From empathy to self awareness, what makes a great design leader?
Leadership still has a lack of creative input. We speak to Future London Academy about the skills designers can gain to close that gap.
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- 24 January 2023
We’re at an interesting turning point when it comes to leadership in design. On the one hand, there seems to be more designers in the boardroom than ever before. As Ben Sheppard explains for McKinsey & Company, the number of chief design officers at the 100 largest companies in the world has more than doubled since 2014, signalling “a new level of maturity” in design leadership. “Still, in a lot of organisations design leaders are swimming upstream, constantly trying to prove the value of design to the C-suite,” says executive school for creatives Future London Academy. The question is, how can we help more creatives get a seat at the table and become part of strategic decision-making?
One of the most important skills for a design leader at that level is understanding the language of business, says Future London Academy. The executive school defines this as not only knowledge of how your company operates and makes money, and how design contributes to this growth, but an ability to use relevant metrics – “like ROI, LTV, CAC, TAM, SAM, EBITDA” – to communicate your design strategy and discuss the progress. This is particularly crucial when you consider that only one in 10 CEOs say their senior designer plays a meaningful role in strategy development, a 2019 McKinsey & Company survey reveals. McKinsey outlines that the unique position of design leaders, to see things like pain points customers encounter, presents clear benefits to strategy. The firm lists a recent Lyft rebrand as an example – the design decision to introduce more travel options to the app revealed market demand that fed into company strategy going forward.
Of course, any leader worth their salt needs to be backed by some crucial skills beyond the business context – and there is plenty of evidence showing why these should no longer be considered “soft skills”. Future London Academy believes empathy is one of them. Yet in 2022, only 69 per cent of employees in the US believed their CEO was empathetic, with 77 per cent of CEOs fearing they might lose respect if they’re too empathetic. In its 2022 State of Workplace Empathy study, Businessolver says this perception has only eroded further under The Great Resignation.
According to Halle Kho, executive design director at Frog New York, there are numerous “habits” design leaders can lean on to foster empathy, like displaying curiosity. By asking probing questions and learning alongside the team, you open the ground for honest critique. Kho adds that: “In the vast majority of situations your role is not to hand down The Answer, but to foster creative solutioning that generates an array of possible answers.” Kho makes a compelling case for leading with inquiry rather than lecturing, and there are numerous other interpersonal areas that feed into effective management. Future London Academy’s teachers and mentors also list the importance of self-awareness, ability to remove ego, accountability and resilience as just some of these skillsets.
There is a further issue in closing the gap between design leaders and company decision-makers – knowing where to learn these skills. As Ekaterina Solomeina, Future London Academy co-founder states: “Usually, at this point people go to get an executive MBA, but unfortunately, a lot of traditional MBA content is very outdated and not relevant for design-led or tech businesses.” This is an issue Future London Academy was founded to solve. It aims to create a Bauhaus-like environment where professional creatives who already have 15+ years of experience can learn about business, leadership and design, from teachers at companies like Wolff Olins, Zaha Hadid Architects and Monzo.
In July 2023, the next cohort of Design Leaders programme kicks off with five two-week modules in London and California. Its aim is to get more creatives to the boardrooms as well as help founders of design-led companies grow their businesses. The programme is taught by some of the industry’s top CFOs, CEOs, and design leaders, including AKQA founder James Hilton, VP of design at Dropbox Alastair Simpson, and Kate Stanners, global chief creative officer at Saatchi & Saatchi. You can find out more about the programme and apply for the 2023 course at Future London Academy.
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Future London Academy
Future London Academy is an executive school for creatives. Our learning experiences are created and delivered by the top creative leaders from some of the most exciting design-led companies including Wolff Olins, Pentagram, Spotify, Huge, Atlassian and others.
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