The Soft Skills are the Hardest
These notes formed the basis for a chapter on leadership styles from my previous book, Design Leadership: How Top Design Leaders Build and Grow Successful Organizations published by O’Reilly Books in January 2016.
In The Friend-Zone
Modern organizations have a lot of grey areas. One of those ambiguous areas is in how leaders create connections between themselves and their team members. “I’m a very casual person. I like being friends with the people that I work with.” Says Skottie O’Mahony of BancVue, “I kind of consider them my family. I’m very passionate about my team. I’m very protective of my team, and I’m very transparent.” It’s been said that having friendships with your employees or staff isn’t a good leadership strategy. We can’t say for certain if this is true.
What we observed is that many of our design leaders have close friendships with the people they work with. This was not a universal characteristic, but rather one frequently observed in our visits to the design leader’s offices. These friendships seem to come from the leader’s interest and compassion for the people they work with every day. Rather than the traditional arms-length boss-employee relationship, these leaders showed a genuine interest in their employees lives, both in and outside of the workplace.
“They know everything there is to know about me.” Says O’Mahony. To help his team get to know him and set up a reciprocal exchange of personal insights O’Mahony opened up to his team in a non-traditional way. “Here at BancVue I did a presentation just about me. I explained my background and how I got where I got there, where my inspiration comes from, stuff like that. Now I’m asking each team member to do the same thing. I’ve asked them to share with the rest of the team what their background is, what makes them tick, because I think that’s really important for the rest of the people on the team and it will help the team.”
Family Business or Business Family
This idea was not unique in the interviews I did with design leaders. Getting-to-know-you styled presentations were common in successful teams and almost always initiated from the top. For companies with remote teams their solution was to use video conferencing for sharing personal stories. Employees presented to the whole team on topics that were personally interesting and meaningful to them. Several design companies used tools like Know Your Company to allow new employees to share their backgrounds, interests and experiences with the team. At Fresh Tilled Soil we use a combination of tools like Know Your Company and company-wide meetings where people can share things that they want to share about themselves and their interests.
“It’s not so much that everyone is a friend first but it’s certainly a family-friendly type of an environment. We aren’t a family, we’re a business, so it’s an important distinction”.
It follows that when design leaders are open and transparent about themselves, their team members will often do the same. Getting on the same level as everyone else doesn’t mean you relinquish your leadership status. “In some ways you have to view yourself as a peer. I’m just one of the folks in the group.” Explains Brian Williams, “It’s not so much that everyone is a friend first but it’s certainly a family-friendly type of an environment. We aren’t a family, we’re a business so it’s an important distinction. My brother’s my business partner and our sister heads up recruiting, so there’s some family aspects to it, but I don’t like the family business label because I think it gives people the impression we’re not as ambitious as we are. We’re no Mom-and-Pop.” Williams’ distinction is spot on. You can treat your business team as a family without having the traditional family business label. For companies like Viget it’s nothing more than treating people with respect and taking care of them when they need your support.
When speaking to Williams it’s obvious that he cares about his work family at Viget. “I think that comes through in my leadership style. I’m very involved with our people. I want to have a relationship with everybody in the company.” For a reasonable larger agency like Viget, they have 70+ employees, it might seem surprising that Williams takes the time to conduct all the one-on-one interviews with his staff. Williams uses this time investment in his people to make a clear distinction between leadership style and management style, “I get flack from my peers about how I still participate in every annual review or one-on-one. I view this time as a way to keep a pulse on, not only the company, but the industry. I learn a ton in all those meetings. I’m just in awe of the people who I get to work with. It’s a chance to sit down for 30 minutes and talk to them about how they’re doing, what are they seeing and what are they excited about. That’s not management. It’s a fascinating leadership conversation for me. I don’t view that as a burden at all.”
The Two Way Street of Insights
The reverse works too. The annual reviews allow the team to learn from Williams and get to know his style of leadership. They also get to tell him what works and what he could be working harder on. In what looks like a 360 style review, William’s solicits feedback on his leadership and uses that feedback to grow and improve. “I think the feedback is probably a little bit too much in the weeds right now but it’s good feedback nevertheless” Says Williams, who feels that these conversations are what gives him the insights he needs to craft the best possible leadership approach for his company. He also acknowledges that there are other ways to open the conversation about leadership style to something more long-term focused, “To look further ahead I go to conferences and meet with other CEOs and advisors”. Meeting with other leaders and listening to how they approach their business challenges everyday gives Williams the added insight he needs to craft a leadership style that is appropriate for the time but also evolving.
“Actually even more than the quality of our work. Even more important than quality is the respect for individuals and people that we work with”.
Connecting strategic leadership with outcomes that are greater than just the bottom line was a theme we heard again and again. Whether it’s thinking of the company as a big family or building a community of successful people, the desire to create a lasting legacy was part of almost all the design leader’s style. “I actually would like to be remembered for creating a supportive and creative community” Says Karen Denby Smith, Partner and co-founder of the Boston based Kore Group, “Actually even more than the quality of our work. Even more important than quality is the respect for individuals and people that we work with. I would rather go down in history that Kore was a company that really cared about people and respected relationships.”
Business has changed significantly in the last few decades. It seems entirely foreign to me that we used to live in a world where companies prioritized revenues and profits over their people and clients. I can say for certain that people are at the center of great design leadership. Treating people with respect is the first step to creating a great design organization.
Balancing Hard and Soft Approaches
This eagerness to develop cultures of triple-bottom-line returns shouldn’t be mistaken for some kumbaya hippy philosophy. The leaders we met with were very accessible when their team needed them but tough when things got messy. “I’m very casual but intense when intensity is needed.” Says Tracey Halvorsen of FastSpot, “I think everyone knows they can have a beer with me, we can chit-chat. But I do think that leaders have to be willing to make tough decisions quickly, when they’re needed, otherwise you can do a lot of damage.” Halvorsen goes on to explain the difference between being hands-on tough and micro management. “When I need to make hard choices with the team I am not micro-managing. I love building a team where everyone has a lot of freedom but the team can only do great work then they respect that culture, and that culture supports them.”
This last point reaffirms something we observed in all the successful design groups; they are run like businesses that use design as a method to deliver solutions. They are not designers who just accidentally find themselves in business. These leaders are characterized by a leadership style that is caring and kind but equally as focused on delivering value and keeping the business financially healthy. Leaders walk the tightrope of being nurturing and being tough. Successful design leaders hold these counterintuitive styles in their heads at all times and know when to deliver a hug or a rebuke.
Something we observed in all the successful design groups; they are run like businesses that use design as a method to deliver solutions.
Knowing when to be a hard-ass and when to be a puppy dog isn’t straightforward. Design demands attention to detail. While design leaders are often open, trusting and empathetic than can be equally stubborn and steely when it comes to their craft. They obsess about details and get frustrated when others don’t understand the language of design. Many of our design leaders seemed to be seeking a balance between design’s myopic craftsmanship and a growth-minded openness that invites in new disruptive ideas. “There is a lot of transparency in what we do” Says Karen Denby Smith, “But the other part of what we do is to look for people who have a very strong foundation in the pure philosophy of design. So if you don’t understand the hierarchies of typography and color theory you’re not going to cut it at Kore Group.” Finding a balance between the hard and soft skills of design is the challenge of good leadership. Knowing when to let go of the craftsman-like details and focus on the bigger picture of running a design business is an important characteristic of successful leadership styles.
The Bargain Between People
Leaders reminded us frequently of the contract of trust between the design company and the people that work their. “I think it’s lead with the heart.” Says Vince LeVecchia, Partner and General Manager at Instrument in Portland. “It sounds really cheesy, but for me I just want to connect with people and have an understanding. I’m sort of the people person. So if I can connect with those people and have a sense of trust with them, then there’s this bargain. They’re coming here eight hours a day. I’m paying them for that. But, there’s more to it. We’re giving plenty so if I can keep that bargain on the trust level, we’ll get a lot back.” Being clear that they are in a business environment which requires an exchange of services and money doesn’t obscure leaders like LeVecchia from the fact that there still needs to be trust between employer and employee.
“We’re giving plenty so if I can keep that bargain on the trust level, we’ll get a lot back.”
“My leadership style is to make sure that that’s in balance all the time. If I can pass the straight face test with every employee here, and have that connection with them, then I feel like I’m doing the right thing.” This resonated with what we heard from other leaders like Brian Williams from Viget and Tracey Halvorsen from FastSpot. Strong personal connections lead to trusting relationships and that’s good for business. It appears that this isn’t just LeVecchia’s lip service either, “Vin’s the heart and soul of the company,” Says Justin Lewis, CEO of Instrument and LeVecchia’s business partner.
These leaders invest time in getting to know who’s on their team and what makes them tick. integral to that is being available to everyone. “I think the biggest thing is I’m very approachable” Says Skottie O’Mahony of BancVue, “I make sure that I met with my team casually and just went out and had coffee or drinks or just walked around. We have a lake right by us so we walked around the lake just to get to know people on my team so that they felt comfortable talking to me. I don’t see myself as, you know, someone who’s a hardcore manager, ‘You must do this. You must do that’, it’s more that I’m the person that’s there to remove the blocks. I’m the person to help them in their career.”
Leaders who see their primary role as making other successful tend to get the rewards they seek. Put another way, making sure the team can achieve their goals is the leader’s single biggest contribution to the team. O’Mahony reminds us of the balance between soft and hard styles. “Apart from being approachable, I can be irreverent and very vocal. I speak my mind.” Says O’Mahony, “Ultimately, I’m very deliberate in what I do and for the most part, I’m just there for my team. I think that’s what they would say too.”
To Trust or Not To Trust
Sometimes the trust comes first and the structured approach come afterwards. “My leadership style has definitely changed over time.” Says Marcelino Alvarez, Chief Executive Officer of Uncorked Studios. “Early on it was very much trust that everyone will do what they need to do. I think when you’re five or six people, it’s really easy to trust and not have to be hands-on on certain things.” Small groups are inherently easier to manage because you’re often sitting in the same space. “We’re 22 people now, plus we have five or six freelancers and interns, so we’re getting close to 30.” Reflects Alvarez, “So relying only on trust, that style of management doesn’t work. Conversations don’t scale regardless of whatever technology tools you’re using to stay in touch. It’s forced me to look at what my management style is and realize that I’ve got a core team that I do trust. They’re incredibly capable at their jobs. But if we’re not having frequent conversations about what it is that we should be doing and why, then that doesn’t magically clone itself and get distributed to everybody.”
“Relying only on trust, that style of management doesn’t work”.
This is something I have learned to balance myself. While it’s natural for me to trust people and expect they will always do the right thing, it’s not a guarantee they’ll do their job. As our company grows it becomes increasingly difficult to make certain that everyone knows what’s expected of them. I find myself having to make the time to explain what my expectations are to each person in the company. One the one hand it’s a fairly large investment of time but on the other hand the results are very tangible.
Creating trust can only happen when you’re authentic. That means being transparent about who you are and what’s important to you. Successful design leadership often requires making hard choices about your own path. Being yourself often signals something stronger than your title. You don’t have to be the CEO to lead and influence others. Your leadership style might not look like the traditional person in charge but if it’s real it’ll get the respect of the people around you. That respect creates trust.
“I’m not going to ever be Jack Welch at GE or the CEO at a Fortune 500 company.” Says Jeff Kushmerek, who leads product design at Virgin Pulse “But I know right now what I love doing. That means being myself, working with small teams, and throwing in ’30 Rock’ and ‘Big Lebowski’ quotes all day. That probably won’t get me into the board room at some of these larger companies but I need to be honest with myself.” Kushmerek’s honesty and openness with his team gives him the soft power he needs to get the job done.
Enjoy what you’ve read? Good, because there’s another entire book full of this stuff. I’ve been working with two masters of product Martin Eriksson and Nate Walkingshaw on writing a book that all product professionals can benefit from. Partly out of curiosity and on the back of our own experience, we’ve interviewed almost one hundred product leaders. Their insights and experiences will open up the conversation and take the lid off the mystery of great product leadership.