Staying at the top of your game isn't always easy. When you're at the leadership level of any business, you're constantly seeking your next challenge. For most executives and entrepreneurs, achieving that next stage of your career involves a mix of gut feel, improvisation and opportunism. Sometimes, that's enough – but is there a more reliable way to get ahead?
A growing number of business leaders are now building their careers with an unexpected tool: design thinking. Normally applied to product development or organisational transformation, design thinking seeks to align the design process with the actual needs of people – rather than what executives or product managers might assume their customers want. Adapting the principles of design thinking to career planning can not only reinvigorate but also sharpen how business leaders plot the next step of their professional journey.
Design thinking methodologies often vary, but they all tend to abide by five main stages – each of which can be easily tweaked to redesign any career.
The most successful leaders are those who see a need and fill it. Careful and in-depth observation of business needs can reveal where a leader might add the most value – or where potentially disruptive opportunities are beginning to emerge.
Solid observation requires a committed investment in fieldwork. Whether your focus is career progression or an entrepreneurial venture, leaders should surround themselves with individuals of influence within their field of work as well gleaning insights from others at all levels of their industry. The primary goal should be a comprehensive knowledge of the issues facing the industry, and a complimentary but deep understanding of the issues that affect the business itself, individuals and teams.
Once leaders identify the 'pain points' that can be addressed from their observations, they can then analyse their capabilities to better decide how to align themselves with the needs that they've observed. They can also identify skills or areas that they lack, and make purposeful strides towards sharpening their business acumen. Most importantly, they should seek to understand the motivations and emotions behind the needs they observe – using active listening and other soft-skills to empathise with whom and what they've observed.
This is more art than science: leaders need to be able to confidently 'frame' themselves as the best solution, in a way that identifies with the most immediate needs of their prospects. Often, the best way to do this is to obtain help from like-minded peers or – for a greater rate of success – guidance from an experienced business mentor.
Ideate and Map
The next step for leaders is to take all considerations and use them to inform their next steps. There's never one solution to any given problem – what design thinking forces the individual to do is to translate key learnings into different ways they can bring these solutions to life. The premise of this phase is simply to apply your unique take on a current problem and make it work for you.
Having an experienced business mentor, especially one that has undergone a similar journey, can significantly smoothen this often uncertain and laborious process. Leaders should seek trusted expert counsel – whether through networking events or MBA courses – when planning their new career from start to finish. The more individuals can tailor their education process to the industry or market in question, the better. The new finance component to our online MBA program, for instance, gives finance-focused leaders an environment in which to hone their career maps to the specifics of the fast-evolving finance and fintech industries.
Visualise and Prototype
At this stage, the plan becomes reality. Whether it's through upskilling, networking or gaining new experience in-market, business leaders must now begin to act upon their career map. Just like in prototyping a physical product or service, this stage of the process demands constant, consistent feedback to track progress and adjust the map where it may deviate from the actual marketplace terrain.
Ideally, this should be done in a learning-focused environment, where leaders can get the best of both worlds: practical testing of their career development plans, and constructive feedback. Placements in MBA courses offer these two vital components with increasing levels of specialisation and sector focus, making them a useful channel for leaders to gain trustworthy feedback that directly relates to the details of their progression plans.
Having a consistent feedback loop shows leaders what's effective in the marketplace and the workplace, as well as highlighting blind spots to weaknesses. In a proper learning environment, where the intent is to improve and learn, leaders are free to have their ideas and thoughts evaluated by industrial partners or mentors, providing them valuable validation and a sense of what really works. Just as in every field from manufacturing to the military, no plan survives first contact with the enemy – but by validating what works and what doesn't in a safe 'sandbox', business leaders can ensure a much higher chance of success.
Design thinking already underpins the success of the world's biggest and fastest-growing businesses, and for good reason. When applied to individual careers, design thinking can render executives and entrepreneurs far more adaptable, resilient and insightful in their progress. In a safe setting like an MBA, where leaders can be assured of the integrity of counsel and feedback that they receive, design thinking can deliver results tailored to an individual's experience, in current or burgeoning fields.
Leaders who train themselves to apply the same principles practitioners apply to product and services position themselves well in the market and for their environments. To disregard design thinking as a leadership and career tool, is underutilising a resource that can unearth your greatest and most fulfilling work yet.
If you're thinking of your next step, learn more about our MBAX program here.