Maria Saba is the VP of Design at ALICE, located in New York, NY. As one of the initial members of the Product Team, Maria has worked at ALICE for the past five years. In that time she has become an established leader responsible for much of the development of the Design and Product.
ALICE’s People Team sat down with Maria to chat with her about what it’s like working with the Design team at ALICE.
What was your first role at ALICE and how has it evolved?
My role has significantly changed throughout my time at ALICE, especially in the past few months when our industry had to adapt to COVID and I started leading Product Management as well. I joined ALICE over five years ago as the first in-house designer. At that time, the ALICE team was only about 15 people. As the first designer, I was responsible for everything and anything that had to do with design. This included designing business cards, to website updates, to the actual ALICE product. Before joining the ALICE team, I had just finished my masters degree and had started my own company that did not succeed. When that happened, I was a little lost and this role gave me clarity on what it was that I really wanted to do.
Over time, as the ALICE team grew, I was able to hire an amazing Design team and delegate roles and responsibilities to different people. I was able to use my knowledge of the design industry to hire the specialized people to focus on marketing design and product design.
How would you describe your leadership style?
One important aspect of my leadership style is that I value giving ownership and independence to my team. It is important that they have a lot of flexibility. I care more about the quality of the work my team delivers than when or how the work gets done. I’m very democratic when it comes to making decisions as I leave space for people to expose their thoughts and debate on what solution is the best.
The other aspect of my mentoring style is the Socratic method, which is based on asking and answering questions to stimulate critical thinking. I coach my team on how to solve problems by asking them what they think they should do and why. If they don’t get it right away, I ask more questions to drive them to the conclusion for themselves. This is a beneficial method because it teaches my team not only how to solve what they are currently struggling with, but how to develop problem solving thinking to apply to problems in the future.
What is your favorite part about being a manager?
My favorite part about being a manager is getting to see people grow and develop. I love to see my team taking ownership and accomplishing more goals both inside and outside of the company.
What is the toughest part about being a manager?
The toughest part about being a manager is when a member of a team grows ‘too’ much and has to move on to something bigger. I am always happy to see them accept new and exciting opportunities, but it's still hard to see a valued team member move on.
Do you have a most memorable ALICE moment?
In February, we were finalists in a design award competition. Because of that, I was able to participate in the IxDA (Interaction Design) conference, which has always been my dream to go to. So I went to Milan to the conference, attended the awards ceremony and we actually won two awards for two different categories. I was so proud of my team and the amazing product they built. Definitely deserved!
How do you encourage creative thinking within your team?
There are many different kinds of design and each area requires a different type of creative thinking. Whenever we talk about more open ended design issues, I always suggest my team to do research. Conducting research on designs and products that already exist allows us to see what users might be familiar with and it gives you insights.
I also encourage collaboration. If they feel stuck, the best thing to do is brainstorm with not only designers but also product managers, customer success specialists and even engineers. Creativity is not an exclusive trait from designers and there is so much to learn from other disciplines.
What tip would you give to someone who wants to move into a managerial position over their career?
A tip that I would give to someone who is interested in moving into a managerial position is that to be an awesome manager you need to guide by example. Particularly in design, it is important to be hands-on and demonstrate your skills to help the team grow. It is important to not be afraid to do work that you may think is ‘below’ you. When a manager is able to step in and assist with any work, it naturally creates respect. Your team will recognize that you are willing to contribute and this encourages them to do their best work as well.