Meet the woman behind the design world’s best hires
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When it comes to hiring design teams, Wert & Co. has a proven formula. The agency has collectively brokered a significant share of key design leadership roles at Fortune 500 companies, global brands, and innovative start-ups since 1995. Judy Wert, a designer by trade, started the bi-coastal executive search firm with her husband Jeff in their living room on the first day their son Daniel went to kindergarten. As her clientele grew, so did her reputation as a trusted and integral partner to major corporations in hiring for design, technology, and innovation. Now, ready for the company’s next phase, Daniel has joined as managing director, bringing with him a background in human resources for early start-ups; recruiting for engineering, design and product; and an ambition to participate in the next phase of growth for design leadership. Here, the mother-son team discuss the firm’s early years, where the design space is headed and what c-suite leadership are looking for.
Fortune: How did you start Wert & Co.?
JW: The digital explosion had just started; design and technology were finding their way together. We rented a desk, and a few months later we rented an office. A few months after that, we hired some people. Our clients continued to grow. It was a wonderful time to tap into talent who were looking to ride the next wave of what design and technology were going to do for business. We had a tagline, “Where converging disciplines find their place. Where design is integral to business success.” Those were our commitments back in 1995 and they remain true today, though that story is expanding.
How have you seen the industry shift over time?
DW: If we are looking at the arc over our history, the answer is different than the arc since COVID. From my perspective, watching from the sidelines, two things have stuck out for me. First, design is seen as important. Earlier, it was seen as a footnote, or an afterthought. Then, of course, there’s a technology component, as more and more companies become tech companies, so to speak. For Wert & Co., a lot of our work was initially in fashion, graphic design, industrial design, and print; anywhere creativity lived. More and more, you’re starting to see hardware with a software component. Technology has taken over a lot of our lives and the design industry is a reflection of our lives. That is a big shift. Now we’re seeing design at the leadership level and in boardrooms, in venture capital. Design is having its moment at the zero to one stage of a company.
And the arc since COVID? Has the pandemic changed the way companies are hiring?
DW: The talent pool is inherently global now. Companies are now more open to recruiting in atypical places, creating a more international web. If you’re a small company in a small town, and a bunch of large companies say, “We’re going to recruit there,” that small company now has competition it never had before. Compensation in that scenario is more geographically agnostic. The larger companies will benefit from this. That’s for sure a shift accelerated by COVID, but who knows what that looks like five to 10 years from now…I don’t think the employee ever has had as much power as it has today. That will force companies to change the way they retain people with the option to work from home and the benefits they offer. That’s been compounded by everyone in the last year having a crisis on what they want in life. In addition, almost every company has put hiring on hold for too long and they are trying to make up for lost time.
You mention companies playing catch up with hiring. How do you see that playing out?
DW: We have all heard the adage, “Hire slowly, fire quickly.” I think we all know what it means: Measure twice, cut once, and if things don’t work out, be decisive and swift. If companies aren’t thoughtful, they are optimizing for butts in seats and not necessarily for retention. There could be a recoil down the line in the form of attrition and layoffs. I hope that doesn’t happen, but I wouldn’t be surprised if it did.
JW: There needs to be more discipline built into hiring, recruiting and planning, to allow for retention and thriving culture.
What are some examples of roles you’ve filled in the last year?
JW: I do think the searches we’ve been privileged to work on show a range and speak to where design is in the conversation now in a deeper way. We completed a search for the New York Times during COVID for their SVP of Product Design. We know good journalism matters now more than ever, and this is an incredibly mission-driven ambitious company. The Times was looking for someone to elevate product design, amid COVID, amid racial justice movement. That was complex and exciting, and there were multiple stakeholders involved to sign off on the hire. It was a moment in time for the NYT, during a moment in time in our culture and our world. Another big area is around data and privacy; real time data and AI are becoming the norm. We were tasked with hiring an experienced design leadership role for data ethics and machine learning at a financial institution. The goal was to unlock data, but in a responsible and secure way. A third was related to travel, which we all know was heavily impacted by COVID. We hired an SVP of Design for the Four Seasons. The company is thinking about the future of the luxury consumer, especially post COVID, and using design thinking at every touch point of the Four Seasons brand experience.
Why is hiring in the design space important?
JW: Design is such a strategic tool for these businesses. They need designers who have craft and content fluency, technological fluency, and unfettered courage and conviction to make a difference in the world. There is so much opportunity for innovation, be it social innovation or new avenues where people inside companies are building new business groups focused on how design can play a role.
What is the talent pool like and how is it evolving?
DW: There are more nontraditional educational backgrounds as the trend moves away from formal degrees. We’re seeing the emergence of new educational institutions, boot camps, and fellowships. There are more and more ways for people to be trained up than ever before. The allure of a four-year degree has been eroded over time and there are a ton of new ways to learn and get into high skilled positions. That has been a huge shift in the talent pool.
JW: I’d add that the mentorship community has stepped up. People are realizing we need to plan for the next generation. There are people who are at the top of their game and are trying to figure out how they give back. That’s a big, wonderful shift to think about for the future, and I think education has to be part of that conversation. How are we educating a business student to work with a designer? A designer to work with a government agency? A technologist to work with a business person? It’s more complex than just to go and study business or design. This is the time mentoring needs to happen more prolifically.
How can the education system participate?
DW: We have to make sure design grows in the same way engineering has. Even at the parent-teacher level, where some may equate design with art. Design and art are not the same things. Design can be as critical to a business as an MBA or a software engineer. If we’re going to increase the talent pool of designers, more kids will be influenced to go into design because of the value it brings to the world.
JW: I think craft and aesthetics is one small piece of design, but it is still an ask by many of our clients. They want their hires to think through strategy, and make it delightful and beautiful. Some of that is learned through a disciplined education. We placed an SVP who was trained as a computer scientist. He is now in charge of product design, but it was really about what he exposed himself too outside of that. It is about being fluent in the business, the design, and the technology. Educational institutions are going to have to marry those requirements.
What are the most sought-after skill sets for your clients?
DW: T-shape versatility. Clients want someone who is great at one thing and pretty good at everything else. And then, if you can market yourself as someone who finds risk exciting, you’ll find so many more opportunities. There are a lot of opportunities at earlier stage startups and there is an inherent level of risk there.
JW: I think that same quality is paramount in a business that is in rapid pace of change. If you want to make a difference whether it’s a startup or a Fortune 500, if you aren’t wired with resilience and some risk you might be left behind. It’s fast moving. You need to have mastery of domain knowledge, and other qualities that are going to keep you on track toward professional and personal growth and purpose. You need to be comfortable with what’s uncomfortable.
What about C-Suite leadership?
JW: It is important for designers and design leaders to communicate a narrative. Storytelling is something people need to influence partners and stakeholders and be inside the hard conversations, with mastery. For designers to have executive access, they need to be able to communicate the narrative. It isn’t about just creating a strategy. How do you then shape it and push it through an organization that’s working at speed and scale? The industry is moving so fast. Businesses are growing so quickly. Conviction is paramount for anyone who wants to succeed.
What is the biggest challenge facing Fortune 500 companies in the design space at the moment?
DW: There aren’t enough designers to meet today’s demand. The needs and demands are incongruent, at the moment. That will be huge for the Fortune 500 companies that are now seeing design as important. They once needed to hire two designers, but now they need six. Educational institutions need to prepare for the future.
What is next for Wert & Co.?
JW: We are watching and observing in terms of how design is integrated in organizations— the entrepreneurs and inventors and scientists— and we want to make sure we are taking care for the next generation. We need to be a wider human resource for companies and talent alike. What format that takes, stay tuned. We have a good feel for what it’s going to look like and how we’ll speak about it. But we are trying to make sure we don’t rush that process and speak before it finishes. We’re excited for the next chapter.
Nicole Gull McElroy
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"This totally inspires me and is truly how I started," says Judy Wert.
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