Sonja Ellicott at the DFA Leadership Studio, listening intently.
Sonja Ellicott at the DFA Leadership Studio, listening intently.
Zonghe Chua works with fellow DFAers at the annual Leadership Studio
Zonghe Chua works with fellow DFAers at the annual Leadership Studio

To kick off our series highlighting DFAers and their work, we’ll hear from two experienced studio leads. As DFA is excited to develop leaders of innovation, we set out to learn from our best. Studio leads Sonja Ellicott (University of Oregon) and Zonghe Chua (University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign) lend insight into what it means to be a leader, as they help newly minted studio leads transition into their roles.


– What advice do you have for new leaders in DFA?

Zonghe: Don’t be afraid to make mistakes, question the existing practices. If you think there is something that can be improved, propose it to the rest of the group and then try it out. Your studio/team is also your design challenge and you can improve it in the same way.

Sonja: DFA is hard because in a University, turnover is rapid and constant. Most of you probably won’t be in a leadership position longer than 2 years. Always be thinking about how you will replace yourself. Who will take your job? How will you transition them in? What is their skill set coming in? If they have different strengths or less experience how does the position change (not the person) to get the job done? Set goals with them together so you get closure on the future of DFA, but then get out of their way.

– What do you think are crucial qualities of a strong leader?

Zonghe: I think that having the confidence to make decisions and bear the responsibility of each one’s success or failure is a crucial quality of being an executive leader. The ability to inspire the people in the organization you lead by communicating your vision and setting realistic targets to achieve is also especially critical in an organization such as DFA. Once you do that, you have to support those you lead to help them hit their goals and bring the organization forward. I learned about the concept of servant leadership from my time spent schooling Singapore where such a concept was the core of the leadership model there.

1. Being a leader does not mean being in charge. The best leaders empower others and allow them to take charge.
2. Know your strengths and weaknesses.
3. See everything as an opportunity, and know the challenges you face could always be worse.
4. Build trust first with those around you (that means building a friendship).
5. When you’re in charge, sometimes your job goes thankless, remember to treat yourself when things go right. Take yourself out for a beer or get that large peppermint mocha with whip… and sprinkles please, because I’m a boss.

– How do you cultivate these qualities?

Zonghe: A leader is not built overnight but through embracing the organizational culture. I think in terms of servant leadership, you must know your members well in person before you can help them improve and achieve their goals. So hang out with them outside of DFA time. More socials!!!

Sonja: Follow people you find inspiring or interesting, and always look for people who are smarter than you to learn from. Take time to reflect – it can be hard on your own and it can be easy to skip when you have a thousand other things to do. Find someone who will hold you accountable for it, and reflect together.

The other way is by “formal learning” -in quotes because learning leadership is fun! Even so, many times the best learning comes not from conferences or workshops, but conversations. I also read a lot of articles via Twitter from @Inc, @FastCoDesign, and via my LinkedIn. Feel free to follow me @Sonjalovesyou, I retweet things I find interesting/helpful. Harvard Business Review has a lot of good stuff, like videos!

The final way is by challenging yourself, taking positions of leadership and learning what works and what doesn’t. Also be friends with people on your teams. Friendship is trust, and trust makes teams capable of anything.

– Any other insight?

Zonghe: Have the confidence to question assumptions and try out new things.

Sonja: The best leaders empower others to lead.

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