How women in design can uncover their leadership strengths

Photo: Yuan Wang facilitating at Airbnb Design Lead Offsite 2019

Leading the way demands that we become more self-aware of our own strengths and areas of improvement. Knowing ourselves is one of the most difficult tasks we face. By examining our actions, mindsets, values and natural strengths, we are more likely to take actions that result in meaningful change.

In this interview, Julie Stanescu talks with Yuan Wang Experience Design Lead and Coach at Coaching Through Crisis - RETHINK Program on how women designers can uncover their authentic leadership strengths, deal with self-doubt, and lead with integrity and confidence.

Yuan can you tell us a bit about your story and design background?

Currently, I’m taking a break from leading design full-time and becoming a certified professional coach. I help women of color uncover their potentials and play bigger in career and life.

Most recently, I was a design lead at Airbnb. I led a cross-platform global redesign to unify Airbnb stays and experiences detail pages. The new platform became the backbone behind many notable launches, such as hotels on Airbnb, monthly stays, and online experiences. I also created a design mentorship program to support emerging women design leaders at Airbnb, and later on, scaled the program to benefit 800+ design teammates. Before Airbnb, I spent the past 3.5 years designing at Twitter. I worked on projects from Growth & On boarding, Abuse & Safety, to Tweets & Conversations. I led the design of Twitter threads, making it easier for millions to consume and share longer thoughts on Twitter.

I was born and raised in the northeastern part of China. In 2010, I moved to the United States and overcame a long journey of finding my voice and dealing with self-doubt in a foreign country. Now I aspire to be the mentor coach that I wish I had when I first moved to the U.S.

How did you think about approaching your personal growth as a woman in design, and how do you make the decision to stay or leave at a certain point in your career?

I’m the kind of person who often looks for reasons to stay instead of reasons to leave. Partially it’s because visa workers like me didn’t have the same kind of job flexibility as U.S. citizens. On the positive side, I learned to strategize and grow my resilience in difficult situations. I had decided to stay with Twitter during some of the most challenging times at the company. From 2014 to 2016, there were multiple lay-offs and re-orgs. I was determined to stay during those times because I saw the personal growth opportunity and the direct impact through my work.

I found it helpful to take a closer look at your current role and break down the work you’re doing vs. leading vs. learning. If you wish to be doing less and leading more, consider asking for these opportunities and work with your manager to make it happen. If you realize what you hope to learn or to lead can’t be achieved in your company, it’s a sign to look elsewhere.

Yuan Wang speaking at Airbnb Design Summit 2019

What are some best practices women can use to feel comfortable speaking up in a large meeting?

First, we should acknowledge that the root problem of feeling uncomfortable speaking up may vary for different individuals. This person might be a minority in the room. This person might be a junior in their fields and having self-doubts. This person might not speak English natively. This person might need to improve their communication skills. We don’t have the time to dig into all of these scenarios, so I’ll suggest some practical tips here.

Start small

Try to speak up just once in your next large team meeting. Then gradually increase the times you do this. You could begin by preparing your thoughts in advance, so you feel more confident about sharing them. Slowly, you could try speaking up with no prep and observing how it goes. A helpful reminder is to slow down and take a pause in between your sentences. People naturally tend to speak faster when they get nervous.

Find a trusted partner

Find someone you trust and let them know about your interests in improving your public speaking skills. If that person is your manager, ask for more opportunities, such as presenting in large meetings, facilitating a design critique, or organizing a design workshop. If that person is your peer or family member, do a practice run, and ask for feedback. Ask them to watch for these passive words that many people, especially women, often use to undermine themselves.

Visualize success

Think about the last time you did a great job speaking up. What did you do, and how the audience react afterward? Now channel those positive feelings into the next one. If you’re presenting in person, it could be helpful to visit the space in advance. Familiarize the area, visualize where you would stand, and do a practice run. If you’re presenting virtually, record a practice run could help too.

Yuan Wang and her amazing former colleagues at Airbnb Design

In what ways can women in design uncover their leadership strengths?

Many research studies demonstrate that our beliefs about gender affect the way men and women are perceived in leadership roles. The traditional masculine leadership stereotypes have been holding women leaders back for centuries. The good news is that the cultural concept of leadership is changing. In my view, a leader is someone who demonstrate behaviors that influence outcomes and inspire others.

Becoming a leader doesn’t require a specific job title. In theory, you are already a leader, every day, in many aspects of your life. Start leading from where you are now and reflect on what inspires you using these practices.

Uncover what leadership qualities inspire you:
  • Who are some of the most significant leaders in your career and life?
  • What are their behaviors and how do they inspire you?
  • Did the leaders who inspire you typically hold a title over you?
Look inside to craft your narrative

Do the introspective work to gain clarity of your values, strengths, and weakness. Many people start by journaling, reading self-development books. Some also leverage a trusted personality test or work directly with a coach. You may start craft your narrative by using these sentences:

I value ...
I am strong at ...
I'm the go-to person for ...
I do my best work when ...

The work only YOU can do

As designers, you might not always have the autonomy to do the work only you wish to do. However, that should not stop you from seeking and paying attention to it. Check-in with yourself regularly using these following questions:

  • What is the work that only you can do?
  • What do you need to make it happen?
  • What can you do this week to be one step closer to that work?

When you gain the clarity of your leadership strengths, you have the power to shift your own energy to better serve your team, your loved ones, and anyone else you interact with. You can start leading right from where you are.


People who support Leadership Circle

Deepest thanks to the following people who graciously offered feedback
and support while beta testing Leadership Circle.

Leslie Yang

Director, Product Design

Jeff Smith

Senior Design Manager

Julie Zhuo


Aniruddha Kadam

Product Design Manager

Jen Kozenski-Devins

Head of Google
Accessibility UX

Jian Wei

Design Manager

Courtney Kaplan

Leadership Coach

Cammy Lin

Product Design Manager

Sun Dai

Senior Product Designer

Liana Dumitru

Design Manager

Mike Dick

Yuan Wang
Experience Design Lead, Independent
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