Can DesignOps leaders partner with Design leaders as their Chief of staff?

Can DesignOps leaders partner with Design leaders as their Chief of staff?

Sketchnotes by mjboadbent. Rosenfeld Media DesignOps Summit 2020

Can designOps leaders be the Chief of staff to the creative leader? Conversely, should the designOps leader be the Chief of staff to the creative/design leader? 

When we talk about the Chief of staff position, people think about political situations— Chief of staff to the president. But these days, the position has been widely adopted for the corporate world and is trending across all industries. So it is not new anymore. A group of designOps leaders has been studying this situation closely. There are certainly similarities. 

At the designOps Summit conference last year. Lisa Gironda opened up the conversation by telling her story of how she became the Chief of staff of the VP of design at Capital One by accident. At the time, CapitalOne design was growing fast. There is a desperate need to develop design practices and designOps. The needs of a Chief of staff became apparent— to help the VP of design focus on the highest priority, and visualize, communicate the strategy to the internal group. There was the need, and Lisa stepped into the position. It might be a unique journey as becoming a Chief of staff, but it wasn’t a fairy tale for many folks who stepped into the designOps role; the only difference was that we have a much ordinary title— designOps lead.

Why do we believe that the designOps lead position is similar to a Chief of staff position? Here are the similarities between a designOps leader and a Chief of staff (CoS)?

Examine the relationship of a traditional Chief of staff to the executives; there are two tracks of emphasis: 

  • Bridging to the organization
  • Becoming a thought partner

Source: Fussell, C., & Goodyear, C. W (2017). One Mission: How leaders Build a Team of Teams. Penguin.

Bridging to the organization: Freeing up creative leaders to focus on the highest priority and communicate externally, elevate the design. These are very similar to the job of a designOps leader. It is to establish that tight bond with the creative leader. 

Becoming a thought partner: Helping creative/design leaders identify and prioritize challenges in the design organization, then managing and tracking strategic initiatives.

Furthermore, being a designOps leader is similar to being a CoS because the person needs to provide operational guidance; to guide the team to execute the defined strategy. This person needs to be informed about what is happening at all levels of the organization. This person has the opportunity to amplify the team’s success. Expose the success and challenges to the leadership team. This person has the opportunity to support the people on the team.

Why are we unsure if the designOps leader should be a Chief of staff to the creative/design leader? Although the goal for designops leader and Chief of staff is both driving organizational effectiveness, many Chief of staff’s activities overlaps with some of the Chief Executive Assistants. They have a heavy influence on scheduling and keeping the contents of a meeting. While designops leaders rarely have any interaction in this area with the design leaders. Both maintain a separate yet overlapping activity. Many entry-level CoS came from the executive assistant role, which means they have spent time building up a relationship with the principals. DesignOps leaders rarely come from a similar background. Many go into a directly higher-level strategic role. There are also nuances in these two disciplines; When Cos resumes a role to advise and counsel the executives, the initiatives are driven by the executives’ team and decisions. As the designops leader advises and counsels the creative/design leaders, they also have the autonomy to focus on potentially different projects. An example is that the creative/design leaders will focus on the overall team strategy and product strategy; the designops leader will focus on team efficiency and health. 

Content: Lisa Gironda Illustration by: EMILY MONGILIO

Should designOps leaders partner with design leaders as their Chief of staff? The verdict is yet out there. 

Where is Lisa now? She is the SVP, Head of Planning and Business Strategy, DesignOps at Merrill, the highest designOps position that existed today. 

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