The Clearleft Podcast

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Season Three


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This is the Clearleft podcast.

Clearleft is a strategic design studio, and we’ve found that one of the most effective strategies for getting the best products and services is to focus on design leaders. In our experience, they’re very appreciative of any help they can get.

And you know what’s helpful? Coaching.


Now I’m an executive coach. I work with individual leaders, and I also work with leadership teams.

And the work that I do with leadership teams often surfaces group dynamics that are under the surface for those teams. So I help those teams become aware of them and figure out if they’re getting in their way. And if so, what to do about it.


That’s Julia Whitney speaking at one of our Leading Design events a while back. But before we hear more from Julia, I wanted to get some clarification about coaching. What is the difference between coaching and training?


I guess the key difference between training and coaching is that coaching isn’t there to give you all the answers.


This is my colleague, Rebecca.


I am Rebecca Groves and I am the programme manager for Leading Design at Clearleft.


Rebecca explained how coaching tends to be a very personalized offering.


Coaching is there to help you to develop your own repertoire and your own personal skills base, to help you expand your behaviors and the approach that you maybe take in the workplace.

The coach works on a belief that you are the expert on yourself and your context. And the coach will support you to develop approaches that work uniquely for you. And so that process is more about helping you grow and become more resourceful in yourself.

So it’s less hard skills, and it’s more about the approach that you take and how that affects the ways that you work.


Chris How is a design strategist at Clearleft with many years of experience. I asked him the same question I asked Rebecca. What’s the difference between coaching and training?


I’ve done lots of training over the years. And I think training generally is a one-off activity. People come and get some training. They leave with a bit more knowledge and experience, and then they’re pushed out into the world to get on with that.

And I think coaching, the difference is in my mind, it implies an ongoing commitment to have contact with a person or an organization to improve over more of a longer period of time.

I worked for an agency that also had a training wing and we would often do training sessions based on hard skills. UX researching, designing for mobile, those kinds of skills, because they were easier to sell to the organizations that were paying for that training.

And whenever we introduced training around softer skills, such as storytelling or working with clients, they were popular with the attendees, but they were harder to get organizations to pay for people to attend those courses.

I think a well rounded person in the workplace, digital and otherwise, has a range of those soft skills. You know, they can, they can collaborate with other people, they can communicate. They can tell the stories of the work that they’re doing. They can be persuasive. They show empathy. You know, all of those things are very human traits and the things that you look for in, in colleagues and clients and the people that you’re going to do great work with.

Where you get those skills from, I think is a really interesting question.

And I think training often has that lack of people providing useful training for soft skills.


Ah, soft skills. There’s something about that phrase that always rubs me the wrong way. It feels so wooly and fluffy for something so important and tricky.


There’s the other terms of interpersonal skills, which also feels wrong.


Soft skills is one of those great phrases because soft skills are really hard to develop. And on the surface they feel as if, well, they’re soft. That means they’re easy. And they probably don’t have the impact. But when you start looking at them and you start looking at how organizations work and how organizations become successful, it’s often because they’ve been able to build up their network. They’ve been able to be persuasive. They’ve been able to join and collaborate with people. And in working with other people, they’ve built up that reputation.

I think soft skills are often undervalued and often seen as something that everybody has.

I mean, you know, one of the words that we use frequently in a research context is empathy. And everybody thinks they have empathy. Or people certainly don’t think that they don’t have empathy, but it comes on a wide continuum. And I think it’s harder to see where you are with some of those soft skills on a continuum. Whereas something like coding, which is a difficult skill to learn, but it’s easier to see if you can do it or you can’t do it.

To some extent even with design there is an element of it either works or it doesn’t work.

And soft skills I think are, by their nature, much fuzzier. And therefore it feels like we’ve all got those skills. And it’s harder to know where you are on that continuum between having a little of the skill or really having a lot of those skills.


It probably reflects the challenge for design leaders in that, you know, this is relatively a new role and new set of skills that designers are needing to acquire and develop.

And it’s a new approach that we take as well. I think, you know, management has changed a lot from the days where it was top down. And I think particularly within design leadership, we want to find better ways to manage our teams, to manage relationships within organizations. And I think maybe even the language isn’t there to enable us to do that.

And I think that’s part of what’s really interesting working with the design leadership community is finding ways that we can better improve as a design leadership community so that we can share this practice amongst each other and then improve as a whole community.


We’ve talked about the community aspect of design leadership on this podcast before. Remember when we spoke to Temi Adeniyi?


I’m Temi and I am a design leader.


Temi told me how coaching and community helped her on her journey.


I think with the first few years I was definitely really simply figuring it out as I went along. And there was a point where it was really difficult to just try and like, continually have this baptism by fire, because a lot of things for me early on were just super new. So at that point I actually started to get design leadership coaching and that was immensely helpful.

I was also fortunate enough to be connected to some other design leaders around that time. And it was really, really useful just to swap stories and just talk some things through and see how things played out in other companies. I think there’s something really comforting in finding out okay, that issue that you think is completely unique to you or to your team is not particularly unique at all. So these things were really helpful.

And I think most recently, and this is not a plug, but joining them Leading Design Slack group has also been incredibly useful for me as well because there are so many people in there. Just being able to actually just simply search archives, it’s just a very accessible resource.


So we have a Slack group which is specifically for design leaders. And that’s a really helpful space where people can share real time issues with each other. They can get advice. They can share jobs, they can share questions that they might have that they want input from on their peers.

And what’s really important about that group is that it is limited to those senior design leaders, so that it’s a safe space for them to talk about the issues that are affecting them in their roles and in their leadership journeys.

I think what sets Leading Design apart is that it’s not focusing at that practitioner level. You know, I was having a call with one of the members of the community yesterday and it’s something that I’ve heard so much in my time at Leading Design so far is when you take on design leadership roles, it’s like taking on a completely new job.

You’re stepping away from that practitioner role and your job is focused a lot more on your teams, on connecting departments. And it’s a lot more looking at people management and strategy than you may be doing in an IC role or a practitioner role.


I think I understand the difference between training and coaching now. But there’s another word that gets used in the same context as coaching. Mentorship. So what’s the difference between mentorship and coaching?


Mentorship in my mind implies an even longer term relationship than coaching. Mentorship you’re in it for the long haul. You have, I think as a mentee and a mentor, you have a commitment for a longer period of time to see those improvements and probably more ongoing and somewhat smaller, but as important moments in people’s careers, you’re there as a more of a constant.


I think probably the key difference between a mentor and a coach is that a mentor will often tell you what to do and how to do it. And, and as maybe someone who’s been through that journey themselves. A mentor may give you the wisdom of their experience whereas the coach is more of what I describe as like a thinking partner.


There is somebody that I used to mentor on a regular basis because we worked together and they’ve now moved away, they’ve got a different job. And we have less contact than we used to. But when there are moments where either of us want to talk over some sort of decision to be made or some opportunity to investigate, we will get in touch with one another and still have that relationship of mentoring one another.

So I think in a way, the best mentors, even if you have less contact over time, are still there for you. They’re still people who you can turn to when you need their help.


I think what’s interesting with mentoring some times is that sometimes you’re getting it and you don’t even realize it. So when I used to work in film production I had a boss who was amazing. She was a film producer who was really inspiring to me. After I’d been working in film production for a number of years, I realized I didn’t want to work in film production anymore. And had a bit of a crisis of what I would want to do. And she’s the one who sat with me and looked at all of my skills and what I enjoy doing and, and where I found value in my work.

And she’s the one who moved me towards more community management, business support. And then that set me on a whole new trajectory for my career, which has just been literally life-changing like, I feel like I’ve really found the work that I love to do. And, and my role isn’t really one that you would be told about from a careers advisor, it’s, it’s quite niche.


Speaking of changing careers, how does someone become a coach? Here’s Tutti Tagerley who led two masterclasses at the Leading Design festival back in March.


So when I left Facebook, I was pretty burned out. And while I was interviewing for other jobs, I kind of wanted to take a break for a bit. And as part of my break, I started taking workshops and classes to better understand the craft of coaching. Because I had decades of craft of design. I didn’t really know how to coach or mentor. I was doing it more intuitively, but I wanted to learn how to do this really well. And I figured it would help support me be a better design leader.

And what I learned or what I found out after my first or second workshop is I fell utterly in love. And that’s when I decided I was going to transition and become a professional coach, which really has been all the things that are bringing me the most joy in the last, I don’t know, 5, 6, 7 years as a design leader.

Now after doing this for a couple of years, I coach as a designer. All my design skills are all still relevant because I help people find their north stars. I help push them to bigger north stars. I help them dream. I help them dream bigger and visualize what that feels like. And then we work on how to get there, milestones, all that stuff.

And so it feels like what I do right now is such a perfect blend of all the things I love.

And what I work with people on is understanding what really matters to them. How to do their best work. Which really involves figuring out all the joy of creation, the joy of leadership, the joy of inspiring a team. All this stuff that gets left behind because it’s buried under all the weight of busy-ness and stacking and all the things that we have to do. Buried under the weight from all our to-do lists and milestones.


If you’ve heard of Leading Design, it’s probably the conferences that you’ve heard about, but as Rebecca explained, there’s more to it than that.


So we obviously have our big flagship conferences. They’ve taken place in London for many years. And more recently we’ve also been holding them in New York and we’re planning to run one in San Francisco as well.

And the conferences are an amazing opportunity to bring the community together, to share information and inspiration and connect with peers annually. But we knew that in between that there was also a need for more intimate ways to connect design leaders with each other so that they could share their specific issues they were facing and to share sort of intimate details of their design leadership journeys.

So to accommodate for that we were running retreats where we would take small groups of design leaders away into a sort of remote venue where they could share with their peers where they could get a space away from the sort of the day-to-day to reflect in a neutral space with their peers. And what was really important at those retreats was that we had a coach there. We worked with Julia Whitney, who helped to lead those retreats.


I’m Julia Whitney. I’m a former design leader, turned executive coach.


I think it’s really helpful if a coach is a neutral person who can take a step back and we described this as holding a mirror to yourself. It gives you the space to explore that yourself as opposed to bringing their own, perhaps preconceived thoughts about it or or any experiences that they have.

So it’s a lot more of a neutral relationship. I think.


I’m an executive coach and I run resilience workshops, but I also end up doing work with my executive coaching clients on their own resilience.

When we talk about resilience, we mean the ability to sustain successful performance and positive wellbeing in the face of adverse conditions and to recover from, or adjust easily to misfortune or change.

It’s important to say what we don’t mean as well. Resilience does not eliminate life’s stresses or erase life’s difficulties. Instead it gives people the strength to tackle problems head-on, overcome adversity and move on with their lives.

And from everything that I’ve observed in my own experience, the experience of the people I’ve led and the experience of the people I coach, as well as everything I’ve read on the topic, I’ve come to think of resilience in terms of five facets.

The physical, mental, and emotional sides of resilience, your underlying self-awareness and your overarching meaning and purpose.


So whilst we haven’t been able to do retreats at the moment because of the obvious COVID restrictions, we knew that there was still a need for our design leaders to connect with each other and to have this space to get input from their peers, and to have this space to step away from the day-to-day and think strategically through their challenges.

So we designed a online group executive coaching program, which we ran a pilot of at the start of the year and was really successful. You know, we got great feedback from the participants. I think particularly given the difficult time that everyone has faced over the past 18 months, you know, I think we saw the need for design leaders to be able to have some time to focus on themselves as well.

So the pilot was really successful at the start of the year. So we’ve decided to run that again. So we’re going to be kicking off the next cohort of the coaching program in mid September. So we’re really excited about that.

The groups are very small so that there’s the chance to sort of intimately share with each other. And we’ve already got some great participants signed up and we’re really looking forward to going on that journey with them.

So the first time we ran the program it sold out immediately. So rather than making the group bigger, we decided to run two cohorts. So they run fortnightly over 12 weeks on a Wednesday and a Thursday. And the group sizes are limited to eight people in a group because we found that that really gave enough participants that you’re hearing from a variety of people, but it was still a small and intimate group.


I asked Rebecca what the topics and themes would be.


They’re not grouped on a particular theme, or even a particular level of design leadership. So we have seen some ICs in the group, but we also have seen very experienced design leaders. And, and the feedback that we’ve got from the attendees is actually that’s really helpful because you have some people who are in similar positions to you, but also you have some people who can bring different perspectives and different viewpoints.

And I think what’s really helpful about having a group coaching session is that you get that input from your peers as well.

The way the sessions run is that Julia runs some fishbowl type sessions where she would maybe have a one-to-one session with a participant.

But also there are peer to peer sessions as well, where we break the participants down and they have an opportunity to coach each other. And that’s one of the supplementary benefits of running it as a group, is that you also learn to take that coaching approach yourself.

And that’s something that the participants in the pilot really took away was that they were able to apply that in their management style. So not only were they benefiting from being coached, but it also changed their viewpoint on how they coach their teams.


The coaching program with Julia is kicking off right now, mid September. There’ll be weekly coaching sessions right up to December. If you hurry, you can still grab a spot. Go to for details.

But even if you never sign up for a coaching program like that, you can still get coaching and training and maybe even mentorship as part of the day-to-day work. At Clearleft we treat every client engagement as a learning and teaching opportunity.

Give a client, a fish and they’ll eat for a day, but teach a client to fish…

Here’s Clearleft strategy director, Andy Thornton.


I do think, more than most organizations, Clearleft really do focus their energy on making sure that we’re taking people on that journey. And where that journey is a bit too much for the client or for that individual within the team we’re basically helping guide and coach and steward them through that experience for the first time, so that they feel much more confident and much more able to repeat that in the future.


One of my personal measures of success on a client project is that there’s been a two way process of upskilling each other. I think as an agency that is dedicated to digital development, digital design, all of the practitioners have a lot of experience, a lot of skills that can and should be brought to play within a project to upskill the people that we’re working with on a project.

But I don’t think it’s one way traffic. I think at the end of any project, I also want to have learnt some new things, some new skills, some new techniques from the client team that we’re working with. And I think that is a really healthy environment to be working in where the project itself is one level of that.

But on top of that project, there is an ongoing education and up-skilling piece. And you can see that with, I think generally successful people that learning is seen as a lifetime’s activity. And you don’t want to be in the position of being arrogant enough to think you know everything about a topic.

Everybody that I’ve ever done any research with has taught me a huge amount and all the clients and their teams that I work with have equally taught me new ways of looking at things, have taught me new skills, have helped me redefine and rethink some of the skills that I’ve got.


Thanks to my colleagues, Rebecca Groves, Chris How, and Andy Thornton. You also heard from Julia Whitney, Tutti Tagerley and Temi Adeniyi. My thanks to them.

And thank you for listening.