The most important lesson I learned from working with a senior level team for a year

Over the past year, I took a break from school and worked at Johnson & Johnson’s Global Strategic Design Office (GSDO) in New York City. (Disclaimer: I was technically employed by Kelly Services Inc. and provided temporary labor for J&J) I’ve learned a ton from being fully immersed in the corporate design world among a team of incredibly talented and senior people. As my year long stint wrapped up last week, I want to take this chance to share some of the most important lessons learned from this experience.

As I compiled my list of “things I learned from GSDO,” I realized that the learnings that I found to be the most impactful to me as a person weren’t the kind that I expected to learn. When I started working, I expected to learn things like how to conduct a proper customer interview, and what’s the process of reframing your perspective of a problem. What I found to be the most important lessons I took away from this experience were less related to the ins and outs of design thinking that school introduces you to, but more related to how things are done. By that I mean the way in which people manage their time, communicate with teammates and stakeholders, and influence the culture of the organization, to give a few examples.

I found that problem solving is what’s most easily observed and articulated, and therefore most easily taught. It sometimes can be seen that a great outcome at the conclusion of a project depends on how that project is managed. One level down is one’s habits that automate behaviors conducive to collaboration and moving a project along automatic so one can focus their mental resources on problem solving. A level even further down is one’s paradigm — how they see their relationship to their work and team. At the core resides Character traits that are most hidden and therefore is not so easily taught but is transferred onto others through a process that can be likened to osmosis.

Out of all the things I learned through the year, including:

perhaps the most important takeaway for me is a character trait that you can only absorb by being around really great people:

Stay humble and listen

Several weeks before I arrived at the office, I received a LinkedIn invite from my would-be boss’s boss’s boss (he probably noticed that I checked out his profile). I was both ecstatic and surprised — why would someone like that send me an invite? Several days into my new job, I noticed an office with his name. I turned to someone and asked, Does he work here too? As you can tell by now, I have a natural instinct to put senior people on the pedestal (growing up in Asia didn’t help), despite my conscious efforts to control these instincts. As I had more opportunities to interact with this person, I was constantly reminded of the virtue of humility. One time he talked about his concern not only for the company, but for all of humanity. Seeing yourself on the grand scale of humanity can surely give you a humbled perspective about who you are and what you’re here to do.

When I had the chance to ask one of the more senior people who joined our team what he initiatives or changes he plans to put in place — which in my mind was the corporate version of giving orders, it left a lasting impression on me when he responded with,

I’m here to support you guys so you can do the best work that you want to do.

This simple statement gave me a renewed perspective about what it means to be a leader. Being a leader means making way for your people so they can succeed.

Some time later I overheard from a coworker a conversation he had with his manager that left him feeling empowered to take his initiative in bold new directions. “[his words] suggested to me that he’s got my back” he said.

Great leaders are coaches and mentors. When your people succeed, you will succeed too. And when your people fail, support them in getting back up on their feet should be your number one priority.

It seems that once per month, there would be a new blog post on some semi-popular careers site about the importance of listening. While we all know this, I find that translating this thought to behavior is hard without the emotional foundation of humility. When you develop humility, whether after spending many months with others who possess the quality, or after being “put in your place” upon realizing just how little you know, listening comes naturally.

While I won’t dare to claim that I’m a great listener, my ability to listen has grown over the past year. Prior to joining the team, I felt that my worthiness as a “contributor” hinged — obviously — on my ability to contribute, which I measured using the narrow definition of how many ideas I bring to the table. Over time, I realized that the brightest people in the room didn’t necessarily talk the most, but talked when they had something of significant substance to say. And when they did so, they were totally coherent, well thought out, and addressed everyone’s concerns. It was a gift to have spent an inordinate amount of time around these people because seeing how they behave led me to gradually adjust my own behavior.

While sitting on the Greyhound bus reminiscing my successes and mistakes through the past year, I pressed play on an episode of the the TED Radio Hour podcast, entitled — however fittingly — Making Mistakes.

In this episode, the jazz musician Stefan Harris was being interviewed by the host of the podcast on the meaning of “mistakes” in jazz. At one point he said…

We don’t micromanage in jazz. It limits artistic abilities. [Micromanaging] is kinda chaotic because it’s me bullying my ideas.
If I want the music to go there, the best way for me to do it is to listen. It has far more to do with what I perceive than what it is that I can do. If I want the music to get to a certain level of intensity, the first step for me is to be patient and to listen to what’s going on and pull from something that’s going on around me. When you do that, you inspire and engage the other musicians and they give you more and gradually it builds.
When I’m pulling ideas, it’s a totally different experience. It’s much more organic, much more nuanced. It’s not about bullying my vision. It’s about being here in the moment, accepting one another, and allowing creativity to flow.

At this point it dawned on me that listening isn’t solely about respecting other people’s time and contributions but is even more importantly about leadership, especially when all your work is collaborative where there are many dynamics at play. When things are constantly changing and there is no “right answer,” It’s about the attitude you bring everyday to your team and inspiring while encouraging everyone to build off of each other — no matter how diverse the perspectives may be — to trust each other and move forward collectively as a team.