Delve into what being a design entrepreneur really means in Print magazine’s June 2014 issue, the Innovation & Entrepreneur Issue. Plus, take a look at how the entrepreneur shift has paved the way for a new chapter in social innovation design.
Discover why your uniqueness makes you more than a great creative—it makes you a strong leader. The authors of Rise of the DEO: Leadership by Design explain the new rules of leadership, and why design-minded individuals are best suited to be today’s head honchos.
We probably don’t need to tell you that the world is changing. Quickly. Relentlessly. Perhaps, in some parts of the world not yet infiltrated by social networks or viral videos, companies can resist the influence of technology and globalization. But for most, and certainly those in the connected world, change is the new constant.
In the U.S. alone, more than 6 million startups are launched annually. Google, Comcast, Amazon, Cisco Systems and Oracle are well-established Fortune 100 companies, yet none of them were on that list 10 years ago. Twitter, Facebook, YouTube and Pinterest connect billions of people around the globe, and all were founded within the last decade.
This amount of change creates turbulence, which impacts employment and careers. The conventional rule book of success—get a degree, start at the bottom, network aggressively, follow the rules, climb the ladder, retire comfortably—is now out of print. Instead, careers have become the equivalent of a Twitter feed. The average adult worker in the U.S. holds more than 10 jobs in a lifetime. It’s become increasingly common to hold more than one job at a time, to continuously reeducate yourself and to reinvent your career three to four times. The simple inquiry, “What do you do?” has become a complex question that’s unanswerable with a simple title or function.
This chaotic onslaught of constant and continual change is at odds with the established view of business and its leaders, particularly CEOs. Admired and emulated, traditional CEOS ruled from a position of stability. They commanded forces of people, money, distribution networks and brand imagery, assembling them into a profit-making, market-share-gaining machine. Industries characterized as tough or combative were understandable and manageable through a long-term perspective.
Innovations required years of development. Aspiring CEOs wrote five-year business plans, built brand equity, garnered associations and climbed up a well-defined hierarchy. As attractive and permanent as that world may sound, it simply doesn’t exist anymore, and it’s unlikely to return anytime soon.
Responding to Change
We live in an unpredictable time. No career path is predetermined. No one can play it safe. The majority of companies, their employees and their leaders navigate a space where competitors appear overnight, customers demand innovations monthly, business plans rarely last a full year and career ladders have been replaced by trampolines. This environment of incessant, frequently nonlinear change will only accelerate in the future and traditional CEOs are ill-equipped to survive. We’re not the only ones to note this leadership gap. In fact, rarely a week goes by without a new study or book on the challenges of leadership in this era of rampant change.
In 2010, the IBM Global CEO Study announced, “More than rigor, management discipline, integrity or even vision—successfully navigating an increasingly complex world will require creativity.” Two years later, it added three more essential traits: “Empowering employees through values, engaging customers as individuals and amplifying innovation through partnerships.” Its most recent edition anoints customers as co-CEOs, explaining, “Senior leaders are relinquishing tight control over internal affairs to acquire valuable customer input in such critical domains as business strategy development, pricing structure, and social and environmental policies.”
Daniel H. Pink, author of several popular business books on new forms of leadership, such as To Sell Is Human: The Surprising Truth About Moving Others, takes a holistic perspective and relabels our era the “conceptual age.” As a result, CEOs need to be storytellers, big-picture thinkers and empathetic humorists capable of giving meaning to our lives through their products, services and management styles—not to mention their honest, revealing, retweetable posts.
Another well-respected voice on the future, Thomas L. Friedman, the bestselling author and three time Pulitzer Prize winner, warns that we’re living in a hot, flat world where a successful CEO must upload, outsource and offshore. Tom Kelley and David Kelley of IDEO invite us to reclaim our creative confidence, while Sheryl Sandberg—clearly someone who lives a connected life as the COO of Facebook—instructs us to “lean in.”
Some authors and advisors focus attention on the problems leaders face, noting that today’s challenges are “wicked” and defy conventional solutions. CEOs, we’re told, need to change their character and develop peripheral vision, an experimental mindset, pattern recognition and a high-panic threshold. If possible, use your right brain. Better yet, be mindful.
A reasonable response to this avalanche of advice is to give up and go home. As leaders, or people who hope to lead some day, it’s easy to simply throw up our hands and hope our inherent traits or some measure of luck will suffice.
Another response—the one advocated in our book Rise of the DEO: Leadership by Design—is to identify the business function best suited to these tumultuous times and use it as a guide. The business world has done this before. When companies needed to develop procedural discipline, business turned to “operations.” When companies needed to attract and retain customers, “marketing” led the way. When companies needed to learn how to scale, “finance” provided the tools and the perspective.
Now, companies need to go beyond analytics, beyond measurability and control. To compete and survive in the current environment, businesses need agility and collaboration. They need imagination and creative courage. The business function most likely to have the tools and talents to meet these needs is design.
When we think design, our first association is change—change that responds to need, embodies desire, pursues a stated direction and reflects a shared vision. Those who are designers—either through training or by nature—actively encourage and support collective change.
Historically, design changed “things.” More recently, it’s changed services and interactions. Looking ahead, it will change companies, industries and even countries. Perhaps it will change the climate and our genetic code. Leaders who understand this transformative role of design, and embrace its traits and tenets, are best able to command in times of change.
Proposing design-inspired leadership as the answer may sound delusional to some, like a zealous art teacher attacking poverty with a new color palette. But that’s a knee-jerk reaction, based largely on associations of design with discretion, luxury and logos. A more realistic assessment confirms that design-minded leaders possess characteristics, behaviors and mind-sets that enable them, in particular, to excel in unpredictable, fast-moving and value-charged conditions.
Defining a DEO
Just as we took our cues from MBAs and the military in casting the ideal CEO of the 20th century, we suggest looking to designers—in that term’s broadest definition—to find our future leaders. In researching our book, we examined the characteristics and traits of these new leaders, and identified six capabilities that seem to define a design executive officer:
Change agent. DEOs aren’t troubled by change; in fact, they openly encourage it. They understand and respect traditional approaches but aren’t dominated by them. As a result, they’re comfortable disrupting the status quo if it stands in the way of their dream. They have the courage to think and act differently than others, even when in situations where their position is unpopular or unacknowledged.
Risk-taker. DEOs embrace risk as an inherent part of life and a necessary ingredient of creativity. Rather than avoiding or mitigating it, they seek greater ease and command of it as a lever they can control or at least influence. They recast risk as experimentation and invite collaborators. They support the notion that even a failure produces knowledge, and they create environments and processes that recognize risk-taking as a mode of learning.
Systems thinker. Despite their desire to disrupt the status quo and take risks, DEOs are systems thinkers who deeply appreciate the interconnectedness of their world. They know that each part of their organization overlaps and influences another. They know unseen connections surround what’s visible. This helps to give their disruptions intended (rather than chaotic) impact and makes their risk taking more nuanced.
Socially intelligent. DEOs aren’t lone wolves or solitary gurus pontificating from their corner offices. They know their intelligence and power is compounded by their reach. They instinctively connect with others and integrate them into well-defined and heavily accessed networks. They prefer spending time with employees, customers and strangers rather than equipment, plants or spreadsheets. “Everyday people” are a source of strength, renewal and new ideas.
Intuitive. DEOs are highly intuitive, either by nature or through experience. They have the ability to feel what’s right by using intense perceptual and observational capabilities or through deep expertise. This doesn’t mean they have a fear of numbers. They know that intuitively enhanced decision-making doesn’t preclude rational or logical analysis. They use both—and consider each valid and powerful.
GSD. Finally, DEOs can be defined by a new set of initials: GSD—short for “gets shit done.” They feel an urgency to get personally involved, to understand details through their own interaction and to lead by example. DEOs make things happen.
With these traits, DEOs attract and coalesce stakeholders who share their vision, goals and values. They build corporate cultures that nurture and retain talented employees who could easily go elsewhere. They lead teams that learn from one another and collaborate routinely and effectively. With these traits, DEOs create resilient organizations that value expertise but make room for failure—organizations able to iterate and evolve with the changes taking place all around them.
Becoming a DEO
In our research we found DEOs operating quietly throughout a wide range of industries. We were surprised that DEOs lead all types of organizations, large and small—delighted that we’d found kindred spirits. In fact, that’s been the most common praise we’ve heard about our book. As people begin reading Rise of the DEO and sending us their reactions, we were struck by how many said something like this: “This book so describes me. My whole life I have felt alone in how I lead.” Or this: “I see myself on these pages. I never felt comfortable calling myself a CEO. Now, I know it’s because I’m a DEO.”
In retrospect, these responses are understandable. The DEOs we interviewed and studied almost always evolved into their leadership positions from unusual and
isolated beginnings. Not one followed a prescribed path. They aren’t all trained designers, and they didn’t get the same educations. They didn’t have common childhood experiences (although all seemed to benefit from parents who didn’t supervise them too closely). What they do share can probably best be described as a personal challenge—one that’s entirely self-defined and unique to them.
DEOs often have passions or talents that are in conflict. For example, they may love math as well as art. Or they may have a mix of traditionally feminine and masculine motivations. Or they may like mingling science with drama. Regardless of the elements, a DEO’s credibility and career path depends on the integration of these disparate forces. If successful, the resulting combination makes them truly original.
“Original.” The word itself is coveted. Brands, jeans, art, recipes, even sin are all enhanced by association with it. Original signifies something archetypal and not derivative. Something noteworthy and creative. Originality is what others are drawn to copy or driven to acquire, yet it can’t really be bought. It must be developed—authentically and often, against great odds. Although we’re all born originals (at least until cloning becomes practical), we quickly discover the high cost of maintaining our individuality. Whether intentionally or by accident, a wide range of our social, educational and business processes are set up to encourage and reward status quo thinking and behavior.
The most daunting challenge faced by potential DEOs may occur in primary school because our current approach toward education is more likely to eradicate originality than to enhance it. In a 2000 study of 1,500 kindergartners by George Land and Beth Jarman, 98% of the 5-year-olds scored in the genius level for divergent thinking (the ability to conceive of wide-ranging ideas). Ten years later, their originality had been educated out of them
Carl Bass, CEO of Autodesk, managed to survive the structural restrictions of early schooling and successfully integrate his love of math and engineering with his passion for art, two disciplines that usually require separate colleges.
“It’s all about solving a problem or a challenge by figuring out the connections and working within constraints,” Bass says. “You’re trying to figure out an answer. Math is exactly that. Design is exactly that. And business includes a huge aspect of doing that. You have a bunch of constraints, and within those, you try to find a reasonable answer. That’s my sense of creativity.”
Maintaining a DEO Approach
Assuming a DEO survives schooling, another hurdle awaits in the workplace. Despite our collective appetite for change, business has developed a surprising aversion to originality.
For example, Andrew S. Allen, founder and editor of the movie review site Short of the Week, compared the originality of top-grossing movies from 1981 to 2011. In 1981, seven of the 10 highest-grossing movies were original stories. In 2011, none of the top 10 films were. The rewards of conformity—in this case, releasing a sequel or remake—are predictable and assured, attracting audiences and investors.
Jesse Ziff Cool, a successful restaurateur and pioneer in the farm-to-table movement, wasn’t interested in creating a sequel or remake of the standard restaurant when she started working 30 years ago. Instead, she wanted to combine her passion to serve and nurture her local community with an equally strong passion to change how we treat small farmers and growers. Long before this combination became popular, Cool fought for it in her first restaurants and books.
As she explains, it was a struggle. “I’ve been near bankruptcy more times than I’d like to admit. But I was always willing to go out the door and quit rather than not use organic, local produce,” Cool says. “So I knew I cared about that principle, and I wouldn’t change it. I had to learn to design the business around that core belief. Fortunately, the world changed. Now people agree that there should be a connection between food and local growers, so my business is prospering.”
Whether you’re a child or an executive, the benefits of conformity are ample and immediate. As a result, most of us merely pay lip service to being original. We post Apple’s “Think Different” prose on our walls and praise uniqueness as necessary, while shying away from it in practice.
DEOs take the opposite approach, speaking little about their distinctive mosaic of traits, yet quietly designing their careers around them. For a DEO, originality doesn’t mean adopting a counterculture or eccentric stance. It doesn’t mean declaring open rebellion against all tradition or morphing into whichever persona is currently popular.
Instead, a DEO’s originality comes from the successful and daily integration of her full range of interests, talents, traits and tastes—especially those that seem contradictory. It comes from embracing this idiosyncratic mash-up of passions and preferences, regardless of how the rest of the world reacts.
By refusing to conform to narrow stereotypes and insisting on the legitimacy of their oddly aligned characteristics, DEOs create complex, unique personalities that are easy to admire and difficult to copy. Similar to Carl Bass, Ayah Bdeir, founder of littleBits, has merged a love of analytics with a flare for design. The company she created has attracted a loyal fan base as well as top-level investors. Adding to Bdeir’s originality is her ability to interweave her strong personal ambition with a relatively small ego. When we asked her what three things she’d want to be known for, she had no problem listing “ambitious” as one of her defining traits.
And yet, throughout our interviews, Bdeir emphasized the importance of littleBits’ “No Ego” rule. “Because we’re driven by our passion to help others be creative, we accept that a solution can come from anyone—it can come from me or an intern or from user feedback,” she says. “It doesn’t matter. We only care about finding the best solution to the problem.”
Another exceptional DEO is Chris Anderson, curator of the wildly popular TED talks. In Anderson’s case, his originality comes from being both introverted and extroverted—a combination that doesn’t even exist by many people’s standards. For Anderson, each side of him represents a different value and integrating them produces more than either could provide on its own. On introversion he explains, “One of the benefits of being an introvert, or at least being inward-looking, is that you spend more time in that place, in your inner world playing with the future.”
And yet, this self-described introvert stands on a stage in front of more than a thousand people and successfully introduces new ways of thinking. He modestly deflates his role in TED’s success, but it’s hard not to read “extravert” in his explanation. “I let the power of the idea be the spark,” Anderson says. “I don’t think it’s me on a personal or social interaction level. Almost everyone in the world could do a better job than me. But at the level of ‘Here’s a really great idea, and here’s why it’s great,’ I can get people excited.”
While being original is unavoidable to a DEO, it remains daunting. Originality requires courage and vulnerability: Courage to express that which is unusual or unheeded, and vulnerability to others’ dismissal or ridicule. Early in her career, in particular, a DEO must face these challenges largely alone. Few, if any, mentors or role models exist to lead the way. No guidelines or behavioral boundaries define the difference between admirably original and unconvincingly fragmented.
Fortunately for those dedicated to forging their originality, benefits and fans accrue over time. Being distinct and original helps a DEO stand out from the competition. It makes her more noteworthy and gets her more press. It attracts supporters who don’t ask her to change and stakeholders who don’t want her to leave. On a personal level, embracing and maintaining originality helps a DEO develop a sense of security and self-confidence that’s based on a permanent quality. She’s not afraid of losing her edge—of not being creative enough—because it’s her essence, not just her skill set.
Keeping it Original
Being original is associated with the ability to make independent judgments and not be swayed by other’s opinions. Those who are comfortable with their originality tend to also be comfortable with self-assertion, and as a result, they’re better able to lead others. This doesn’t mean they are immune to criticism or failure. Another DEO, Steve Gundrum, a widely-respected food innovator at Mattson & Company confessed: “My ideas get shot down all the time and always have. … Luckily, I’ve never been blocked from expressing my creative vision.”
Of course, it’s impossible to be original in every characteristic and every endeavor. In fact, it’s more likely that every idea builds from others’ earlier efforts and inspiration. DEOs don’t force originality for its own sake. It emerges naturally in the course of their lives and careers. In addition to a genetic disposition and a lucky upbringing, DEOs originality builds through mastery, adaptability and curiosity. A DEO may not start life with these all these attributes, but she gains them over time and practices them daily.
Mastery. Being original usually takes a good deal of work. While a DEO may be born with an aptitude for combining math and fashion, these tendencies remain nothing more than inclinations unless she pursues a career that builds and integrates them. Mastery comes from years of study and practice. It comes from a deep understanding of where concepts originate, why current behaviors exist, and what came before.
This knowledgeable perspective is essential to the creation of original content. Understanding the roots of an industry enables a DEO to know what is new, what is derivative and what is an outright copy. Mastering a skill or discipline not only helps the DEO effectively combine disparate skills, but also find novel ways of applying them.
Rather than rise above her expertise as she gains power and authority, a DEO practices her expertise as part of running the business. Mark Zuckerberg’s ability to code enhances his credibility with his engineers and helps him direct innovation at Facebook. Oprah Winfrey’s natural interviewing skills keep her abreast of how the world is changing and prompt her to change with it.
Adaptability. For most DEOs, their originality benefits from adaptation. Born with a passion others don’t yet share or an odd collection of skills and proclivities others don’t yet value, a DEO adapts her abilities to suit her surroundings. She won’t change who she is, but she’ll try to apply herself in a way that others can better appreciate.
In many cases, it’s a DEO’s adaptability that keeps her and her company up-to-date. Originality is highly attractive to others as a template for their own work. Over time, every original person, product or service is sure to be copied. The copies are usually poor, but sufficient to downgrade the original’s uniqueness. To counter this, a DEO treats originality as a moving target, developing and renewing the qualities that most contribute to its distinctiveness.
Curiosity. Originality thrives on a steady stream of learning, new connections and novel insights, often prompted by a DEO’s curiosity. Her curiosity feeds creativity and fuels problem-solving. It uncovers opportunities and drives her company forward. It prompts her to question and
A DEO may start a conversation with an innocently posed “What’s that?” Before long, if the topic is anywhere close to something she’s studying, the dialogue will quickly become intense and detailed. She’ll want to understand how it works, where it came from and why it’s different. She’ll want to compare notes, exchange contacts and start a conference.
In this article, we’ve only touched on the topic of originality as it relates to DEOs. It’s our hope that, as DEOs move into more leadership roles and influence more organizations and audiences, we’ll all discover the value of fighting for our originality. To remain original and authentic to your talents and desires takes courage. It takes perseverance, a measure of introspection and some outright rebellion. Fortunately, we have some commendable—and original—role models to guide the way.
Maria Giudice and Christopher Ireland are co-authors of Rise of the DEO: Leadership by Design.