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Advice / Career Paths / Career Stories

From the Classroom to the C-Suite: How a Chief Executive at Mad*Pow Is Writing Her Own Career Story

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Jen Briselli, Chief Design Strategy Officer at Mad*Pow.
| Courtesy of Jen Briselli

Jen Briselli has always been driven by a deep curiosity about the world around her. While pursuing her physics degree, she realized that she loved the challenge of communicating complex ideas just as much, if not more, than physics itself. She decided to minor in education and started teaching high school physics, which is when she found her passion for experience design. “Eventually, I realized experience design existed outside the classroom and that there was a whole world of practitioners applying design thinking in different ways.”

For Briselli, that was just the beginning. She left teaching and earned a master’s degree in design, studying experience design, service design, and systems thinking. After earning her master’s, she joined the design agency Mad*Pow. “I knew I wanted to eventually land in a consulting role for the breadth of challenges I’d get to work on. I’m a generalist at heart, so Mad*Pow has felt like home since day one.”

Here, Briselli shares how she runs the day-to-day business strategy at Mad*Pow, empowers teams to do amazing work, and continues her goal of lifelong learning.

What attracted you to work at Mad*Pow, and what has kept you there for more than seven years?

Mad*Pow is an organization where you can do your own thing. You can learn from really smart, creative, compassionate humans, and engage in opportunities to help clients who serve other humans in support of greater well-being. At Mad*Pow, your career isn’t a company-defined ladder with a series of checkboxes to tick as you advance a prescribed path, but more of a choose-your-own-adventure book with a lot of blank pages for you to transform into a narrative structure that can be as flexible as you want it to be. That doesn’t work well for everyone, but as someone who likes to operate with autonomy and write my own story, it has served me well. I’ve had countless opportunities to work with different types of clients on all kinds of challenges; I’ve also worked alongside so many brilliant, compassionate colleagues—it’s easy to see why some folks stay at Mad*Pow for a long time.

What are you responsible for in your role as the Chief Design Strategy Officer?

Part of my role involves collaborating with my three executive colleagues to run the day-to-day mechanics of the business. This part of my role is akin to flying a plane: making small course corrections, reading the weather reports, and adjusting our heading as needed, metaphorically speaking.

The other part of my role is devoted to leading creative practitioners across the organization, who represent several communities of practice focused on UX, visual, and service design; behavior change design; experience research; content strategy; organizational design; futures thinking; and development, among others. This is more of a servant leadership role that feels like gardening to me: thinking about how I can plant the seeds for growth, build structures for support, and provide care and sustenance while encouraging each member of the ecosystem to find their actualization in balance with the whole. All the while, I’m empowering our teams to collaborate with clients in a way that best serves the humans on the other end of every product, service, or experience we impact.

You’ve been promoted into many leadership roles since you first joined Mad*Pow. How has the company supported your growth as a leader?

Extending that metaphor above, Mad*Pow is a place that creates a rich soil for people to grow however they want to grow. We are a little less structured in our leadership development than many folks may be used to, especially compared to more corporate environments. For example, we don’t run people through regimented leadership courses or cookie-cutter training programs. Instead, Mad*Pow provided me with opportunities—lots of them—to stretch my skills, grow outside my comfort zone, and feel safe to take chances while holding me responsible for my own development.

What makes Mad*Pow a great place for long-term career growth?

For some, Mad*Pow is a place to land and spend their entire careers; for others, it’s a place to spend a few years doing awesome work with incredible clients, solving intellectually stimulating challenges, and learning from smart people before moving on to the next adventure. And we’re very comfortable with both of these dynamics and support people wherever they are in their career journey.

Everyone at Mad*Pow has a unique and personal trajectory that isn’t tied to (or limited by) their specific manager, their peers, or their practice. Instead, it’s based on personal goals, passions, and growth opportunities and the places where these intersect with Mad*Pow’s business goals.

As a member of the executive team at Mad*Pow, what are some of your short- and long-term priorities?

In the short term, we are focused largely on finding and hiring folks who can help us continue to grow—not just quantitatively, mind you—and be able to help more clients do the work that leads to real and meaningful outcomes for the people they serve. This includes experience design practitioners of all flavors, as well as business development and operations roles to support and mature the internal infrastructure that enables us to do that work.

Additionally, we believe that the strategic design process often leaves out marginalized voices, including people of color, LGBTQ people, aging populations, and people with disabilities. We are working to build a more representative team of practitioners who identify as members of underrepresented communities.

What is your leadership style like? How do you think it’s helped you succeed in your career?

My leadership style is heavily influenced by my time in education. I wholeheartedly embrace a flavor of servant leadership that involves positioning myself to hold space for others’ learning and development. Good teachers are, by nature, good designers, and good teachers don’t just share information or “command and control” a classroom. Instead, they design and implement learning experiences that empower students to discover and build their own understanding and the tools to be lifelong learners. Strong leaders do the same for their people, empowering teams and individuals to build their own professional narrative and apply it meaningfully to work that serves other humans as much as the bottom line.

We understand that there are some organizational changes happening at Mad*Pow. How do you think these will help transform the company?

The last few years have shown us that change is not a momentary disruption, but a persistent evolutionary process. Ambiguity is not an obstacle to be overcome but the water we all swim in. Thriving in that ambiguity and designing positive change requires us to rethink our organizational structures and collaborative dynamics because we cannot control the future—only how quickly we learn and respond to it. That means empowering a culture of psychological safety and continuous learning for all of our team members.

The concept of a “learning organization” is not a new one, but the process by which organizations evolve is not well mapped. At Mad*Pow, we’re still “making the road as we walk it,” so to speak, but we’re learning and growing together. It’s a subtle but meaningful paradigm shift from planning to experimenting and from directive to distributed leadership, which will empower our teams to do the purpose-driven work needed in the coming decade.

What types of roles are you currently hiring for?

We have a number of opportunities across several teams and we expect to see continued growth through 2022 and beyond. Right now, we are looking for several additions to our delivery team across different practices, including experience research, UX and visual design, service design, organizational design, behavior change design, project management, and more. Our growth team is also expanding and we are actively hiring business development and account relationship roles.

Our specific needs are constantly evolving, so I would encourage anyone interested in Mad*Pow to apply—even if the specific title, experience level, or other details aren’t a perfect fit. We’ll review and reach out in the future if there’s a potential match.