As a design leader, you can speak with conviction about your vision when you are more self-aware of your own strengths and areas for growth. Self-awareness and introspection help you develop an accurate sense of your strengths and limitations, which gives you a realistic self-confidence. It also gives you clarity on your values and sense of purpose, so you can be more decisive when you set a course of action.
How can designers cultivate self-awareness and reflection and develop it further? There are many ways to do so. Below is a conversation with Neek Zanfack, Product Designer at Nextdoor and mentee for the Coaching Through Crisis Program discussing what he has found to work best.
Neek welcome! Tell us a bit about your background story and some of the exciting things you’re working on these days?
I’m originally from Cameroon, Central Africa. I graduated from the university of Maryland in College Park two years ago where I studied Information Science.
My interest in product design got stronger in my last year of college. I started to work on a lot of side projects with my friends and eventually built my first portfolio. Before I graduated, I was selected to participate in the Kleiner Perkins Design fellowship program here in Silicon Valley which was surreal. We attended many networking events and private talks including founder speaking series, community building and entrepreneurial workshops from well known founders and venture capitalists in Silicon Valley.
Photo: Kleiner Perkins Design fellowship program the cohort Neek was in.
I got my first product design internship at Handshake where I worked on growth products. After that, I joined Nextdoor as an intern on the local business team and I was working on local deals for businesses.
Currently I work as a full time product designer at Nextdoor supporting monetization and leading design on our enterprise self serve products. Outside of work, I’m mentoring young black designers and helping build Blackswho.design which is a community focusing on increasing visibility and highlighting black designers in tech.
You’ve attended RETHINK Coaching Through Crisis Program. In what ways were you able to develop a better sense of self awareness about your skills after the program?
Yes I did and it was great! Thank you for allowing me to be part of the program.
One of my motivations in applying to the program was to learn from a coach/mentor on how to navigate and approach career growth. I’m very familiar with RETHINK and the caliber of design leaders, mentors or coaches who have shared their knowledge through RETHINK events. When I learned about the program, I knew I wanted to be part of it.
Developing a better sense of self awareness about my skills was definitely one of my goals in attending the program.
"An important thing my mentor helped me realize was that I was spending too much time on fixing my weaknesses rather than improving my strengths."
Something my mentor mentioned that was eye opening for me was that “If you analyze things that have happened in your life, it is because of your strengths and not your weaknesses." It's easy sometimes to only focus on weaknesses and I want to keep building on my strengths moving forward.
Something else I was able to achieve after the program was to better identify what energizes me versus what takes energy away from me. It's something subtle, but when you become aware of that, it makes a lot of difference. For example I love thinking through sketching. It gives me a lot of creative energy and I want to keep doing more of that.
“If you analyze things that have happened in your life, it is because of your strengths and not your weaknesses."
What are your strategies on building a strong relationship with your coach or mentor? How do you become someone people want to help grow?
That's a great question and a very important one. I think just like any other relationship trust and communication are very important in the effectiveness of the relationship. A coach should make the designer mentee feel comfortable and safe. The sense of safety will help the mentee be more open and transparent. When a coach has a better understanding of the challenges the mentee is facing, they can be more effective in helping them.
For me I try to focus on three things to build the relationship with my mentor:
Take the lead
The type of relationship you have with your mentor/coach mostly depends on your efforts. It’s on you to reach out, schedule the meetings and clearly define what you want out of them. Plan the meeting in detail and provide context for any specific topic you want to discuss. You want to make it as easy as possible for them to help you. By showing effort, planning and having a clear vision for what you want, you inherently show that you respect and value your mentor/coach’s time. That's something they will appreciate. You don't want them to feel like they are having another job.
Be humble and show your passion for learning
I believe that when you are genuinely interested and passionate about learning, people will be more inclined to help you. Your passion shows that there is a true desire in wanting to learn. In addition to your passion, being humble in your learning shows that you have room to improve and grow.
I can’t emphasize this enough. Following up allows you to close the loop in your relationship with your mentor/coach. Follow up after each meeting, whether it's to thank them for their time or to set expectations for the next meeting. Following up is also a great way to show what you’ve learned from them and how you’ve applied it. This could give them a sense of accomplishment or fulfillment because they’ve contributed to your growth.
What is your approach to grow your influence within the organization as you become more senior in your role as a designer?
There are a couple of things that worked for me were:
Make your work visible
One thing I’ve learned about collaboration in the workplace so far is that no one knows what you are doing. No one around you knows your work better than you. If no one recognizes the importance of the work you are doing, nobody will recognize you. It’s important to share your work with people.
Take advantage of opportunities in cross functional environments such as product design reviews, critiques and product demos to share what you are working on with everyone on your team as well as people outside of your team.
Teach others around you
This is particularly important because I believe that we all know things others can learn from. Whether it is a small trick on how to effectively take notes or a large workshop on learning a new tool, teaching something new allows others to view you as valuable and dependable.
Be a great teammate
Be the person everyone wants to work with because you are supportive and reliable. One simple thing one can do is to reach out to other members of your team and ask how you can help them if you don't have a lot on your plate.
How did you build self-confidence as a designer?
Confidence is very important and it can be challenging for a young designer. For me it was a combination of practice, talking to designers with much more experience than me and being patient with myself that helped me become more confident.
Practice design through side projects
Taking on side projects helped me practice and improve my design skills whether it is user research, visual design or prototyping. In time, gaining the skills and seeing progress made me feel more confident about myself.
Reach out to designers
Talking with established designers or young designers with more years under their belts really helped in demystifying what the discipline is about and brought more clarity about the expectations around being a product designer. I felt like I could do that too.
Be patient and not compare myself to others
I decided to be patient with myself and acknowledge that this is a process. It will take some time for me to be where I want to be. This allowed me to keep on improving and not judging myself, my skills or my work against other designers. Each designer is on their own journey and I have to focus on my own.
Curious how do you approach your career growth with intention?
When it comes to approaching career growth with confidence, self awareness is key.
Learn about yourself
A good place to start is to spend a lot of time learning about your own skills, what you enjoy doing, what excites you and what drives you. Having a clear idea on that will help you understand what kind of designer you are and want to be.
Define your north star
After you have clarity on what kind of designer you are, you should set a long term goal: a north star for yourself. It could be becoming a head of design leading products and teams in consumer healthcare. From there you can reverse engineer your path from your north star to where you are today. Then set up goals with the intention of reaching that long term goal.
Taking a deeper look at your current skills and identifying what you are good at and what you need to improve on will help you in building momentum as you grow and acquire new skills. That momentum is important for your confidence.