Articles · · 10 min read

How building repeatable systems helps you grow as a design leader

An interview with Christina Goldschmidt, Vice President of Product Design at Warner Music Group, on how she creates repeatable systems through brain hacking, has learned to give things away, maintains her core self, and much more.

Christina Goldschmidt is an award-winning design leader known for transforming product design teams to work at enterprise scale while fostering cultures that drive both business and social impact. Before becoming a VP and Head of Product Design, Christina spent over 25 years gaining cross-functional experience driving digital innovation at Fortune 500 companies like Accenture, Morgan Stanley, American Express, Omnicom Media Group, The Discovery Channel and others.

Christina received her MBA from NYU Stern and a B.S. in design from Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute. She is passionate about education and is a leading instructor and guest lecturer at NYU Stern and General Assembly, to name a few. She has also been featured at SXSW, Ecommerce Design Summit, InVision’s Inside Design and HR Transform. Outside of work, she loves to focus on craft, be it in millinery, ikebana, cooking, or the perfect cocktail.

Here’s what stood out to us about Christina’s approach to building repeatable systems for leadership:

  1. You can use many of the techniques and methods from design to develop as a leader
  2. There are many alternate methods outside of design that are just as useful for getting unstuck
  3. It's vital you remain true to yourself as you progress through your career​

How building repeatable systems helps you grow as a design leader

Christina Goldschmidt

Q: You've talked in the past about hacking your brain. How did that idea come about?

The second real job I had, I got because of the “.com” bust. My first job out of school was at the Discovery Channel, and then there was the implosion. I ended up as a creative director at a law firm. Every year there was Groundhog Day—we did the exact same projects every year. They told me to do the same thing as last year but do it better. And I was like, wait, what? Great, but how do I do it better? I did it really well last year.

I did that for six and a half years. It was a very high-pressure, long-hours environment. I had to perform over and over and over again, and there weren't any other designers there with me most of the time. I tried to figure out the conditions by which I could make myself creative so I could come up with ideas over and over again. That's when I started to gel on the idea of, “Oh, I can hack my brain, and creativity can be a repeatable process.”

I started to go to conferences, more like AIGA conferences and things like that. Other people were talking about this a little bit too, but nobody had a clear framework. When I started to read up about design thinking, I started to see something there—innovation sprints, etc.

Q: It sounds like you were remixing design techniques to help you develop your own systems. How did you know that was working?

Further down the road—post Business School—I started to get into agency life and teaching–business people–to be creative. However, these people didn't want to be there. They didn't believe in it, and didn't think that they had any capacity to do it. I started to try and put a framework together myself. Now almost every year I teach two workshops at NYU, one of which is design thinking and how it works. It's so great because I get these MBAs who come back and tell me that my workshop had a profound effect on them. They use they approach in a business context now, too. And often they are the only person who knows how to do this at their company.

It helped me lightly delve into a little neuroscience too. When I ended up at Accenture, I realized there are these systematic ways that you can induce surefire ways to drive creativity, drive out-of-the-box thinking, repeatedly, to get business financial results. My job at Accenture was in new ventures and our thesis was that we were inventing adjacent and new companies for the Fortune 500 that would be the evolution of someone's business. I learned that I can rely on these repeatable processes and help others understand they were repeatable. They could take brand assets, IP assets, relationship assets, or other assets they had that were unique to them, and use repeatable processes to turn them into a different business model to propel them forward.

Q: You've also talked in the past about leveraging alternative therapy methods to help you manage teams. How are you implementing those methods?

The other thing with me is I'm a trauma survivor—I have complex Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. About eight or so years ago, I ended up having back surgery and for some reason, that kicked off very severe PTSD symptoms. I was determined with the help of my therapist that I was going to get better. I actually had a job situation where I had shared this with a boss of mine, and then they used it to target me. It was really, really, really, really bad. It was excellent learning for me, because I never want that to happen to anybody else. I basically started doing all the normal treatments for PTSD, then tried alternative treatments. What was fascinating to me was in some of the traditional treatments like EMDR, my therapist would tell me, “Oh, you're picking up parts of this faster than I would expect you to.” And I was like, “What does that mean?” What is this idea of being good at treatment?

The concept of being bad at therapy or good at therapy wasn't something that resonated with me. But this idea of dropping into this space really well was an interesting concept. I started to connect that the things we do in design thinking to systematically hack our brains for creativity are like practice for some of the best therapeutic modalities for healing trauma.

I actually just got published in an academic journal Routledge, talking about that. The main two things that I hold on to are liminal spaces and this systematic brainstorming of mashing stimulus up with a problem set. It’s similar to the idea of, if I give you a picture, what do you think of with that? And how does it help you solve the problem differently, in a sense? That was something really interesting for me to explore. I was trying all kinds of other treatments, one of the things that I did was I got a shaman and I started to do ancestor work and journey work with that Shaman. A friend taught me how to use tarot cards. I don't talk openly about this aspect, but I also pursued clinical trials for psychedelics.

One of the funny things was that I was actually bad at psychedelics, they didn’t work on me. Then they told me to go try breathwork instead, to use my breath to reach psychedelic states, but naturally. I found that breathwork was super impactful. I really kept it, the shamanic journeying and the Tarot practice. I think that they're all very similar to the same brain hacking techniques. The Tarot is, again, look at this image and tell me what you think. And the shamanic journeying and the breathwork are like exploring liminal spaces and having conversations with your subconscious. I don't believe that someone needs to believe in these mystical things. But I think that they are all techniques that work.

Q: Moving beyond the conceptual, what do these untraditional methods look like in practice?

I've introduced breathwork to the entire company. I don't talk about it necessarily as a healing modality or that you could enter psychedelic states with it, but as a grounding technique and a calming technique. That's something that now lives in the practice of the company culture. I think I want people to be more connected to their bodies just in general. Allowing them to do that is very helpful. With my direct reports who know me very well, if they're stuck on something and they're open to it, I'm like, okay, let’s try Tarot.

You can take someone on a guided meditation, that’s acceptable in business. Now, that's basically the same thing as a shamanic journey. And I haven't actually done it with someone, but if somebody needed it, I wouldn’t hesitate. Shamanic journeying is really interesting because you are visualizing. The way that I practice it is you use a sonic driver, like a drum beat from a single drum. That really helps you get clarity. If I told someone, “Hey, I'm gonna take you on a guided visualization, but trust me, if we add a drum to it, it's going to just help you focus more.” Someone would listen to me and do it without questioning it. Now what do you visualize? It's things like visualizing your breath, visualizing walking down the stairs backwards, which has a hypnotic quality to it. Visualizing a safe space, and then visualizing you talking to your inner teacher, which is just having a conversation with your subconscious. But if you were shamanic, that would be a helping spirit, or an ancestor, etc, etc. It's the same stuff that is allowable in polite society.

I've actually spoken at a handful of conferences about these things. And my team knows about that. And the full team knows what I'm up to. Some people have approached me and asked me about it, and to help them and share techniques with them. So I'm not pushing things on people. I'm sort of like, this is me in the public about this. And if anyone is curious, and wants to know more, then they can approach me about it. But I'm heavily in the design community talking openly about these untraditional methofs and having multiple conversations about it.

​Q: What are the common patterns you've seen that keep design leaders "stuck"?

I'd say the number one problem that I see is stakeholder management, where you're trying to move one or a series of individuals. You might be getting unclear information from them in the first place, or you cannot get to a resolution in order to move forward, or you are misaligned on the appropriate outcome. A really easy way is to use Tarot for that. Do a three-card spread and learn more about the larger situation and what's going on at an interpersonal level that you may not be able to see on your own. That can tell you what sort of dynamic or what kind of construct is going on interpersonally. Some people are into this approach with tarot, some people are not.

But I also have a more traditional design thinking process for this too. For larger stakeholder management, that is for a group, basically leveraging personas and roleplay in order to get better at stakeholder management and to build empathy for your stakeholders. I put it together when I had teams that were asking me, “You know how to manage these people? What are you doing?” and I responded, “I can put this into a framework.” When I observe people to understand their natural patterns, I try to figure out who they are, what they care about. I mentally note their patterns.

You probably can't keep all of that in your head, so let's use design tools in order to do that. Then, it's like, okay, really try to understand this person, and then make a persona about them so that you have a guide to reference. And then roleplay works really well. When you give yourself a situation and you are being the “you” as the person interacting with them, you as the person who you're trying to be, who is your stakeholder, and a third party observer, trying to make sure that you're checking to make sure that the person who's playing the stakeholder is embodying the persona, because you're in a slightly different headspace there. When everybody plays all the roles, you get a slightly different take. You can have empathy for them in a different way. You can embody them and you can have muscle memory of what it's like to practice being them.

When I've shared this methodology with my team, they’ve basically given me the “Hallelujah, thank you so much. I can't believe I can actually do this. I can practice this, it’s going to help me.” I've shared it with someone I mentor who's not a designer. She was like, “wow, I can get behind this. This is the framework I can use to navigate the larger system. And this is super helpful for me.” When I was at Accenture, when you have a client, I would do it cross-functionally. And it was helpful.

You can figure out the patterns that people actually gravitate towards. Someone is going to prefer a type of data source, someone is going to prefer a way to make decisions. You can figure out someone's patterns.

​Q: What's the importance of remaining true to your core throughout management transitions?

I will never give up on being a tool maker and process maker. When I walked in the door at my last role, people were asking, “How are you getting so much stuff done?” A lot of it is if I can systematize something and make a tool for something, then I can do more, right? Being a consultant, previously, I can grind. But you cannot grind forever. You can grind until you figure out the pattern to make the tool, and then you can put that thing aside and have it run itself.

​The secret is that you want to always be giving away your work. When you can make it into a tool and systemize it, you can give it away—you can teach it, and then somebody else can learn from it. And they want to do it. That was something really great, “I can give this away, I can teach it and I can make it into a developmental opportunity for somebody else.”

​Q: How is all of this helping you develop the next generation of leaders on your team?

You find out what people want to learn about and where they're working. I have one director who works for me, and we've been really going deep on contracts and negotiations. Honestly, most design leaders never get exposure to that. I’ve been helping them to see how I break down contracts and giving them different ones to take over. Then, you know, you get to the point where they are able to go find an internal sourcing person within ‌our organization, to push the work off onto themself. Then they become the stakeholder. Them doing the cycle themself about the right contracts and negotiations, too, has made me so proud.

​From my perspective, I don't ever try and say something is new. I always say this thing is old. I say this is like the other things that have come before that you trust. I try to cast an approach or framework in a light that feels familiar, so I can squeeze something new in by casting it as old.

​It's like, oh, this person really likes bar graphs over pie charts. So make sure to show data in the bar graph. What is their preference? Is someone always going to prefer the data source being an independent third party over like a consultancy? You have to go look for that data source. Or you have to go say that this was verified by that data source, or you'd just figure out the way that you would caveat it out of the gate so that they know that you have explored it. They're not going to ask you and feel like they caught you.

​The biggest thing that I find is designers spend their entire time saying “What does the user want? What does the user need?” Then they show up at work and say, “Why do none of my co-workers and cross-functional peers know how to work with designers?” Then at work, they say designer, designer, designer, designer. I suggest designers use your skills to help everybody else!

For more from Christina, follow her on LinkedIn and her personal site.

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