February 7, 2022

Sue Siddall on the Heart and Head of Business

Matthew Birchall

Connecting with people is all part of a day’s work for Sue Siddall, an IDEO partner based in London. Despite a background in advertising and a degree in law, Siddall’s acute understanding of the link between people and design has long made her one of the industry’s most interesting commentators. It has also made her one of the most resilient.

Propelled to Managing Director of IDEO’s London Office amidst the chaos of the global recession, Siddall’s self-described “baptism of fire” turned out to be an unexpectedly beneficial learning experience.

So what key insights can we derive from Siddall’s experience of leading an international design team along the precipice of uncertainty? And what can we take away from her human-centred approach to business? The team at Learnerbly sat down with Siddall to answer these questions and many more.

So, tell me about how you arrived at your current position at IDEO…

I came to IDEO from a non-classical route. I studied law at university but really didn’t enjoy it. My first move out of university was to do a TEFL course (Teaching English as a Foreign Language), which allowed me to travel and live in Paris supporting myself. I got a job teaching English in a French advertising agency, and then became an intern there. When I returned to London I got my first proper job in an agency doing toy advertising for several years before jumping ship to join M&C Saatchi in it’s infancy where I stayed for 8 years doing British Airways advertising amongst other accounts. My next move was to join one of my clients, working as a marketing director, before finally making the transition to design. I was approached by IDEO by the Chief Creative Officer, Paul Bennett.

“I hadn’t actually heard of IDEO, to be honest with you, but I was essentially brought in for my skills in running relationships.”

I ran the British Airways relationship for eight years at M&C Saatchi and had considerable experience in understanding the client’s perspective. Both things were important to IDEO at the time, and remain so now. So I came to IDEO eleven years ago, starting in business development building client relationships, and through that progressed to being MD for eight years. Last year I handed that over to a new MD and now have a more European and global role.

What are the skills that helped you get to your position?

There are several key skills that helped me get this position. One was an ability to understand my client’s business needs and to empathise with the challenges they were going through; another was an ability to translate this insight into what design and design thinking can do for their business. A passion for gnarly challenges is important, but also an ability to empathise with both the creative and business side of what we do.

Did you learn these skills on the job or through formal training?

Predominately on the job. I’ve always been a big believer in learning from people. I’ve only had four big jobs in my life, and I’ve always moved into them because of the people I’ve been inspired by at these companies. I’ve not had a planned career trajectory as such; rather, I’ve tended to gravitate towards working environments and content that I find inspiring.

“So that’s the first thing: pick people who inspire you and who you love working with. There’s a lot of learning on the job from that.”

Just seeing great people and how they lead – you learn a great deal from that. I did have some formal training at M&C Saatchi. They sent a bunch of us on a mini-MBA course, which was tough on top of the day job, but it helped us better understand business context. Here at IDEO we have internal training as well as external skills training. It really depends on what you need. I don’t particularly enjoy public speaking, for instance, but having someone coach me in how to speak to media has been really helpful. Predominately, though, it’s learning through experience.

Who are some of your heroes in the industry?

Some of my biggest heroes are in our own design community. And I’m not just saying this! When I see our designers tackling really difficult challenges and coming up with amazing design ideas, inspiring each other in the process, and supporting each other to push ideas further, I get excited. They are my everyday heroes. In addition, people like Paul Polman, the CEO of Unilever, are truly inspirational. I really admire how, on starting as CEO, he put his foot down and said, “I’m not going to be measured on a quarterly basis because what we are trying to do as a company has got a bigger purpose that needs long-term vision and metrics.” I also admire Jean Oelwang, the head of Virgin Unite. She has been working for years on how to make working practices more human with their 100% Human Initiative, which is something we really believe in at IDEO. It’s about people. Last but not least, Paul Lindley, the CEO of Ella’s Kitchen, is really impressive and passionate. Everything they do is purpose led and designed with the end consumer in mind – babies and kids. It’s led them to be the No.1 baby food brand in the UK.

Do you teach or present at any industry events?

I do. As I said, public speaking is not necessarily my favourite thing, but I have given talks at events such as the DMI Conference in Barcelona a few years ago and Rebuild 21, a sustainability conference centred on purpose led innovation. Every year I speak at an INSEAD Executive Education course for healthcare professionals, which is actually the thing I love most, because it’s usually a great group of professionals. It’s also a small class, which means that I can talk about design thinking and learn from them in terms of the challenges they face in healthcare.

What’s been your best learning experience?

The best learning experience I’ve had was a bit of a baptism of fire. In 2009, in the middle of the recession, I was made MD. On the back of this, I had to reshape our team and offer in order to become more flexible.

“The experience really taught me to understand both the heart and head of business. Understanding the cultural things that I needed to keep at IDEO while also being a little more savvy about our business and offer was absolutely critical.”

It’s an ongoing journey but for about four or five years it was one of the best and most difficult learning challenges I’ve faced.

Where do your employees go for training?

There are several different ways that we look at learning at IDEO. We split learning into two broad categories: values and skills. A lot of the behaviour changing stuff we do internally. We have something called 101 Week, where all the new hires at IDEO go to San Francisco for a week. This promote a global network and helps employees’ understand IDEO far better. We operate on a local level, too. When you join, for instance, you get a cultural mentor and a skills and content mentor. For deep skills training we occasionally bring people in from the outside but, for the most part, I think that people tend to teach each other here or look online at courses. We also run things like Hackathons and Geek Nights.

How can people excel in the design industry?

The first thing is to be passionate and great at your deep craft. But I also think that one of the most important things to do is understand the role that design can play within business and within your client’s specific organisation.

“You don’t have to have an MBA but you have to understand the client’s business and the role that your design plays in this broader business context.”

If you just want to come up with great ideas that nobody can actually take to market then that’s not we’re interested in. Understanding the context of business is really important as it allows you take great ideas to market where they can have impact.

Where can people learn more about the industry?

It’s interesting to look at companies that are really living design excellence. Ikea is a great example of a purpose led design company. Making great design affordable to as many as possible goes right the way through the company, from how they procure consultants like ourselves to the way they design products that can be packed in an efficient way. Look at companies that you find compelling and find out more about their purpose and how they go about delivering it.

And what advice would you give to people looking to enter the industry?

Pick something you are really passionate about. Stay curious. We talk about T-shaped people at IDEO – develop a deep skill but have a breadth of interest so you can connect that skill to multiple challenges.

Are there any books, resources or events that you would recommend to readers wanting to find out more?

TED conferences are a great starting point. You can now go to the cinema to watch them as well as online. I am currently reading Race Against The Machine by Erik Brynjolfsson and Andrew McAfee, which explores how technology is changing the nature of work. Books more squarely focused on design worth checking out include Tim Brown’s Change by Design and David and Tom Kelley’s Creative Confidence. They beautifully capture the possibilities that design and design thinking can have.

What attributes do you look for in a candidate?

Technical skills and intelligence are obviously important. But so is empathy, passion and consideration for other people. We look for how candidates interact in teams. We recruit for values as well as skills. Our values (The Little Book of IDEO) are built into people’s performance reviews.

What about progression for those already in the industry? What things matter most for those wanting a competitive edge?

Passion and curiosity remain important, but the ability to empathise with people and bring them along with you takes on added significance. One of the things that I think affects your progression in IDEO the most is your ability to influence people, it’s not simply a top-down process of telling people what to do: people just don’t respond to this. Those who are able to get people behind ideas and excited tend to do the best.

In short

Regardless of whether you are looking to break into the industry or redefine your role within it, the importance of creating meaningful relationships with people cannot be underestimated. In an age dominated by unprecedented technological change, Siddall’s understanding of both the “heart and head” of business design is as refreshing as it is illuminating. The rewards that await those daring enough to think through the space between the business and creative demands of design will most surely justify the challenges of doing so. Just ask Sue Siddall – she understands better than anyone that people make the design world go round.

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