The prerequisite for a leadership role is not an MBA or a computer-engineering degree. Formal training has terrific value, but the ability to communicate with both business and technical experts in their own language is what matters most on the job. Learn about what people do, how they do it, and what’s important to them. Don’t think that asking questions is a sign of weakness. A key strength of a good leader is the ability to find great people and enlist their help.
When you interact with people on both the business side and the technical side of a company, unexpected doors may open. Many designers have made the leap from design to engineering. Likewise, many have melded an interest in business and design to become leaders of design strategy.
Now, as never before, design leadership has become a step toward executive leadership. Companies are creating roles for chief design officers and chief creative officers, and they’re seeking strong design leaders to fill them.
From Designer to Design Leader to Business Leader
Academics have written reams about whether leaders are made or born. In my experience, some people are natural leaders, but others can learn leadership if they’re willing to make a conscious effort.
Natural leaders have an insatiable curiosity. They want to know how things work, and that leads them to notice gaps that others might have overlooked. Even if you don’t think curiosity is one of your natural traits, you can groom yourself to achieve the same result by asking people working in your organization’s lines of business what bothers them about their interactions with business systems.
When natural leaders spot a gap, they can’t rest until they fill it. Every gap is a puzzle that needs solving, and solving it entertains their minds during their commutes and keeps them awake at night. They are persistent in hunting for a solution. Anyone can learn persistence if several conditions are present: You need the desire to solve the problem, the confidence to believe it’s solvable, and the ability to junk a plan that’s not working in favor of another—until you get it right.
Natural leaders continually learn new things and take on new challenges. Sometimes taking on new challenges compels them to learn new things. They view themselves as life-long learners and associate self-development with reaching their goals. Designers are already life-long learners by default. We have to learn new technologies on an ongoing basis, so by simply expanding that skill to encompass business principles, market conditions, and other areas of expertise, most of us can easily fulfill this criterion.
These are easy skills to master, and they will get you noticed. But there is a whole other set of skills that it may be more difficult for you to acquire—people skills.