Am I Too Nice?

October 3, 2017

Doran Chang

Doran Chang is an associate creative director at MXM. She is passionate about digital experiences, creative culture, and sharing knowledge. She also loves books and podcasts, so send recommendations or a friendly hello to her via LinkedIn.

"Am I too nice?"

That was the title of one of the many emails I’d sent to friends and mentors last year. I wanted to hear their thoughts on my situation, which made me question whether I needed to put up a façade of firmness to appear stern. You see, I had just been turned down for a creative leadership role because I was perceived to have lacked the qualities to be a “firm, stern manager” and instead, displayed “pleasant attitude.”

Who doesn’t try to be pleasant at interviews?!?!

I was angry at first and started asking the people around me about what they thought about this. I poured over industry and creative leadership books and even sent the below email to Kat Gordon.

Hi Kat,

Something happened yesterday and I was curious as to what you would say about the situation.

I interviewed 3 times at a local start-up tech company and was just told yesterday via HR that they’re passing on me to take on a CD role because they thought I was too nice and pleasant to handle their current situation involving other department leaders who have strong personalities. I wrote back saying that I choose to lead with empathy and know when to be stern or firm but I feel like they were looking for a specific personality apart from skills, which they told me I was totally qualified for.

What are your thoughts? I feel like people usually present themselves as a pleasant person during the interviews but they don’t see the potential in me to deal with difficult personalities and don’t have any idea I can kill with kindness. Lol. It’s just interesting because I ultimately didn’t get the job because I was perceived to be too nice.

I don’t like the idea of not presenting myself as someone who I’m not and want to be authentic in my leadership style but it begs the question. In the current state of things, how things work, do I make the effort to get to some sort of balance between who I am and who I should be if I want to become a leader?

Thanks Kat,
Looking forward to your thoughts.

When I started receiving replies to my questions and emails, there was a running theme – that I probably dodged a bullet working at a company that required a “firm person” in order to work together with “some tough personalities on the design side.” When Kat Gordon sent a reply, reminding me to be true to myself, I was encouraged to keep believing in my uniqueness and embrace my own kind of creative leadership.


The kiss of death would be that you use this one situation -- from people you barely know -- to rejigger your instincts about who you are -- a person you know well. 

When something doesn't happen and the reason is based upon your style of leadership, that's a gift. Your style of leadership will be the thing another company will choose you for. Find them.

So what does creative leadership look like for me?

I’ve had my ups and downs as an ACD for the last seven years but have learned one valuable lesson. Many people think that agency work is just about work and how great that work is. Did it win awards? Did it increase sales by 25%? Did it get millions of impressions? Those are good things too, don’t get me wrong, but there are other things that matter too.

And that is valuing relationships and just being kind to people. We have relationships with our clients, bosses, co-workers, fellow designers, UXers, developers and many other professionals. Learn to collaborate with each other well because you just never know who might be a source of your next idea or who might be willing to spend an extra hour with you helping to straighten out a nagging UX issue.

I’ve discovered that people generally like to help out if I ask so I’ve become very good at asking. I’ve asked developers and UXers to work on internal workshops with me to share our knowledge with the rest of the company. I ask countless UX, development and process questions on Slack. I’ve asked my boss to send me to conferences and got my company to pay for the expenses. I’ve asked my boss if I could take a few co-workers with me to those conferences.

But I also offer my expertise and time in return. I offer to design a portion of a web page to validate UX and work on the best solution with them. I offer to design the presentation deck for the workshop we collaborate on. I share website inspiration URLs and awesome podcasts with my fellow designers. I offer to share the learning from the conferences I go to and then answer questions that come up when my co-workers are expensing those conferences.

There’s not much room for ego when you become good at asking, accepting and offering help. You naturally become a part of a team that relies on each other’s talents and skills. I feel great satisfaction when I lead a great group of talented people but more importantly, great people. I also like that I’m seen as someone empathetic, balanced and relatable instead of firm, stern and unapproachable.

Why am I writing this?

I recently wrote an email to Kat Gordon again, but this time to share good news. Our company just launched a program that annually recognizes an employee for their work AND character. It’s called an Icon Award and I was the first recipient. I felt so proud because I felt like I proved to myself that I didn’t have to be a stern manager to be an effective leader. I felt validated, encouraged, rewarded and supported.

I don’t remember my best bosses or co-workers for the kind of work they produced, but more for those qualities that won my respect and made working and learning enjoyable around them. We all have it in us to be our own kind of leader because we are unique and it’s worth putting value in relationships and kindness because they can last beyond any project timeline.