Leveling Up into Leadership

Why...making design-inspired shifts in products and services, people, process, and policy can accelerate you as a leader

Hi, I’m Crystal Yan. 👋 I’m a product and design leader and leadership coach. Here, I write about building products and teams. Every few weeks, I write about customer development, behavioral science, and management, and share resources to help you become a better leader.

If there’s a topic you’d like me to cover, send me your questions and I’ll cover it in a future issue. To receive this newsletter in your inbox directly, subscribe 👇

As you grow in your career, people will look to you for your leadership. As a leader, your words can inspire a team's goals, your direction can impact decisions, and your perspective can influence the direction of someone's career. One question my coaching clients often ask me is, "How do I get there? How do I learn what it takes to lead and operate as a senior level individual contributor or manager?"

I started my career at a high growth startup, where I worked across sales, marketing, design, and product management. While these may sound like very different functions, the one thing they all have in common is a relentless focus on customer discovery. As a designer and product manager, I brought human-centered design to how I designed products and services, and as I grew into leadership roles later on, I brought some of those methods to how I design teams and organizations. Even if you don't think of yourself as a designer, if you're looking for ways to grow into leadership in your organization, you may find some relevant tactics to employ from the field of design.

Here, I'll cover:

  • Four shifts to make to scale your impact & influence

  • Three key skills to develop

Four Shifts to Make to Scale Your Impact & Influence

There are four shifts you need to make to scale your impact and influence: products and services, people, process, and policy.

  1. Designing a great product → designing great products & services

Early on my career, I had ownership over one product. And as our company grew, so did my ownership: from one product to several products, from only products, to services as well. When I joined the United States Digital Service to bring design and technology to government services, I was leading teams that not only built great software products, but also great services. 

To scale your impact, learn more about the field of service design and think more about the customer outcomes your work creates. You’ll find yourself thinking less about which team in your organization owns what, and thinking more about the overall journey of your users, and how delivering great service involves multiple product and service touchpoints. In my work on immigration services, this transformed my mindset from “our team owns this immigration case status product” to “our team owns making it easier for asylum seekers to apply for all immigration services”. In my work on healthcare services, this transformed my mindset from “our team owns this prescription data product” to “our team owns making sure people get better healthcare by making it easier for patients and clinicians to understand prescription history”.

  1. Designing human-centered hiring 

As a leader, a key part of your work is hiring and building great teams. Like many other activities, it may be tempting to jump into the tactics: writing a job description, showing up to a scheduled interview, and adopting the existing processes of your organization. But before doing so, it’s important to take a step back and set core principles to guide designing your hiring process. 

Here’s an example of the hiring principles I set: Cut the bias, design a great candidate experience, and get to yes.

After setting these principles, you may find that you want to iterate or even redesign your hiring processes. In one of my previous organizations, I did the following to design a more intentional and inclusive hiring process: 1. Conduct Research —> 2. Map Candidate Experience —> 3. Prototype Solutions —> 4. Launch & Iterate. In an onboarding presentation introducing my department, I had new hires interview each other on their candidate experience, journey map their findings, and paper prototype potential solutions. With our Director of Talent in the room, we had the immediate buy-in to implement some of the proposed solutions soon after. For example, we developed interview guides, note-taking templates, and functional and cross-functional interview exercises to help interviewers assess candidates more effectively and ensure less overlap in questions between interviewers.

  1. Developing interdisciplinary teams

To truly feel a sense of belonging at work, people often gravitate towards identifying with smaller communities and teams. While this is human nature, as a leader, your role is to provide a certain degree of counterbalance to this natural gravity, and remind the people you lead that their first allegiance is to the overall larger team, and their second allegiance is to their smaller team.

When you shift into leadership, you’ll need to develop truly interdisciplinary/cross-functional teams of people that respect and understand functions other than their own. 

One way I’ve done this on teams I’ve led is by facilitating interactive workshops to demonstrate the value of different methods and perspectives. For example, to introduce customer development and user research to the team, I’ll host short 15 minute interactive exercises every two weeks during a team demo and do brief lightning talks for the team on how to ask better questions. If your team members can better understand each other’s disciplines, they’ll have a better understanding of when it makes sense to loop each other in to collaborate, and you’ll be able to align an interdisciplinary team to move in the same direction much more effectively.

  1. Designing human-centered policy

The word “policy” might feel like an unfamiliar term, but in fact, we’re all surrounded by policies. In its simplest definition, a policy is a set of guidelines to guide outcomes and decision-making. In your community, the government sets policies that regulate industries and balance their interests with the interests of their workers, the environment, and the general public. In your organization, company leadership sets vacation policies, customer service policies, and approval policies that balance the interests of the company with the interests of employees, customers, and investors.

As a leader, you play an active role in not only understanding and interpreting policies, but also authoring and/or editing policies. Often, policies are crafted with only certain stakeholders in mind - for example, an approval policy may exist to protect your organization from legal risk. But you might find in your 1:1s with your team that these approval policies are designed in a way that makes employees feel that they are not empowered to move quickly. To find a better solution to this problem, you would then be responsible for representing the people you lead, your customers, and other stakeholders in redesigning these policies with employee agency and customer outcomes in mind. Ideally, your product policies would be designed with intention to support teams in designing inclusive products and services.

In my experience, whether it’s crafting a policy for the first time at a startup or redesigning a policy in a large bureaucratic organization, I’ve found it’s helpful to lead with humble inquiry by asking and clarifying in writing what the objective/intention of a policy is, and from there, to work in partnership with stakeholders to brainstorm alternative policy proposals.

Three Key Skills to Develop

While there are many skills one can focus on developing to become a better leader, three key skills that often get overlooked are systems thinking, crafting culture, and coaching.

Here’s how I define each:

  1. Systems Thinking: Understands how systems interact with and influence each other. Understands the business, industry and competitive landscape.

  2. Crafting Culture: Shapes culture to enable great decision making with the right level of process for the stage of the business. Understands how to set goals for the stage of the business and deliver value.

  3. Coaching: Embraces a growth mindset for learning and development for themselves and others; Adopts the coaching mindset to ask questions that creates clarity, perspective, and action for others.

In my case, I was first introduced to systems thinking through a public health class, to crafting culture through learning on the job at a high-growth startup, and to coaching through a coaching training. However, developing these skills can come from various resources. I’m a big believer in peer learning and continuous improvement; recently, I facilitated a product leadership careworkshop with my colleagues and as an output of this workshop, each person contributed resources that have been helpful to us to level up in each of these different skill areas so that we could develop a peer-recommended resource list. To learn more about future workshops, subscribe here.


Whether you’re already leading or managing teams or simply aspiring to someday, I hope these shifts provide a framework and roadmap for initiatives you can start leading to scale your impact and influence. And to continuously grow as a leader, I recommend seeking resources and dedicating time to level up in systems thinking, crafting culture, and coaching.

Additional Resources

- As you level up into leadership and deliver more impact, don’t forget to craft a development plan to help you get to the next level of your career so that your career grows as the company grows. Download The Product Manager Career Growth Toolkit or The Product Designer Career Growth Toolkit (exclusive discount for newsletter subscribers) to help you do just that. Use the frameworks and worksheets in this toolkit to have more concrete career growth conversations with your manager in your next 1:1. With step-by-step guidance on how to complete these and who to review these with, you’ll have the tools you need to get aligned with your manager on where to focus to grow your career.
- If you are a manager, download these 1:1 Question Cards: Manager’s Edition to have more thoughtful and meaningful conversations with your team members. Use these questions in your next 1:1s regularly so you have ongoing career growth, rapport building, performance management, and feedback conversations throughout the year, not just during review season.
- For help crafting your career development plan, schedule a career coaching session or reply to this email to learn more about hiring me as a coach.

Thanks for reading!

As always, thanks for reading. Share your feedback with me by sending me a note here.

Interested in reading more? Subscribe to upcoming posts for more insights on building products & teams.

If you found this post useful, please share with a friend or coworker!


If you find this newsletter useful, you can support my writing by sharing this newsletter with your friends, or buying me a coffee.

Share Discovery by Crystal Yan