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Design leaders must hone skills that allow them to guide, shape and influence. Now more than ever, the world requires people who can imagine new solutions to problems of all scales. And to be the most effective, designers must have the right skills and attitude to inspire and lead their teams, clients and stakeholders through instability to co-create new futures. When things are uncertain, designers must step up. This is the leadership of today that will build our tomorrow.

Since 2021 our Design Leadership Program has gathered a cast of global experts to inspire the next generation of dreamers and doers. We have gathered former students, regional and international masterclass leaders to share their thoughts on how creating better design leaders is also core to reimagining what the future could be.

We interviewed four leaders to share how they are navigating uncertainty and building the necessary skills to move through today’s significant challenges. They are committed to creating a better future for their industry and solving problems on a local and global scale for society.

Design Leadership Program Graduate Neil Williams: Manulife, Director, Experience Strategy & HCD, Asia

Neil advocates for training within organisations to uplift the field of design. To influence and lead within his organisation, he has boosted the organisation’s capability to increase the design team’s ability to lead and influence. In his role at Manulife, he has developed learning pathways for non-designers, “Training is essential. On my experience, training is only a small piece of the puzzle. In parallel, senior leadership must provide support allowing time and space to experiment. Professional practice is also needed, and improving the toolbox of HCD practitioners is essential so that they can grow and lead others through best practice.”

Design Leadership Program Graduate Pla Poome, SYPartners, Creative Director

The state of the design industry has experienced some dynamic shifts between 2020 and early 2022. Pla reflects on her experience as a leader navigating the challenges of retaining and attracting top talent. “In 2021, many employees left their companies due to reevaluating their work-life balance, relocation or burnout. It was a talent war, more than great pay, top talent looked for hybrid work, purpose, opportunity to learn and grow, inclusion and fairness.”

“We are now shifting from the great resignation to great layoff. The market is not as hot now, without the pressure to hire fast. However, this should not change the way we look for talent. Confront the lack of diversity, such as racial, age or perspectives at your company. Work with your HR/People team to make the job descriptions more inclusive. Look for culture add and value fits. Hire people based on their skills, not their degrees, previous jobs or the people they know.”

Pla understands that one of her core capabilities is to empower her team to solve today’s big problems to build a new future. She applies learnings from Bruce Mau’s masterclass, “Inspiration is our primary responsibility as design leaders. To loosely quote Bruce, ‘If you fail to inspire, you will produce activity but not transformation. When timelines are short, it’s tempting to dive straight into mechanics. That’s an error because you cut off your energy source.'” 

“I applied this learning through slowing down to go faster, opening up to possibilities, helping teams get unstuck by bringing in references and inspiration from unexpected places, and stepping back and approaching things with a fresh approach.”

Design Leadership Program Regional Leader Maria Edwards, Foodpanda, Head of Product Design (APAC)

Maria Edwards joined the program as a regional workshop leader in season one. Her session for the APAC region taught design organisation through theory and practical activities. She guided her cohort through understanding the shape of their design org, the challenges they were facing and finding practical ways to optimise and improve the value and influence of design across an organisation. Leading confidently through uncertain and volatile times is crucial for pushing through challenges and developing solutions that open up unseen possibilities.

Maria understands that leaders must combat trust fatigue. She shared her reflections on leading through uncertainty over the past two years, “The erosion of confidence during times of crises weigh heavily on leaders and their teams when making decisions. It is also important to acknowledge that the unknown has caused fatigue and uncertainty among customers and clients. From making decisions to extend travel or cancelling plans to food security and panic buying, the more organisations respond to consumer needs, the more they can establish trust and stability. This is done through creating and investing in new customer improvements across their value chains.”

It is important to remember that this need for trust is also critical when designing an employee experience. Maria encourages leaders to connect with “what their workforce values the most, especially during these ongoing crises. There is now a shift from the ‘great resignation’ to ‘the great reset’ that allows people to discover what is most important for their future and work towards it”.

Stephen Gates Global Masterclass Leader on Design Leadership and Resilience 

Stephen Gates, a world-renowned design leader, has led global masterclass sessions in our Design Leadership program. Recently, after downsizing at his former employer, Stephen authentically documented his journey through an entrepreneurial lens to generate value for leaders and create a new approach to the business of design. Like all of the other leaders we have profiled, Stephen understands the importance of providing a sense of stability so we can thrive in the future. 

Stephen focuses on the following leadership skills to help navigate challenges as they arise by “making a plan for how you will tackle the problem. Nothing helps overcome uncertainty and challenges better than having a plan. Map out, think through the options, and then trust your gut on how to tackle them.”

However, Stephen also warns us, “don’t fall into the trap of needing to have all the answers before starting a plan. Like any design problem, allow time and space to go on the journey and find the answers.”

And finally, Stephen asks us to be sure to pivot and evolve any plan as things play out, “don’t fall into the trap of blindly following a plan. The journey is full of twists and turns that must be reacted to. But, like any design or leadership problem, evolve or change that plan as needed with each change.”

The Evolution of Leadership

The world is changing minute by minute. As we dream up new possibilities, we uncover additional challenges that need our attention. Now more than ever, we require confident leadership.

Season three of the Design Leadership Program starts on October 10, 2022. Upskill and plan the next five years of your career in only ten weeks. Design is leadership. 

Learn more or sign up here.


Megan Davis

Originally from Michigan, now living and creating in Melbourne, Megan considers herself a citizen of the world. She has been discovering stories since 2012, specialising in narrative strategy and storytelling for businesses that are daring to create new realities and futures.
She has traveled the world conducting workshops in New York, London, Berlin, and most recently Lisbon at the House of Beautiful Business in 2019 to teach people how to connect with storytelling to deliver strategic business results.
Putting empathy first in business and life, she loves sharing her knowledge by speaking, training, and consulting on projects that are changing the world.

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