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Leading design and leading people are two different roles..

Originally published in March 2020 — Techcircus —

Last month I had the pleasure of being a panellist for Tech Circus on one of their Design Leadership sessions. We talked about leading through a crisis, which is particularly about the moment we all experiencing, the Covid!

So many businesses have had to re-think their entire strategies to survive the COVID-19 situation, a lot are facing sink or swim scenarios, so this session was a great insight into how others are handling the situation. Sunil Pithwa hosted the panel, with my fellow panellists being Natalie Pearce and Kévin Boëzennec. There were great questions, so I want to share some of them here.

What has been your leadership journey so far?

Design within. I started working as shaping technologies as a human-computer interaction designer. I am a UX nerd! I’ve developed my own toolkit about 15 years ago and carried pretty much most of the job titles available in the HCI field. In fact, I must have contributed to creating new ones such as “System designer”. But design leadership is a totally new era in my career. Designing and leading design are two distinctive jobs that you have to do it all together. I struggle, failed, learn and built award-winning teams. (It was not this linear at all!) However, in my leadership journey, I found the following strategies that helped me to become better at leading large multidisciplinary design teams.

“Ask for feedback” — Leadership is such a great responsibility, you are almost shaping peoples career and experience. Ask for what works well and what doesn’t on a personal level is an important question to discuss. In my recent experience, helping individuals to learn and grow, building just enough challenge in their work are some of the most asked support.

“Leadership to be learned”— Learning is a never-ending story for leaders who want to be impactful, (in fact not only for leaders, it is for anyone who is up for being better at something). I have joined the Cambridge University Sustainable leadership program in which I am learning a great deal. I also work with the same university to mentor global businesses where I work with CEO across Europe and the Middle East. It is interesting to see two different perspectives; having empathy with design teams at work and having empathy with business leaders. This gave me a more depth understanding of the mindset of businesses leaders and innovators(designers). I highly recommend design leaders diversify their environment with voluntary or additional roles like this.

“Leadership Style” — I love the concept of a “Servant Leadership”—model, where you really make sure teams don’t feel a hierarchy. Simon Sinek uses a great parenting analogy — “when your kids don’t behave you don’t abandon them, you help them to learn from their mistake and grow to be a better person.” I am also loving the resources of Dare To Lead. It reminded me of a great quote;

In the past, jobs were about muscles, now they’re about brains, but in the future, they will be about the heart.

Minouche Shafik — Director, London School of Economics

Being able to lead minds and hearts is an ongoing learning and growth opportunity. These were not taught in design schools however if have aspirations to have motivated teams, we then have some fundamentals areas to look into such as being human and improving our human skills.

“Prepare for challenges” E.g. Discrimination”

Observe, bring awareness and have no tolerance “— Being a female leader is not an easy job, especially in man dominant environments such as tech. I have worked with incredibly supportive leadership throughout my career but it is not always a happy path in every workplace and navigate through challenges without avoiding them.

I have hit by two recent cases recently, where female colleagues got unacceptable treatments at work. I observe that discrimination often happens in one to one engagements and hard to track and see evidence about. However, it can create deep scars on individuals and more damage to your culture. Discriminating in any form is not acceptable. If you face discrimination do not sit quiet but take all necessary actions. What you tolerate will affect your culture and depower people other people who experience the same. As leadership, we do have a responsibility to not allow such behaviours and do necessary actions when happens.

What challenges have you faced whilst leading through this crisis, and how have you overcome them?

I am so inspired every day by motivated teams and individuals who are aligned on a single vision. Having an individual conversation is important for me. In these conversations, I observe how the energy is and look for cues where I can support them. My biggest worry during the COVID was hard to understand people’s true emotional state in virtual conversations. The virtual workplace is a challenging concept itself. I worry that people who are introverts may not be proactively asking for support when they need it. We looked for ways to create space for conversation, sharing regular feedbacks and making sure to check in at standups and stand-downs. (Stand-down’s: An evening 15 min ritual where we check-out for the day).

Despite the virtual office may bring a lot of transparency to the work itself (in digital space) I do miss sitting down with a sharpie and a piece of paper to plan out ideas with designers. During these times, our social, emotional and motivational states can be fragile. The more we connect and share will be helpful for the entire teams as we are all in the same boat.

Company culture is interwoven with our teams. How have you seen it evolve, working remotely? How are you maintaining that culture?

All about timing, I hate to say that the lockdown was almost fortunate timing for us. Before the lockdown, we did a workshop on things we wanted to do internally and the direction we wanted to head to. So as soon as the lockdown started we used this motivation and draft plans to take actions. Our topics were about our culture, vision alignment and strategies that we could implement at work for alignments. We kicked off our ambassador’s programme which is a group of people looking at sustainability, social issues and ethics — many of the team members were excited about this. The crisis helped us to prioritise what matters to us most( as well as other consequences). I’ve also noticed that attendance to these internal programmes was much higher compared to our office internals before Covid.

Working from home can be more fluid but in the case of our internal initiations, our productivity has hit high. I started seeing more people collaborating on our learning programs, delivering internal training, working as a group towards sustainability and charity work. We had a lot more internal events than when we were in the studio.

Have you come across cultural differences while leading international teams or clients?

Respecting peoples’ time, national holidays, country time zones and their individual needs in the time of crisis are paramount. For example, someone in India should not have to attend your afternoon meeting if it means having to stay up late to do so. Your teams might be looking up to you as a leader how you stand for the individual needs. As an example, we inform each other if we need to be off at some point during the workday. And I truly believe people should take time without giving a reason but inform when they will be available.

What have you learned from setting up teams in new countries where a crisis had occurred?

I was appointed as a Regional Design Director in Fjord, working in Istanbul with some crazy talented people and with operations in Dubai and South Africa. It was a super exciting time. I had my vision coming together, initial activities were all in the planning phase. I left my home in London and moved to Istanbul to join this adventure. However, three weeks later, there was a military coup attempt in Istanbul so suddenly warplanes were flying over my house. At the studio, we had such amazing talent and we were strong in the regional market, but the coup was bad timing for us, the market literally just shut down. This was not clearly a common path for a design leader. I was having regular conversations with the Accenture, Fjord leaderships in terms of where we would be steering in the region. But in one meeting, my dear colleague Thomas Muller, the Managing Director of Fjord, Accenture asked me a question that got me thinking for the next few days;

“You have an unfortunate crisis in your market. However, you have very strong design teams. In these circumstances what is your plan for your people, how would you keep them motivated, stick together?”

This pause in the market actually brought an opportunity to put all cool learnings into practice. What was I learning for years A: Resilient leader, B: Crisis leader, C: people motivator. D: Escaper(?) All options were on the table. But, the time to get together and team up for good. With the studio leadership, Gamze Gurbizatik and I dived into the challenge. Now, our task becomes to keep our people motivated and inspired so they still bring their best selves to work.

We have collectively developed a talent development platform for ourselves.“Applying design thinning into “how might we keep designers motivated and inspired”.

After a number of workshops and internal work,in a short time, our studio was delivering key design training for local communities, key universities and global designers in the firm. How great to see an Interaction Designer in your team has scheduled to lecture at a good university.

What I learned during this time is that even without a crisis, while working with clients, in busy project environments, this is a people leading role that comes with responsibility and they have expectations.

Have you furloughed any of your teams? How have you kept them to be part of your team and how does furloughing affect the workload of the rest of the team?

We haven’t furloughed anyone and I am feeling good that we created a business case around why we shouldn’t do it. We depend on our people and the talent, so the cost of furlough and losing that talent would be greater long-term.

Updates March 2021: Unfortunately we had to furlough people in the second wave of covid. None of us expected that Covid would go this mental and finally we had to comply with the company policy. The furloughs continued for about 3–5 months. We are now hiring!

How have you displayed vulnerability yourself or encouraged vulnerability remotely amongst your team during these times?

There have been times we had very honest conversations, talking about the struggles I’ve faced, zoom tiredness, hours we put in at work. Developing coping mechanism together is actually one of the best things. We now have virtual wines, game catch-ups, charity days, phone and WhatsApp calls. Listening is one of the best human skills. We are keep learning to listen, have open dialogue and be accessible. We are in it together.

We’ve been talking about how you’ve been leading your teams through the crisis — do you have any examples of leadership you’ve admired or been part of during this time?

Brian Chesky, CEO of Airbnb — for his transparency and his well known covid letter.

Ed Catmull, Pixar — A great example of seeing the team as an extension of the leadership.

And my long-time favourite leader, Ricardo Semler who is the CEO of Semco Partners. He is a champion of the employee-friendly radical corporate democracy he implemented at Semco.

Originally published at