Empowering a Creative Team


Recap: 03/22/17

Hosted by LWD member Jenya Andreev at Roundhouse


Leading and Empowering a Creative Team

We invited LWD member Leah Shea to discuss her experience and passion for leading and empowering a creative team.  Leah has a background that spans print, web, digital product, and brand experience.  She talked about holistic leadership approach, and how she has created success by elevating and empowering team members to achieve a common goal.

Leah has worked in top design firms in Atlanta and New York, including Moment and Ustwo. She most recently held a position as Design Director at Uncorked Studio before stepping back to work full time on developing an app she has been working on for the past few years, Sktchy.  She equates much of her success to “being in the right place at the right time” and passionately pursuing what she is working on.

In her true collaborative spirit Leah opened the discussion up by asking everyone around the room what their company cultures were like and how many people they worked with.


When Leah started at Moment she learned that you can have success in a team when you lead by facilitation vs. dictate.  Much of the culture of Moment was coming from an academia approach, asking questions, mentorship, creative ownership of projects, setting individuals up succeed and “do what they have to do”.  When she moved to Ustwo much of these approaches were solidified in a new company where the culture priorities were much the same as well as a culture where play and create time were also priority.

Ustwo made it a priority to set aside “create time” during project lulls and in this time it both solidified team collaborative approaches while creating designs that would sometimes filter into future projects. This time focused on skill development and passion projects that would be presented after 2 weeks.  One of the most popular and known of apps created in this time was:

People Focused – Team Dynamics:

  • Ustwo: “Putting people and team dynamics at the center of everything, and creating truly self-organizing groups of people that have autonomy and ownership on everything we do.”
  • Share in responsibilities, the good and the tough, with your team, rather than being a solo player. This can provide more energy and a greater sense of purpose.
  • Purposely investing time and money into how we work together – it pays off.
  • Coaches rather than Project Managers

Learn and Create Together:

  • Hiring motivated people keeps a learning culture alive.
  • Ustwo: made a point to work own IP into their budget so that employees had space to play and create their own ideas.
  • Creating as one team creates ownership in everyone involved.
  • Company vision and studio principles – everyone needs to participate otherwise we are not invested.
  • Ustwo: “Working with silo disciplines more often results in decreased efficiency due to context switching, reduced delivery predictability, reduced engagement with the product and reduced cohesion as a product team. This ultimately means the creation of inferior products at a slower pace. This model is systemic, and can only change when someone high enough in the org where someone responsible across all silos decides to make the change. ie. CEO”


Being Human – Understanding Yourself and Your Team Members:

As Leah moved into a design director position at Portland based Uncorked she had a chance to educate by showing many of the methods she had learned and been a part of in a new company that was on the verge of growing.  Company cultures can only begin when carving out time to “be human” becomes a focus.  An approach she is also revisiting as she starts to set the cultural tone in her own company.

  • Knowing your team in a personal way.
  • Teamwork is better when we understand our own and each other’s needs and strengths.
  • Champion a culture of constructive feedback to help promote self-awareness and understanding of how to work with others.
  • Recognize good work and play to strengths.
  • Give constructive and valuable feedback to improve weak points.
  • Showing people respect and appreciation is a direct way to create a better environment.
  • Understanding what makes each person an individual can bring unique value to a project and team.
  • Knowing how to utilize your team can improve project allocations, build or diversify business development, and enhance your own perspective of life.
  • Create an environment where people’s uniqueness can be celebrated.

Be Transparent:

  • Share your work in progress, ideas, and thoughts. Your team members will feel part of the process and can provide valuable feedback before getting in too deep.
  • Owners at both Moment and Ustwo were very open about business development and financials with the whole company.
  • The more a person knows, the better they can navigate the future.
  • As a lead or director:
    • Talk to your team about the process and how decisions came to be, and allow for questions to be asked.
    • Let the person who made the decision, present the decision.
    • Let your team persuade the team.

Tips for Creating Culture for Remote and Freelance designers:

The topic of transparency came up both in company setting and also in the Freelance structure many of us work within as well as how to navigate the constant challenge of having to always make a first impression when you work remotely.

  • Learning how to work remotely sometimes depends on long term plan
  • Facetime / Hangouts – As much facetime as possible
  • Kick off projects in person
  • Treat everyone as specialists
  • Give everyone ownership of projects through empowerment and transparency

Tips When Joining a Company:

  • Meet with the team, not just the boss, so you get a better sense of the company culture


  • Praise
  • When there is something to work on model the behavior you want
  • Open yourself up


Hyper Island


Radical Candor


Harvard Business Review – Team Building in the Cafeteria