Two tips for finding a good organizational fit

By Thomas Brandenburg and Twisha Shah-Brandenburg


As IIT Institute of Design (ID) students enter recruitID season (March 13–15), we’ve pulled together some lessons we gleaned from participants in our The Shape of Design panel earlier this school year. All the panelists are industry leaders who are reimagining the role of design within organizations—and all have hired ID grads in the past.

They had a range of needs:

  • Mandy Tahvonen, Managing Director at Relish Works, Inc., needed an in-house consultant who could identify different stakeholders and pull them together to achieve results.
  • Brian Walker, VP of Digital Architecture and Operations at Grainger,needed to find designers with the right spectrum of skills to build out small in-house product teams.
  • Elizabeth Spenko, Senior VP, Director of the Northern Lab at Northern Trust Corporation, needed in-house consultants skilled in generative research and taking a systems approach.
  • Amanda Schonfeld, Recruiting Team Lead at GSA, needed a generalist to convene different perspectives.
  • Mike Botos, Partner and Principal at EY Advisory Services, needed a consultant with cross-industry expertise.

Clearly, design-led organizations don’t have a one-size-fits-all approach.

Check out two tips and some suggested questions that can help you understand exactly what a hiring manager is looking for—and whether the position and organization are a good fit for you:

Tip #1: Identify the organization’s decision-making style

In any organization, understanding what leaders need to make decisions is key to success. Discover whether the organization seeks an advocate (showing) or more of a consultant (telling).

At GSA, Amanda Schonfeld finds that team members must be able to advocate. “It’s essential for us to respect and understand our stakeholders,” she says. “We must have humility and empathy with what they’re going through and teach them and coach them.” Similarly, Elizabeth Spenko (Northern Trust) says, “I still spend a lot of time explaining to people what design is.”

But this approach doesn’t work for every organization. “We don’t have time to evangelize and teach,” Mandy Tahvonen (Relish Works, Inc.) pointed out. “As an organization, we can’t have the patience for that.”

Understanding an organization’s approach will help you have a productive and informed conversation, determine fit, and figure out how to pitch yourself for the job.

Possible questions for your interview:

  • How have organizational initiatives have achieved momentum in the past?
  • Will I be running workshops and co-creating, or stitching together presentations that show different alternatives to choose from?
  • Are you looking for an in-house consultant, or a facilitator that teaches and leads design processes in this role?

Tip #2: Understand the team and the kind of expertise required

Increasingly, organizations are paying attention to organizational culture and management are making deliberate decisions about the makeup of teams. At Grainger, Brian Walker says, “What I’ve come to understand is how critical it is to get all of the complementary skills and all of the context that is necessary on a single team, with a single mission.” By clarifying what the organization is looking for, you can better position yourself as a fit.

Sometimes individuals with diverse strengths are brought together to change the perspectives or direction of a larger organization. “Out of diversity comes better ideas and better thinking,” says Mike Botos (EY Advisory Services).

Many organizations hiring designers are moving away from solely hiring people with deep expertise. “We hire people with research skills,” says Amanda Schonfeld (GSA), “but we no longer just hire researchers.” Candidates with a broad skill set can help bring together multiple perspectives.

Ask how your skills will be applied and what the background of other team members are. Demonstrating how you will complement an existing team is a great way to differentiate yourself from other applicants.

Possible questions for your interview:

  • Could you tell me about the people that are on this team and their roles?
  • How does this team fit in the broader organizational context?
  • How does this team like to collaborate?

For another useful perspective, see Anatomy of a Great Job: Three Things to Look for in Your Next Career Move by Anijo Mathew, ID Associate Professor.