Want to be a Design Leader? Kill Your Ego


Christopher Ireland built her career around the notion that businesses can benefit from a deeper understanding of people and culture. She’s the co-founder and CEO of Cheskin, a firm that pioneered design research in Silicon Valley. Register to see her speak at the GAIN Design and Business Conference, October 23–24.

Here, Ireland asks designers to shed their “creative guru” and “angry artist” egos, and tells us why she’d rather spend time defending her opinions to 20 year olds.

You’ve never had “designer” in your title yet you’ve been a creative leader your entire career. How has design informed your work?

I believe design is a fundamental leadership skill and a progressive mindset, so I've sought out friendships and partnerships with designers in whatever I do. My talents and traits complement, rather than compete, with those of most designers. So, it's usually a happy marriage.

You’re a passionate advocate for understanding people in qualitative ways. What gets missed without this approach?

Would you choose your life partner based on a quantitative survey? I’m betting the answer is no. Qualitative helps us zero in on the right fit for us, our product or our cause. To skip it or try to substitute with just quantitative is foolish.

How do you communicate new approaches and opportunities to those managers and leaders that are more quantitatively, or traditionally, inclined?

Honestly, I don’t spend much time communicating to managers or leaders who have a traditional point of view. That job belongs to someone else. I teach 20–30 year olds who are still forming their opinions and discovering their passions. Most of my energy is spent defending, debating and rethinking my points of view in relationship to these young minds.

Where can design have the most impact on leadership and organizational culture?

I believe the most impact comes from designers who choose to lead. It’s not an easy route. It requires immense patience, flexibility, compassion and ego restraint. You don’t get to be a creative guru or an angry artist. You must risk failure repeatedly and you have to learn to compete. But the rewards extend broadly: to your company, your community and eventually to you.

Personally, I don’t think we'll make it to the next century as a society unless designers step up to this challenge. We have a lot of problems to solve and not much time.