Kate Swann, COO of Global Innovation Company frog, On Her No.1 Leadership Lesson

The NextWomen DWEN Interview series continues with Kate Swann, COO of global innovation company frog.

frog helps leading companies (including Disney, GE, HP, Intel, Microsoft, MTV and Siemens) to design, engineer, and bring to market meaningful products and services.

Founded in 1969, frog is headquartered in San Francisco and has operations in 14 other cities worlwide.

With an interdisciplinary team of more than 1,600 designers, strategists, and software engineers, frog delivers connected experiences that span multiple technologies, platforms, and media. 

As Chief Operating Officer, Kate is responsible for frog’s continued business success, including growth strategy, financial performance, and team retention. By cultivating the processes, philosophies, and infrastructures that support effective design, she helps drive value into the company’s every project, ensuring client satisfaction and operational success.

We talked to Kate about the importance of female networks; the leadership lesson she learned the hard way; and the person who saved her from a life of waiting tables.

TNW: How important is technology to the success of frog?

KS: As an innovation company, we find that emerging technologies and the accompanying network transformation create many opportunities for new products and services, and change the landscape for our clients. Additionally, our expertise in software delivery – the ability to actually bring products to market – is critical to our clients’ success. So our ability to bring innovation to market has a high correlation to technology in the broadest sense.

TNW: How does frog distinguish itself from the competition?

KS: Our ability to bring together the range of disciplines required to bring new products to market is unique. frog understands the global consumer; we understand the connection between products and brands; we have business and product strategy and world-class experience design. Combine that with software engineering and effective management to deliver products and you have a pretty compelling offering.

TNW: When did you join frog and what has been your proudest achievement with the company?

KS: I joined frog in 2005. Since that time, we’ve transformed the business from a purely design focused business to one that focuses on strategic innovation. We’ve done that while tripling revenue and continuing to attract the best creative talent in the industry.

The most important thing to me is the balance between leading a team where culture and community are a priority and running a successful business.

TNW: When you hire people, what are the key qualities you look for to ensure the success of the business?

KS: Hiring is one of the most important and the most difficult things to do. I have found that culture and attitude are equally important to skill and experience in the selection process. Strong leaders with a passion for people and learning are the best fit for frog.

TNW: What is one lesson about leadership you learned the hard way and wish someone had told you at the beginning?

KS: My most valuable lesson as a leader is that the job is to listen, to facilitate and to empower. It isn’t to know everything and enact your own ideas.

I used to believe I needed to have all the answers, but today I realize that the teams have many valuable inputs to the business if we, as a management team, know how to institute them. 

TNW: What is next for frog? How do you see technology as a key growth driver?

KS: As technology transforms businesses and markets, frog is positioned to work with clients as a global innovation partner -- not just in concept and strategy development, but in bringing new products to market. So what is next is an evolution of our work to become more global and to extend our vertical depth.

TNW: You are an expert in sustainable design. If you could ask business owners to make three changes to the way they do business, in the interests of sustainability, what would they be?

KS: One of the biggest recommendations would be for business to take a comprehensive and holistic approach to sustainability in order to have a real impact on infrastructure and the whole ecosystem of a product's lifecycle, beyond when it hits the shelves. Also, one key insight we learned on our work with ECOtality designing the Blink family of electric vehicle chargers was that sustainability is not synonymous with “green” branding anymore. To make sustainability relevant for a wide range of consumers, businesses must appeal to all needs of the consumer: affordability, accessibility, and familiarity, not just the environmental concern. Sustainability should be intrinsic to the design and not an afterthought. 

TNW: You spent some time in China working in the car industry. What lessons did you learn during your time there and how did you apply them to your role at frog?  

KS: While I try to spend as much time in China as I can, it is our teams who have worked in the car industry in China, not I. But what we have observed is that companies in China have some real advantages in the lack of legacy structures and approaches. If strength in speed to market and efficiency can be paired with a brand perspective that encompasses sustainability and a leapfrogging of paradigms (cars are about an overall need for mobility rather than an independent purchase in itself) then they are positioned very well for success.

TNW: How has Dell or the Dell Women’s Entrepreneur Network assisted frog? What do you see as the benefits of all-women networks such as DWEN?

KS: I think DWEN is an important forum for dialogue about how women can excel in technology industries and as entrepreneurs. We still see lower numbers of women in technology fields – at frog, we struggle to recruit senior level women in our creative and technology teams.

Creating a community that allows us to share and leverage experiences and knowledge is very valuable. I very much value my female professional networks.

TNW: Do you have any role models or mentors?

KS: I have been very lucky in my career to have amazing female mentors throughout, including my current boss, frog President Doreen Lorenzo, but if I had to choose one it would be Red Burns. Red is the founder of the Interactive Telecommunications Program at NYU, and I had the opportunity to work with her early in my career. I learned a great deal from her about the value of transparency in business and the need to constantly challenge the status quo.

She is someone who has been responsible for many careers, including mine, by giving people a chance when they do not have the obvious skills or experience. I like to say that if it were not for Red, I would still be waiting tables.

The Dell Women's Entrepreneur Network (DWEN) celebrates the wonderful accomplishments of women in business, whilst looking forward at how we can progress and learn from each other. Natural networkers and relationship builders, women have innate flair for entrepreneurship. With DWEN, Dell is helping women in business to expand their networks while offering technology capabilities designed to help them innovate and grow their businesses.

The NextWomen is in partnership with DWEN to bring you a series of 40 interviews with the world's most influential female founders, investors and decision makers: The NextWomen DWEN Interview Series.

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