The Process. The Politics. The Pitfalls. Preparing for an executive role at IBM Design
Since I joined IBM as General Manager, Design a little less than a year ago, we have made significant changes in our organization. This has included the promotion of six leaders to VP of Design, and three leaders to Director of Design in the Software division alone. In addition to expanding our design footprint throughout the company (with more than 3,000 designers worldwide embedded in every part of our business), we are expanding design executive leadership.
There is a career path to executive management for designers at IBM. That should be great news to anyone with career aspirations who works here or aspires to work here, whether your focus is in interaction design, visual design, service design, user research, or content. Even if you don’t aspire to become an executive, executive representation in design is crucial for creating the conditions for our success, which is why I have been—and will continue to be—very focused on this.
While these promotions have been greeted with excitement by our design community, it’s understandable that some may wonder what it takes to become a design executive in our organization. For that reason, I want share a little about the promotion process and highlight some of the specific things that can help or hinder a design leader’s career ambitions at our company. While I’m speaking specifically about IBM Design, most of the advice I’m about to share is true of every company I’ve worked for, and I hope it will be helpful to aspiring design executives both inside and outside of IBM. If you don’t work at IBM but aspire to join, this will give you a window into how the executive design path works.
At IBM we have two career tracks, a management track and a technical track. The technical track is for designers at the top of their field who want to continue practicing design as they move up. Advancement on the technical track involves a thorough and rigorous process that I will not go into here. For this post, I am focused on the executive management track, which is less well understood.
Let’s start with demystifying the process. Executive promotions require four things to align:
- Does the role justify a promotion?
To ensure parity across roles and disciplines, we work with HR to determine whether a role merits a level up. We look at things like scope of responsibility, potential impact on the business, and level of complexity to rationalize whether the role is at the right level. In some cases, we might expand the role a candidate is already performing. In other cases, the role may have expanded over time, and we take a fresh look at the candidate’s current scope of responsibility. And sometimes we create a new role, with new responsibilities.
- Can we fund it?
This is a pretty straightforward math problem. Our budgets are not limitless. We have to ensure that we can cover the increased compensation. If we can’t, larger roles go on hold until the funding becomes available.
- Do we have the head count?
IBM is a giant enterprise. One way we ensure that we keep a balance in our workforce is to limit the number of executive roles in any division. On my direct team, we have about 20 executives. To create a new executive role, we must have a very strong business justification to the SVP who leads our division. In the current economic environment, it is difficult to make the case for expanding executive headcount, but that will change in time, as the economic picture improves.
- Is the candidate ready?
If you are looking for a promotion, you have very little control over issues 1–3 above. But you have almost complete control over your readiness. To become an executive design leader at IBM requires not only a high level of technical prowess, but also incredible soft skills and a strong network.
- Technical skills — IBM is on a path to become the leader in hybrid cloud and artificial intelligence solutions. Our design leaders gain enormous credibility by developing both broad and deep knowledge about the industry, our competitors, and our own vast and technically sophisticated portfolio. They must understand clients and champion their needs, hold their own in discussions with counterparts in development, product, consulting, and even sales and marketing. They must be able to find the overlap between what our business is trying to do, what the technology can do, and what will make clients happy. And of course, they must also be technically savvy in the practice of design itself, setting a high bar for design excellence, and guiding, coaching, inspiring, and holding accountable the teams they lead.
- Soft skills — Our work is highly collaborative. How you work with others is as critical to the success of our work as technical prowess. To reach an executive level, you must be an excellent and clear communicator, an inspiring leader, and a creative problem-solver willing to embrace the many, many ambiguous circumstances (financial, political, and otherwise) you will encounter in your quest to create things clients love. What’s more, other executives must recognize this about you, and be willing to advocate for your promotion. More on that below.
- Impact — At the end of the day, the proof of a candidate’s readiness is the impact they’ve had on our business. What can you point to that shows great things have come from your work? Improvements in NPS scores, sales, revenue, cost savings, adoption rates. Testimonials from large clients who almost left but came back because of a design improvement. When I’m advocating for an executive promotion, I have to be able to point to examples of the candidate’s value to IBM’s business. My favorite thing to say when trying to promote a design leader is “X could not have happened without [the candidate].”
I spent the first half of my career at very small companies. Moving into the global enterprise world came with a steep learning curve. No one ever explained to me how you move up the executive ranks — I had to learn by doing it. I wish someone had explained the thing I’m about to tell you.
To move up the executive ranks, you must have executive champions outside of design.
Here’s why this is so important.
Early in your career, your manager (usually a design leader) has a lot of autonomy to promote you. If you’re ready and they have the role and the budget, then it’s up to them. This process gets more complex the more you move up. There are fewer roles available, and the stakes are higher. Executive promotions usually involve a rigorous process (at IBM we call this a talent drill) where executives more senior than you talk about your readiness, and whether the role you’re stepping into is critical for the business. Every executive promotion I’ve championed at IBM involved a lot of behind the scenes discussions before the drill with my peers in other disciplines to make sure that they knew the candidate and could see the impact of their work. Without broad support, promotions simply do not go through.
This is a feature, not a bug.
Designing at scale at an enterprise as complex as IBM is not a job for lone wolves, no matter how brilliant. This is especially true for executive managers. Emotional intelligence, open-mindedness, a cheerful but dogged determination to find a way forward that all stakeholders can get behind — these are the qualities we are looking for and the qualities that are best represented by a strong, interdisciplinary network of support.
Here’s what won’t ever, ever work: Arguing with your manager that you deserve a promotion. Myopically focusing on your own desires, without understanding the bigger picture and prevailing business contexts. Getting so focused on a title that you lose sight of what you love to do.
This is not to say that you shouldn’t advocate for yourself. You should! Just be aware that your advocacy is, in fact, an audition. How you marshal your arguments, how you persuade and bring others along, and how you communicate your value and impact tells me everything I need to know about what kind of design executive you will be.
When I think of the nine candidates that we’ve promoted in the design executive ranks in the past 11 months, I see a lot of diversity, but I also see a lot of commonality. All of these executives were able to point to specific examples of their impact on the business, enlist the support of key executives outside of design, and display and communicate their readiness for the role. What’s more, they all approached their candidacies with a positive, inclusive, and forward-looking vision of what they had to offer to IBM in their new role. They aligned their vision with our vision for IBM Design, and with Arvind’s vision for IBM as a whole. Their approach not only makes them a joy to work with, it makes them highly effective at getting things done.
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The above article is personal and does not necessarily represent IBM’s positions, strategies, or opinions.