Leading Teams with Kristy Tillman


Kristy Tillman was the Design Director at Society of Grownups and a designer at IDEO in Boston before making her way up to become the Head of Communication Design at Slack, a messaging tool for teams. This is a recent position for Kristy, who is real and honest about being “in process.” Her insights on building strong and diverse teams are powerful, especially if you’re considering becoming a manager.

As a black woman in design, Kristy offers advice for those who feel like they don’t fit into the dominant culture of their company. She also talks about holding out for the right opportunities, the qualities that make strong managers and designers, and her unique formula for success.

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Highlighted Excerpt

Majo: What was it about managing people that you fell in love with?

Kristy: Managing people is one of the biggest design problems, ever.

Majo: I know.

Kristy: At first I thought I would hate it, because I can be a little introverted. But seeing people be successful because of my efforts, helping them do really good work and seeing them blossom... is such a high. And then also just the camaraderie of a team – there’s something so fun about that.

The team that I built at Society of Grownups, we’re very much still in contact, we’re good friends, we text and have our own Slack group– I love those folks! It was a really good experience for me and it made me want to do that again at a different company with some new challenges. I really got a lucky break with Slack...

Majo: I wanna talk about that, but first, regarding management – I work with some clients who think they might want to get into management but they’re not sure, whether it’s design management or some other type of management. What would you say to them, regarding what indications there are for having a love and aptitude for management?

Kristy: I think we go about picking managers all wrong. Like, a person will get really good at their individual craft, and then someone says, “Oh, you should manage people.” And those are completely different skill sets. Managing people is a high emotional labor. It’s a self-sacrificing job in a lot of ways. You have to be very self-reflective. One of the good things about managing people, to me, is how much it’s helped my own development. Caring about my team has changed me in so many positive ways.

Majo: So let’s talk about how Slack happened. You used the word “lucky”. This is the first time I’ve heard you use this word. You didn’t use the word “luck” with any other opportunity…

Kristy: Well, a lot of it has been luck, good timing, and a lot of hard work too. I think that’s what success is, in general. I would never pat myself on the back and say, “I got here on my own.” People have helped me, I’ve put in a lot of hard work, and some lucky breaks have happened! I think that’s kind of the definition of success.

Show Notes:

  • Kristy growing up: From a precocious girl in a bike gang to a vulnerable teen who had to learn to become self-assured and independent. [3:20]
  • Figuring out what she wanted to do in her college years, internships at Nasa and elsewhere, and discovering her love for design. [10:21]
  • Some of Kristy’s bigger career transitions, and the unique approach she took with her application to IDEO that helped her get noticed. [17:40]
  • On her favorite projects at IDEO, building her own design teams, and the discomfort she’s occasionally felt as the only black woman in her work culture. [22:48]
  • On accepting uncomfortable situations, her love for building teams and bringing people together, and her advice for when you don’t feel like you fit into your company’s work culture. [26:37]
  • Kristy shares insights from her first experience building and constructing teams and how she fell in love with it, plus her advice to anyone considering management work. [31:03]
  • How Kristy finally transitioned to Slack after the right role presented itself, and her unique recipe for success. [35:58]
  • On what the last six months at Slack has looked like and building the culture of a new team, plus what Kristy looks for in a designer. [40:42]
  • Kristy’s final thoughts, her 99U talk on “inviting yourself to the table”, and future goals. [49:12]

Subscribe and listen to the full episode here (you must subscribe to receive latest episode).


Kristy’s blog

Kristy's 99U talk, “Inviting Yourself to the Table” 



by Lucia Lilikoi

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