How Can We #MakeRoom for the Next Generation of Leaders?

“Make Room: Move aside or move something aside to allow someone to enter or pass or to clear space for something.” — definition via Oxford Dictionary

Context of now: Especially given the recent news of the Breonna Taylor decision, I believe that listening to the next generation of leaders is critical today for people of my generation and above. The world we once lived in where excluding others based upon their differences was the default and accepted practice—is something that will need to materially change. If more senior leaders actively make room for more underrepresented voices, businesses will more responsibly manage their transformation during this 4th Industrial Revolution. The world is watching.

When I joined Publicis Sapient, Fast Company ran a story about how I joined to help established companies compete in their digital transformation journey. If you’ve seen Netflix’s The Social Dilemma, and also as was the topic of my book How To Speak Machine, the Big Tech companies have an outsized amount of power. To spend a year with my partners and colleagues across every industry vertical working with some of the biggest names in the world on the trendy topic of “digital business transformation” — I can see that we all have our work cut out for us to compete against Big Tech.

An important subtext for my departure is that I also came to Publicis Sapient after serving as Global Head of Computational Design and Inclusion at Automattic — at the time the world’s largest all-distributed tech company. I’ve long been passionate about inclusion as a way to unlock more value in businesses. For example, there’s a free LinkedIn course I have online to teach the intersection of Design, Business, and Inclusion; and recently I was honored to write the foreword to Google Product Inclusion leader Annie Jean-Baptiste’s new bestselling book “Building for Everyone.” If there is one voice in tech to listen to right now, it is Annie’s on the material impact of inclusion in business today and in the future.

Author and leader Annie Jean-Baptiste’s new book Building For Everyone launched in September 2020

Looking back to when I joined Publicis Sapient, I had the fortune of recruiting tech product leader and startup co-founder Wendy Johansson from Silicon Valley — where she built a global tech consultancy. I reached out to Wendy specifically because I knew that she had built an entire global UX academy de novo, and also because we both shared a passion for inclusion across race, gender, age, language, you-name-it.

Together with Wendy serving as Group Vice President, we rebuilt the way that Sapient delivers Experience outcomes because ironically, we both came from all-distributed global workplaces that were facile with Slack, etc. From Day 1 in August we moved the entire Experience team over to distributed tooling … so that when COVID-19 hit hard half a year later, we had already connected our 1,000 experience folks across 30 offices digitally.

To give credit where it’s due, I took the playbook from Steve Jobs from when he returned to Apple and brought in the logistics and delivery expert, Tim Cook. Wendy Johansson’s been my Tim Cook!

I also recall in those early days how my visit to our Tokyo office with our Regional Head of Experience Symon Hammacott, formerly of Isobar, who provided the working blueprint to connect strategy with engineering using modern cloud tooling and practices — across many timezones. Also, Symon’s approach to empowering junior talent in a supportive manner to fully take risks resonated with me as what we needed to scale at a global level.

Experience Visionary Symon Hammacott and me in Tokyo during my first month

We reshaped the model of delivery from “billable people” to “winner-doers” that grew our direct margin during the peak of COVID-19’s economic impact. We created a system by which creative talent can be managed by skills instead of titles. We made it easier to reliably imagine a modern, effective cloud-based experience with the LEAD system. We introduced a high margin offering into the market just before COVID hit, and that’s led to unlocking tons of downstream value month to month. To give credit where it’s due, I took the playbook from Steve Jobs from when he returned to Apple and brought in the logistics and delivery expert, Tim Cook. Wendy’s been my Tim Cook!

Meanwhile with all that we’d been doing together, more recruits came in like brand craftsman and MIT grad Quinnton Harris from Silicon Valley and strategy guru and data savant Karin Giefer from McKinsey.

We created and shared a Communications Code of Conduct (shared on GitHub) as a way to ensure that our online communication tools would constitute a safe space for women and underrepresented minorities.

Together, we worked across 30 sites to interconnect all the amazing rising talent like Deepali Nayar in Delhi, Kanna Kawakita in Tokyo, Jared Kelleher in Boston, Isi Azu in Houston, Jaz Lim in Singapore, Britta Alexander in Atlanta, Cassandra Kelsall in Sydney, Catherine Hills in Melbourne, Sara Alloy in Washington DC, Laura Licari in Milan, Ian Wharton in London, Liz Wood + Chelsea Watson (HT Adam Morse for computational design mentoring!) + Eiko Kawano in Toronto. We also invested in amazing young talent such as our Early Careers Program who are a fierce class of 2020 graduates (HT Leah Buley for her early vision and leadership!), Travis Boatright in Washington DC, Atlas Lim in Singapore, Irada Babayeva in Chicago, Erin Brophy in Washington DC, Miho Tomiyama in Toronto, the list can go on and on of the incredible talent that all came together as one global experience team at Publicis Sapient. This inclusive environment was facilitated, starting from Day 30 with Wendy, by co-creating a Communications Code of Conduct that is available on our GitHub repository as a way to ensure that our online communication tools would constitute a safe space for women and underrepresented minorities. We were ready for COVID-19 like no other company, and I’m just so proud of our teams.

At Publicis Sapient within Experience we’ve adopted the Rooney rule for succession planning of leaders. That means that for every slate of successors to any leader in my capability, there needs to be at least one woman or underrepresented minority in that list. It was a simple way to assuredly #MakeRoom for the next generation of leadership in Experience to become more diverse. And then, I started to look at myself. And … I noticed … that I was a man. A privileged man occupying a powerful position in an organization where we had done the work to identify ascending leaders like Wendy, Karin, Ian, Deepali, Eiko, and with so many more leaders diligently working alongside them. They were clearly ready for even more challenges and opportunities and could easily succeed me. I began to think to myself, “Am I an impediment to their future progression? Shouldn’t I, too, #MakeRoom for them?” So I decided to do so.

I began to think to myself, “Am I an impediment to their future progression? Shouldn’t I, too, #MakeRoom for them?” So I decided to do so.

To remain involved with the future of Publicis Sapient, I’m delighted that our CEO Nigel Vaz has asked me to chair the Experience Advisory Council so that I remain available as a mentor to the teams. But I’m even more delighted to make room for the next generation of rising leaders in our company to cheer them on, and to see what new waves they make together. I also look forward to welcoming the next CXO of Publicis Sapient, and I can’t wait to see what they do with such an incredible team.

Nigel’s vision for Digital Business Transformation is spot-on especially for these COVID-19 times, and it’s consistent with the 30-year history of Sapient stretching back to co-founders Stuart Moore and Jerry Greenberg’s early vision to transform businesses digitally. And Nigel’s profound dedication to blending cutting-edge design with only the best technology — led and crafted by the brilliant Global Head of Engineering Tilak Doddapaneni with his teams — means there’s even more good things to come. Just check out the new “video-first” experience for the vision of Publicis Sapient — led by the savviest of Chief Marketing Officers around Teresa Barreira — to enjoy the Quibi for Business you’ve been waiting to binge watch!

It’s easy to take up space as a leader. It’s also easy to make space as a leader.

Where am I going? Thanks for asking! I’m heading off to work at an enterprise SaaS (a.k.a. “cloud”) company based in Massachusetts that brings peace of mind to managing critical events that range from COVID-19, to weather disasters, to supply chain disruptions, and to any activity that can result in the potential loss of human life and/or business harm. I can’t talk about it right now, but you’ll learn about it shortly. Take care and be well! — 👋JM



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John Maeda

John Maeda

John Maeda: Technologist and product experience leader that bridges business, engineering, design via working inclusively. Happily working at Everbridge☁️ :+).