Lead with Tempo
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Lead with Tempo

Leading with…Aaron Burgess

Image with Aaron Burgess and text Leading with Aaron Burgess

We spoke to Aaron Burgess, Senior Director of Content Strategy for Expedia Group, about his current leadership challenges and how he navigates them.

What was the biggest shock for you when you moved from IC (individual contributor) to leadership?

I grew up with punk rock — smashing hierarchies and rejecting power dynamics were part of my DNA. No surprise, this made me woefully unprepared for some of the top-down calls I had to make as a new leader: annual reviews, hirings and firings, resourcing decisions, tough conversations when someone is under-performing or creating conflict. I also had no idea how important it was to have a sphere of influence outside of my immediate team, or how critical it was to understand the financial machinery and other systems that needed to factor into my decisions.

With experience — and plenty of failures, and even more coaching — I’ve learned that many of the traits I developed as a misfit youth are actually well-suited to leadership. Not caring about hierarchies helps me be comfortable working across all levels of the company. Valuing informal collectivism over rigid working agreements helps me be a good organizer — able to connect dots and create effective working partnerships. I’m also completely comfortable with sharing my deficiencies, which I think helps me hire people who can bring in new ideas and up-level the team.

What advice do you have for new leaders?

Realize that it’s going to take some time for you to find your leadership style. Figure out what you stand for, and document it. This will be the foundation you build on. Then, be a sponge — pay attention to the leaders you admire, and dig into what makes them effective. Look outside of design for leadership inspiration, too: like, in professional sports, how are coaching teams organized around specializations? How do you put together playbooks? How do you build a depth chart? I’m not much of a basketball fan, but someone like Phil Jackson, who built a historically winning career on principles borrowed from Buddhism, really interests me. People like that are looking laterally for inspiration, and that inspires me to keep a similarly wide perspective as I hone my leadership style.

I’d also encourage new leaders to find a mentor — someone who’s been in the position for a while, or if you can afford it, a leadership coach. A good coach will spend time learning about your intrinsic motivations — which is where documenting what you stand for becomes important — and help you build on that.

What are the biggest challenges you currently face in your organisation?

I’ll speak to Experience Design, which is the org where my team sits. We have an exciting roadmap ahead of us — despite the pandemic, this is a great time to work in travel — but because our team is only so big, we need to be able to prioritize the work that’s going to deliver the most business and customer value. This means that we need to be good at articulating how the work we do will pay dividends — because at the end of the day, despite the perks it may offer, any corporation that’s paying for your time is interested in the return it’s going to get on that investment.

When you’re trying to articulate that story, you need to be able to tie it to tangible measures. So we’ve worked really hard to articulate why gearing ratios aren’t just a challenge for content design; they’re a challenge for the entire design organization, which needs to be able to partner with product, engineering, and other teams to go after our shared roadmap. Along with that, we’ve looked at divisional goals that, even if we can’t own them, we can directly tie to work led by Experience Design.

I know I’m not talking about content design specifically, but that’s because content design is an integral part of our Experience Design organization. My team is a centralized practice, with individuals reporting to content-design leaders, but we don’t have a separate operating model just for content. When we staff design projects, we staff across all practice areas, and we look at balancing ratios among those practice areas as well as making sure we have the actual skills needed for a project (content may not need to be part of every effort, and that’s OK.) Our content-design practice is the home base that we all come back to, and the focus there is on things like honing our craft, creating meaningful development paths for our people, and developing scalable frameworks for content design in our company.

Getting back to some of my earlier comments around communities and informal collectives, I think this team model is part of why I’m so fulfilled here. Our organizational perspective on design is not only inclusive of all the disciplines you’d normally associate with that label — product design, content design, service design, design research, etc. — but also of the teams and divisions that need to embrace design as a way of solving business problems. I’ve worked in companies where design is talked about as if it were some mystical voodoo art that’s only available to a rarefied group of practitioners. Here, we talk about design as a strategic advantage for the entire company. Part of our job — whether we work in content, in product design, or in any other practice — is bringing human-centered design down to earth for everyone who works here.

What would you tell your younger self knowing what you know now about your career?

Hi, self! First, I know how this sounds, but one day these business electives you’ve been avoiding are going to become just as important as the humanities track you’re on, so take better notes, and maybe even sign up for Accounting 101. Second, I know you feel like you’re alone, but one day you’re going to learn that this fear and shame and inadequacy you’re feeling has a name — imposter syndrome — and you’re going to discover that everyone you’ve ever admired has worked through it. So stop worrying what other people think and put yourself out there. Use your voice. Embrace your quirks. Do more things that scare you.

What is the thing we’re not talking enough about in the design community that we should be?

We need to learn to speak the language of business — particularly when it comes to articulating the value we deliver. Our counterparts in marketing, consulting, and product management have nailed this, but generally speaking, designers are still catching up. This can be even more problematic for content designers, because we think deeply about language, and we work hard to be clear, precise communicators. Business language is not elegant or clear. It’s ugly and full of encoded terms, and this causes us to resist it or attempt to work outside of it, which ironically keeps us from getting a seat at the table. But learning how to use those encoded terms is key to getting the things we want from the places that employ us: more money, more resources, more time, more influence.

Have you read any great books lately that have helped you in your work?

I’m going through an awesome but daunting period of change at the moment: new job, wider remit, bigger expectations, more ambiguity. External pressures are intense, which makes it easy to lose your footing or see your confidence wavering. In times like this I reach back to Brené Brown’s Dare to Lead, which has become a sort of life preserver for me. Her leadership lessons around courage and vulnerability are great reminders that I’m in this position because of who I am, not who these external forces are pushing me to be, and that has a huge positive impact on how I show up.

What do you do to relax?

I’m an introvert, so I carve out periods of solitude to recharge and goof around with hobbies. I collect baseball cards partly because I’m a baseball nerd, but I also love organizing and sorting cards: It scratches my information-architecture itch and brings me great peace and focus. I also collect records — mostly noisy, left-field punk and metal from the late late ’80s/early ’90s — and as you might expect, I enjoy cataloging and filing this stuff just as much as I dig listening to it. My kids are going to inherit a shockingly well-organized collection of crap one day!

Tempo’s next panel event takes place in September and tickets are available now.

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