Dancing with the executives

As a principal designer I’ve had the fortunate (or crazy :-) chance to work directly with our division SVP and company CEO, along with other top folks like CTOs and departmental VPs of Prod Mgnt, Engineering, Sales, etc. Indeed, I’ve literally been “at the table” in major design reviews assessing the business goals of a product, dependencies with Marketing and Customer Support, and core product functionality, etc. And yes, the temperature in the room can get quite warm ;-)

So, after spending a year designing (and learning how to tango, so to speak) with corporate execs, I wanted to share my insights…primarily to those that aspire to engage directly with the exec level on design problems and strategies.

** First, I’ll say it outright: It’s not for the faint of heart. There’s lots and lots of clamoring by designers to get a “seat at the table” but I kinda wonder if those who talk so much about getting that seat, truly appreciate what it entails and if they’re ready for it. What do I mean? For example:

The direct pressure to perform and deliver stellar quality products–not wireframes or paper prototypes but actual designs. The gravity of decision-making which may have multi-milion dollar impacts. The very direct and blunt feedback. The laser-like scrutiny (at pixel-level!)  of impatient execs (due to jammed schedules) who demand results expressed in their terms, their language. Who don’t want to hear “it takes more resources or time or money” (excuses) but want to hear alternatives and ideas. And of course, they want to see your confidence and ability to defend your concepts & decisions with credible rationale. Verbal articulation is vital. Saying “it’s cool” is a death blow. Clear examples, role models, specific options are helpful to keep in your back pocket.

** Second, I’ve also learned that it’s ok, and even expected, to push back (politely and respectfully of course :-) against exec suggestions, on design issues. You are the design expert after all. That’s why you’re paid the big bucks! So It’s ok to ask for clarification and try to “probe” what the exec is really trying to say, distill the heart of the issue. And even to disagree, citing clear reasons.

** Finally do expect execs to have some really good ideas, with sketches and mockups! Hey, if the tools are freely available for 7 yr olds to learn, so why not senior execs too? As a designer, I’ve learned to simply take them as inputs and try to discern what’s the intent and issue being addressed. Do not take them as marching orders (unless explicitly specified :-) but instead as their way of trying to participate in the design process.

And execs certainly should be a part of the design process–they’re running the business and paying for your salary! And they know more than you do about their business and markets, which are design factors too.

In sum, being a designer working with execs is a lot like learning how to dance–the gauging of movements and rhythms, when to go slow and when to lift the tempo up. Also when to lead versus follow, which ebbs/flows over time. Indeed, in the course of an exec review, you’ll move from design expert to therapist to facilitator to public defender to pixel pusher (doing comps on the fly in front of an exec–priceless!)  and then…be able to bring it all back full circle to the problem to solve, and product to deliver. It’s emotionally and physically intense and yet exhilarating. I can honestly say I’ve done my best work this past year, pushed to new levels.

Want a seat at the executive table? Gotta learn how to dance and pursue your vision, rationale, principles as a design leader.

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