Flavors of Leadership Interview

On April 2022 I was interviewed for an internal initiative at Automattic that focused on showcasing the company leaders. I’m reproducing it here with permission.

Where do you live?

Lisbon, Portugal

How long have you been at Automattic?

It’s going to be 8 years in May!

What’s your favorite ice cream flavor (or dessert of choice)?

Ha! This is a tough one since I usually go for a bunch of different flavors that don’t even go well together! If I had to pick one I would say mango sorbet.

If you weren’t working in design, what would you be doing?

I would be remodeling and flipping houses (so I’d still be designing in a way). My partner and I have bought and remodelled 3 different homes in the past 5 years and I’ve taken an interest in the whole process.

What are three words that your friends or family would use to describe you?

Generous, empathetic, considerate.

When you first became a lead, what did you think / tell yourself?

One of the things I struggled with was changing the dynamic of the relationships with people that I was working with but now as a lead. And while things were weird for a brief time we managed to develop a trusting relationship that helped us move forward.

What’s the best part about being a lead?

For me it’s helping people to find ways to continue moving forward, and that can be via professional growth, unblocking situations, suggesting paths to execution, suggesting collaborations.

What in you pre-design and/or pre-Automattic life unexpectedly prepared you for leadership the most?

I’ve always considered myself a great listener, and | think that’s a key part of a good lead. I’m an introverted person, so I need time to feel comfortable establishing a trusting relationship with someone else, and I’ve used as a tool to create an environment where the people I lead can feel comfortable sharing their thoughts and struggles.

Are you an introvert or extrovert?

I consider myself an introvert, but that obviously depends a lot on the context. Sometimes I have to force myself to be extroverted, particularly as a lead. In a setting where I feel comfortable I can be the most extroverted person in the group.

How would you describe your leadership style?

I lean into democratic leadership, I like to create spaces where everyone is heard and make a great effort to take in everyone’s opinion. When it comes to decision making I like to make sure the people on the team feel like they’ve contributed to it.

How would you approach working with another lead that has a very different style of leading their team(s)?

I would first listen and observe, there’s probably a reason why the approaches are so different, and I would try to understand the value in the differences. I would then ask why things were done in a certain way if I couldn’t understand the value or impact.

What are two of your superpowers / things you’re really good at?

One thing I think I’m really good at is breaking things down and simplifying, turning daunting challenges into less threatening smaller chunks. I also try to never lose perspective of the big picture, making sure I’m connecting the dots when necessary.

What are some things you ask for help with or delegate?

I try to make sure everything I do can be easily taken over by others on the team. I have a tendency to document everything for myself for reference, so if necessary I can easily pass it on. Examples of things I delegate can be leading smaller groups of people (squads), managing contractors, managing performance, decision making when I know others can do a better job than myself, representing the team when I’m not available.

What’s a skill you’re currently working on developing?

Coaching and being a better passive listener. When you know so much about the business it’s a lot easier to connect the dots and find quick solutions, but I’m working on creating the space so those I lead have to go through that process and grow.

How do you keep improving your leadership skills?

I’m a big fan of learning by doing, but I also make sure I keep learning through books, conferences, workshops etc, to avoid making common mistakes. Recently I’ve joined the internal Lead of Leads program and it was a super valuable experience to connect and share experiences with other Automatticians facing the same challenges.

Do you have a coach through the Automattic coaching program?

Yes, I started on the program about a two years ago.

How has coaching helped you as a lead?

Mostly coaching myself by just sharing what I’m going through, addressing the challenges and finding solutions that would probably take a lot longer if I didn’t have the space to share. Leadership can be lonely, once you start leading people it becomes uncomfortable to share your fears and challenges, particularly with others that have some proximity to your work as there’s always the fear of looking weak and unfit to the job. Having someone who | can share everything with, that doesn’t have a direct connection with the company, or the work (but still has context), has been incredibly liberating for me.

What does success in your role look like?

We deliver products that create incredible value for our customers in a timely manner. We’re staffed appropriately and have time to not just work on the things we’re assigned to. The team is happy, productive and motivated to work on difficult problems, and has all the tools and resources necessary to deliver great work.

What % of your time do you spend designing?

Depending on one’s definition of what designing means, I spend little to no time pushing pixels, but I do spend a lot of time in Figma going through what the team is working on, finding gaps and issues and thinking if there are better ways to solve problems, that to me is designing too.

Can you share some design inspirations that you’re into at the moment? (Links to blogs, websites, articles, artists, designers, etc.)

I don’t actively look for inspiration, these days that happens trying new apps, websites, and even tv shows and video games. Lately I’ve been looking closer to what’s being done in the web3 world, they’re really pushing the bar in the visual side, but the experience continues to be horrible since it’s such a complex space.
Design Twitter is another great source of inspiration on the topic of design leadership, recently I’ve found a lot of value by following these lists of people:

How do you influence/ guide the design craft on your team(s)?

I like to think that everyone brings as much as I do to the table in terms of influence. There are a lot of guidelines and an extensive body of work that we have to adhere to, so sometimes it’s hard to find opportunities to introduce innovation. But designers on Woo have creative freedom to explore their own solutions to problems, and we’ve created a space to make people feel safe to share their ideas and be open to let others come in and suggest other options. So a lot of guidance comes from those sharing rituals, as a team, in 1:1’s and in the other async process we use to collect feedback and share ideas.

How do you cope with stress?

There’s a quote by Seneca | believe that says “We are more often frightened than hurt; and we suffer more from imagination than from reality.” I go back to that whenever I’m feeling anxious and overwhelmed, and try to convince myself that suffering by anticipation is counter productive and not worth it when there’s nothing in my control that can influence future outcomes.

How do you prioritize your time?

At the beginning of the day | take a look at my to-do list and write down the most important thing I’d like to accomplish that day, and follow with a few more items by order of importance. I have a lot of direct reports, so between meetings and catching up on what the team is working on, I need to block time to be able to focus on larger problems.

What’s your communication style?

Straight forward, calm, assertive.

How do you structure your day?

No day looks the same. Usually my mornings are a bit more calm and that’s where I reserve time to do more heads down work. I like to take a big break at lunch time, sometimes I’ll go to gym, or meet people for lunch. The afternoons are usually full of meetings, I’ve actually been trying to scale down on these and reduce the amount of gaps between calls.

How do you prefer to make decisions?

I try to gather as much information as I can, listen, reflect, find options to move forward and discuss with others involved before making a decision. I can be impulsive and emotional at times, so when I notice that I’m in that mental space I try to create distance from the situation, understand the other side(s), and return later
to handle what needs to be done.

How do you keep on top of notifications?

I use the Reader and go through new posts two or three times a day, and I use Slack to be on top of mentions in P2’s.

What does a great day look like for you?

When I’m able to accomplish something that I know will have a positive impact on a person or a project.

What’s the biggest learning you’ve had about yourself since becoming a lead?

That I can take on a lot more than I think I can, but there are limits, and that it’s really important to understand and those are.

If you could talk to your New-Team-Lead Self and give them some advice, what would it be?

It’s going to be ok, you got this. Listening is sometimes more important than doing.


Here’s what some of Zé’s teammates had to say…

What’s one thing you’d like to thank Zé for?

Zé has been a great mentor and coach to me. He isn’t afraid of tough conversations,
and he brings honesty and authenticity to the team. Thank you for challenging me,
giving me new opportunities, and supporting me each step of the way!
— Jill

I’ want to thank Zé for supporting and enriching my path at Automattic. He demonstrates his trust in my work and always gives me space to prove what | can do, and this helps to strengthen our relationship and promote my growth, — Wagner

I’d like to thank Zé for welcoming me to the team, explaining everything really well
and making sure everything runs smoothly!
— Magda

I want to thank Zé for helping guide me through my first few months at Automattic. There’’ve been times when I’ve been confused or stressed, and he’s always made
himself available to calmly listen, tell me not to worry, and talk it through.
— Joe

I’m really grateful for Zé’s support when it comes to finding work/life balance and taking on new responsibilities. I am a person who tends to go a little too deep sometimes and Zé manages to help me stay aligned with my goals. He made me feel
like part of the team from day 1 and even though I’ve been at Automattic for more than a year, that hasn’t changed.
— Jarek

I always appreciate Zé’s feedback which is consistently balanced and considered! It has helped me improve at my job, integrate into a8c design, and keep me
— Vivien

What’s one thing that Zé does really well?

Zé is always great at providing relevant, thoughtful design feedback, and perspective. — David

I always appreciate how he delivers feedback: clear, direct, and easy to understand. He is always trying to challenge us and push the design one step up but with a clear understanding of the reality of each project. — Fernando

Productivity and organization! Zé is great at making the “Welcome to the chaos” at Automattic a lot less chaotic. — Andrei

Zé is a very supportive and passionate person. If you need help, you know he’ll be there for you! — Veronica

Zé is really good at inspiring others to be thoughtful about their work. That often means sharing honest, actionable feedback and critique, which leads to higher work quality and more confident design choices. He’s eager to ask questions (often spicy ones) and challenge others’ ideas. Personally, I like that a lot since it always
results in the final thing being a lot better than the first iteration.
— Jarek

What impact has Zé had on you personally?

Since the day | started at Automattic, Zé was key for my personal & professional growth. He was really supportive, genuinely caring about me as a person and professional.
Starting at a new job can be challenging, but he made it easier and smoother!
— Fernando

Zé has always encouraged me to reconsider my assumptions about the ways of working here at Automattic — to think about the different forms of communicating we have, the pros and cons of each, and how they are received by the people reading
them. As a newcomer here at Automattic, I’ve found his advice invaluable.
— Joe

Zé helped me to acclimatize to the team and always supports me if I’m in any kind of
doubt — Magda

Zé is a good listener and a great communicator. He effectively turns thoughts into words, motivating me to improve in this regard. — Wagner

Zé taught me how to set priorities both for work tasks and personal goals. I appreciate his practical and grounded approach to solving problems. I’ve learned to
use it in my own work to tackle bigger projects and take up new challenges. With Zé’s guidance, I feel that I’ve become a fuller, more focused designer. — Jarek

What’s your favorite memory with Zé?

So far, my favourite memory is opening zoom for our first call together and discovering such a relaxed, thoughtful, and down-to-earth person on the other side of the screen. | knew I’d been assigned to a good team. | suspect I’ll have a different answer to this question after our team meetup next week! — @onejosephk

Last year my wife had a baby and I was taking a 5-month paternity leave. I’ve never had an opportunity to be off work for such long period, realistically since I joined the workforce after college. I was very worried to say the least! Zé was very supportive and helped me to navigate the hand-off process before my leave started. He checked in with me during the leave to keep my worries at bay — Andrei

Thank you Zé, for all the work that you do, and the way in which you do it!