Hallway Studio

September 8, 2021

Attracting candidates, finding the right fit and helping your chosen design leader them launch successfully is hard and often ends badly. As a former consultant and the first design leader in an organization in more than one organization I’ve seen that companies fail when look for a magical being to solve all their problems. Instead we need to do the work to direct the search and prepare the path.

What do you want this person to do?

What problem do you need this person to solve? Is your product hard to use because it was designed by engineers? Is your product experience inconsistent because of acquisition? Is your design team missing skills or struggling to scale? Leaders need to agree on why this hire is important now and what the needs are of the moment.

Get clear on the most important job this person needs to do. It’s not just the capability you need but the person who likes to solve your kind of challenge and has the determination to push through.

pre-mortem is a great exercise to do with your team. Imagine that one year has passed since you made the hire. What would an outstanding success look like? What contributed to the success? Also imagine what a total failure would be and why.

With a clear understanding of your top priority, you can better target your recruiting efforts. Seek out leaders who love to solve challenges you have and explore in detail how they would attack the priority.

When a promising new leader arrives in an organization they’re often immediately weighed down by the expectations of other leaders. Giving the new leader a clear priority will prevent distractions and help them gain traction on the big problem.

What is your level of commitment?

UX leaders have heard it all before, human-centered, design focused, sticky note obsessed….Except most of the time those end up being just words. Prospective design leaders will want to understand how committed you are to making a change.

Are you willing to commit enough budget and for talent, training, tools and research? Money certainly helps but the more important commitment comes from being willing to change.

Are you willing to have your ideas challenged? To invest time in testing? To change your practices? Are product and engineering willing to change to include and support design? It will take time and cause some initial delays.

Engaging candidates in discussion about what change could be needed and how to manage them will be an important part of your recruiting process. Help your existing team start to understand what you are trying to change and how it might affect them will make it easier for the person once they join.

What are the constraints?

Many non-profits have consensus decision-making cultures. Some organizations have lots of legacy code. No one seems have enough designers, product managers, or engineers. While these can be changed they will not change quickly or without consistent effort and resources.

Every organization has constraints, things about the culture or industry that are really hard to change even when you have the commitment of leadership and financial resources. In their book, Designing Your Work Life: How to Thrive and Change and Find Happiness at Work, Bill Burnett and Dale Evans describe these as “gravity problems.” You can’t change gravity but once you accept it exists you can work with it and consider other ways to move things forward. 

Stephen Gates has a good way of identifying these, when they happen someone always says “Welcome to (Company Name)!”

It’s worth your team doing an audit to identify where the barriers will be. Common areas for friction include:

  • How decisions are made and what level in the organization
  • How functions collaborate and resolve conflict (or not)
  • Alignment on incentives and goals
  • Level of ambiguity and change
  • Allocating budget
  • Level of technical debt

It’s better to risk losing a prospect in the hiring process than for them to become disillusioned and frustrated because they feel deceived. Instead we want someone who understands the job they signed up to do and an organization that is ready for them to do it.

Image: Pastry case at Modern Pastry in Boston

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