The following article is based on a recent interview conducted by Lou Rosenfeld, Publisher of Rosenfeld Media from his podcast, The Rosenfeld Review. The interview has been edited for clarity and length.
This week, Lou sits down with the Head of Design for the Data Team at Amplitude, Courtney Maya George, to discuss her talk “Scale Your Organization and Grow Your Designers,” which she’ll be presenting at this year’s DesignOps Summit (September 8–9, virtual). What is a Design Leader’s role in providing stability for their team? How has that role changed over the course of the pandemic? Over the past few years, the security employees feel at their jobs has fluctuated drastically. Are there tools we are already using that can help our teams feel more confident in these uncertain times? Listen as Courtney and Lou touch on these topics, and more.
[Lou] Courtney Maya George is giving a talk at this year’s DesignOp Summit called “Scale Your Organization and Grow Your Designers.” I wanted to dig into this topic because I sense that you see the role of designops to some degree as a stabilizer. In the past few years, we saw rapid growth in design organizations. And now we’re moving into this time of more uncertainty. Can you speak on your role as a stabilizer throughout all this?
[Courtney] Yeah, I think it’s the role of any design leader is to provide that stability for the people on their team, whether that is building out structures and processes or giving them growth opportunities. I was reading a Gallup article where they talk about important things around trust, compassion, hope, and stability. I think that was really insightful for me on how everything we do as designops leaders needs to tackle those four things for the people on our team to feel like they have that stability and growth.
[Lou] So beyond company stability, there is also being there for people and making them feel secure, making them feel that they can trust the setting they’re working in. Those people skills are really important, but they’re also hard to scale. And if you’re a designops leader, you might have endless reserves of compassion, but you only have so many hours in a day. How do you scale that for a larger organization?
[Courtney] I think what we’ve seen in the last few years is that leading with the head is not enough. Leading with the heart can be hard to measure, but that authenticity that you can bring to the role, even if it is, “I only have so many hours in the day, and I will accomplish what I can,” just having those types of conversations go a long way.
Let’s say, for example, you’re bringing in JIRA to be able to track work. Before the pandemic, we would’ve talked a lot about how that helps your cross-functional partnerships and how that’s making your design team accountable and transparent into the work of designers. But what I realized in my role at Amplitude is that it’s also a tool to help decrease burnout. It gives you a tool to say, “these are all of the things that I’m working on as a designer, I need help taking some of these off my plate.” If you didn’t have that, there’s no evidence or measurable way to see that.
We all get sucked into the day-to-day meetings so that transparency allows you to zoom out for a minute and say, is this what I need to be doing? Am I only focusing on urgent items? Am I missing the important items, and does this align with our team charter or even my own personal career growth? It’s amazing how I’ve seen even simple structures put in place help designers on the team start thinking about that for themselves.
[Lou] When you use a tool like JIRA to help your team have insight into what they’re doing as designers, does that, in turn, create some sort of trust or connection that they didn’t have before, or do you have to kind of draw that out for them?
[Courtney] I think it’s a little bit of both. Some teams are more receptive than others. Some people are going to jump right in and say, “I know this is good for me. I may not know what the outcome is, but I’m kind of looking at it in full force.” And as they get that positive conditioning, working with their cross-functional partners, their managers are seeing the benefits. And then there are others where I think it needs to be proven out on what is the ROI of doing this. They will ask you to help convince them that this is actually going to help them. Luckily, I think that the first group of people who are willing to jump in and do it right away helps prove that out for the second group.
[Lou] Is it easier to build that sense of trust in the good times? Or do they not need you as much in the good times, so maybe you don’t have those opportunities?
[Courtney] I think it’s easier in the good times, providing you’re still at a company that is stable, or you feel like you have job security. I think there are more facets to have to feel that stability now, and I think instability is always bubbling under the surface or even is at the surface right now. Everything is kind of always at that breaking point where maybe in the good times for some people, certain things were maybe more stable than others. So, I think being cognizant of that as a leader and knowing your team really well, knowing what they’re going through, maybe beyond just the professional world, is extremely important because you might have to hit on how I can provide that stability in different ways for different people, depending on what they’re going through.
[Lou] Well, that again comes back to that whole point of scalability. So, you’re talking about getting to know people and how they’re different, but let’s say you’re in an organization with a hundred designers and researchers or more, how do you get to that point? Or is it a distributed model where you work with team leaders, and they’re working in turn with their people, and it becomes a big cascade of connections?
[Courtney] I think it is that second way where you need to be able to trust your leaders to be providing that for their smaller teams. But it’s on you if you’re a leader of many different teams in a large organization to know, what are the values? What are the principles that you are living by that you expect your organization to live by? How are you leading by example? If you are working 60 hours a week, you are already setting the tone for how your leadership style is perceived.
The higher up you get, the more conscious you have to be about how you’re leading by example.
[Lou] So one of the things that I keep coming back to is the illusion of certainty. It feels like you can’t really make plans now because who knows if you’re going to be able to get on a plane or if you’re going to be able to commit to that hire or whatever it might be. Everything seems so up in the air it’s disconcerting. And then I wonder, hasn’t it always been that way beneath the surface that things could always change? I just wonder if we’ve been fed a line that things were more certain than they really were. And I’m wondering if that’s the case that leaders need to start making to people.
[Courtney] I think that’s a really interesting point. I think I live my life like that because I know how uncertain life can be. And the importance of resiliency is critical to be successful or to be even happy just to live your life. I think when the pandemic happened, that illusion got dropped for people that maybe would’ve been able to have that illusion of certainty a little bit longer. My role in that as a design leader is to help build resiliency.
What does it mean to go through your professional life in these uncertain times? Is it ever actually certain?
You could always have a reorg. You could always potentially lose your job. There’s a lot of different uncertain things that could happen that maybe we choose not to see, or we don’t need to see, but it’s always there.
So in the good times, it might be easier to focus on the strengths that you have and framing it in different ways. But I think in the bad times, or especially during this pandemic, it’s more about the resiliency that you have to build.
[Lou] So how do you help them grow into their natural resiliency?
[Courtney] I think my leadership style has always been to push people slightly outside of their comfort zone. Because I think you then start to realize, “oh, I could actually do this. It’s scary. But if I know that I have the trust and the support of my manager, that if I fail, I’m not gonna lose my job.” I think that naturally starts to show them, “Hey, you can do this. You have that natural resiliency. I’m just gonna try to push it out of you a little bit more then maybe you feel comfortable with initially.”
[Lou] That makes perfect sense. Pushing them to be a little uncomfortable and giving them a little slack to, to screw up on occasion. Do you feel like there’s a connection between what we’re talking about here in terms of building resiliency and accepting our own imposter syndrome?
[Courtney] Yes. I think the imposter syndrome is very much a self-critic. I have it. You have it. Everyone has it. I think sometimes it’s really nice to have somebody else believe in you and to have somebody else say, “I’m gonna be that person.” That’s gonna give you the self-assurance for this moment. Being that person to say something that maybe just quiets their inner critic for a few minutes. Everyone sometimes needs that little external validation. And I think that actually goes a longer way than I realized when I was just starting out as a design leader. Especially during the pandemic times, I’m seeing how important and how those little things can really go a long way in helping somebody reach their potential and find that natural resiliency.
[Lou] I want to take a slight turn because you work at Amplitude and you’ve got data in your job title. It’s a data driven environment, but you’re also talking about psychology and we’re talking about things that aren’t always measurable. So how do you know when you’ve been successful in your role as a designops leader who is trying to help people in these ways that we’re talking about here?
[Courtney] Right now I focus mostly on qualitative feedback. We have a kudos channel at work, and we try to give props to people in our team. So, we do it a lot more anecdotally. I’m still trying to crack the code on how do you quantitatively measure something like this? I don’t think there is an easy way. There’s always a risk of, if you go too quantitative, have you lost the heart that this all started with? So, I think there is a blend that you have to find. There are things like engagement surveys so, there are definitely ways but I would love to chat more with other people who have tried different things, because I’m still in that experimenting phase to see how to really measure something like this.
[Lou] What’s a nice qualitative story you could tell about a moment you knew you were on the right track with your team?
[Courtney] I think it was when I had a designer tell me that they feel the support to be able to push back. And that setting boundaries is a skill that they’ve realized that they need to have, and that they feel much safer being able to do that when they have the support of me being able to come in and have their back and I will be there. Getting that nice feedback from that designer was showing me that I was on the right track.
[Lou] Thank you so much for joining us today in the Rosenfeld review and I’m really looking forward to your talk at the DesignOps Summit.
Rosenfeld Media’s next conference is the DesignOps Summit, a virtual conference coming up September 8–9. Learn more at https://rosenfeldmedia.com/designopssummit2022/
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