Internationally-recognized design strategist Nathan Shedroff is the founder of the California College of Arts MBA in Design Strategy. The program gained international recognition for redefining modern management education to include advanced classes in design strategy and innovation planning. His newest book Blind Spot: Illuminating the Hidden Value of Business is co-authored with Steven Diller and Sean Sauber.
From a noisy cafe in Harlem, I interviewed Nathan Shedroff over the phone about design leadership, the power of a shared design vision, and supporting team junior members
"Articulate a vision, clearly"
After seeing Nathan keynote at the Interaction 10 conference in Savannah, Georgia, I discovered his Cisco-sponsored interview online where he explains “leaders are people who can articulate, clearly, a vision that other people want to follow. . . it’s as simple as that.” This approachable definition is adopted from his personal MBA experience at the Presidio Graduate School and Bob Dunham, a generative leadership teacher. “That is the most succinct definition of leadership I’ve heard," says Nathan. "It’s external to power structures, which means it doesn’t rely on ‘authority’ defining what leadership is or isn’t.”
“Creative visions,” Shedroff explains, “have the power to keep teams successful when cooperation breaks down.” Compassionate and disarming, Shedroff intends to advance the way leaders are educated in MBA programs. He believes that the education of the modern leader includes not only a practical understanding of hard skills, such as accounting and finance, but also more modern soft skills such as defining a creative vision.
Shared visions may drive success (even when collaboration fails)
“Ideally, team members need to be able to say ‘I want to be a part of that vision.’ When team members don’t believe in the vision, they may never be happy with their work.” Although Nathan acknowledges the value of personal drive and motivation, he explains, “Not everyone necessarily needs to be fulfilled and satisfied for the team to succeed.”
Nathan felt one story best epitomized the importance of how a shared vision can help overcome a toxic culture.
“We worked for a large, well-known sporting goods company in the past. When we worked with them, they used sports metaphors for everything. They made a point to say we are all ‘team players,’ but that is not what we found to be true when working with them. The people we worked with weren’t always collaborative. Some were often like prima donna athletes: they had their own ball, and they weren’t going to pass it to anyone. However, the internal messaging of their creative vision was so powerful and strong, even though they weren’t collaborative, they were all working in the same direction. They had such a strong vision that they were able to succeed despite the fact that they didn’t always cooperate. That’s the importance of wanting to follow it.”
"Some visions may not fit with a team member’s beliefs"
Shedroff advocates for talking with team members about their objections with the team’s vision.
“One of the keys for any team member or manager is to learn if they think they are in the right company in the first place. A question to ask may be ‘Is the vision of this team aligned enough with my beliefs?' This isn’t always a luxury that young professionals may have. However, a misalignment of values may lead to an employee fighting it. “
Thankfully, companies don’t often stay exactly the same for many years. “Overtime, you can earn a company’s trust,” says Shedroff. “A company can envision you having responsibilities,” he explains, “which may afford you with more influence over the vision.”
The vision of a company, team, or organization changes to react to the market, to competitors or to internal changes in team leadership. As a result, some team members find that a leader’s vision creates room for a team member’s vision. Shedroff explains, “Some people aren’t patient enough (for their ideal job), and it doesn’t materialize automatically. When we invite successful creative professionals to speak at panels at the school, people almost always say ‘ I didn’t get hired for this job . . . I made this job, over time.’”
Tips for new managers
“Pick your priorities and stay motivated”
“When you find yourself stressed out by a situation, reflect for a moment on the thing or the person who isn’t aligning. Ask yourself ’is it really a priority or does it not matter?’ If I’m going to get upset, I need to think about how much it will cost me. It may irk me, but at some point I need to pick my battles.“
“Cut your team some slack.”
“It’s difficult being human, especially living in our world. Nothing ever goes perfectly. You can get upset, but the measure of how upset you get is a reflection of who you are. If you get upset inordinately and you don’t treat people well, you aren’t going to be effective with those people. Most people aren’t fucking with you on purpose: maybe life just happens. I have my buttons, but If you build experience with people with respect, then your mistakes as a leader gets more excused. All we have are relationships between us, and if you don’t nurture them, people may actively undermine them or lie to you."
“Don’t Avoid the Tough Conversations.”
“This is a hard one, but you can’t avoid difficult conversations forever. You can put them off until a less intense situation, but you have to be able to have them. They can be difficult for many reasons. You can’t delegate them when its your responsibility: people who can’t do that can’t be effective leaders.”