Driven by a passion to make the workplace more human, Emily’s work as a leadership coach and facilitator focuses on how strong leadership, process, and culture support teams to do their best work. She specializes in helping leaders navigate work with confidence by applying design skills such as creative thinking and an experiment-oriented mindset. Her approach is informed by a decade in user experience design, having led teams to design digital products for DIRECTV, Macy’s, Verizon, and Automation Anywhere.
On Thursday, February 23 at 5:00pm Central, Emily Parcell joined us for a live Q&A session “Design Management vs. Individual Contributor Leadership.”
[00:00:37] Chicago Camps: A lot of people think about management as the path to leadership. What are some of the ways that individual contributor designers are leaders, and what can that look like?
[00:00:46] Emily Parcell: First I’d wanna start with what is my definition of leadership, because I think that frames then, the way that I think about this, and for me to take leadership responsibility is really to take ownership over your impact on other folks. That looks like being really active about what that impact looks like. Examples that I have of team members that I’ve worked with, other individual contributors– I had someone who was on my team who was fresh outta a college brand new designer. The way that she made relationships with her fellow designers I knew that she was a leader amongst them. And so for instance, if there was something that needed buy-in from the entire team, I knew that it was really important to get her on board because of that kind of influence that she had with other people. I like to use that example because it really has nothing to do with the level of time that you’ve been in the industry, what your role is, any of that kind of stuff. It’s really about owning that impact.
[00:01:56] Another example I have was actually a team member who, because she’d been management side and then moved back to being an individual contributor, she was particularly aware of the fact that there were certain ways that she could influence with her colleagues or help things get done that managers couldn’t necessarily do because of the way it was about relationships, especially at the individual contributor level.
[00:02:24] She had relationships and because of her lead title had a certain level of influence over her colleagues, and so she was really conscious about wielding that influence in order to support the team initiatives and help make a better workplace for her colleague. I think how I actually became aware of that was feedback I got from my manager, which was actually about the emotional influence that I was having on my other team members.
[00:02:55] It was shocking to me to get that feedback because I was out of San Francisco. The entire rest of the team were in New York. So the way that I was joining meetings, I was the little face on the screen. They were all in a room together.
[00:03:09] And so to start to get that feedback that the way that I was showing up, reacting to maybe changes that were happening on a team or whatever else, was having this big influence on the team and that I needed to own what that impact was. And think about that, especially because I wanted to move up in leadership.
[00:03:29] That for me was a really pivotal moment in recognizing this really important part of leadership.
[00:03:36] Chicago Camps: What would be the advice you would give to help someone assess which path they’d prefer, be that management or individual contributor design leadership?
[00:03:45] Emily Parcell: With that, I think there are a number of different questions that you can ask yourself.
[00:03:50] And this would mean maybe going a bit into to coach mode to help you self coach yourself through this. The first is what outcomes are really important to you because as an individual contributor or someone who’s really focused on your craft, the outcomes are a lot more tangible or even maybe feel more quantitative.
[00:04:13] You have your portfolio of the work that you shipped: I did this thing, I executed this research, whatever else. Whereas the outcome, being in leadership and especially being a manager, sometimes they’re more intangible. They often take a lot longer maybe to be realized; they’re very relationship-based.
[00:04:35] It might be more qualitative. Think a little bit about like where do you get your thrills? What level of maybe patience do you have in order to get to those outcomes and what’s really rewarding for you? is it to see the thing being shipped? Is it that you would feel good five years later to hear that one career conversation you had with your direct report has really led to something big for them or transformative for them?
[00:05:04] The second I would say would be like, what are the activities that give you energy? I’ve heard before this way of thinking about your time as maker time versus manager time. And that’s not just to a certain extent, that actually lines up with the idea of individual contributor manager.
[00:05:24] You do both of these types of activities in either role, it’s just the weight of them is different depending on what kind of role you’re in. Manager activities tend to be more putting your energy externally. It’s things like coordinating stuff, collaborating with other people, communicating, listening to other people, whereas maker activities they tend to turn the energy a little bit more internally. So it’s things like planning and strategy and creating things. Depending on the kind of balance you want, that’s something to take into mind. My caveat with that one too, would be that the idea of kind of external or internal energy.
[00:06:08] That’s not to say okay, extroverts need to go be managers and introverts. You should be individual contributors because that’s not the case. I’m actually an introvert myself, so that’s not what I’m claiming here. Just a whole other thing of just thinking about how are you going to manage what you need to restore yourself at the end of the day.
[00:06:29] Chicago Camps: What if somebody feels they’ve made the wrong decision about the path they’ve gone down, be that as a manager or an individual contributor leader.
[00:06:39] Emily Parcell: I think there are a lot of cases out there that say otherwise. Dani Nordin, who you had on recently on a Tent Talk, she’s a great example. She said she dipped her toe and the manager pool a couple of times and was like, no, this is not a fit for me or this is not a fit for me right now.
[00:06:55] I think people who have been a manager and then realized craft is actually my thing – I love that they’re bringing that experience of both and that they’re really clear about what they actually want to do.
[00:07:05] I myself am a serial career pivoter. I just don’t buy into the idea that there are things from which you cannot recover. I think it’s actually beautiful that people do make those changes because then they’re bringing all of this rich experience with them.
[00:07:25] Chicago Camps: What is the shift like from pure individual contributor to leadership?
[00:07:33] Emily Parcell: One of the first ones is that idea of how you’re bringing value or what your impact is. As an individual contributor that is very direct, I am responsible for making this thing. You have your specific lane that you’re playing in or the thing that you’re responsible for, where as a leader, a lot of where your value comes from getting the other people to do the stuff.
[00:07:59] It’s your influence is really the creating the conditions for success. That’s really what you’re responsible for. And yes, to a certain extent then because you’re responsible for that, you’re responsible for the end of other folks as well. Another mindset shift that I think a lot of folks have to make in leadership, again, because you’re getting some of the work done through other people and your influence, is needing to let go of the things that got you there.
[00:08:32] Because so often we’re promoting people into leadership because they’re great at their craft and I was a hundred percent guilty of this, I still struggle with this a bit, where you’re like, oh, I was really good at what I did. My way must be the best. So now my job is to get everybody else on my team to do the thing my way and then we’ll all be successful.
[00:08:58] And that’s not how it works, and that’s not how your team is going to be successful. You have to shift your mindset to think what is the outcome that I need those folks to get to? And then have them figure out the how, because first of all, they might do it way better than you did. That hurts, but it’s the truth.
[00:09:18] And second of all, they’ll just probably be more successful in finding their way to do it. You are successful with your, how they’ll be successful with theirs.
[00:09:28] Chicago Camps: What are the ways to build leadership experience if there aren’t clear opportunities at work?
[00:09:34] Emily Parcell: I think one of the best ways is you take the initiative and you make your opportunity. As I look back about some of the things I did even, I’m like, dang, that was bold. I just, spun up programs because it was what I wanted to see or something I was interested in.
[00:09:52] Like I just started a new job and I was like, hey, there are these books I wanna talk about. We’re gonna have a book club. Okay. And I just put it on the calendar. And so that might be a bit bold for some workplaces, but I think that there are so many opportunities out there for you to identify what’s something that you’d be really excited about taking the initiative for to get it off the ground?
[00:10:17] It could be as simple as owning the agenda of the team meeting or deciding that you’ll be in charge of whatever next social event you think that the team needs. Pitch that to your boss and there you go. I was always delighted when my team members would bring me that kind of stuff.
[00:10:37] And if it’s not feeling like that’s possible or somehow that’s not working out for you in your role, there are plenty of other spaces to practice those skills. Whether it’s to take it out and get into a mentorship community like a d ADP risk or hackathons or, I really feel it’s like the world of your oyster. You just need to get out there and seize those opportunities.
[00:11:10] Chicago Camps: We’ve got a question from our live studio audience. Jimmy asks, are there any tools or frameworks people can follow to better understand which path – IC or management – is best for them?
[00:11:21] Emily Parcell: Tools or frameworks? For me, it’s really those personal, reflective questions for yourself.
[00:11:28] I don’t necessarily feel like it’s a full on decision tree kind of thing. If yes, this, that, and this, like bing bang, boom, you should go be a manager. For a long time I was doing both at the same time. I was a player coach. I had to deliver work and I was responsible for managing people. What was clear to me was that in my off time where I was finding flow was reading about psychology, management, leadership, and it took me a while to realize, like I wasn’t that excited about learning the newest tool or making sure that I was up to date on what was the best research method that we should use or whatever else. I just paid attention to what got me excited, where it was easy to flip into flow and lose track of time, and that’s what I used as my signal to realize I don’t wanna be splitting my time between these two. I wanna go in this one specific path. For me, it was management and see what’s possible.
[00:12:42] Chicago Camps: We’ve got a question from our live studio audience. Gail asks, it seems that for designer folks, the only career trajectory is to go into management. Can you share some examples of IC career growth and leadership that are limitless?
[00:12:56] Emily Parcell: This is a budding area, I feel like where more organizations are realizing that they do need to offer multiple paths. The titles that I’ve seen are the folks that I’ve worked with who have been on this IC high level leadership path. The titles where things like staff designer, UX architect, so those might be some of the titles that you look for. I worked with the UX architect in my last role. They were an important part of our leadership team. It was the design managers, our VP of design, and the UX architect, and so they had that influence into strategy and what was happening with the overall team and had that leadership responsibility where they still had to own their influence and impact on the different team members.
[00:13:51] It was just in a different way, probably more mentorship that they interacted with other folks. Whereas, of course, the managers had to be responsible for the full supporting of someone’s career. I completely understand that it feels like that there is only one path, because traditionally there weren’t as many of these opportunities out there.
[00:14:17] My impression has been there’s actually been an explosion of growth of these really high level IC roles being available, which I’m so excited to see because other. There were a lot of people who were pushed into the management path because they did feel like that was the only way that they could go, and it was not working for them at all.
[00:14:39] And I think it’s tragic to have managers who don’t want to be managers, and it’s tragic to not be able to have those folks contribute at a strategic level. So I’m excited to see this trend.