Courage and the Corner Office

January 9, 2017

Not so long ago, sales reps promoted software products and customers evaluated them based solely on their features. A system could be ugly and clumsy, as long as it performed a lot of functions. Designers in corporations had limited career options because their employer treated their work as an afterthought—just a skin for the functions.

But, as technology has made better user interfaces possible, users from the executive suite to the service truck have begun to understand, appreciate, and demand the benefits of good design. Apps and devices are now integral to productivity, and the Internet of Things (IoT), machine learning, and artificial intelligence are on the rise. As technology increasingly becomes enmeshed in our daily activities, well-rounded designers need to understand more than the making part of their work.

Successful designers serve as the bridge between design, technology, and business, and their ability to connect different areas of an organization is opening up new career potential for those who want to move into broader leadership roles.

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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.

How to Advocate with Authority

A leader who can inspire has a strong sense of empathy, is open to new ideas, and puts the good of the staff and the company above his or her own self-interest. A design leader needs to advocate for the user and facilitate communication between design, engineering, and business units. All of this requires people skills, and they come more easily to some than to others. Don’t be discouraged if you’re not a natural. There are plenty of leaders who aren’t and never make the effort to cultivate these skills. But those aren’t the leaders you want to emulate.

You can learn to become better at connecting with others. Listen carefully to the words people say and learn to appreciate what they’re really saying by paying attention to their subtext and body language. Have productive conversations—whether that productivity is relevant to a particular business topic or to building a relationship that will be mutually beneficial later. Seek feedback, don’t react to criticism, and always say thank you.

All of these skills get easier with practice, but there is one critical characteristic that is never easy—the ability to be brave.

Company cultures are all different, but innovative organizations tend to encourage leaders to ask for forgiveness instead of permission. If you feel that you have to hold yourself back or ask for approval from a more senior person, don’t expect the executive team to perceive you as a leader. Yes, taking risks and putting yourself on the line is scary, but if you’ve done your homework and are confident your decision is right for the company, it’s a good bet you’ll come out a winner.

Taking a risk to make a well-founded decision shows your organization’s leaders that you have the business sense to lead. It also shows your peers and subordinates that you are committed to doing the right thing—even at the risk of your own position. A leader who can do this is the sort of person others want to follow—someone who recognizes what is right and does what it takes to bring it to fruition.

The Perfect Fit Is the One You Tailor

If you see an opportunity to make a bold decision and are convinced it is the right move for the users, the product, and the company, it’s likely the right decision for your career as well. Leaders aren’t afraid to take risks when the potential outcomes support their values.

Businesses everywhere—from Silicon Valley to Sarasota—are hungry for design leadership, so chances to advance in your career have never before existed in the number and the quality they do today. This is the era of the designer, so know your value and let yourself shine. 

VP of Design at Adobe

San Francisco, CA, USA

Jamie MyroldAs Vice President of Adobe Design, Jamie has led large-scale design efforts for more than twelve years, touching nearly every product on the market today in some capacity. She has extensive experience revamping old, out-of-date technologies to create intuitive, seamless, beautiful user experiences that millions of Adobe users love. Her experience goes beyond simply restructuring and redesigning applications to redefining the business. Most recently, Jamie led the redesign of Adobe Acrobat and created the all-new Adobe Document Cloud, which gives users an entirely new digital experience for signing, sending, and collaborating on documents. Prior to working at Adobe, Jamie designed solutions and led design teams at USWeb/CKS/MarchFirst and Ariba. A Communication Design and Illustration graduate of Otis Art Institute of Parsons School of Design in Los Angeles, Jamie’s education focused on letterpress printing, handset metal type, and small-edition books.  Read More

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