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Seniority in design: superpowers

Build on your limitations, make them your strengths.

I really like the work the Home Office design and research teams have taken the lead on, illustrating the importance of accessible design. The statement that first caught my attention here was:

We are all only temporarily not disabled.

I’ve learned from my own experience that this is true. Something that I’ve been exploring as part of my recent talks about seniority in design, is how we recognise the constraints that shape how we lead.

When it comes to design leadership, you’re only as good as how you work with your constraints. If we focus on working with, through and despite the biggest things holding us back, I think that these can help us to become better leaders.

We shouldn’t ignore these constraints. We have to acknowledge them, and then learn to work with them. Design is always a process of understanding and working with constraints, so this seems like a good way to shape how we lead design.

Most of us start from some point of disadvantage at different points in our lives. When I worked at the Department for Work & Pensions in the UK government (DWP) I always believed in focusing on what people could do, not what they couldn’t. In my experience disability isn’t a fixed thing, we are all more or less physically or mentally able at different points of our lives as we experience different physical or emotional changes to our health and wellbeing.

My story, dealing with hearing loss

I have my own story that I’ve started sharing more openly over the past year.

I’ve had problems with my hearing since I was child. I had to have a routine hearing operation when I was very young after it was picked up that my speech was impaired. My hearing improved and I learned to cope with this. I did become susceptible to ear infections as a child which caused further damage to my hearing.

In the last 3–4 years my hearing (mostly in my left ear) has been getting gradually worse. I’ve seen many specialists, had a lot of conflicting ‘expert’ advice, and eventually had another minor operation on my left ear last August.

I’ve done my best to manage a condition that can be intermittent and unpredictable. Some days my hearing is better than other days. Some days it makes it hard to do my job, speak, run workshops and hold conversations (listening and speaking for long periods with hearing difficulties can be exhausting). I’ve made lots of small adjustments, invested in different types of hearing aids, and have done a lot of research. But, however well I manage this, it’s something I have to live with.*

*I also consider myself lucky to be alive and relatively healthy apart from this.

The important point here is that we all have a story. Big or small, seen or unseen by others. If you want to lead, then you have to recognise the constraints you’re working with.

Building on your limitations, and making them your strengths

There’s a better way of thinking about personal constraints. They make us unique, and they make us who we are.

I prefer to think about my progressive hearing loss as a superpower. It has shaped how I work and how I lead. As well as a limitation, I’ve also found ways to make this work as a force multiplier.

As an example, I’ve got really good at speaking directly and clearly. This is because my hearing means I sometimes struggle to concentrate on speech, or even to get my own words out in a conversation, so this makes me focus and prepare more. I work hard on internalising things and writing clearly, using less words whenever possible, in order to communicate more clearly when I need to speak.

Some people think that I have an authoritative or intense speaking and communication style. As you’ve probably guessed by now, the real reason is this ‘style’ has been shaped by my hearing loss. I’ve actually found that this can be effective in many situations. It means that I tend to lean in and can look very serious and focussed in conversations. More often than not, this makes people turn to me or ask me what I think because it makes me look like I’m trying to say something, or have an important point to make. I also sometimes talk over people in conversations. This is obviously not always a good thing, but in the right situations it’s also effective. Again, this is more a result of when I struggle to hear when other people have stopped speaking.

Recognising all of this has been important in understanding how people see me and experience working with me. My leadership style (in recent more senior job roles, especially over the past 5 years) has been gradually shaped by my personal constraints. I’ve had to develop my own way of leading recognising what I can do, and making sure that I own and work with my limitations, rather then allowing them to work against me.

I’ve also had to work out the right rhythms and ways of working to adapt to what I’m now capable of. For me, this means balancing speaking and the need for intense listening with quieter space in my day. This gives my hearing a rest, and ensures that I can manage my energy levels through all the different priorities I have in my job.

Superpowers

I like that in most superhero stories, the hero always has a weakness (think Superman and Kryptonite). As characters this makes them seem more human and relatable. We see them as being capable of feeling the same extreme emotions and moments of self-doubt that we all have.

Constraints are hard. We have to find ways to work with them, or even sometimes to work around them. The more extreme the constraints and limitations you’re dealing with, the more extreme the difference between good and bad days must feel.

The most encouraging thing here is that as humans we are all highly adaptable to change. We find workarounds. It’s how we stay alive. Love, belief, and the ability to fit and work with the surroundings and circumstances that we find ourselves in.

I hope that people will find some encouragement here. I still believe that anyone can lead, and everyone should be able to, shaping how they do this around what they can do, as much as what they can’t.

Finally, this is why we need much more diversity and representation of disability in design (especially, when thinking about what represents seniority in design). Cat Maculay gave an incredible talk at FutureGov’s Designing for 21st Government event in Newcastle back in June, just before writing this call to arms for the design community — we need to talk about disabled people. I honestly don’t think we would be seeing service design shaped in the way it is emerging in Scottish Government without Cat’s direct and lived experience as Chief Design Officer. There are also the real superheroes I get to work with like Robbie Bates (FutureGov Creative Director), openly talking about his work and living with Cystic Fibrosis.

A question to finish with: what limitations or constraints can you build on that will help you develop and shape how you lead others?


This blog is part of a short series following my original post about seniority in design.

Ben Holliday is an experienced design leader, writer and speaker. This is his blog (started in 2005). You can follow all of Ben's blog posts by subscribing to the RSS feed, or follow him on Twitter for more regular updates.