From the issue feature, "Living by Design in the Pacific Northwest." 
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Michael Nguyen

Photo: Chad Hall

The below is adapted from a talk given at a PechaKucha Night Seattle event, Designing Leadership, which was hosted in collaboration with Design in Public for their Seattle Design Festival. Over the coming weeks, we'll release more adaptations of presentations given that evening. —ARCADE

“As human beings, our greatness lies not so much in being able to remake the world—that is the myth of the atomic age—as in being able to remake ourselves.”—Mahatma Gandhi

Leadership doesn’t come from a set of prescribed checkboxes. It comes from cultivating and nurturing the passion in you and in others.

Consulting initially appealed to me because it offered opportunities for leadership in a nontraditional framework, unlike the conventional relationship between boss and employee. And I found that management consulting work was satisfying—but it was not always fulfilling. I could manage timelines, deliverables and teams to achieve great results, but my work wasn’t inspiring anyone, including myself. I found that business consulting has become a rote application of the same algorithmic approach to new problems. Consultants have become contract workers buried under e-mails, texts and meetings; our contribution has been devalued.

I took a much needed vacation to travel across Asia. I met Scott Tong, who formerly worked at IDEO. We happened to talk about design thinking, and what really stood out to me was its focus on human desire before technology and profit. In this conversation, the answer that evaded me for so long suddenly emerged: businesses have become so severely dependent on—even addicted to—technological efficiencies that they have neglected their clients and have forgotten to treat them as humans. This phenomenon is not unique to consulting but has permeated every aspect of our lives.

I returned to work vowing to bring people back to the center. At the firm I work for, Revel Consulting, we reinvented the employee experience. We created space and opportunities for our disparate workforce to solve abstract problems using design thinking, methods and mind-sets. In these sessions, we took away desks, chairs and electronic devices to allow people to get close and converse. People practiced storytelling by interviewing a partner on what they would do if they won the lottery. They reimagined the future of business travel by empathizing with one another.

We also offered our employees $2,000 of funding to pursue “career development” training, but very few signed up. We revised our offer and dubbed it “education and exploration.” The fund would cover the cost of any educational and exploratory experience that made an employee happy. People went nuts. Revelers signed up for acting, improv, poker, yoga and even extreme bartending. The fund helped them find inspiration, seek balance and apply new leanings to their crafts. We finally got our people excited—we unearthed so much passion that had been dormant for so long.

This culture—putting people and empathy at the center of why we do what we do—became the Revel Foundry, a platform for social engagement. The Revel Foundry is the space where our consultants, clients and community can come together to experiment and create solutions. It’s the mind-set to be curious and learn something new. It’s the trust and mutual respect necessary to feel safe stepping out of our comfort zones. It’s the driving force of our firm’s philosophy and has even inspired a new clientele who wants to partner with a business driven by purpose and creativity, not just the status quo.

I have evolved from believing I reached a plateau in my career to waking up renewed every morning, engaging with colleagues, clients and my community. I realized that leadership isn’t about authority; it’s about being curious about people and how you can authentically help them achieve their aspirations.