October 10, 2023

The 4 essentials of leadership.

Design leadership is a role in flux. Expectations evolve rapidly alongside tech and business landscapes. The skills required today barely resemble the job description of yesterday.

It's easy to get overwhelmed amidst the ever-growing list of traits modern design leaders need - business acumen, communication skills, project management, and the list goes on. But in my experience, excellent leaders stay grounded in a few key fundamentals.

No matter how chaotic the environment, anchoring your leadership to 4 core pillars optimizes your team's chances of producing great work. These essentials provide clarity in the storm. They have helped me consistently build creative, resilient teams that deliver results across my career.

Advocate Fiercely for Your Team

Great leaders buffer their team from bureaucracy and office politics. They clear roadblocks, secure resources and buy-in across the organization. Excellent leaders are allies who go to bat for their team, not supervisors who crack the whip.

This means being your team's biggest champion day in and day out. Fight for their needs, protect their time, and escalate issues impacting their work. Make sure they have the budget, tools, and support required to execute on the vision successfully.

Trust is earned when teams know their leader has their back. And teams with trust are infinitely more motivated, empowered, and invested in producing stellar work.

Foster autonomy with trust.

Once you've built a talented team, get out of their way. Give your designers, engineers, and PMs agency over their work. Trust in their expertise and ability to determine solutions.

Micromanaging leadership snuffs out morale and innovation. The most effective leaders I've worked with oversee at a high level but don't dictate the details. They advise and coach teams without prescribing exact methods.

Hiring great people is step one. Step two is cultivating ownership by giving them autonomy rooted in trust. Teams need room to take risks, try new approaches, and make decisions. That freedom breeds creativity.

Guide Rather Than Dictate

While you want to foster autonomy, leaders still need to provide guidance. But that guidance should aim to develop skills, not command action. Influence rather than edict.

Excellent coaches discuss challenges with their team and draw insights from them. They ask thoughtful questions to illuminate potential paths, not just provide directives. And they understand the solutions ultimately need to come from within the team.

Offer your expertise to help teams avoid pitfalls and enhance their thinking. But let them determine the specifics around execution. Teaching creative problem-solving is far more valuable than demanding blind obedience.

Keep it simple.

Lastly, eliminate complexity, not create it. Complexity is the natural enemy of executing creative work. As a leader, your role is to remove obstacles, unnecessary process, and distractions.

Declutter workflows. Ditch inefficient meetings. Question elements that complicate rather than enhance. Let the team focus on the critical 20%, not the trivial 80%.

Great work happens in environments with just enough support and structure - no more, no less. It's a delicate balance, but simplicity always wins out over complexity given the choice.

Bonus pillar: Remember the human.

I know, I said 4 pillars, but the reality of the situation is that all the above encompass the one truth, you're dealing with humans. You're leading people, not assets on an org chart. Never lose sight of the human element in all that you do. We're emotional, unpredictable, but ultimately everyone is just trying to get somewhere, if you can figure out where that 'where' is, you can figure out the narrative which drives change and infuses energy into you team and beyond.

Of course, no list fully captures the intricacies of design leadership. New challenges arise daily that require critical thinking and discernment. But anchoring yourself to these 4 pillars will optimize your positive impact. They've helped me thrive across my career.

Advocate, trust, guide, simplify. The fundamentals endure even as expectations for design leaders rapidly scale. Stay grounded in these essentials, and your team will produce great work. Keep it simple, clear the path, set the vision, have their back - that's how you lead and empower teams to do their best work.

October 6, 2023

The Pitfalls of Compensatory Vernacular

Many leaders mistakenly believe using complex, obscure language makes them sound authoritative. But this compensatory vernacular often backfires, undermining influence and trust. Have you ever had to listen to something like this:

We need to focus on a fisher price simple set of sizzle reels enabling tighter understanding from leadership on more verbose on-ramps and ultimately product expansion.

That's a near verbatim quote from someone who should have known better - in a few words, incomprehensible gibberish. Imagine if the quote was simply:

We need clear, straightforward videos to help leadership quickly grasp complex concepts. This allows smoother buy-in for long-term product growth.

Here are some healthier communication thoughts to avoid sounding like you have no idea what you're doing:

  • Avoid jargon and buzzwords. Skip insider lingo and trendy buzzphrases in favor of simple, precise language.

  • Explain concepts clearly. If you must reference sophisticated concepts, explain them in plain terms others can understand.

  • Use conversational tone. Strive for the warm, human tone of a fireside chat, not a lecture.

  • Tailor language to the audience. Adjust your vocabulary based on the backgrounds of who you're communicating with.

  • Define unfamiliar terms. If you use a term others may not know, briefly define it concisely in context.

  • Read your drafts aloud. If passages sound awkward when spoken, rework them to be clearer.

  • Get feedback on comprehension. Ask trusted colleagues if anything you've written or said was confusing.

  • Study great communicators. Learn from leaders who convey complex topics simply.

  • Focus on the idea, not the words. Make the idea itself the star, not the language used to express it.

  • Beware of virtue signaling. Using unnecessary jargon can signal false expertise rather than true merit.

The measure of effective communication is comprehension and connection, not complicated vocabulary. Resist compensating through excessive complexity.

October 4, 2023

Distributed disruption – Building a Pack to Drive Change

Implementing change in large organizations requires more than just good ideas - it demands building mass consensus. Savvy design leaders deliberately "build a pack" to sell new visions. There's a never ending list of way to influence, but what's worked for me has been a thoughtful approach to both promoters and detractors across organisations.

  • Identify influencers. Map people with sway, both formal and informal, across departments who can champion your cause.

  • Socialize 1:1 first. Share your vision with influencers individually first to refine it and gain advocates.

  • Make it about shared interests. Frame your idea around outcomes that resonate for multiple groups, not just design.

  • Group mentor emerging leaders. Bring promising future managers into your circle to spread the vision with tomorrow's leaders.

  • Leverage events and workshops. Use all-hands meetings, conferences, and offsites to broadly share the vision through multiple channels.

  • Communicate relentlessly. Repeat the narrative consistently via multiple mediums to achieve saturation.

  • Address skeptics respectfully. When facing resistance, thoughtfully consider merits rather than dismissing it.

  • Compromise tactically. Make occasional tactical concessions to build goodwill and momentum if it doesn't compromise the core vision.

  • Influence formally and informally. Deploy your pack judiciously in both official settings and casual hallway conversations.

  • Unify around next actions. Maintain momentum by continually identifying and socializing the next milestone.

Selling change requires mobilizing allies far and wide through respect, patience and social capital. Do the work to build a pack and success with your voice being multiplied in force through your pack.

October 1, 2023

Pushing people to grow

Skillfully challenging others is a skill you learn as you grow, it's challenging and can be uncomfortable but your team will thank you for putting them in a place where they can find success. Leaders motivate growth by pushing teams and individuals to surpass what they believe is possible. It's one of the greatest facets of being a leader, the power to up-level others.

Delivering uncomfortable news or feedback and having a member of your team thank you are the stories that stick in my head so readily. I think of them as moments of triumph, where a chasm was crossed. Thoughtful language paired with a genuine concern for the individual breeds trust, and with trust comes understanding.
  • Tailor to the individual. Assess someone’s tolerance for being challenged and customize your approach accordingly.

  • Time it thoughtfully. Seek opportune moments such as when energy and motivation are already high.

  • Clarify that it comes from care. Make clear you challenge them because you care deeply about their development.

  • Challenge the work, not the person. Critique the work itself versus criticizing the individual.

  • Focus on potential. Challenge people based on the leader you see they can become, not who they are now.

  • Use encouraging language. Say “I believe you can do even better,” "Have you considered this avenue" never “this isn’t good enough."

  • Provide developmental feedback. Balance challenge with specific, constructive suggestions for reaching higher.

  • Offer your support. Ramp up coaching and mentoring to provide support in meeting new challenges.

  • Challenge collaboratively. Turn challenges into collaborative discussions rather than top-down directives.

  • Make it a two-way street. Ask for suggestions from your team, "Where can I improve?", "Where are there opportunities?", "What can I do propel you forwards?".

Wise leaders challenge others with care, custody and constant support. Handled skillfully, challenge fuels growth and excellence.

September 28, 2023

Protecting Time for Uninterrupted Creation

Distractions and shallow work constantly threaten to choke out opportunities for deep creative thinking, it's one of the challenges we face on a daily basis as design leaders - how do we protect the team's time whilst venturing further than just simple prioritsation? I believe it comes from vigilance, carving out protected spaces for immersive deep thought and by extension deep work.

  • Identify core deep work hours. Define a set time each day when meetings cannot be scheduled and concentration is sacrosanct.

  • Build buffers around deep work. Leave buffers before and after deep work time to transition in and out.

  • Limit meetings ruthlessly. Cut as many non-essential meetings as possible to free up creative schedules.

  • Define distraction-free zones. Clear spaces, desks, or rooms where focused work can happen undisturbed.

  • Consolidate updates into digests. Replace frequent status updates with daily or weekly digest summaries.

  • Batch administrative tasks. Group admin tasks into a single block to keep them contained.

  • Institute quiet days or half days. Ban meetings for an entire day or afternoon each week.

  • Encourage focus time for individuals. Advocate team members block out their own distraction-free focus time.

  • Make focus visible. Print “Deep Work Hours - Do Not Disturb” signs or indicators.
    Role model immersive work. Demonstrate the value of deep work by doing it yourself.

The most original solutions require unbroken concentration and flow. Make defending and cultivating it among your top priorities, distraction comes easily, deliverables do not.

September 27, 2023

Crush people with enthusiasm

Bringing infectious enthusiasm as a leader ignites passion and drive across your teams. Genuine excitement is rocket fuel for progress. Here are tips on spreading enthusiasm:

  • Start from a place of authenticity. You can’t fake it. Enthusiasm works when it flows from a sincere belief in the vision.

  • Envision the future boldly. The first spark of enthusiasm begins with your vivid mental picture of future possibilities.

  • Focus on the human impact. Connecting your vision to concrete ways it will positively impact people multiplies enthusiasm.

  • Tell compelling stories. Crafting narratives that allow others to envision success ignites contagious enthusiasm.

  • Recognize incremental progress. Cheering small wins along the way sustains momentum versus waiting for end results.

  • Leverage body language. Exude energy through your voice tones, facial expressions, gestures and movement.

  • Customize the pitch. Frame your message in terms tailored to the passions of each person you engage.

  • Challenge stretch goals. Urge teams beyond what seems possible by catalyzing enthusiasm for breakthrough goals.

  • Address skepticism skillfully. Hear doubts, but reframe them, redirect to solutions, and pull skeptics in with unwavering conviction.

  • Role model consistently. You set the tone. Maintaining a steady presence of enthusiasm lifts the entire team.

When passion meets preparation, enthusiasm spreads. Rally your team through vision, storytelling, recognition, and relentless energy.

September 26, 2023

Demonstrating Accountability as a Leader

When projects go wrong, it’s easy to point fingers and shirk accountability. But being a leader isn't about apportioning blame, it;s about advocacy for your team and if something has gone wrong, you're the one accountable - rise to the occasion and openly take responsibility.

  • Own mistakes fully. When you clearly make a misstep, accept fault and apologize sincerely.

  • Do not cover up failures. Be fully transparent internally about mistakes to foster trust.

  • Apologize to affected folks. If a failure impacts customers, the team, IC's - apologize promptly and own it.

  • Shield your team from blame. If a team member made an error, take the blame publicly while coaching them privately.

  • Analyze causes honestly. Conduct thorough post mortems to understand failure points accurately.

  • Criticize processes, not people. Attribute failures to ineffective processes rather than blaming individual team members.

  • Learn from errors quickly. Identify key learnings and implement changes urgently to avoid repeat issues.

  • Admit knowledge gaps. Reveal when limited expertise led to missteps and commit to learning.

  • Review decisions candidly. Reconsider past decisions that appear flawed in hindsight without ego.

  • Communicate resolutely. Discuss failures transparently while conveying certainty in preventing future recurrence.

Accountability requires courage but it also builds trust. Set the tone by taking ownership personally during difficult times rather than shifting blame.

September 26, 2023

Put your team front and center, advocate but don’t stand in the spotlight.

Sharing credit, highlighting individual contributors and the teams they are a part of is rule 101 of design leadership. There is no personal credit at the leadership level - the performance of your team is it's own recognition. Be humble, work from the shadows and ensure your team has the visibility they need to be successful.

  • Recognize contributions early. Praise strong work immediately when you see it rather than waiting for final results.

  • Award credit to subteams. Call out specific subteams who made key contributions rather than assuming credit.

  • Mention individuals by name. When praising work, mention those responsible by name in written and verbal announcements.

  • Cite team members externally. Reference your team members’ excellent work when speaking to external groups.

  • Empower others to share spotlight. Decline speaker opportunities and nominate more junior team members to speak instead.

  • Make others the face of projects. Put forward engineers, researchers and designers as primary project spokespeople.

  • Avoid personal pronouns. Use “we” and “our team” rather than “I” and “my” when discussing accomplishments.

  • Object to inflated praise. If your contribution is overstated, humbly clarify the share others played.

  • Represent all contributors. In images and illustrations, include diverse contributors, not just public-facing roles.

  • Thank unrecognized roles. Personally thank those in supporting roles like operations who enable success behind the scenes.

Uplifting your team through selfless credit sharing fosters a culture of appreciation and inclusivity. Lead this way.

September 21, 2023

Injecting playfulness while achieving results

Exceptional design leaders work relentlessly to achieve results but also instill fun along the way. They understand the value of joy, humor, and playfulness. We're all human at the end of the day, humor disarms people in a way few other things can. Don't take yourself too seriously, we are after all all on a path and just trying to get somewhere.

  • Know your team. Understand the types of activities and interactions your specific team will find fun. One size does not fit all.

  • Make time for socializing. Leave room in schedules for casual social interactions to build rapport and trust.

  • Organize offsite activities. Plan periodic morale-boosting activities outside the office like dinners, picnics or rec activities.

  • Loosen up in meetings. Interject levity, laughter, and informality appropriately into team discussions.

  • Show your silly side. Let your guard down at times to show you don’t take yourself too seriously.

  • Participate in events. Attend and actively participate in events you orchestrate rather than just observing.

  • Role model work-life balance. Demonstrate you work hard but maintain hobbies, family time, and self-care.

  • Communicate playfully. Balance professional tone with warm, informal language in writing and presentations.

  • Personalize interactions. Relate to each individual’s interests and personality when chatting.

  • Celebrate wins exuberantly. When milestones are reached, celebrate energetically with the team.

While driving towards ambitious goals, regularly inject humanity, humor, and fun into the journey. Morale and results rise in unison.