Living up to a people-powered promise


Much of my time over the past year has been spent in the company of Red Hat, the open source software company.

The organization is rooted in the ideals of the open source movement: collaboration, innovation, and generosity. Their brand team is doing some fun stuff to bring what they call the Red Hat Way to life through campaigns celebrating the people and teamwork that make them great. Go check out their people-powered billboard! So awesome.

While everyone I’ve met at Red Hat has been great, we work virtually and until recently I hadn’t had a chance to witness the larger culture. So I was excited to visit the Raleigh HQ for a workshop with their Global Services folks. It was a great session, full of deep insights and collaboration, but what stood out the most was how their behavior truly lived up to their values.

It was an ambitious workshop, engaging interactively with participants on 4 continents — naturally, technological obstacles kept popping up. Yet, one after another the Red Hatters jumped in to help us troubleshoot and find solutions so everyone could be included. Frankly, I’ve never seen so many proactively helpful senior staff. (Or, at least, not in the for-profit world.) They were generous, collaborative, and humble, which stands out in the world of tech.

They’re clearly doing something right in their culture, and it makes me happy to know I’m supporting such great people.


Small Giants

smallgiantsThe book Small Giants resonated with me in a way few business books ever have. Author Bo Burlingham defines small giants as “companies that choose to be great instead of big”, an idea near and dear to my heart.

As a young designer in Chicago, my employers and clients were small companies. At the time I wasn’t aware how special those early experiences and relationships were. The work seemed, frankly, boring and limiting. I was antsy to move on to bigger agencies and brands.

After relocating and landing in a Silicon Valley agency, I found myself deeply conflicted. My heart wasn’t in working for mainstream, consumer brands. I missed the thoughtfulness and intimacy of the work I had done before. I missed the sense of purpose gained from helping good people realize their dream of owning a thriving business. Words of wisdom from a long-forgotten designer echoed in my head:  “There are no good projects, only good clients.”

After the agency collapsed, I struck out on my own. Eager to get back to “good clients”, I thought about what my favorites had in common. Here’s what I knew: They sold something of tangible value, and they did it honestly. They were fair to suppliers and partners. They were small and closely held, often family-owned. They treated employees with respect and generosity. They were local businesses — what defined that wasn’t clear, but I knew it when I saw it — and they supported community service and philanthropy. In short, the world was better with than without them.

This led me to a loose concept of social responsibility: doing business with integrity, giving back to the community, and treating people well. It also seemed being privately held was the key to being able to control everything else. Those became my four criteria for choosing clients ten years ago.

Finding Small Giants was inspiring and validating. Finally, a cogent description of what I’d intuitively understood but been unable to define! An entire book about the business unicorns I love! I now have a clearer sense of who the right clients for me are, and new insights into what to look for.

One idea that hadn’t previously gelled as part of my definition was limited growth — choosing to grow only when it serves strategic goals and doesn’t sacrifice culture or ideals. Growth has become such an unquestioned requirement of business that not growing is surprisingly radical.

Another insight was that “small” isn’t necessarily what makes my clients a good fit for me. It’s having a family culture, engaged leadership, and sense of purpose where I thrive. While it’s certainly easier to maintain those in a small company, there may be mid-sized companies that also fit this bill.

I also love the inclusion of soul, or mojo, that Burlingham cites as a secret ingredient. Running counter to management playbooks and belief in predictive data, it acknowledges there is a special magic that allows a company to be intimately, deeply great. That I couldn’t concretely define what I loved about my clients makes sense — there is simply a quality. They either have it or they don’t, and no logic model can predict it.

Finding small giants is no easy feat. But with renewed inspiration and clarity, I look forward to seeking more of them as clients and also to doing my part to help aspiring small giants find their mojo.

Leadership by Design(ers)

We’ve finished our first year on the Design Strategy MBA program! It’s hard to believe. In December I wrote a post for Triple Pundit making the case for how thinking like a designer has a lot in common with being a good leader. It seems like a fitting end to the school year to re-post it here.

The business world has started to recognize something I’ve thought for a long time — designers have exactly what it takes to be great leaders. Here’s why:

We turn vision into reality.

Arguably the most powerful design skill (and the most underestimated, even by designers) is the ability to take abstract concepts and express them tangibly through visuals, messages, and models. We’re innovative at heart, and we bring the new and unusual to life in inspiring ways and show people things they couldn’t have imagined themselves.

We play well with others.

Designers work well independently, yet we also have the emotional intelligence and curiosity it takes to thrive in collaborative groups. We welcome input from those who will show us different perspectives, give us inspiration when we are stuck, criticize us when we can no longer see clearly, and push us to improve our work in ways we cannot achieve alone.

We see the big picture.

The best designers have a broad understanding of history, culture, and people, which gives us the perspective needed to see the long-range vision and give it context. We explore connections between unlikely things and weave those threads together into compelling stories that resonate.

We sweat the details.

I’ve never met a good designer who wasn’t obsessed with details! That level of attention can seem over-the-top, but consistent details are what provide the depth necessary to build up an idea and turn it into a rich, seamless experience.

We take work personally.

Regardless of what people say it’s rarely “just business”, especially when your business is creation. We are passionate about ideas, and the emotional investment we have in our work drives us to improve and learn constantly.

We are committed to sustainability.

Designers are on the front lines of the green revolution, perhaps because we have designed, built, and packaged so many wasteful things. Through communities like the Designers Accord, we are using our unique position to make a positive impact on the world.


I’ve been flying for past two weeks, running on the buzz of optimism and positive change I see everywhere in my life right now.

Certainly it’s impossible not to be buoyed by the inauguration of a historic President who has wasted no time in trying to set things right. President Obama’s election has given me reason to hope we are not, perhaps, completely doomed after all. He enters office along with the Chinese Year of the Ox, a sign we both share. The symbolism of an Ox ascending as a Rat leaves is not lost on me.

More personally, the new semester has brought me renewed faith in the DMBA program and in my professional future. Last semester I was questioning the program and what I was getting out of it, but the new courses have re-energized me. These are exactly the subjects I entered the program for — experience and meaning, business models, leadership, and sustainability — and I’m thrilled with the instructors, too. Honestly, I just can’t stop smiling. It’s been a long time since I felt that way.

One of the most inspiring things right now is watching my cohort, seeing so many minds come alive with the idea that we can change business to be more personal and creative. In our leadership class, we are discussing Obama as an example of a new kind of leader, one that is outwardly focused and emotionally intelligent, driven to cultivate a greater good rather than personal glory. It’s probably not fair to say this is new, but it is one we haven’t seen promoted in the business world. For me, this model of leadership is a lot like being a parent: Your job is to create an organization so healthy and self-sufficient that it thrives after you are gone, and you hope it will grow even stronger and more successful than you.

I don’t know if I can be this leader, but I know this is the leader I want to follow.

The photo above, from the inauguration of President Obama, was taken by Vinitha Watson, a fellow pioneer in the Design Strategy MBA program at CCA.