Confessions of a design leader
I’m almost three years with Lloyds Banking Group, in which I’ve helped to establish a thriving service design team (now 34) and more recently helped shape and lead a broader retail design team of 112. I’ve made mistakes but am also proud of some great achievements and where we’ve gotten to, so I’m writing this as a chance to reflect and also making it public as I hope others can relate.
People people people
I know this is obvious but I so often forget it. Whenever I feel stressed or out of control, it’s because I’ve not been paying attention to people. Whether it’s my immediate leadership team, the amazing cast of people that make things like recruitment or risk work, or even just myself, when I prioritise things (packs, emails etc) and events (meetings, workshops, etc) over people, stuff falls over. The bank is a bruising place subject to near-constant change, and so being there for the team is my utmost focus before anything else.
Rhythms of communication have helped, including fortnightly catch-ups with the leadership team, and a reflective weeknote sent each Friday with key updates and gossip. Also blocking out semi-regular team days on which we tackle key topics like confidence (see above photo). On the practical side, I’ve found tools like Notion to be invaluable, combined with a discipline of writing down simple notes from any team discussion; this helps as I can refer back and snap out of the busy-daze that often descends.
A right-brain in a sea of lefts
It’s not as clear-cut as that, but there’s a definitely a leaning towards the analytical when you get into more senior meetings within any large org (at least in my experience). There are many meetings where I’ve felt lost in a sea of numbers and details, amazed at the ability of others to not just parse the conversation, but to respond intelligently.
For a short while I tried playing a part, adopting a new language and set of tools (I even made a few ugly powerpoints). This felt wrong and so over time I’ve learned to lean more into what makes me different, and trust my gut when it’s telling me to question something or to make a point; this gets simpler when I realised that a lot of my job is asking the same three questions:
What about the customer?
What about the colleague?
Can we make a version of the thing to test with customers/colleagues?
That said, there’s no getting away from the heavy business-stuff, so I’ve also spent time dissecting long packs, and googling oft-used terms like ‘headwind’ so that I’m not tripped-up by the basics.
Staying connected to the craft
I guess nobody gets into design to approve timesheets or fight for budgets. It’s a funny thing to feel jealous when a talented designer shows you the beautiful thing they’ve created, or feeling confused when you see a new piece of software that others are comfortable with. This disconnection with the actual process of design is disorientating for me, as my comfort-zone is in a small team working through knotty questions.
Through trial-and-error I’ve found a happy mid-ground, spending the majority of my time on leadership but treating it like a design project, complete with MVP-mindsets and attractive artefacts. The rest of my time I carve out to be in the team, leading workshops, training and sketching. It’s an ongoing balancing act but I’ve found weeks where I can spend 60% of time on the team and 40% in the work, the happiest.
Busy is the new stupid
This has been the toughest one for me. In a big bank like ours there are no shortage of meetings, and due to ongoing transformation fallout, it’s tempting to confuse meetings with being wanted.
“If I’m busy i’m needed”.
Learning to delegate, shorten and most importantly say ‘no’ is something I’m still struggling with, but I think is the ultimate key to a happy and balanced work-life. I’ve found a few rules help, such as Antony Mayfields advice to focus on just 2 or 3 things each day, but ultimately this one is about practice and ongoing reflection; why did that day feel so hectic and why did I let it happen?
As an aside I’d recommend this book on the topic as it’s really helped. The idea of inhale-time (for you) and exhale-time (for others) really helped frame my time.
My toughest daily battle is with myself, wondering whether I’m qualified to lead some of the smartest people that I’ve ever been lucky to work with. When visiting new labs and coming across members of the team I’ve not seen in some time, imposter-syndrome bites hard. On occasion I’ve tried to mask this, falling back on banter or worse, retreating into the background while others talk for me.
Like many other observations here there is no easy fix, but I’ve found that doubling-down on things that served me well in my career (relationships with people, creative story-telling), has not only elevated me in the eyes of others, but also boosted my own confidence as it feels ‘right’ and ‘authentic’ and all sorts of other 2019 business memes.
I hope that’s been useful for some others in similar situations, or at least has sounded somewhat familiar. Any feedback/questions welcomed.