Rise of the DEO

"Historically, design changed 'things.' More recently, it's changed services and interactions. Looking ahead it will change companies, industries, and countries. Perhaps it will eventually change the climate and our genetic code."

- Rise of the DEO, page 14

The 21st century demands a different breed of CEO: The shift from a Chief Executive Officer to a Design Executive Officer (DEO). Rise of the DEO: Leadership by Design, written by Maria Giudice and Christopher Ireland, has a radical statement about the new CEO. We need a completely new archetype of leadership in the 21st century. Giudice and Ireland make their case by citing some startling facts for the US:

  • Over six million startups are launched annually. Ten years ago, Google and Amazon weren’t on the Fortune 100 list. And companies like Facebook and Twitter? All founded within the last decade. It just doesn’t take decades to innovate anymore.
  • The average adult worker holds more than 10 jobs in a lifetime. It’s now the norm to move around jobs and continually re-educate and reinvent oneself.
  • In 1937 companies in the S&P 500 had an average life expectancy of 75 years. Today? That life expectancy is just 15 years.

One year business plans go obsolete. Competitors show up out of nowhere. And today’s problems are now “wicked problems,” immune to old conventional solutions. All this chaos would make traditional CEOs squirm, but DEOs embrace this. The DEO is passionately excited by unexpected challenges. DEOs thrive where traditional CEOs would only get outmaneuvered, outgunned, and swept away.

The Big Idea

The Big Idea: The biggest takeaway from the book

Design IS leadership

"To design is to encourage collective change."
- Rise of the DEO, page 14

Before “Leadership by design” can even make sense, design must be demystified. This is my favorite point. Design councils might have official definitions of design, but design is a problem-solving process for creating lasting change.

Transformative change in the 21st century is no longer just about aesthetics, or innovative products, services, and interactions. Design is about transformative change in companies and organizations. All business challenges, even ambiguous ones, are treated as design challenges.

DEOs know that their organizations must be battle-ready and brave enough to get shit done. Customer and client challenges are much more complex these days. Those who dismiss design as some passing fad – or who insist that it stays as another siloed “business” function – will simply doom their company to irrelevance.

Insight #1

An actionable way to implement the Big Idea into your life

What makes a DEO stand out from a CEO?

"Proposing design-inspired leadership as the answer may sound delusional to some, like a zealous art teacher attacking poverty with a new color palette. But that's a knee-jerk reaction, based largely on associations of design with discretion, luxury, and logos. A more realistic assessment confirms that design leaders usually possess characteristics, behaviors, and mindsets that enable them to excel in unpredictable, fast-moving, and value charged conditions."
- Rise of the DEO, page 15

In the 20th century, companies did OK with MBAs and military command style leadership. CEOs thrived on conformity and predictability. CEOs were authoritative, commanded respect, and executed down to every detail in the plan. CEOs thrived on top-down delegation. CEOs were linear thinkers and went by the book. CEOs made convergent thinking their forte. CEOs demanded stability, order, and accuracy. CEOs avoided risk and failure at all costs.

In the 21st century, the DEO surpasses the CEO tenfold. The DEO is a systems thinker. DEOs blend divergent and convergent thinking. DEOs are big-picture thinkers. DEOs are aspirational, rather than authoritative. DEOs permit useful disruption, experimentation, and reiteration. DEOs don’t command respect, they earn it. DEOs are comfortable with ambiguity. DEOs are empathetic with customers and employees. And most of all, DEOs are open to new experiences and adapt as needed.

Giudice and Ireland highlight six defining characteristics of a DEO:

  • Change Agents: Promotes change. Understands tradition, but isn’t dominated by it. Disrupts the status quo if it gets in the way.
  • Risk Takers: Knows risk is a part of creativity. Calculates the things they can control and things they can’t. Experiments, and knows failures produce the greatest learning.
  • System Thinkers: Understands the interconnectedness of the world. Knows that their organization is made of different parts that overlap and influence one another.
  • Intuitive: Blends tacit expertise with perceptual and observational skills.
  • Socially Intelligent: Empathetic, “everyday people.” Knows how to instinctively connect with others.
  • GSD: Get Shit Done. They make things happen.

Choose one of these traits and ask yourself, “How might I practice more of this in my daily life?”

Insight #2

An actionable way to implement the Big Idea into your life

Craft culture

"Some believe company culture can be mandated from the top down. Some believe it emerges on its own from the bottom up. A DEO sidesteps this debate. She knows it must be built – iteratively, collaboratively, and over time – from the inside out."
- Rise of the DEO, page 86

This is another favorite point. Crafting culture is a lifelong task of the DEO. DEOs know that a positive company culture is a reflection of her purpose, who she is, and why she wants to lead. It’s the ultimate statement of why the organization exists.

Giudice and Ireland define culture as “the unique collection of beliefs and practices that communicate a company’s values, whether or not they’ve been formalized or articulated.” When culture is authentic, it comes with a gravity that attracts the right like-minded people and repels the poisonous ones.

Culture can’t be faked. When culture is faked, the organization is already dysfunctional. It must accurately embody people’s values and processes. No big surprise to see that there’s no step-by-step instructions for building culture. If there was, it would only work for robots, not human beings.

Giudice and Ireland say there are qualities that DEOs seek when crafting culture:

  • Purpose: The true north. An authentic and clear declaration of what the company does and the commitments they’re guided by. Not to be confused with a lame and boring “mission statement.”
  • Pace and Drive: Curiosity and creativity are everyday triggers for moving forward. Useful risk-taking and collaboration is 100% permitted, not just in departments.
  • People: The DEO observes how her people grow and evolve in the organization. This will clue her in on the kind of culture she needs to craft.
  • Ambiance: Physical space matters for mood, mindset, and happiness. This is backed by science and the DEO doesn’t overlook this.
  • Evolution: A strong culture eventually grows independent of the DEO’s constant oversight. Soon, everyone becomes the keeper and guardian of a positive company culture.

How might you observe your own company culture? Giudice and Ireland suggest “listening tours” with stakeholders. Don’t defend yourself, but be empathetic and try to understand their point-of-view.

Rise of the DEO: Leadership by Design isn’t another book on “how to be a great leader.” This is a primer on shifting the model of leadership towards transformative, collective change. Very few books can communicate this on a human level, but Giudice and Ireland have nailed it.

The good news is that we practice many of the DEO traits in our daily lives more often than we can admit. In what ways are you bringing about design-inspired leadership in your life or in your client’s lives?

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Bryann Alexandros

ABOUT Bryann Alexandros

I help nonprofits and changemaking organizations become adaptive problem-solvers in the 21st century. My approach includes design thinking, applied creativity, process design, and helping senior leaders apply it to strategy and large-scale social challenges...
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