Digital Design Leadership: Skottie O’Mahony

by Richard Banfield

Pulling knowledge and wisdom from his time at Amazon, Skottie O’Mahony discusses the realization of his leadership position as Creative Director at BancVue, while also giving valuable insights into  his creative team building process.

Transcript

Richard Banfield: Would you mind introducing yourself?

Skottie O’Mahony: Sure. Skottie O’Mahony. I’m the Creative Director for BancVue.

Richard Banfield: And Skottie, you are in charge of a team, you said 30 people?

Skottie O’Mahony: Yeah, about 30 people.

Richard Banfield: Can you describe a little bit how you got here? What’s the journey that Skottie has taken to get to this position?

Skottie O’Mahony: This position is very different from my other positions because I’m used to having sort of global teams and a lot more people on my team. But this opportunity came about and I decided to get a little more hands-on. I was at the director level before, and, you know, then I joined this place as associate creative director, moved in to the creative director. But it’s been nice because I get a chance to do more hands-on stuff.

Richard Banfield: Right. So along the way you suddenly realized you were in a leadership position. Explain a little bit about that moment when you realized, “Oh my goodness, I’m in charge of stuff.”

Skottie O’Mahony: That probably happened when I was actually in publishing. I was an art director for many years, and so I managed teams for magazines like… And those teams were a little different because there was people that were full-time but I also hired a lot of temporary help because it was photographers and illustrators and stuff like that. So it’s managing sort of a different type of creatives. Then when I moved into the web space like Amazon, it was a lot more user experience and usability people and visual designers. So it’s a very different mix of people. Later in my time at Amazon, we got into fashion. So it was kind of fun in that space because I was hiring art directors and copywriters for fashion and stylists and hair and makeup people. And so that was a whole different set of creatives. And now, this new space, I’m actually managing a lot of copywriters, user experience people or user research, and I also have mostly visual designers.

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Richard Banfield: Great. So we’ll get back to that hiring process in a little bit because I’m interested in that. But you are obviously in a position where they’re looking to you for at least your guidance. Explain to me a little bit about how you lead, your style of leadership, and maybe how you developed that style.

Skottie O’Mahony: I’m a very casual person. I like being friends with the people that I work with. I kind of consider them my family. If you’re on my team, I’m very passionate about my team, I’m very protective of my team, and I’m very transparent. I mean, they know everything there is to know about me. I actually…at BancVue, at the place I’m at currently, I actually did a presentation just about me that I was asked to do that sort of explained my background, explained sort of how I got where I got, where my inspiration comes from, stuff like that. And I’m actually asking each team member to do the same thing, to share with the rest of the team to sort of understand, you know, what their background is, what makes them tick, you know, because I think that’s really important for the rest of the people on the team and it will help the team.

Richard Banfield: That’s a really good idea. I love that. I might use that. So that’s a fantastic way to create empathy. How do you do the day-to-day empathy creation amongst the team members because that’s an important component of good designership?

Skottie O’Mahony: I think the biggest thing is I’m very approachable. I make sure that early on I had…just went out and had coffee or drinks or just walked around. We have a lake right by us so we walked around the lake just to get to know people on my team so that they felt comfortable talking to me. I don’t see myself as, you know, someone who’s a hardcore manager, “You must do this. You must do that.” It’s more, “I’m a part, you know. I’m the person that’s there to remove the blocks. I’m the person to help you in your career, you know.”So they…I think they recognize that very quickly. My feedback and reviews and stuff like that has been very, very much in that regard, that they feel that they can talk to me about anything, and that if I…if they have a problem, that I will definitely address it.

Richard Banfield: And is that something of the Skottie personality or is that something that you have to develop as a leader?

Skottie O’Mahony: I think it’s probably a little bit of both. I mean, managing teams at Amazon was extremely stressful because…just because the industry was really new, you know, and so things were moving very, very quickly. And, you know, everyone was very stressed out and you had to find a way to sort of balance that stress. And so I think it was then that I recognized that, you know, just pushing them harder and harder and harder isn’t necessarily going to get me better work. Getting a little bit of a better sort of perspective on what their needs are, that actually got me further, you know, understanding, you know, what their strengths were, understanding what they actually wanted to do because some people were in roles because they want to get a job at Amazon, not because they wanted to be in that role necessarily. And so when I found out, you know, that maybe they wanted to be a user experience designer versus a visual designer, you know, I just worked with them to ensure that they could actually meet that goal. So that’s kind of one of my focuses, it’s actually getting people to achieve that they want to achieve in life.

Richard Banfield: So it sounds like you are very sensitive to how to develop talent within your team. Tell us a little bit about how you curate your team find the right team members and put that together.

Skottie O’Mahony: I think…I think the biggest thing I look when I’m hiring new members is what’s missing from the team. I look for someone who has some talent or some background or some experience that the other people on the team can learn from. You know, we just did a recent hire. We hired 13 people on the past six months. That was…that was a big jump in just amount of talent that we had at BancVue. And what I was looking for is people that had experience in responsive design because we didn’t have that on the team. I was looking for people that had user research experience because we didn’t have that on the team, and people that had different background like illustration or video, those sorts of things because it’s areas that we would like to grow in, but did still want its infancy. But I figured if I could get people on the team that had that experience, they would help the entire team.

Richard Banfield: Great. So in your own experience of becoming a leader, do you think that’s been a very deliberate part or was it somewhat random?

Skottie O’Mahony: I think that…I think that part of it came out of the fact that I think I’m a good designer, I think I’m a strong designer, but I think I’m a better mentor. I think I can recognize what strengths people have and really push them to really become much better designers. I think it’s just a knack that I have. I kind of get excited about sort of seeing people do something that they never thought that they could do and also get them to think differently. I had one woman at one of the places that I was working. She was working on an app for the first time and she was really struggling with this because it was the first time she ever did mobile and she just didn’t know what…how to start it. And everything started looking like everything else, and I said, “You know, design this as if this was your app, you know, not following the brand guidelines, not looking at anything else.” And the next day when she came in, she had a smile on her face, she wasn’t stressed, she was all excited to show me, she had three ideas, you know, and it was just sort of tapping into a different approach to things just to de-stress off. So…and the app was extremely successful. And, you know, she continues to do apps. She actually moved straight into the mobile space. So…

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Richard Banfield: That’s awesome. Can you maybe think of how your team might describe your style of leadership?

Skottie O’Mahony: Irreverent. I’d say approachable. I wouldn’t say… I’m common to pressure but I’m also very vocal. And so I’m very deliberate in what I do. And I think that for the most part, I’m just there for my team. I think that’s sort of what sort of what they would say.

Richard Banfield: Does that deliberate approach work to translate into how you think about your future?

Skottie O’Mahony: Very definitely so. I mean, I think that I’d really found where I enjoyed being in terms of my career. I really…I really don’t have much interest in becoming a vice president or some sort of higher role. I like where I am right now because of the fact that I can actually make a difference in the people. When I was a director, I found myself a little bit too removed from the designers and wasn’t able to really get out of them what I wanted to get out of them because that was in someone else’s control. And some say that I’m a control or anything like that , but I like being able to guide them and help them and mentor them. So…

Richard Banfield: And what did you get your guidance and mentoring from?

Skottie O’Mahony: Oh, I’ve had so many mentors. I mean, one of my absolute favorite mentors was a non-designer. It was an Amazoner. Her name is Giana and she is amazing. I mean, she came from the business side in the marketing side. And at Amazon, it’s very difficult to get more creatives because creatives are sort of subjective, very, you know, and the value of them is very difficult to monetize. And what she came…how she came at it was we have to find a way to monetize design. And once we sort of found what the formula was to monetize design, and that was mostly through testing, you know, showing if we made this change from a visual perspective or from a content perspective that actually performed better and it sort of proved our point and allowed us to get more head count. And she just…she was extremely hard on me but we’re best of friends now, kind of like sister-brother relationship, and she managed me for five years and definitely one of the best mentors I’ve ever had.

Richard Banfield: That’s amazing. Good. Think about the team that you have right now and think about where they might get external guidance beyond your leadership. How do you encourage or has that happened?

Skottie O’Mahony: One of the things I really encourage my team to do is to not look for mentorship just within design because I think it’s interesting to understand the other disciplines that work in conjunction with design. Because if they understand those other areas as well as they understand design or at least how…what they need from design, then I think it makes them a better designer. So I encourage them to just have coffee with a developer or with, you know, someone that’s, you know, working in user research or even someone as an H.R. because, you know, they have some really valuable experience that can very definitely affect how you manage people and how you actually interact with people.

Richard Banfield: Nice. The world of design can be quite stressful sometimes. How do you find balance or calmness and release stress in your life?

Skottie O’Mahony: My other life just as a daily hybridizer. So in the morning, I’m pollinating flowers and taking photos, and on, you know, lunch time, I’ll actually run over and do stuff as well, and in the evenings, that’s what I do. I water and I garden. So that’s my de-stressor for sure.

Richard Banfield: Good. Do you do things at the office with your team to find balance more?

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Skottie O’Mahony: We actually have a very social team. There’s a lot of beer 30s that have different themes and we go out for lunch. We’ll have brainstorms or projects that we’ll attack like we have new T-shirts that we put out every quarter so that the team will participate in designing new T-shirts. So, you know, we just have a sort of luau type thing. So, I mean, it’s…we have a lot of fun. I mean, it’s a great group. The sort of mentality there is kind of like a startup and people are just very active and very much friends.

Richard Banfield: Great. If you think a little bit about the skills, the soft skills, the hard skills that you’re looking for new team members and existing team members, can you be specific about what you’re looking before?

Skottie O’Mahony: I think the most difficult thing to train is soft skills, I think, especially with creatives. You’re either be going to be a fit or you’re not going to be a fit. And in a very short period of time, if we hire someone and may have interviewed perfectly, but within…for a couple of weeks, you can tell whether or not the soft skills and the dynamic is going to be a good one. As far as the hard skills are concerned, I mean, that’s something that you can very easily interview for. It’s much more difficult to interview for soft skills.

Richard Banfield: And when you find somebody that maybe very strong on the soft skills but doesn’t have the hard skills, how do you make up that difference?

Skottie O’Mahony: I would say one of the biggest things that I run into right now is I come from, you know, a more traditional graphic design background. So typography, composition, and those things are very, very important. And that seems to be lost in a lot of the training these days because things are definitely in sort of, you know, web-focused, code-focused. And so when I…I’m getting a lot of young designers that have no concept of how to eat the kernel, some…a word, you know. And so that’s something that, as soon as I see that sort of shortcoming, it’s something I really press for is that, you know, I will be completely militant in making sure that they know how to stuff properly because it just makes things more readable for the user, and I’m all about the user. I’m not about making things pretty for other designers. I’m all about making things usable for the customers because that’s what we do. That’s what we’re here for.

Richard Banfield: All right. And to those young people coming through the ranks, approaching positions like yours in the years to come, advice for them?

Skottie O’Mahony: I would say don’t be sort of hidden. Make yourself known. Get to know people. It’s amazing how far just grab and copy with someone that you don’t know goes, you know, making connections, making connections in the industry, and making connections outside your discipline because you never know where, you know, a lead is going to come from, you know, and whatever you do, don’t burn bridges because this industry is a […] industry, you know, and it will come back to you for sure. I’ve had…I’ve seen people get burned, but you know, I fortunately not burned anybody. So I’ve had a lot of blessings in that regard in terms of people giving me leads and connecting you with other people and finding designers for my team. I mean, I’ve actually found most of my designers via Facebook. Also, posting a job and people telling me, “I’ve got this great friend, you know. You should check them out.” So, you know, there’s other ways of finding people to build your team but just stay connected more than anything.

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Richard Banfield: And then final question, if you think about how quickly things have changed in our industry say in the last say five or six years, do you see a similar rate of change? And if you do, what kind of change do you foresee?

Skottie O’Mahony: I think kind of […] right now. I mean, there’s so many… Everyday, you know, you jump online and you see something new that you near thought existed, you know, or you didn’t know exist because it didn’t exist, you know. I mean, we got everything from like 4KTVs to digital paint that can actually, you know, eventually it’s going to be able to like show images so you’ll be able to paint walls, you know. I mean, you never know what’s going to happen these days. People are so innovative and they have access to so much information that that innovation can move a lot faster. So I’m just excited to be alive right now because, I mean, it’s a great time to sort of experience new stuff, and don’t be afraid of it, you know.

Richard Banfield: Good time to be a designer?

Skottie O’Mahony: Very definitely so.

About Richard Banfield

Richard is a the CEO and co-founder of Fresh Tilled Soil. After completing a degree in Biology, Richard was attracted to the...