Design Leadership

Reflections on Design Leadership Coaching

Neil Williams
6 min readApr 4, 2021

Growth through discomfort - My personal story of leadership coaching and the uncomfortable things I learnt about myself.

Time for a reset

Let me start with an overly dramatic film-like introduction. If you are reading this article, then I must have chosen to publish it after all. Okay, not that dramatic. The article’s framework has been in my head though for months, and writing it is a process I felt I needed to go through to make sense of the journey I started last year. Self-reflection is challenging and personal, so it was never a given that this article would see the light of day.

Back in August 2020, I began a series of bi-weekly design leadership coaching sessions with Andy Polaine. I had been following Andy’s podcast “Powers of Ten” for some time and had seen him give a talk while he was still with Fjord back in 2019. Through his podcast and LinkedIn posts, I learnt Andy was offering leadership coaching. I had a lot of respect for his experience in the service design field, and I was at a stage in my career where I felt I needed a sounding board. So began a journey of regular check-ins and email exchanges that helped me through changes in my career and provided me with a reflection mechanism.

Proking at my discomfort

I did my homework before signing up, and I was used to Andy’s interview approach through his podcast. I thought I knew what to expect. However, the first session and even the preparation material — the Territory Map — made it clear that I would be stretched far beyond my comfort zone. A Territory Map is a clustering exercise listing out likes, dislikes, hopes, fears, leadership style, strengths, weaknesses and so on. When filled in, it became immediately apparent that I had gaps. I could talk about my experience, but not the experiences I wanted in the future. I considered myself to be quite self-reflective — reflection comes with the job. However, territory mapping showed me that while I might have had some idea of who I was, I still had little idea of who I wanted to be.

Territory Map created before and then added to after the first session.

Andy introduced me to James Hollis’ writing and his book ‘Finding meaning in the second half of life’. In his book, Hollis talks about a Tom Stoppard play titled ‘Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead’. [The two characters are bit-part players in Shakespeare’s Hamlet]. Hollis highlights the discomfort we feel when reflecting on the two characters wandering around in the fog trying to figure out what’s going on, only to become victims of forces beyond their control. What if we are Rosencrantz or Guildenstern in our lives?

Hollis writes:

“What role do we play in our own dramas? Are we the protagonist, or a bit character in someone else’s script? And if so, whose script, and what is that story?”

I came to learn that I had been laser-focused on the detailed processes of work and continual learning. I don’t regret the learning aspect of my life at all. Learning, curiosity and exploration are all significant parts of who I am. As a child, I spent countless hours looking at maps of the world. So it is no surprise that I now explore and map for a living — I look forward to travelling again in the not too distant future. (I plan to dedicate a separate article to life-long learning, as this is too big a topic to cover now). The mistake I had been making was to fill every waking moment with learning. I did not allow space and time the mind needs to digest, reflect and grow.

Support through change

Around halfway through our sessions, a job opportunity came up that aligned nicely with the themes of our discussions around future goals. I wasn’t unhappy where I was working, and I wasn’t actively looking for a change, but the new role seemed a good fit. Andy helped me analyse the alternate futures I could see against the future I wanted for myself. In the end, I opted to take the new role, to take the chance. The new role marked a shift from managing a small design team to working across teams utilising my design and business experience. I found myself needing to focus more on cross-team communication and less on team building. Again, Andy was there with me on the journey, offering support and guidance. The shift towards dealing with organisational design challenges — focusing on others — removed much of the discomfort I had felt in being confronted with my life journey.

Working through those transition sessions reminded me how vital relationship building is. Craft and method can only get you so far. Tricia Wang made the point very directly recently during her interview with Marc Fontaijn for The Service Design Show. To paraphrase Tricia: No one should own the voice of the customer and designers should move away from trying to be guru’s to be good guides. The reason why designers fail in organisations / Tricia Wang / Episode #123

It is okay to come at problems with questions some times, rather than constantly feel that one must have the answers. The trick is to approach the situation in a genuinely collaborative way. As designers, we often talk about collaboration. Yet, we can sometimes act in a very possessive manner towards design and the customer experience. Learning to see the warning signs and being more effective at dissipating tensions is a skill I’m still working on.

Learning to be a better mentor and partner

I have worked in design for over twenty years. I have led design teams and have taught design to hundreds of students. Even so, I still feel I have a lot to learn. In a way, the career pivot I made around five years ago enabled a fresh start. Starting in a new industry and working environment encouraged me to embrace new ways of working and rediscover the thrill of learning. Making the change felt like a big deal at the time and wasn’t without risk or fear, but was hugely liberating. We can always learn from others, but sometimes when we have been doing what we do for so long, we feel safe continuing to do it. Breaking the loop opens up other possibilities and triggers new ways of thinks. At least, that has been my experience.

Learning from Andy was to learn from someone with tremendous knowledge of the situations I was finding myself in. Learning to balance complex needs and relationships within large, multi-faceted organisations isn’t easy. Andy reminded me that through my training, my teaching and experience, I was equipped to adapt. He encouraged me to use service design techniques to map a path through the organisation, to build empathy and partnership.

We can’t compartmentalise life and work

We spend many years of our life at work, and often work dominates. Indeed, this is and has been the case for me for some time. I have been guilty in the past of hiding inside my work life. While it might feel safe to think so, there is no clear divide between work and personal life. We carry one over into the other, and our success with relationships and communications in one reflects in the other. I realise now that knowing what makes me grow will influence how well I manage my work and personal life. To be comfortable with the role one plays in one’s life is not self-indulgent and indeed helps those around us both professionally and personally. We must be comfortable living in our skin for others to be comfortable around us. Through our personal growth and balance, we enable others to grow too. Thank you, Andy, for helping me understand this life lesson, even if I find it deeply uncomfortable. I don’t yet have the answer, but I know now where to look and what I must confront. There is no avoiding these issues forever.

I’ll close with another James Hollis quote:

“The struggle for growth is not for us alone; it is not self-indulgent. It is our duty, and service, to those around us as well, for through such departures from the comfortable we bring a larger gift to them. And when we fail ourselves, we fail them.”

Enough about me, what is your journey and what role do you play in your life?

Neil Williams

Service designer, design strategist and researcher working in Hong Kong and across Asia.