Equipping Our Own Leaders: The Birth of DI LEAD

Design Impact has always identified strongly as a “learning organization.”

We are constantly stretching, tweaking, and building new ways of thinking and growing, and as a firm committed to social change, we believe our organizational development plays a fundamental role in determining impact.

In the fall of 2015, our organizational development took an interesting turn. After a successful year where we saw more project work than ever before, Design Impact decided it was time to hire more staff. In September 2015, we were a humble staff of 5. By January 2016, we had more than doubled to a team of 12.

With a fresh new set of perspectives, skills, and ways of thinking suddenly joining our increasingly multidisciplinary team, our organization faced the real challenge, and ripe opportunity, to continue this organizational development in a new way. As a new team, we wondered how both our internal and external practices could continue to reflect our organization’s core values while building our shared competencies and celebrating the unique strengths of our teammates.

Essentially, we realized that in order to affect social change with our partners, we needed to also direct our gaze inward.

“It implies openness to surprise our findings may reach, humility in front of our respondents, and joyfulness towards serendipity.”

No doubt, organizational learning plays a fundamental role in determining impact. Informed by expertise in organizational development, we listened to each others’ work experiences, assessed organizational needs, and turned to the research to identify key drivers of learning communities. Based on work by Preskill & Torres (1999) and Senge (2006), those drivers include:

•  Ability to act on shared values;

•  Democratic accountability;

•  Consensus in decision-making processes;

•  Capacity to work across difference;

•  Acting interdependently;

•  Openness to new and divergent ideas;

•  Respect for each other’s gifts;

•  Practice of critical reflection; and

•  Spirit of collaboration. We knew where we wanted to go as an organization—we just needed to figure out how to get there. We needed a roadmap.

Fortunately, we already had a decent framework to start from. We were launching this initiative with a clear mission and set of values, an aligned organizational structure, an innovative approach to office culture, and an articulated theory of change. Because DI’s theory of change emphasizes leadership practice, it made sense to frame our internal learning and capacity-building efforts as leadership development. This perspective allowed us to use the same tools that we use with our partners to create change.

Interestingly, the demand for organizational leadership development is intensifying. According to DI’s long-time partner, the Center for Creative Leadership, “Without proper leadership, even the best and boldest strategies die on the vine, their potential never realized.” In fact, the lack of organizational leadership development has been termed “the leadership development deficit.” Nevertheless, a lack of case studies has never stopped us before so we forged ahead. Our internal leadership development effort, DI LEAD, was born.

Mary Brydon Miller led the team through a “structured ethical reflection” of the organization.

DI LEAD was built to foster organizational learning, promote individual leadership development, understand our impact, and practice with careful intention. Inspired by the Social Change Model (SCM), DI LEAD rests on the following assumptions:

  1. Leadership is socially responsible, it impacts change on behalf of others;
  2. Leadership is collaborative;
  3. Leadership is a process, not a position;
  4. Leadership is inclusive and accessible to all people;
  5. Leadership is values-based;
  6. Community involvement/service is a powerful vehicle for leadership


DI LEAD is a mix of both formal and informal learning, including a monthly lunch & learn series, individual leadership and development planning, weekly “Thirsty Thursday” happy hours infused with social justice-oriented discussions, a buddy system, and an online discussion board via Yammer to promote ongoing, shared learning and reflection.

Deepening our social impact is integral to DI LEAD. To this end, developing carefully crafted outcomes was the first step in designing this initiative. As we experiment with DI LEAD, continued emphasis on outcomes—including qualitative reflections, pre-post tests, and 360° assessments—will give us a pulse on how we are growing and help hold ourselves accountable to our commitment to organizational leadership development. It’s a bit daunting to walk the walk, but we are giving ourselves grace, knowing that as long as we are learning together, we are, in fact, doing what we are setting out to do.

Kim Fulbright taught a DI LEAD session on conflict resolution in all different types of relationships.

By Amy Howton
Senior Manager for Leadership and Evaluation