How to Hire a Design Thinking Leader

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Oct 8, 2019

It is important to first talk about Design Thinking (DT) and if structured well, how it can transform an organization.  The first question that should be asked is: Is my organization ready to hire a DT professional? Then, how do we hire the Right one?

Design Thinking has become an overused and often misunderstood term. Everybody is looking to hire DT candidates, and it seems everybody calls themselves a DT leader.

Yet, so much of this is hype. These DT experts are all supposed to help transform an organization from lackluster to explosive growth, or from a traditional to an innovative structure. They are the “magic change agents” that everybody wants to emulate the coolest brands such as Apple and Airbnb, which have true DT talent, making them stand out from their competitors.

DT is in fact, a crucially important strategy that begins at the top of an organization. Design is now a C-suite topic. But unless the CEO is fully invested and sends the message to be serious about design and is willing to invest in design thinking as a global business strategy, hiring DT candidates will be counterproductive.

Implementing DT strategy is an important step toward quantifying something designers have long known to be true but corporate leaders have been slower to embrace: Good design, human design, sells.

McKinsey & Co. found that those brands with the strongest commitment to design and the most adept execution of design principles had 32 percentage points higher revenue growth and 56 percentage points higher total returns to shareholders than their less skilled competitors. This finding held true across three separate industries: medical technology, consumer goods, and retail banking.


Design thinking has – or should have — an important role in the development of HR and talent management processes. Improving the much discussed candidate experience in talent acquisition is best informed by applying DT principles. A manufacturing company discovered that creating four reviews per year, rather than a single annual review, increased completion rates to 98%. See “Use Design Thinking to Build a Talent Process and Agile to Improve It.”


DT begins with asking questions. Not only by the design team, but across the entire organization.  DT is not something that you can “farm out” to cool DT agencies. Brands that do not embrace DT as second nature in their strategic approach to business and that have no DT leader to act as a catalyst for their organization will not succeed. They will then only be talking the talk but not walking the walk.  DT will remain a practice in theory only.

McKinsey cited 4 practices as crucial to the success of a Design Thinking organization:

  1. Tracking design’s impact as a metric just as rigorously as you would track cost and revenue.
  2. Putting users first by actually talking to them, asking them questions about their experiences which may, and often do, yield surprising insights.
  3. Embedding designers in cross-functional teams and incentivizing top design talent, giving designers autonomy within a diverse environment,
  4. Encouraging research, early-stage prototyping, and iterating. Just because a product or service is launched doesn’t mean the design work ends.

What to look for in a DT leader

A great DT leader is only great if she or he understands these practices and how to apply them. And then only if they have the tools and support of senior leadership and the CEO.

Ideal DT candidates are those that have worked on the agency side and then moved to the brand side. Having an agency background, DT practitioners will have consulted brands on culture change, leadership development and design operations. But as consultants, they are advisors, often not able to really effect change and impact the organization in a design driven transformation. That experience comes from working on the brand side, understanding the nuances and levers to create buy-in internally, which is why having both backgrounds is ideal.

A design-led culture requires skillful and steady cultivation. Everyone must understand why the company exists, and that reason has to go beyond making money. It has to be about designing something extraordinary — something people desire.

A design thinking marketing strategist and a design thinking design strategist look quite similar, but their basic roles are profoundly different. A DT marketing/advertising specialist is responsible for persuading and storytelling around existing products or brands. A DT design strategist is more focused on envisioning future products or experiences that don’t exist yet. It’s a different kind of creative thinking.

To understand more about design thinking, read Tim Brown’s excellent article about the top 5 design thinking behaviors that the most successful organizations practice.

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