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Learning to Lead

Steve Jobs taught us about focusing our efforts, taking responsibility for an end product and using our intuition to better serve the customer -- all valuable lessons for the design industry.

By Lisa Henry

Steve Jobs taught us about focusing our efforts, taking responsibility for an end product and using our intuition to better serve the customer -- all valuable lessons for the design industry.

Musician KT Tunstall, Apple CEO Steve Jobs and Starbucks founder Howard Schultz discuss Apple products at a special event held in 2007.
PHOTO CREDIT: Justin Sullivan / iStock
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Leadership succession and long-term sustainability are in focus for both design firms and the American Society of Interior Designers (ASID) as our organizations respond to a myriad of influences that are shaping the future of business and the design profession. At ASID, we are re-engineering a long-term leadership development program that will help us to identify and foster the leaders who will steward our organization and influence the direction of the interior design profession.

We recognize that in order to encourage our members to step into leadership roles, the quid pro quo has to be providing business tools that can not only be leveraged for the society’s needs, but also provide a benefit to our leaders’ own business and professional development. Leadership requires more than training.

In any corporation, the development of leaders has to be embedded in its culture. I recently turned to the lessons of leadership from one of the most successful companies at the forefront of market transformation, Apple, and its late CEO, Steve Jobs, who undisputedly got things done. Some of the lessons he shared are particularly relevant to our own endeavors.

Jobs spoke a lot about focused effort. For a large professional association like ours, articulating the needs and wants of members presents some unique challenges, especially when one of our key strengths is our broad base of membership. Many of our designers practice corporate office design and many are residentially focused, yet we have hundreds who work in the healthcare and retail design specialty areas. Some practice in even more specialized areas, such as worship spaces, entertainment, yachts and private aircraft. While most work in interior design or A&D firms, we have members who work for commercial real estate firms, facilities, product manufacturers, colleges and universities.

In addition, our members join for different reasons. Some are looking for quality CEUs, while other members want to ensure that we get some kind of licensing or legislative recognition in their state. We have members who want to serve as chapter and national leaders, and members who mostly want the recognition that comes with the ASID appellation. The list of what our stakeholders want is diverse, indeed.

So what do we do? What do you do in your business when you have to develop a success strategy? According to Steve Jobs, you focus! “Deciding what not to do is as important as deciding what to do,” he said. Filter out distractions (sand and gravel) and focus on the big ideas (big rocks and boulders). He once encouraged a business associate, a co-founder at Google, to “focus and decide what [the company] wants to be when it grows up, because it is now all over the map.” Does this sound familiar to you? It sure did to me and the ASID board of directors.

Another interesting lesson from Jobs is that to be a leader, you have to lead. He believed that “customers don’t know what they want until we’ve shown them.” He also invoked Henry Ford’s famous one-liner, “If I’d asked customers what they wanted, they would have told me, ‘A faster horse!’”

I think this is relevant to our relationship to our clients. We have to be leaders in this relationship. We have to be talking to decision makers and getting them excited about the future of their space as we see it. We have the knowledge to recognize potential, to foresee which trends are brewing and which big investments are about to be made.

In a similar vein, Jobs recommended limiting surveys and focus groups, and being cautious about duplicating typical programming requirements. Caring about what clients want is much different than continually asking them what they want; it requires intuition and an instinct about desires that have not yet formed. A leader’s job is to read things that are not yet articulated. This takes a certain empathy. A leader’s version of empathy, according to Jobs, is an intimate intuition about the desires of his or her clients.

The power of intuition cannot be underestimated. It is based in knowledge, and can’t come to fruition without the ability to lead a client or organization to adopt a direction. It takes empathy and the ability to envision how a proposed strategy or design will affect you (in an airport), your child (in a school), your parent (in a hospital) or your best friend (in an office). It also takes leadership skills like courage and communication to finesse change by challenging the status quo and connecting your vision to valid business rationales that are so clear to others that they can’t be denied.

Another aspect of leadership concerns responsibility, end to end. A typical example might be an A&D firm owning the entire process of design and contract administration through post-occupancy. Today, designers often have given up a large scope of services to separate project management companies. The project is designed on paper and handed off to outside project managers who have their own brand and experience to deliver—often at odds with the design intent. End-to-end responsibility is about maintaining control of the entire experience.

Product manufacturers are challenged with this every day. A promise is implicitly made when a new product is introduced by a manufacturer who is known for its brand. When the product is ordered, expedited and installed by another company, the branded experience implied by the manufacturer can be vulnerable to the installing company’s brand. It isn’t owned through to the end.

Jobs recommended taking responsibility for the whole thing. Unlike Apple, both Microsoft in the 1980s and Google in the past few years have taken a more open approach that allows their operating systems to be used by a variety of hardware manufacturers. Jobs believed that this was a recipe for what he called “a crappier” product. Our A&D firms and organizations might take a lesson from this element of leadership and take back more of the “experience” of providing client (or member) service, maintaining more control of the total experience within their own branded “ecosystem.”

Whether it’s your own business, or ASID as an association, recognize that the difference between the rising stars and their counterparts who can’t seem to gain momentum is true leadership. We have the resources to develop these skills, and they come from many different quarters. The important thing is to have the courage to embrace leadership and the foresight to develop a succession of leaders as an exciting component of your organization’s future.


ASID President Lisa Henry, FASID, LEED AP, is the Knoll Southwest regional architecture and design director. ASID can be reached at (202) 546-3480 or, and on the web at To download a copy of the ASID Environmental Scanning Report, go to Practice & Business at