Leading Teams in Product

Learn from Nathan Auer, Microsoft's Head of Design, about building a positive team culture and driving human impact in product design.

Nathan Auer, Head of Design, Developer Division at Microsoft, Nathan also serves as a liaison between Microsoft and the University of Washington, having mentored hundreds of students. In his podcast episode, Nathan talks about how he got into the design world and his methodology for leading a collaborative and compassionate team.


Leading Teams in Product with Nathan Auer | WandrFul Design Podcast Full Episode

Nathan refers to his experiences breaking into the design world himself and how that’s helped him become a better designer and leader over time. Believing heavily in building teams that have a lasting human impact, with a clear and positive culture is a part of his methodology as a leader and a mentor.

Building a Culture People Care About

Building this culture where motives are clear and the environment is positive can only take a team so far if they are able to care about it. If your team is hesitant or tends to simply not care about the work in front of them, it’s difficult to create collaborative relationships. One of the methods used on Nathan’s team is during the screening and hiring process and deliberately seeking people who are capable, curious, and kind.

Capable, can they do the tasks assigned to them at the level at which they are assigned to do them? Not only can you complete your tasks, but can you complete them to a high degree, did you simply complete the task, or did you thoroughly complete all aspects of that task? An example of this could be asking an employee to review the grammar of something, but instead of just the grammatical errors did they take the time to correct these errors and/or read the context in which the errors occurred to ensure the content makes sense? Not necessarily, going above and beyond but considering all aspects.

Curiosity is all about being authentically curious, how do you continue to learn and grow as time goes on? Are you constantly retooling yourself to stay in the know, and want to improve yourself? Working with someone on a team who is stagnant, with no desire to better themselves tend to hold the team back as well. “Authentic curiosity leads to empathy”, Nathan says and empathy often leads to authentic kindness.

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Kindness allows us to hold better conversations, whether difficult or easy topics with candor. In having these conversations authentically, there can be clear intent as to the message you are trying to convey.

In addition to the screening and hiring process, implementing regular psychological safety evaluations. These are done both internally, for example, “how do we as a team feel working with this lead or higher up…” and externally, asking “how is the team feeling about working with partners?” and vice versa. Another method worth noting is strengths and gaps work, evaluating where your team has their strengths and weaknesses as well. Consider how to improve these weaknesses and how you can utilize their strengths.

Design Philosophy

Along with his experience in leading teams in product design at Microsoft, Nathan believes “design is a verb”. It’s not something that only we can do, instead, it requires a team or a collective of people to come together to accomplish a vision. Design requires the marketing team, the engineers, and everyone involved especially in driving the product. Iin user experience, it’s all about working with the customer and understanding their needs through methods like user research and usability testing. With a common goal and shared notion of truth, each person on the team can go on their own do the thing they’re good at and come together for a well rounded final product.

Final Thoughts

When leading a team not only in product but as leader in any industry, it’s important to create a collaborative culture and environment. Leading a team is similar to mentorship in the way you want to encourage and inspire your team to continuously grow. In fostering a culture centered around how each individual team member can contribute and providing a clear understanding of shared goals your team can excel.

Check out our Podcast Episode 8 on Leading Teams in Product with Nathan Auer

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