An interview with Margaret Lee

Leading Design
Published in
7 min readJan 16, 2020


Do natural born leaders really exist? If so, where does that leave the rest of us? Is our notion of leadership out of sync with the reality of humankind?

For the past 20 years, Margaret Lee has built User Experience teams in tech, including CNET, Yahoo, TiVo, and Google. Between 2007 and 2016, she grew the Google Maps UX team from three people, to a global organisation of multi-disciplinarian practitioners, garnering awards from Fast Company Innovation by Design and Good Design in Japan. In 2016, she founded the UX Community and Culture team at Google, the first of its kind to invest in the health and success of the User Experience discipline across the company.

At Leading Design 2018 Margaret reflected on her own path as a reluctant leader, and how she reconciled her authentic self with performance expectations. This was a truly inspiring and emotive talk — Margaret challenged us to recognise different qualities that are essential to building a healthy team, and how we can shape a meaningfully diverse workforce by embracing an inclusive definition of leadership qualities, and the rich humanity that brings with it.

Slides from Margaret’s talk

After the success of her talk she was motivated to keep the conversation going, since then has spoken more about it on the Google Design podcast:

And going into more detail in her article: Insights from a Reluctant Leader — Margaret addressed why our current definition of leadership doesn’t match the rallying cry for diversity, equity, and inclusion.

We invited Margaret back to Leading Design New York 2019 to expand her thoughts and keep the conversation going.

A number of months have passed since her talk so we caught up with Margaret for a little chat.

There are certain expectations of being a leader in the tech industry. You’ve described front and back of the house personas, what do you think are the characteristics of a good design leader?

Margaret: Designers care a lot about developing empathy to create better products and services to meet the needs of our customers. We immerse ourselves in field studies and advocate for our customers. We’re eager to uncover hidden nuggets of knowledge so that we can solve a tough problem or answer an unmet need. A good leader (not just in design, but in general) can develop that same sense of curiosity and desire to learn about the people on our teams, and not take one another for granted. Every day we have an opportunity to learn something new from the people around us — whether they are our customers or our coworkers. Good design leaders embrace curiosity, empathy, and the desire to solve problems for our teams and work culture, same as we do for our customers.

In your ‘Insights from a Reluctant leader’ talk you asked the audience “How many of us are making trade offs between our true selves and what we think we are supposed to be at work?” How can you advise someone to take a step forward in bringing their whole authentic self to work?

Margaret: It’s a two-sided coin. One has to be willing to bring their whole authentic self to work. People are complex and multi-dimensional. There are boundaries and behaviors at work that might be different than how I behave, say, with my loved ones at home. We can be different things to different people and still be authentic. I’m not really talking about these personal choices, but about the tendency to model oneself into an image that doesn’t feel true, in order to ‘fit in’ or succeed at work. If I were to advise someone to take that step forward in bringing their whole authentic self to work, I’d first try to understand what is keeping them from doing so. It might be lack of confidence, it might be a lack of psychological safety due to company or team culture. Usually it’s a combination of factors. I encourage people looking to step forward to find someone they respect, seek mentorship and sponsorship, and to be clear in what they would like to achieve in order to have a productive relationship.

On the other side, I also asked “How many of us are perpetuating that tradeoff for others?” I believe it’s upon all of us to actively create a supportive culture of inclusion, instead of passively expecting the round peg to fit the square hole. An inclusive culture will provide enough shapes and sizes so more people will feel supported in bringing their best selves to work. Let’s open up what we value in our leaders, so that more people feel supported to bring their best, and not suppress their innate qualities in order to fit some narrow view of what leadership looks like. Many companies have diversity, equity, and inclusion programs in place. That’s a good start, but purely top down initiatives aren’t enough. We need to do the work every day, on the ground as well, checking for bias in interview feedback and performance evaluations; facilitating a wider range of voices into discussions; modeling respectful behavior; and providing stretch opportunities for growth.

How can someone carve out a leadership path that feels true to them (and at the same time add value to the company?)

Margaret: I meet many who struggle with filling a persona in the name of “development”, because they’ve received feedback to be more of this or to do less of that. I encourage them to recognize what their strengths are and double down on that, especially if those are the same skills that the team and company need. For me, there came a point when I just got tired of going against my own grain, and I was willing to accept whatever consequences of not being such a “try hard”, as my kids would say. Today, I’m much more fulfilled in my work as a result.

How can leaders pave the way for people from all types of backgrounds to realise their leadership potential?

Margaret: A good leader will recognize and encourage potential in others, vs attempt to mold one into a predetermined image. Leaders can be mindful that existing factors (systemic policies, team dynamics, corporate culture, individual behaviors) may be preventing people from reaching their potential. Once leaders are aware of obstacles, they can commit to creating the conditions that allow for growth.

Over six months have passed since you gave your talk, what are the most common questions leaders ask you? And why do think they are still asking?

Margaret: I’ve heard from many more underrepresented folks that express they feel seen through my words, than from those that don’t identify with my story. The former tend to ask me how I finally got comfortable in my own skin as a leader, while I’ve received far fewer questions from those that actually have the power to effect change. I would love to get more people from all sides engaged in conversations and asking questions. We won’t make progress until we internalise how real and pressing an issue inclusion is, one that each and every one of us is responsible for. We won’t get there by reading D&I Tips-n-Tricks articles, but we can start with committing to widening our perspective and making space for more voices.

As a community, what can we do to raise more awareness around this topic/conversation in 2020?

Margaret: Be better listeners. As a device-obsessed, multi-tasking, hustle culture, we’ve become absolutely terrible listeners. Be aware of the limitations of our knowledge of other people’s lived experiences, then be curious and open enough to truly listen without judgment.

What would you say if you were to write a letter to yourself 15 years ago?

Margaret: Dear Margaret, it all comes out in the wash. Try not to worry yourself so. Love, your future self.

I’m only being half glib. Much of my experience in the past 15 years has involved leading through change, which has taught me to not get too attached to any particular decision. I’ve learned to acknowledge and respect the grey areas and to not overly index on the black or the white ends of the spectrum. I’ve felt liberated by knowing there are few exact right answers, just the best one for the situation, which will inevitably change again.

In the talk you asked the question — How do we want to be remembered by the people we lead? How do you want to be remembered by the people you lead?

Margaret: I recently received a note from someone I managed 5 years ago, telling me how much he valued that stage of his career. He appreciated the sense of responsibility he was given, the opportunities I opened for him and the team, and the sense of trust that was instilled with our cross-functional collaborators. I loved that years later this is what he remembered about me — the feeling of being supported and empowered. I want to be remembered as a person who made growth possible for others.

Lastly, what is the future of design leadership?

Margaret: Hopefully not about tools and seats at the table :-) but about holistic and responsible leadership. Design is constantly evolving, and not in a vacuum. The role of design and design leadership is rapidly becoming more complex as technology advances with both benefit and consequence. Our responsibility will increasingly consider ethics, business, politics, global and demographic trends and other aspects of the human condition that we may talk about today, but don’t yet have the skillset or mindset to truly lead through. We will recognize we have blind spots and build a more diverse and knowledgeable bench to achieve holistic leadership. We will value emotional intelligence, empathy, and a commitment toward equity. Our teams deserve that from us.

Join our next Leading Design event: Leading Design Festival March 2021.