How to be a compassionate design leader in a big company, according to IBM’s Kristin Wisnewski

4 min read
Eli Woolery
  •  Feb 24, 2020
Link copied to clipboard

Kristin Wisnewski’s path to becoming a design leader is a fascinating one. For starters, in college, she actually was studying to be a psychologist. But everything changed her senior year when one of her required courses was no longer available. She randomly chose a “user-centered design” class in its place. Ultimately, the subject matter piqued her interest so much that she decided to change her career path.

After graduating, she took at job at IBM and, for the next 13 years worked as a usability engineer. In 2016, she took on a management role and two years later, moved into a vice president position for CIO design. In the modern workplace, it’s rare to stay at a company for an entire career, but Kristin has been there 18.5 years so far. She’s enjoyed “growing up” at IBM company and says it’s allowed her to have an accurate gauge of the business and its prospects.

“I think the best way to summarize it—right at this moment—is to say that this IBM is the best IBM I’ve ever known,” says Kristin.

Kristin stopped by The Design Better Podcast to share insights from her tenure and how she’s learned how to be an effective—and compassionate—leader within a large company.

Now, as a VP, she’s committed to IBM’s style of servant leadership, or the idea that if you trust your teams and empower them in their work, not only will they self-organize and produce more, higher-quality deliverables, but they’ll be happier too.

“You don’t make them feel like they have to run everything up and down the flagpole and get confirmation on everything they’re doing,” she says.

Her job in this is to clear impediments and instill confidence and trust for her employees. One of the ways she does this is simply by drawing on her experiences as a practitioner. In her early positions she didn’t like that she couldn’t pick projects that best aligned with her skills and interests. Once, she contributed to a successful sales initiative and spent a significant amount of time afterwards as a go-to for similar work. People thought that since she had the experience and knew the audience, her participation was a no-brainer—even though she didn’t particularly want to work on these undertakings.

In her day-to-day she practices being an authentic and empathic leader by listening to her team member’s wants and needs. She gets to know not only what they’re skilled in, but also what they’re interested in and what they want to learn. This has led her to double-checking and, in some cases, triple-checking with her team before putting them on a project. She asks “Do you want to work on this?” or comes to her employees with three options and allows them to pick which one they want to work on.

“We try to constantly put people in places that give them the best opportunity to shine, grow, learn, and, in some cases, teach others.” she says.

Want to hear more of Kristin’s experiences? Listen to the full episode here—and remember to subscribe so you never miss a new release.


Collaborate in real time on a digital whiteboard