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11 things I learned at Leading Design 2017

Mike Jongbloet

Oct 30 2017

Leading Design thumbnail
Know you're not alone

Image credit to @hana_stevenson.

I’m not usually a huge fan of conferences. In the past I’ve left with perhaps a couple of new ideas, but overall not having felt like it was time well spent. But when I spotted Leading Design advertised, it grabbed my attention. As someone in a design leadership role, the event felt instantly relevant to me.

Additionally, the speaker line-up was like a who’s who of design leaders; Tim O’Reilly, Kate Aronowitz, Cameron Moll, Irene Au, Julia Whitney, Dan Willis and Peter Merholz amongst others.

My instinct turned out to be correct, as it was an inspiring and energising couple of days away from the office hearing from those we should be looking up to in the industry. Here are eleven of my takeaways from the conference.

1. To be a good leader, you need to understand yourself.

This was a common theme throughout the talks. To be a good leader you need to understand your own purpose. Why do you get up in the morning?

As a practitioner the answer is often easier to come by; “To produce great work”, “to design better products”, “to improve users’ lives”. When you step into a leadership role and you find yourself doing less production work, you need to really think about why – why do you want to do this job?

It can be an exhausting role, and without really understanding your purpose, you’ll find yourself zapped of energy and enthusiasm.

2. To be a good leader, you need to know what good looks like.

What are you aiming for? What does your team expect of you? What does your boss expect of you and your team? What do your peers expect of you and your team?

Moving into a leadership role is a breeding ground for assumptions. You may think you know the answers to the above questions but it’s worth explicitly checking in with the people around you to make sure expectations are aligned and you’re focusing on the right things to have a positive impact in your role.

3. In the face of problems, be the player.

When faced with a problem – and you will be faced with many – you can assume one of two roles.

You can be the victim, who complains, finds blame in everyone but themselves and demotivates themselves and those around them. Or you can be the player, who steps up, focuses on finding a solution and motivates everyone around them to do the same.

This is a really critical reflection point when you meet those gnarly problems that might seem unfair, but should be reframed as opportunities to step up and be part of the solution.

4. Bring a different mindset to the table.

Design finally has a seat at the table. We’ve battled for it for years and it’s finally happening. Now we have to make the most of it.

A common mistake has been new design leaders mirroring the behaviour they see around them in boardrooms to “fit in” and to avoid being perceived by others as being out of place.

Julia Whitney rightly suggested that you are in that position because of your different qualities. So let them shine, be yourself and don’t be afraid to bring a different perspective to the conversation.

5. Tell stories.

Storytelling was another key theme throughout the two days. Your job as a leader and a designer is to sell, advocate for and protect design excellence.

Whether you’re speaking internally to peers, managing upwards, coaching your team or selling to stakeholders, storytelling is key to painting a picture and persuading.

Cameron Moll encouraged us to use metaphors and analogies to make our messages relevant to the audiences we’re talking to and make sure they resonate.

6. Get your priorities right.

Kate Aronowitz of Google Ventures discussed a past event where she had asked a design team, “What support do you want from the business?”. The answers she got were entirely focused on the team – a conference trip, a pottery class for team building, a new office space…

Kate rightly points out something that is easy to forget, our priorities as a team should be:

  1. User
  2. Business
  3. Team
  4. Self

It can be a large mindset shift to get this right, but that is one of your challenges as a design leader.

7. Designers have superpowers.

There are skills designers have that we take from granted as just being a part of our toolkit, but are actually really powerful. We should identify opportunities to use them and add value outside of traditional design problems.

  • Facilitation – driving ideas forward by helping the group thought process.
  • Storytelling – communicating complex ideas through engaging stories.
  • Synthesis – helping groups resolve conflict and work problems through.
  • Sketching – turning verbal communication into something visual.
  • Prototyping – quickly modelling an idea as a real, testable prototype.

8. Don’t let ego get in the way.

Designers have a reputation for their egos. To be the best designer you can be, you need to shed that ego and move it out of your way. This becomes even more important when you’re leading a team.

Adam Cutler of IBM shared a blueprint for the egoless designer:

  • Empathy – always try to see things from others' perspectives.
  • Vulnerability – don’t be afraid to fail (but fail fast and early).
  • Curiosity – be a three year old again, question everything.
  • Humility – be open to feedback and critique.
  • Flexibility – learn to work within your constraints.

And my personal favourite...

  • Integrity – get shit done, and make sure it’s not shit.

9. Psychological safety = higher performance.

Research studies have shown that one of the key factors that increases team performance is “psychological safety”. What is that? Julia Whitney shared a definition from researcher Amy Edmonson:

“...a belief that one will not be punished or humiliated for speaking up with ideas, questions, concerns or mistakes. Being comfortable about feeling vulnerable in front of each other.”

Does your workspace have psychological safety? How aligned would your team be with the above statement? Most organisations will have at least one improvement they can make to increase psychological safety.

10. 80% of personal development happens on the job.

People often think of personal development as something they do outside of their day-to-day role, but Samantha Soma of GE suggests that most development happens on the job.

Leaders need to do the following to help their teams grow:

  • Find challenging job assignments.
  • Give people stretch opportunities before they’re ready for them.
  • Cheerlead and push. Make good work visible and hold under par work accountable.
  • Provide candid assessment and feedback on a regular basis.

Trust your team. Way more than you're comfortable with. If you’re uncomfortable, that’s a good sign.



Another small but interesting tip was to operationalise individual and team reflection through encouraging everyone to keep a reflective learning journal, by simply answering these questions each week:

  • What did I do well this week?
  • What could I have done better this week?
  • What was my highlight this week?
  • What one thing am I going to work on next week?

11. Embrace the fear.

In his talk “How to VP”, Cap Watkins of Buzzfeed shared fifteen fearful thoughts that he had had in the past week. Thoughts like:

  • “Does my team like me?”
  • “Am I doing a good job?”
  • “Are people on my team happy?”
  • “Am I doing what I said I would?”
  • “What am I forgetting? I feel like I’m forgetting something.”

In talking with other peers at the conference it was comforting and enlightening to find that most people in leadership positions are often asking themselves the same question.

The Fear is real. The Fear is good!

Cap Watkins



Cap argued that “The Fear” is actually a positive thing – it keeps you focused and on your toes and prevents complacency. We should embrace it.

An exceptional two days.

The conference was inspiring and engaging, and the days flew by. I was lucky enough to meet a few new faces and talk about how they run their teams and what challenges they face as design leaders.

I’ll end with one final thought that was shared by Adam Cutler of IBM.

As design leaders we’re lucky. We have an important job, but it’s a great job. So enjoy it. Play. Have fun. And do great work.

Adam Cutler



We’re currently hiring design and UX people so if you’re interested, head over here to find out more about working at Deeson and then check out the roles for Designer and UX Researcher.

Mike Jongbloet

About the author

Mike Jongbloet

Head of Design and UX