d.thinkg: Location, leadership and creativity

The importance of positioning yourself correctly within an organisation.

Stephan Hitchins
May 14, 2017 · 5 min read

Have you ever considered how your physical location within a design studio can affect your ability to successfully lead a design team. Or still, how this can affect the dynamics within a studio and its creative output.

Location. Location. Location.

The success of your business may just depend on it. Those infamous three words occasionally drummed into us by our parents, friends and the ever present real estate agent. Many of us would have heard this phrase before and maybe even used it. But have you ever considered the importance of these words relative to the actual physical position you choose to secure within your office, your team, around a boardroom table or in managing a project. Why did you choose that specific office? Or wanted to sit closer to a specific colleague? How the dynamics in the office change when you moved to a different office.

Well, I never gave it much thought until, until now that is. Having successfully operated design agencies for over 25 years I wondered why I had placed myself in various offices and whether my choice of location was not only intentional, but also had an effect on the productivity and leadership of my design team.

I recently took time to reflect on the past and looked at the growth, stagnation and ‘decline’ of an agency. I considered periods of positive client attraction, changing team dynamics and overall profitability. Did my location, both physically and mentally, have an affect on any or all of this. Was I even aware of the leadership dynamics taking place? At some point in your career you may have been in position of feeling ‘excluded’ from the team or being in a lesser connected mindset relative to the organisation. We would look towards others for the reasons, but it may have been as a result of our positioning within the leadership of the office or ‘space’ that has affected our ‘stability’.

Leadership is all about location. Location within a physical space. Location within a team and location within the minds of our audience, the customer and the client. It is our positioning that allows us to be effective, efficient and influential in the growth and development of our companies. Location is leadership without having to actually say much. As a leader I was concerned about what I could bring to the table. I saw my actions as constantly adding positively to the team. Never did I consider what I was losing or taking away from the team.

Establishing the Herd.

In looking back at my agency life I remember positioning myself within three distinct offices. This physical movement happened over a period of many years and in reflection I now see it took place around specific periods when I was changing. I will refer to these periods as ‘Establishing the Herd’, ‘The Challenge’ and ‘Understanding my Role’.

I had established my credentials and proved I could ‘run with the best’. Now I needed a team that could keep up with me. Make my dreams a reality. I hired young designers so that I could mould them into durable, ethical, highly productive resources. Or was it a protection mechanism for myself? The team were young, inexperienced and in ‘awe’ of working for an established recognised designer. Initially I chose the front office. Close to the entrance. But why did I do this? What did I believe I would gain from this location? Importance. Power. Trust. Leadership. Gatekeeper. Arrogance. Ego. Ownership. Security. Was it insecurity?

Yes, the agency was a dynamic force within the industry. Clients wanted to be part of our team and young designers saw the studio as a creative hot shop. BUT, what did I loose? How did my location and leadership style affect the team? How did my team feel? Insecure? Always seeking approval? Did I hinder the creative process? Were they designing for me and not the product. Ineffective feedback? Poor reflection? Tension? I was so consumed by my own ability that I created an environment of tough love. I failed to understand that I could lead without having to execute. I was taking away from my design team instead of giving. The agency grew rapidly, but change was on the horizon.

The challenge.

The team was ‘older’, more established, more independent, more reflective and more vocal. Or as I thought, more opinionated and rebellious. The message was clear. The team wanted to lead. They were able to lead. They had to lead. No longer did they need my undivided attention. Award winning work happened without me looking over their shoulders.

I felt unwanted and unappreciated. I moved location. I physically removed myself from the immediacy of the team. I ‘took my leadership’ and left. I chose the back office. Furthest away from the entrance. But why did I do this? Was I cutting off my own nose? What did I believe I would gain from this new location and ‘new form of leadership’ Respect? A new following? The team silently celebrated their freedom and struggled amongst themselves to establish a new leader. Problem being there were two senior designers. Both capable. And both with large enough egos to believe they could be the new alpha.

Leadership is not only about celebrating success, but having to make those really difficult decisions that have may long lasting affects on lives. It’s about putting others first. It’s about empathy. Its about respect and encouragement. It’s about an appreciation of the past and about heritage. Leadership comes about through having lived life through design. What did they believe they had gained? Authority? Recognition? Respect? Ownership? The new leaders soon realised that it took more than hard work and long hours to create a productive effective design environment. There was a clash of horns, a splitting of the herd and a desire to return to a collective leadership.

Understanding my Role.

I packed my things and relocated for the third and final time to a mid point in terms of leadership real estate.

I was positioned close enough to the studio for me to feel comfortable, yet allowing the team room to breathe. I was far enough from the front entrance not to be seen as ‘commanding’, yet not too far in that I was seen as being distant.

The team wanted leadership from the fringe, but not out of reach. The team wanted my approval and acknowledgement of their progress. I needed to let them grow. I realised that the team wanted to have a turn at leading. They wanted to experience responsibility through individual action. They needed to grow by me allowing them to ‘fail’. I had to be their guide and not the guard.

I have reflected on my role as a design leader and acknowledge that at my first location I was being a boss. I drove people, depended on authority and often focused on “I”. Over the next 25 years the agencies were successful. I attribute this not only to the dedication and hard work my team put in, but to that moment when I came to realised that by moving to my final location I had learnt that design leadership involves coaching, generating enthusiasm, fixing problems, developing people and learning to say “We”.

Design is a collaborative action.


Stephan Hitchins

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Focused on Design Thinking

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