A handful of folks I’ve learned from and partnered with over the last 9 years

A reflection

james helms
7 min readAug 12, 2023

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Several years ago, I asked my friend and design educator, Cassini Nazir, to prepare a presentation on ethical design for my team’s annual Design Week. I had no direction — or expectation — of what this presentation would include. Cassini — always the educator — had us begin by standing up. And spiraling our index finger above our heads, clockwise, all looking up. He then asked us to lower our spinning finger (same direction) until we were looking down on the direction of the finger (now counter clockwise — try it).

His message in this exercise was simple: a change in perspective allows you to inspect what seem like absolute truths in meaningful — and reflective ways. And that ethical design was about intentionally incorporating this shift in perspective as part of your design process.

I’ve long advocated that “making something physical” makes it more memorable. It adds clarity to abstract concepts, and engages more of your brain than abstract ideas alone. I’d like to thank Cassini, and a handful of other design leaders, industry leaders and innovators for sharing their time with me and my team over the last several years. Their ability to help me and my team shift our perspective from inside out to outside in has been transformative — and has made us all better people and designers.

I’m in the midst of a perspective shift right now, which is educational and reflective in its own way. I’m leaving the company I’ve worked at for 9 years. A solid third of my career. A large part of my identity as a design leader was forged at Intuit— and a large part of what I’ve written about here was based on observations I made from an “inside Intuit” perspective. I’d love to reflect on some of the most meaningful takeaways I’ve gleaned from the experience.

Leadership is about accelerating your team.
9 years at Intuit has been a masterclass in Leadership. Most notably, Cece Morken, my once-boss now-mentor/friend was instructional in this regard. The most important takeaways — from training, from role modeling and from feedback from my teams: Leading with empathy, expressing an inspiring vision paired with clear expectations, being available and accessible, being ever curious and working to unblock and reduce friction are the most impactful behaviors of a leader. Not standing on the front of the boat and pointing. Not opining and criticizing. Not second-guessing. You don’t become a leader because you want more power — you become a leader because you can do what your team needs, at scale, and you can do it well.

It’s worth noting that it took me a while to get to this perspective. And I made a lot of mistakes. I had some fantastic advocates that helped me build my team — some of them were designers, others were coaches, HR professionals and executive role models. But nearly every person I worked with at Intuit taught me something about myself, my potential, my strengths as a leader. I am ever grateful for the feedback, the encouragement and the support.

Great Products start with Great Employees
Your employees are your most important lever for producing value for customers. Prioritizing your employees’ wellness, creating an inclusive, safe and judgement free place for them to take risks and be their whole selves goes a long long way toward delivering business results. In an age where others prioritize the bottom line, Intuit swims against that current with a strong strategy to support employees and customers first. Those fundamentals have created a remarkably resilient business despite a variety of economic and cultural headwinds over the past decade.

Of course, I hired some very good designers and managers. World Class talent. To name each of them here would be a tough exercise. But I am in their debt. and I would work with all of them again.

Design is not just a creative process; it’s an innovation process and a problem solving framework, equally applicable to developing products and people.
Intuit’s “Design for Delight” was a foreign concept when I arrived. I understood how to write a brief, run a discovery session, develop creative concepts and iterate on experiences. But I lacked the tools to properly frame a customer problem, develop hypotheses with explicit KPIs and an experimentation plan. I have since embraced design’s ability to attack big product and business challenges with repeatable and coachable behaviors that work reliably. I credit Scott Cook for giving me my “Helen Keller moment in design” — connecting the dots between leveraging design both as a weapon of innovation and as a tool for coaching and empowerment. I’ve experimented with applying these behaviors to nearly every problem I’ve encountered: organizational change management, culture building, and career coaching.

I’ve also now found people outside Intuit — and outside of tech or the design field — instinctively practicing these behaviors: immersive empathy and problem definition, bold goals unpacked to key assumptions, leap-of-faith assumptions and test plans, prototypes and small experiments to understand key behaviors. And having impact. Big shouts out to Chad Houser at Cafe Momentum and Darren Babcock at Bonton Farms for sharing their stories with my team. Their work has proven that Design truly can solve the world’s problems.

Design can have impact everywhere in an organization — not just on the parts that customers “see”
When I stepped into a new role leading Design for Intuit’s platform team (the shared experiences of identity, data connection and collection, and design systems) I had an almost instinctual desire to put Service Design at the center of the team. I had been studying it with the help of external friends like Maurico Manhaes from SCAD and Diego Rodriguez, our CPDO at the time. These multi-directional, multi-customer capabilities were so rich in their complexity and vast in their impact, I realized we were going to need a different kind of design to unleash them properly.

Liz Ball, one of my better hires, brought with her a completely different lens for how and where Design can add value to an organization — including how to organize Design. Her impact on my team’s culture and strategic output will yield benefits for years to come — with every Designer she has taught. And she’s taught many, many designers at Intuit.

Organizational resilience is a function of planned obsolescence.
Resilience is a key concept in team building. One that took me years to truly understand. Who to hire, when to promote, how to build accountability and ownership and succession plans. A resilient team can solve its own problems and self-heal when a key member takes a mobility move to a new team, gets a new job at an outside company or steps out on maternity leave for months at a time. Having a game plan and being ready to shift responsibilities and organizational structures was a key way to encourage individuals to grow — no matter where that growth took them.

Many thanks to LaToya Haynes for teaching me the concept of “grow through”. It helped me unleash so many careers while also having a dynamic team culture. And eventually — I designed my way out of a job. Twice. Confidently putting the responsibility of the teams I’d built into the hands of leaders I’d grown.

Savor the Surprise.
I think my favorite takeaway from 9 years at Intuit (also credited to Scott Cook) was — be ready to be surprised. Be ready to be wrong. Be ready to start over. Look at a broken prototype or a busted assumption as a learning opportunity, not just a failure. It’s an excuse to try something different. Don’t dwell in the fact that you’re wrong — revel in the fact that you get to start over with new information.

That’s where I am now. I recently discovered I was no longer needed. That stung a little bit — mostly my ego. But also: I feel confident that I have put a team, a strategy and a culture in place that will be resilient without me. I’ve been lucky enough to hire great leaders who, in their own right, command the tools of empathy, empowerment and hardcore curiosity. Who will blaze their own paths and go farther and higher without me.

And best of all? I get to go do something new. Something else. I’m truly ready for something else. 9 years is a long long time to contribute to a single mission. I’m ready for a new challenge. One that pushes me to learn new things, to develop a new team, and to build new relationships, skills and experiences. Probably something more international. Surely someplace that is excited by the full transformative power of design. Definitely something fun.

I’ll continue to be a fan of Intuit. Some of my favorite people work there. I love their mission. I love the way they have embraced design — and taught me to embrace design. I love the way they encourage growth and mobility and diversity. And as for my team? Once Core, always Core.

Your turn. What are your “look back takeaways” from your last 3 months, 6 months, 5 years? Who inspired you? Who pushed you to think differently or level up? What challenges formed your key attributes as a designer, a leader, or other?

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james helms

Design Leader, Advisor, Speaker, Student, Advocate, Enabler.