Designing for diversity with IBM
Designing for diversity with IBM
Oen Michael Hammonds has conquered design from every angle—graphic, service, information, interactive and environmental design. As a Design Principal at IBM, he brings design thinking to the HR department. In this episode, Oen talks the art of designing impactful employee experiences and building a culture of conscious inclusion so innovation can thrive.
Heather: Today, I’m speaking with Oen Michael Hammonds, a designer, mentor, educator and design principal at IBM. He has conquered design from every angle—graphic design, service, design information, interactive and environmental design—but what’s most fascinating to me is that, in his current role, he’s a designer within the HR department. Understanding the needs and pain points among employees, first-line workers and upline managers through this work, he designs impactful employee experiences and helps build a culture of conscious inclusion where innovation can thrive and individuals can progress. So, Oen, thank you so much for being here with me today.
Oen: It’s so great to be here, Heather. Thank you so much for the invite.
Heather: I have so many topics I’m excited to explore with you, but let’s start at the beginning of your journey. Before you officially became a designer as a career choice, you served in the military; and I heard an interview that you had done previously that you felt like you were designing even then for command briefings. And I was very fascinated by: a) your being in the military and I want to know what that was like; and b) that even then you had this desire, this passion for design. So, talk to me about that.
Oen: It’s pretty amazing how creativity has stuck in some ways, some how, in my career. Before I even joined the military, I was that kid emulating my brother, who is a fantastic artist, and drawing comic book characters and different things like that. And when I was in high school, I kind of taught myself how to use the original Mac Classic and MacDraw and different programs like that.
I was always learning those things on my own—no formal training at all to get into those things. And when I joined the military, I was completely not in journalism or marketing. I was infantry and 54 Bravo and did a lot of chemical warfare and different things like that—so completely opposite. But some how, some way, someone figured out that I knew how to put together meaningful content to showcase the other people. And that’s how I got wrapped up into doing command briefings and then doing PowerPoint presentations or laying out enablement or learning materials that other soldiers would use. I just had this innate instinct of knowing how people digest that content, what will engage them and how they were used back then.
Eventually, it caught on and people just started asking me to do those types of things. So, in addition to my regular job in the military, I ended up doing a lot of those presentations and learning modules and materials, too, for a lot of my friends that were doing those things as well.
Heather: That’s so fantastic. I’m in a role right now where I’m focused on Lippincott’s own brand and marketing strategy and then business development. But I had a period of time where I was also overseeing HR, and we’re a pretty small company. No matter how big or small the company is, you still have to do the things you have to do to build a culture. And I will say that it was in that time that I just gained such deep respect for how hard that role is.
I was so fascinated by the fact that, as a designer, you’re really designing the employee experience; and it’s so important, and it’s so hard…and what better place than IBM, which has been lauded for decades for the work that they’ve done. So, tell me about a project that you’re working on right now, as it relates to the employee experience, that you’re passionate about.
Oen: Oh, there are so many to choose from. There are a lot of projects happening currently. I will say, particularly in the design space when it comes to employee experience, we’ve really have been doubling down on how we hire designers. And, I’m particularly fascinated with the talent acquisition and helping them understand where they can be searching for hiring designers into IBM. Not all the top schools have a diverse pool of students. The recruiters have to, or need to, expand where they’re looking at or even introducing them themselves to. Hey, I’m with IBM, and you can have a job here, as well. So, it’s making those very intentional connections to those schools, whether it is a two-year school, a four-year university or, more importantly, a lot of designers of color, and women and people who are maybe career pivoting. That pivot just really helps us recruit a much more diverse pool of designers.
Heather: I think that’s so important. Obviously, diversity and inclusion is such an important topic. And often you might hear people say, you know, “Well, we tried, we looked and we went to the schools that we go to and there just isn’t as much of a talent pool.” I think therein lies part of the issue…that, if you continue to go to the same schools that might draw from the same geographic and economic backgrounds, you’re going to get somewhat of a certain mold. I think we need to break out of that. I was reading a lot about what you guys were doing and this idea of conscious inclusion. To me, this feels like an example of that. What other things is IBM doing that, I think, may help set the bar for others in terms of the idea of conscious inclusion?
Oen: I think some of the key programs that IBM has invested in really target the people that we’re not including. For instance, return to work is a huge one that IBM has been doubling down on. And this program has been really focused toward helping women that may have taken maternity leave, or they may have taken leave to care for a family member; societal norms put that pressure on women. Now if a woman has an opportunity to come back to work, how can we make that entry back into the workforce more frictionless.
I would say, also, programs are acknowledging that we need to prepare for our future. And the best way that IBM can prepare for our future is by reaching out earlier—before college. P-TECH is a great example of that. It was mainly focused on computer science and development, but we’ve expanded that into the design practice. And how can we reach out to high schoolers that show an aptitude to do these things—better, probably, than most adults that have four-year degrees—and introducing IBM as a possible workplace? We’re going to help you get the skill sets that you need and, if you want to come to IBM, awesome. That would be amazing. If you want to take those skill sets somewhere else, we’re not holding it against you. But we’re introducing IBM to a future workforce
Heather: There was a statistic I read: 87% of IBMers say that they can be their authentic selves at work. We talk a lot about bringing your whole self and seeing the whole person. That’s an incredible statistic, 87%. What do you think is inherent in the culture that gets so many people—across all disciplines and all levels and all geographies—to say that?
Oen: That’s a great question. I’m a people manager on my team, and I think about the things that I do that may spark that. And I think, for a large part, it deals with the relationship that you have with your manager. The manager experience is a key part of any company’s success. As managers, we are that pivot point between the stakeholders and what they’re asking for. And how I manage my stakeholders, and how I manage my team, determines how successful the business will be. So, as a manager, I need to make sure that my team understands the strategy and how the strategy applies to the work that we’re doing here. And that requires a level of transparency, open conversation, dialogue.
And I think the more that we actually communicate more openly and, I will say, judiciously transparently with our team members, the better they feel that they can bring themselves into the conversation and question the strategy or add on to that strategy, as well—because I have included them as a part of the conversation versus being talked down and saying: This is the way it’s going to be; it does this; how are we going to do it? That does not allow anyone to bring their full selves into the conversation. And managing that way just creates a level of barriers or roadblocks and how a person can meaningfully be engaged in work if they feel or know that there’s a possible different way of approaching that work.
Heather: I think it’s such a good point. And I think that, for so many years—and there still is—such a hierarchy and a desire to have things perfectly packaged and buttoned up before we let the masses know about it; and it just doesn’t work anymore. Silence is not because there aren’t perspectives but maybe because people don’t feel safe to share those perspectives. So how do you foster that?
Oen: I think one of the key things that we’ve been doing—and this is not across the company but, I think, in some of the more strategic and important pockets—is that we’ve been inviting employees to be a part of developing the experiences that they’re going to have to utilize and take part of. This is something that came out of when we actually brought the design profession officially into IBM and adopted enterprise design thinking as a framework to use to transform the way that teams are going to work.
And it’s also part of that work why I’m in HR. One of my responsibilities is for the experiences that IBM employees are using in their day-to-day work and to make sure that we’re putting those experiences in front of them before we do that big, massive delivery. And by doing that, to your point, we’re starting to build that trust. We’re like, “We heard you, and this is what we’re doing to make those changes.”
Heather: Right, it’s like the visible, not just intentions, but actions that happen as a result of: “I actually voiced my opinion, and you listened and you did something about it.”
Oen: Exactly. A great example of that is a performance management system that’s called Checkpoint. When we developed that back in 2017 (this was before I joined HR), it was one of the first projects where HR actually reached out to the design profession to help them change the way that we do performance management. And as a part of that work, we put those prototypes, those big ideas, in front of employees and got their feedback. Doing that helped employees feel a part of the experience. And that’s something that we’ve actually been really encouraging and continuously doing by engaging employees earlier to get their feedback on experiences before we do a mass delivery—or even just do a beta testing with a larger segment of population, as well.
Heather: It’s really early on and then throughout the process, right? Because that’s the only way you can really co-create it.
Let’s talk about gender equity. This was the topic that we talked about at South by Southwest. I had the opportunity to work with Doug Powell, who introduced me to you within the AIG Women Lead initiative. And you guys have been such thought leaders and have made a lot of progress. A lot of what we talked about at South by Southwest was there wasn’t—at least as it was related to the design profession—a pipeline problem. There was equity when you looked at early stages of the career; but then, as it was getting to the principal level, there was this…I think Doug said, you know, we were noticing something was happening: A woman designer enters the profession. There was equity. But then, when they and their peers are rising to leadership levels, we lose the balance. Some of that was even self-selecting out of the process, and the result was a very focused and designed coaching model that you guys put in place. So, tell me a little bit more, if you know about that program, what you guys did.
Oen: When we looked at that data, it was like a flag went off. It was, like, we’ve got a problem. Luckily, we had the right leadership. Phil Gilbert, Doug Powell, and many other leaders saw that there was a gap of how many women were continuing their career to the upper leadership levels. And one of the informal programs that we really doubled down on and put together was talking to managers that had high-potential women candidates that we identified. Like, I’ve worked with this person. This person is great. Why are you, the manager, not putting them in a pipeline for the next stage of their career? Not admonishing but really having that manager kind of take a look back and evaluate some of the women candidates.
Also, it was to really help the women that were taking themselves out of consideration for those upper levels. How can we get ahead of that and be that support, be that advocate, be that cheerleader for them—to help them and encourage them to stay in there, you know, like you’re doing it right. I know it’s hard. I’m here to help you.
And a lot of that was just matching them up to either existing design principals or director-level people that can be that support for them—so they have a direct contact with someone—or organically ensuring that they are meeting up regularly with a coach that can help them become that next-level design principal, like I am. You have to put together this very formal promotion packet, and that can be daunting. So, surrounding them with support models, formally and informally, to help them make sure that it’s, like, “You’re doing great.”
Heather: There are all these studies that show if a man looks at the job description with10 qualifications and he has half of those, the man will say, “Okay, I’ve got half of those. I’m going to go for it.” Whereas the woman is like, “I don’t have half of those, and I’m not going to go for it.” When you were studying this data and those red flags were going off, is that a pattern that you were seeing —that that kind of self doubt was more evident in women?
Oen: I think what we found was it was more evident in women, but it was also evident in a lot of potential people of color or black candidates, as well. And even for myself…I can speak for myself…definitely. I needed that extra support system to help me get through my design-principal packet when I put it together. I’m going through the next level, which is the distinguished designer-promotion packet nomination, and those same doubts come back again. But what I have now that I didn’t have before—when I was going through DP or in those early design-principal stages—is that I have something to reflect on. And 99% of the time, it was just me holding myself back then. It’s, like, get over yourself!
Heather: Get over yourself, Oen!
Oen: Right, put something down and put it in front of your mentors or your coaches so that they can give you actual feedback. Then let them be the questioners of whether you’re ready or not. That’s what they’re there for.
Heather: The work that you do is global, and I’m curious. As you’re working with other regions—these kinds of conversations that are happening around diversity, inclusion, equity—do you feel it’s kind of a global thing in the sense that really it’s on everybody’s minds? Do you get different perspectives in different regions?
Oen: It’s definitely different conversations, but they all revolve around kind of that anchor point of equity. Equity in the West is going to be different from equity in South America; its going to be different from India or the AP region, as well. There are some things that are common. Women equity is a pretty common thread across all of these different geos. And so that is something that we do talk about in the same goal-setting no matter what geo we’re in. There are definitely some countries that do way better than other countries; but, in the global sense, women equity is definitely, always, a central common thread that every business, every IBM business, wherever they sit has some work to do and a challenge to face and conquer, as well.
When it comes to race or cultural equity, that’s when the conversation really shifts. It depends on where you’re sitting, depends on what geo you’re in, depends on the cultural norms of that country, as well. And so that’s where the conversation doesn’t really fracture; but I will say the priorities change as to who is that group that we really want to make sure feels that they can come to IBM and be themselves and do their best here.
Heather: A lot of what we’re trying to tease out through these conversations is certainly about brands and different inflection points and transitions but also, the people behind them. And so, what would you say has been a particularly transformative moment in your career?
Oen: Probably actually joining IBM. And just for context for the audience, I spent the first 15, 16 years in traditional graphic-design studios and agencies; and I loved that. I miss it sometimes, too. I mean, I miss getting my hands dirty. But I found that I have this hunger to grow. I have this hunger to learn. And I have this hunger to do not cool things but to do meaningful things. I found that, as I was staying in the agency, studio space was not healthy for me. But as fate would have it, one of my former coworkers who had joined IBM actually came to me and said, “Hey, IBM is doing some really cool things over here. Are you considering moving or going somewhere?” And my first response was, “Hell no.”
Heather: That old school company?
Oen: Exactly. That old school company, in-house design, like you’re not putting a shiny picture on this. And she finally convinced me to just come over to the campus. We finally got to the studio and opened the door, and I looked around. It was just this open concept, what I would expect in an agency or studio—kind of like a design agency feel in the studio space. I thought, “What is going on here?” And then we talked about their trying to instill experiences into everything that they do in product design and bring all the great things that Doug and Phil Gilbert, Adam Cutler, Charlie Hill were just trying to do to transform the company through the profession of design.
Joining IBM was that humongous transformational moment for me, because I was able to stay in design but also grow continuously every day—and also do a lot of things that I enjoy doing. I still get to share my experiences. I still get to share and do enablement sessions with designers. And I help non-designers understand what good design is and this is how you can do it without having to be a professional designer. You have the power to do this. And so, joining IBM was the biggest transformational moment for me in my career. It just tapped all the things off my passion list. So, I don’t follow my passion anymore. Now, I actually bring it to work with me every day.
Heather: That’s amazing. And I’m sure everybody would love to be able to say that. And if that’s not the case, have the courage to make a change, right? I know you’ve had the opportunity, as you’ve mentioned, to mentor so many young aspiring designers—those that are at different parts of their career. Do you have a signature Oen piece of advice that you tend to give often?
Oen: Yes. It’s one that I’ve actually adopted and borrowed from one of my good friends, Seth Johnson, whom I’ve known for years through AIGA. He said it in one presentation, and it stuck with me. So, I actually recite it in my own context to a lot of other people. It’s all about grit, humility and love. Having a career, you have to have a lot of grit. There are a lot of ups and downs in it; but you also have to learn how to take those up and downs—to take those licks, learn from them and actually keep going forward—but also, who’s going to help me build that tenacity, that grit along my career journey?
Humility…being the egoless designer. We’re great at what we do, but there’s a way of being great at what you’re doing and having humility, as well. And that humility helps you, as a professional, to be more supportive of that next generation that’s coming up right behind you to actually be the next great designer. And with that humility, I have a true belief—and I tell my team this and people that I meet up with—it’s my job as a manager to make you a better designer than me. Once I do that, then I’ve succeeded in my job.
Then a final one is love. You have to really love doing design. A lot of people out there hang their hat on learning the tools and learning all the things that helps a designer become good at what they do, but those are just tools. You have to have a passion for this; and that passion is about understanding where you’re weak. Where can I do better? How can I get better at that? And how often when you’re practicing the craft of design—whether it’s hand lettering, whether it’s service design, whether it’s being a user research designer or any of those specialties that require practice for you to get really great at—you have to like really love what you’re doing and put in the extra work to actually become a great designer.
Heather: Those are awesome and definitely ones that I think apply to non-designers, as well.
This is all about icons and icons in the making. And, obviously, IBM is an icon. I think you’re an icon. Is there an icon in your life?
Oen: I will say the person that I really rely on greatly—and I love his candor and the way that he helps me through a lot of the problems that I may deal with at work or even in life in general—is Doug Powell. Doug is just so reflective and always can help me spin the perspective when I may be, you know, horse blinded. He helps me see a broader perspective of something that may help me. He’s always had that ability when he was my manager at one point in time at IBM. Even now he’s a mentor, he’s a friend, he’s an advocate, he’s a sponsor of me, he really helps me pull me back when I’m, oh, maybe, reaching down too far. You know, he does amazing work. He’s led amazing teams, as well. And so he’s one of the really key people that I find inspiring and that I can go to and look upon for greatness.
Heather: Just think of all the people that one day may be on this podcast, and I’ll ask them that question and they will say “you,” because you’ve helped them in their journeys and their trust in you.
Thank you so much, Oen. It’s such a delight to talk to you and listen to your perspective.
Oen: Thank you so much, Heather. It’s great to catch up with you again, as well.
Heather: Thanks for tuning in. If you like what you heard, share with your colleagues and friends and subscribe on Spotify, Apple Podcasts or wherever you listen. And if you’re feeling really generous, leave us a 5-star rating.
Thanks, and I’ll see you next time.
My job as a manager is to make you a better designer than me. And once I do that, then I've succeeded in my job.