Tactics on building strong cross-functional relationships as a designer

This week our guest is Sarah Scussel, Senior Product Designer at Scribd and mentor at RETHINK Coaching Through Crisis. She's been with the company for over 2 years now, constantly pushing to improve the discovery and reading experiences. As one of the senior members of the design team, Sarah is always focused on making their internal and cross-functional workflows more efficient, and being a strong voice for design across the organization.

In this interview Sarah shares her tactics and principles for creating effective cross-functional relationships and how to talk about accomplishments in a way that you deserve credit without seeming overly confident.

Hi Sarah! Thanks for joining us. What is your design story how did you get to where you are?

I went to school for Graphic Design, studying the foundations of typography, layout, web design — but, like, old school web design 😬 — and branding. After school, I started my career at a boutique branding agency in Chicago and, because it was small, I was able to wear a lot of hats and take full ownership of the design process, which I loved. It wasn’t until I moved to San Francisco that I discovered UX and Product Design and got swept up in the world of users, research, and data.

My first UX job was at a tiny startup where, again, I was able to take ownership of the entire design process. I managed a (very) small team and oversaw branding and marketing in addition to leading UX.

How was the transition process to UX for you? 

I was terrified when I first started. I felt like I was back at the agency on day one, with no clue about how to be a designer. But the environment was welcoming, especially when it came to failing and learning — I love the space that startups give creators to try an idea, fail at it, and iterate on it until it works — which was not something I’d experienced anywhere else!

I grew more as a designer in the few years I spent at that startup than in my career up until that point. I learned so much about design, psychology, data analysis, and winning and failing as a team that I’ll never forget. Since then, I’ve taken advantage of jobs that offered opportunities to grow, and a healthy ownership of as much of the process and product as possible.

What are your strategies to form relationships cross-functionally to help you and the design team accomplish more across the organization? 

My team is by far the most important thing to me. I’ve been on teams that are all work and no play before and that’s just not fulfilling for me. If I’m going to spend 8+ hours a day with people, I want to know them, enjoy the time we spend together, and celebrate the work we do. Otherwise, what’s the point?

Some of the things that worked for me in building stronger relationships with my team:

Make time to get to know people.

Schedule coffee time or hang out with them at lunch (or schedule a casual video chat if you’re remote) to create time 1:1 to get to know your peers. The more comfortable you are with the people you work with, the easier it is to communicate with each other and get things done smoothly.

Build your teammates up.

It seems simple, but giving kudos and acknowledging your teammates for the work they do (or for the cool stickers on their laptop) goes a long way!

Take responsibility when you mess up.

Everybody messes up, and when you’re on a team it’s important to own up to it when it’s your fault. The more comfortable everyone is with making mistakes and taking responsibility for them, the easier it will be to trust each other and work as a unit.

Make time for fun.

Having fun at work is seriously underestimated. Any time I’ve worked on a team that makes time for fun, we do better work and we feel more ownership over it.

What are some ways to talk about your accomplishments in a way that you deserve credit without seeming overly confident?

Make sure to explain how you got there and the rationale behind it, rather than just claiming credit. Sharing the process of getting to a key result will make it easier to talk about your accomplishments and maybe even help others reach that result themselves.

Don’t forget to send shout outs to the people who helped you get there. We rarely, if ever, get anywhere on our own, and like us, everyone else wants to be acknowledged for a job well done. Talking about your accomplishments in the context of the team effort can help build up the people around you so you can all celebrate the win together.

At the end of the day, your accomplishment is your accomplishment and you should be proud! Don’t rub it in anyone’s face, of course, but feel free to brag a bit — you earned it.

What is your approach to identify problems within the internal design workflow and create more efficiency?

I only have one method and it’s simple — treat the design process like any other user flow and pay attention to the points of friction and patterns.

If devs always have questions when they begin to build new features, maybe there’s an issue with specs, or if you’ve noticed confusion amongst the design team, maybe you need a better way of making sure everyone’s on the same page. Pay attention to the problems that come up, gather feedback, and iterate.


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

Sarah Scussel
Senior Product Designer, Scribd
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