What to do when the CEO doesn’t care about design

This was a great question asked by a Process Masterclass student on our slack channel, I’ve kept his name and company confidential as it is a sensitive topic. “I was wondering if you have any suggestions on how to push for change at the company I currently work for? Especially for a CEO that feels the way he’s doing things are fine and doesn’t really understand the value design brings to the table.”

This is a common situation, where a companies vision and the vision of it’s employees may not be inline and begin to diverge after a while. Perhaps the production/product team wants to elevate the quality of their projects and work. But management/sales/CEO on the other hand seem focused more on short term revenue gains, and don’t want to ‘waste more time’ on projects and want them out the door quickly. A churn and burn mentality. In effect everything stagnates and there’s not much room for company growth. But at the same time it’s a risky move for a CEO to change processes and culture, when the gravy train still continues and moneys coming in. It’s no one’s fault, but just a difference in vision. What happens when the trajectory of where you want to go differs from where the company you work at is heading? Is it possible to influence change?

Hey [name withheld],

This is a difficult one. The first suggestion I would have is to learn to speak in the language of the people you are trying to persuade. If you are trying to elevate the company you must answer the why. Why should your CEO care? You must be crystal clear on how design can help alleviate and solve the issues that keep your boss up at night. (How to get higher paying clients, how to bill more, how to stay afloat as an agency, how his business can provide him a better life) You need to provide solutions from this perspective. And that in itself is not a simple task. But it’s a good start about how to think about things, and how to initiate change and better design processes. What can you say that your boss can understand and be on board with.

Overall it’s still a bit of a pickle. I wish I could give you a radical formula to influence change and culture in an organisation. But the reality is, when it’s coming from the CEO it’s very difficult to influence change. Particularly when there are drastic business strategies that need to shift, and when that happens it comes at a risk. And that risk is not placed on the employees but on the CEO himself. You could try being proactive and and start implementing small changes that could improve the design process but also the business’s bottom line.

Looks like you guys are filled with talented designers and engineers, but the company site is probably not a reflection of that. It looks like an agency site from a few years ago, more production focused and not enough consultancy minded. And it’s no ones fault in particular but just a different alignment in values. Sometimes this happens. That the rate of your growth and where you are heading/want to go is not in line with the organisation you worked for. I’ve had instances in my career where I really needed to assess and self reflect, and then take big leaps to go where I wanted to head.

I’m not saying you should quit, but if you are no longer learning anything maybe start a side hustle to reach your maximum potential and learn new skills. It may lead more doors to open or for you, or even to have the confidence to implement things within the organisation. (Which will increase your value) Or you can find organisations that share your vision and try to work for them. It may mean relocation. I’ve seen your work mate, it’s great – you should be able to find offers if you just put yourself out there a bit more. Knock on doors, tweet people or email places that interest you. It’s a numbers game, eventually you will get a response. We make opportunities happen, by turning luck in our favour through the actions we take.

So actionable stuff:
1. Find what your CEO has problems with, or what he currently values. How can you introduce better culture and design processes that will help with these problems or improve things for your CEO that HE CAN UNDERSTAND. So something concrete is introduce more of a consultancy service with user insight as a design phase for example. And compete in a bigger market for even larger organisation than those finance ones.

2. Start a side hustle – learn a ton in this process and try to do the work you’ve always dreamed of. Better yet if you can ship it as a live product. You’ll learn a lot about marketing and launching along with design. Think of a need that you can solve or are passionate about.

3. Network and get in front of the companies you admire. I am of the opinion that you don’t always have to be the best. You just need to be really good and be at the right place at the right time. Get on people’s radars, however you do that.

And this is also a fantastic talk that resonates with my values by Daniel Burka design partner at GV. You can watch the video here. It should give you some more ideas on how design brings value to an organisation. I hope that helps.