Leading an effective design organizationFeatured

Leading a large organization is a hell of a job.

Sometimes it’s fun and exciting, like when you get to invest in a big project to imagine a new future for healthcare that’s built around the real-world needs of people no matter their socioeconomic status, ethnoracial identity, gender identity, or the intersection of those.

Sometimes it’s empowering, such as when you get to address pay disparities by ethnoracial identity and gender identity within your company.

And sometimes it’s infuriating, like when a peer executive writes off your entire organization’s work as “futzing about with pixels”.

Throughout my career, I’ve established brand-new teams in user experience and design, scaled teams, and led large global organizations. I want to share with you some of what I’ve learned about how to effectively lead a design organization as an executive.

What does it mean for a design org to be effective? To me, it means three things:

  1. The design org has a shared purpose and vision where everyone is empowered to do their best work, there is a lot of support for growth, and high performers are rewarded for their contributions.
  2. Our cross-functional partners know the value that design brings to the products and services that we create and grow, help us ensure that we’ve got what we need to do our work, and hold us accountable for delivering high-quality business results.
  3. We understand both the needs of our users as well as our business objectives and bring them together in a unique way that creates new value.

Each of these three points needs careful tending by the leader of the organization. A shared purpose and vision can feel like it’s been thrown aside, especially during times of uncertainty like our current economic climate. A change in leadership can result in new cross-functional partners who no longer understand the value of design or ensure that design has sufficient resources to be effective. As user needs and business objectives evolve, we have to understand that change and evolve alongside so that we can continue to create new value and not be left in the dust.

Getting all of this right is especially important, and can be especially hard, because design is one of the organizations within a company that has a higher-than-average number of people from historically-excluded backgrounds. We have more people of color, more LGBTQIA+ folks, and more women than many other organizations in a tech company. The diversity of the design team is one of our greatest strengths as we work to build products and services to meet everyone’s needs. However, we’re more likely to have the value of our work questioned or to have our leader under-leveled compared to the leaders of our cross-functional partners. We have to fight not only to have our seat at the table. I’ve learned that getting a seat at the table is only the first step: everything that follows is about using that seat effectively to meet business objectives, meet user goals, and be an effective advocate and ally for historically-excluded groups.

As a design executive, I rely on three things to help me see my way through all of this:

  1. Empathy. In addition to empathy for our users which is one of the most common traits and the best part about being in user experience, I extend my empathy to my cross-functional partners and fellow executives. By better understanding their perspectives, their needs, and their constraints, I’m better able to bring everyone along to reach better decisions.
  2. Love of my craft. I’ve been in user experience for over 20 years. I still love everything about it, from doing the early discovery work before we have product-market fit to understand what needs we must meet, to delivering a product and continuing to iterate on it to make it better meet those needs and whatever new needs emerge. As a leader, I get to create opportunities and remove roadblocks so that the folks who report to me have the space to love their craft and deliver their best results.
  3. Business acumen. By developing a deep understanding of our business environment and objectives, I can align the design org to the most important and most impactful work, partner effectively across the entire company, mitigate risk, and unlock new opportunities for innovation.
@nadyne I really appreciate this post and particularly your points about having to fight for the value of your work being realized. I end up there way too often myself.Parts of your post remind me of the book Beloved Economies. It discusses aspects around right to design, reckoning with history and several other aspects that I suspect you do inherently. Really good, inspiring read.Thank you for putting this post together and if you're open to it, I'd love to connect.
Thanks for that book recommendation! I haven’t read it yet, but just added it to my never-shrinking queue of books to be read. I’d love to connect! I’m easy to find on LinkedIn.
Great post. Really helpful in understanding your role and the critical importance of your work. Thank you.
Love your insight into what it's like to lead a design organization. One of the things that always really baffled me was that my design classes in college were filled with women, yet the moment I stepped into the design field in a professional sense I've been on team made up almost entirely of men. Maybe it's because I started in the more technical side of design working with web design, but I've always found it really frustrating. Do you have any advice on how to talk to management about committing to more diversity within their teams?
I think that you need to manage two things here. The first is addressing why it’s important to them. The second is how to hire and retain a diverse team while avoiding the concern about lowering the bar. @karencatlin wrote an excellent book about this called “Better Allies” that discusses this, as well as has concrete actions for folks to take. She also posts frequently to LinkedIn on this topic, and has a great newsletter too. Check her out! Here’s her site, which is full of resources:
Thanks for the great read Nadyne!