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How did you find your passion for coaching and learn the necessary skills? Honestly, I never thought coaching would become my primary role. After deciding to start my own business, I tried a few different roles—startup advisor, consultant, interim design executive—and found none of them to be as satisfying as the relationships where I supported leaders in finding their own path. Coaching was a skill I had developed over many years of supporting my clients’ teams as well as my own, but once I realized that coaching was going to be a core part of my future, I invested even more in developing my coaching skills.

When did you first get the idea for Design Dept.? Design Dept. was born when I realized that I wasn’t the only leader who had to stumble through learning to become a great manager. I wanted to create the experiences and resources I wish I’d had when I started out.

What fueled your decision to start Within? Throughout my career, I’ve watched women disappear from tech all around me. I was often the only woman in the room, and usually the only woman on the leadership team. It was so clear to me that the pipeline wasn’t the problem. But, I kept my head down and kept going.

The idea for Within emerged a few years ago, after I’d started Design Dept. and I began to recognize patterns across my clients that were so familiar to my own experience. I wanted to create a space where these women could share their stories, find support in other women and build the resilience to keep challenging the status quo.

The idea started small: I wanted to gather 20 or so of my friends and clients together to provide a supportive retreat-like experience. When we opened applications, we received more than a thousand requests to join our first retreat. After that, I knew that the need was stronger than I’d imagined. Now, the impact stories we hear after every retreat is the fuel that keeps us going.

How have you seen the demand for design leadership evolve in the tech industry? The demand for design leadership is growing rapidly, evident by the endless job openings for design managers, leads and directors. Everyone’s looking for the next great design leader… finally.

We’re beyond the “seat at the table” concern, and it’s time for design leaders to shape a broader conversation. To apply design to the business and organization with as much impact as it’s had on products over the years. The next wave we’re investing in is helping those leaders develop the skills they need to build more teams where creativity and people thrive. All people.

We’re beyond the ‘seat at the table’ concern, and it’s time for design leaders to shape a broader conversation. To apply design to the business and organization with as much impact as it’s had on products over the years.”

What are some specific ways that design teams can be more proactive in supporting designers’ mental health? I’m so glad you asked this question because the stigma around mental health has caused a huge deficit in tech. The first step is creating a safe space to talk. Even a small step can be meaningful. For instance, what if you save a few minutes in your team meeting to ask questions like “How are you feeling this week?” or “How can we support you this week?” It’s when talking about emotions becomes the norm that the team can safely navigate them together. If we go first, and share something that we’re struggling with, we model the behavior that we want to see in our teams.

What are your tips for how to effectively give and receive design critiques? I wrote about this recently. Here are three tips:

  • Clarify the difference between feedback, direction and critique. Feedback is full of quick reactions, often opinion-based. Direction is instruction or decision in disguise. Critique is discussion grounded in the objective, and it helps us improve the impact of our design decisions. Too often, they get muddled, reducing the impact of a great critique.

  • Define roles and establish a facilitator. A neutral facilitator can set the tone, keep the meeting on track, and ensure that everyone—the critique recipient and their peers—plays their role well. They also are important in ensuring that everyone is heard and that it’s a safe space for everyone to participate.

  • Level the playing field. I’ve participated in so many critiques where the loudest voice became the dominant perspective. Ask everyone to take a few minutes to write down their critique on Post-its, and share them one at a time. This ensures that everyone is heard, and it gives time for a neurodiverse team to participate comfortably.

How can design managers remain creatively satisfied? I observe so many leaders struggling to prioritize their own creativity because they either believe that it’s not necessary in their role or they just don’t have time to invest. When supporting these leaders, I help them recognize two things:

  • First, that leadership is a creative practice. We’re solving complex problems—business and organizational problems—that rarely have a clear answer. Those problems require us to show up as our most creative selves.

  • Second, that inspired leaders inspire. I work with clients to manage their time and energy so they can invest in the areas that will have the most impact on their ability to lead. Often, that means creating space in their calendar to think, explore or invest in themselves.

What skill should more designers add to their toolbox? A lot of designers spend the majority of their career investing in technical competencies—the craft—which is critical for sure. However, the designers who invest in their behavioral competencies—how they make what they make—are the ones who have the most influence in their organizations. These skills include communication, relationship development, conflict management and self-management.

How are you seeing the ripple effects of your advocacy for stronger creative leadership? It’s been incredible to watch our community evolve. The most visible shifts are in the number of design leaders who are taking on executive roles. Especially the number of women who are rising to senior and/or VP roles.

Mia Blume is the founder and chief executive officer of Design Dept. A former design leader at Pinterest, Square and IDEO, Blume started Design Dept. in 2016 to help transform the way creative leaders work. Through individual coaching, workshops, and customized workplace learning and development, Design Dept.’s guided experiences foster creative leadership. Blume’s work is informed by a deep understanding of the position of creative leaders at high-growth technology companies. She believes that when a designer’s authentic leadership style is unlocked, it impacts not only individuals and teams, but also the products, services and organizations that shape our world.

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