Oen Michael Hammonds
IBM Design
Published in
4 min readNov 1, 2016


Design Leadership: Maintaining a Sustainable Culture of Design at IBM

In September the Talent Team held its first session for Bootcamp for New Design Leaders. The week long session pulled together experts from around IBM and design leaders in the external community to speak to participants about awareness of themselves and their role, to communicate effectively to their immediate team and align with other partners and understand how to deliver great outcomes to their users and the market.

Awareness 🙇🏽
Designers taking on lead responsibilities need to have a better understanding of themselves, their role and their team. Design Practice Leader, Sarah Nelson, led the initial session to help participants understand not just what leadership type they are but what attributes challenges them the most.

There are several different leadership attributes, but the Authoritative one is the most challenging for most people. Just the word itself can have a negative mental connotation. At some point in time you will run into this type of leader, or you will need to be an authoritative leader for the benefit of the project, your team and the user. As leaders we must understand that we may have a core style of leadership but we need to be able to adopt or take on other attributes to achieve outcomes.

But beyond just being aware of ourselves we need to:

  • Be aware of the guardrails that our team is working in
  • People actually work better within constraints, not competition
  • We must be judicially transparent to build trust with our team
  • Sweep away distractions so your team can focus on their goal
  • And, lead as an advocate for their team

Communication 🎙
Along with different styles of leadership are different communication styles. Utilizing the Myers Briggs Type, workshop lead Kathryn McElroy helped the participants understand how we must look past the stereotypes and how our dichotomies can work better together. As Alvaro Soto, a communication facilitator, puts it: “Designers can vastly improve the acceptance of their message by tailoring arguments to the style of those who will make the ultimate decision.”

But, ultimately a good leader is a good listener. Fellow designer and workshop participant, Lara Hanlon says it best “To understand your team, stakeholders, and the marketplace, you must pay attention to the wants, needs, and concerns voiced by everyone involved. One simple way to gain empathy is to listen.” (Link to Lara’s Medium article.)

“Your role as a leader is to harness the power of your multi-disciplinary team.” ~Phil Gilbert

Delivery 📮
When delivering a product to market there are a lot of things to take into consideration, from the user needs, work flow prioritization, to who are the necessary people to engage to ensure alignment and support for great outcomes. All of these can be daunting for someone taking on new leadership responsibilities. We all must remember that we are not alone. IBM Design General Manager Phil Gilbert said it best, “Your role as a leader is to harness the power of your multi-disciplinary team.” Leaders need to utilize the strengths of their teammates to support the goal of the project. They must also realize that their “team” is much larger than the people that may sit next to them or who they IM or have phone conversations with daily.

“Find your hidden social network,” says Fahad Osmani, Director, Talent Strategy & Transformation. “Your goal should be to have a solid working relationship with every single person on your overall team that delivers the thing that our users/customers spend 8-hours on/pay-money-for. If you think this means your design team, think again.”

Design leadership can be hard; especially if you’ve not done it before. The best way to meet this challenge through this bootcamp is through the support of your peers, as you swap war stories, and build relationships we hope will last the rest of your careers. Bootcamp for New Design Leaders is just one part of maintaining a sustainable culture of design at IBM.

Thank you to all the co-facilitators who made this first prototype experience possible. I learned so much from putting this together for the participants. I look forward to iterating on future sessions.