

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What was the most important/hardest lesson you learned while managing?

Two things, really. 


First… you’re gonna screw up… many times. The best thing you can do when that happens is to apologize, learn from the mistake, and iterate on how you do things. I’ve been really into the idea that impact is more significant than intent -- a concept I’ve borrowed from anti-racism educators. I’ve found that this concept holds true for all interactions and conflicts, and I strive to keep that top of mind when I mess up. It’s ok and good to be corrected and held accountable when the impact of your actions causes harm. Acknowledge it, process it, and change your future actions. 


Second… Where you find success in your work will change drastically from when you were an individual contributor. It’s important not to be too hard on yourself while learning what success and effectiveness as a manager look like. For most of my career, success was defined by the design solutions I created for software products. Now success looks like making space for my team to create usable and delightful designs and experiences. This means that I can no longer find fulfillment in doing that work as I did before without jeopardizing their ability to grow in doing that work themselves.

Impact is more significant than intent.


What are you trying to improve about your leadership?

Everything, always. I’m trying to really practice being approachable and open, and considerate of any and all feedback for my leadership. I think it’s important to try and keep an open mind about things you can improve on and just be ready to make the needed adjustments as that feedback rolls in.

How do you create work-life harmony/wellness while remote?

I really have to applaud our Happy Money people department for the opportunities they've created for us concerning work-life harmony and wellness. Everyone in the organization has company-sponsored Headspace accounts. The People team manages a company wellness calendar that includes events like watch parties for TED talks or videos on wellness and group meditation sessions. I try to attend these when I can, but I usually turn to one of my hobbies to help me reset and find balance when I can't. 

Tips for folks struggling with remote management/feeling disconnected from their team?

I've really loved Kona for this. It's a daily reminder to bring my whole self to work and share that with the team and a reminder to just check in on the whole selves of my teammates as well. 


The Happy Design team also holds bi-weekly virtual happy hours that give us space to play online games together or just talk about what's been going on in our lives. Games like Jackbox Party, songtrivia2.io, or geoguessr have been really great for this.

Amazing. And finally, any recommendations for readings, blogs, or podcasts?

I’ve been reading Liftoff! Practical Design Leadership to Elevate Your Team, Your Organization, and You by Chris Avore and Russ Unger. It’s a fantastic launching point for anyone in design leadership and especially for new managers like myself. I’ve also always loved anything Jared Spool puts out through Center Centre and their Leaders of Awesomeness community.


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Meet the Author(s)

Corine Tan

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Corine is Co-Founder of Kona. She writes regularly on emotional intelligence and empathetic remote leadership. Her work has been featured by Yahoo, TechCrunch, Entrepreneur, Harvard Business School, Forbes, and more. She’s a speaker at remote work conferences like GitLab Commit 2021 and she’s advised Fortune 10 companies on remote strategy.

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