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Bossing It in association withLBB Pro
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Bossing It: Leading by Example with Maciej Zasada

02/04/2024
Production Company
Łódź, Poland
148
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The founding partner of Le Polish Bureau on the lessons learnt from his mentors, the utopian workplace and audiobooks
Maciej Zasada is a multi-award-winning technology innovator, experimental product designer, and founding partner at Le Polish Bureau, a global creative technology company. With a passion for creating cutting-edge digital products at the intersection of technology, psychology, and social interactions, Maciej designs digital experiences that push the boundaries of creativity in XR and machine learning for some of the world’s most iconic brands, including Google, IBM, Disney, Nike, Airbnb, Twitch, Amazon, and the BBC.

He started his career as an interactive developer and technology director at UNIT9. There, he led multi-disciplinary technology programs for Huawei, Samsung, Nissan, and Reebok, as well as the launch of Slavery Footprint, a multi-platform experience, supported by the US Department of State, that measures the impact of modern slavery in the production of everyday consumer products.

A TEDx speaker and a jury member at FWA, D&AD, Campaign Tech Awards, and Executive Member of IADAS, Maciej led technology design on “Star Wars: Lightsaber Escape”, a second screen Chrome experience, created in partnership with Google and Disney. He's the recipient of the world’s first Apple Vision Pro FWA award for “Closer’, a voice communicator app that utilises the device's spatial capabilities to immerse the user in an AI-generated environment to represent the meaning of the message visually.

Maciej is a frequent speaker and commentator on the power of mixed reality and AI to transform the future of businesses and society for the likes of The Next Web and TED.

His work has gained numerous awards and recognition, including Cannes Lions, Webby, Art Directors Club New York, The One Show, D&AD, Clio, SXSW, and an Emmy for 'Just A Reflektor', an interactive dual-screen music video for Canadian rock group Arcade Fire in collaboration with Google Creative Lab that enables user’s data to transform the film visually and instantly.

LBB> What was your first experience of leadership?

Maciej> It was in 2012 when, together with UNIT9, I opened Le Polish Bureau. Back then its purpose was different - we were servicing UNIT9 exclusively, making us more of an off-shore office. My role as a co-founder was in practice mainly managerial - I was building and managing the local creative-tech team.

LBB> How did you figure out what kind of leader you wanted to be – or what kind of leader you didn’t want to be?

Maciej> As a creative technologist, I had no proper education in how to run a business, or manage people. So my approach was to be humble, to keep my mind open to the suggestions from UNIT9 leadership, and to be honest with the people around me. I decided to lead by example, as my creative-tech skills and passion for interactive digital projects were those traits that I felt confident and proud of, I was focused on inspiring people and getting them to follow me.

I soon found this very powerful and fulfilling. In a way, not having an MBA gave me the freedom to not have to prove that I’m the best manager. I felt free and willing to admit to being wrong and to see examples of how things could be approached differently.

Today, I feel that this approach not only was in line with my values but also let me build a very strong authority as my leadership was never based on force or rules.

LBB> What experience or moment gave you your biggest lesson in leadership?

Maciej> It was when covid struck, and all the market was low. When companies started laying people off, we prioritised keeping every single person in. So we asked everyone whether they’d be willing to sacrifice a portion of their salary instead and to have it paid back once the market is better. Once again, the management leading by example.

The response was incredible - people voluntarily reduced their salaries by as much as 100% (i.e. they worked for “free”) for several months to let us all persevere. This taught me that if the company leads by vision, example, and when it inspires, people work not just for the money.

LBB> Did you know you always wanted to take on a leadership role? If so how did you work towards it and if not, when did you start realising that you had it in you?

Maciej> I found myself in a managerial position a little bit spontaneously - because of my technical achievements accompanied by good communication. I guess it made me a good example to follow, and I wanted to give it a go. It quickly started to be rewarding when I saw people look up to me and follow my advice, which a lot of times appeared to work. When I saw my team grow and soon be able to produce amazing work on their own, I knew that whatever I was doing worked.

LBB> When it comes to 'leadership' as a skill, how much do you think is a natural part of personality, how much can be taught and learned?

Maciej> I believe that leadership is driven by the underlying values and vision that the leader expresses. There are lots of books and courses on leadership, and they cover very different approaches to it. We use our values to choose the path we want to take. However once we’ve chosen it, I consider education invaluable - some books, had I read them earlier, could have saved me years of trying and failing.

LBB> What are the aspects of leadership that you find most personally challenging? And how do you work through them?

Maciej> The first one is very pragmatic - finding enough time to dedicate to my team. This is because I’m also focusing on the creative strategy of the company. As a result, I worked out this “leadership by vision” approach, where I focus on actively showing people amazing new ideas or ways to implement them, and having them follow this vision, makes me a leader, even if indirectly. Still, I’d love to be able to dedicate more time to the “hard” leadership. 

Another thing is disciplining people. I like to believe that people work because of their passion and that they share a similar vision and goals. So rather than disciplining them, it’s better to provide them with the tools they need to succeed in the working environment. So whenever someone underperforms or if their attitude is off, I first look at what I am doing wrong that results in this behaviour.

This makes it easier to miss more concrete issues where a given person simply lacks certain key skills or if they simply are unable to work as a team. To overcome this “bias”, I learned to consult the feedback with a wider team more frequently.

LBB> Have you ever felt like you've failed whilst in charge? How did you address the issue and what did you learn from it?

Maciej> Thinking about the answer makes me feel strange. Because no, I cannot recall anything that I would categorize as a failure. But this is very far from me saying I made no mistakes. Oh boy, I made a lot of them! It’s simply that they all also gave me information that I didn’t have back then, and they let me grow and make more informed decisions in the future.

There’s also rarely a 100% right/wrong decision or outcome. For example, I came up with a new product idea. I was so excited. What’s more, I’ve led my team to share the excitement and belief that it really might be a killer startup. We even managed to get pretty big partners on board. But one year later, we still couldn’t score a single client.

Was the outcome a failure - I think it was. But have I failed? My team still can’t believe how or why clients didn’t see what we saw in it. We’ve gone through an amazing journey, building a service, and learning so much about it, while keeping the investment to a reasonable level. So I consider this a lesson, not a failure.

LBB> In terms of leadership and openness, what’s your approach there? Do you think it’s important to be as transparent as possible in the service of being authentic? Or is there a value in being careful and considered?

Maciej> I’m very utopian. In an ideal world, I’d like for everything to be transparent to our employees. I’d like people to decide on their salaries, having insight into the company’s performance. I’d like people to have flexible roles, contributing to whatever they feel they can and want to contribute the most. I still didn’t manage to achieve it in practice, but I don’t think I will ever stop trying.

LBB> As you developed your leadership skills did you have a mentor, if so who were/are they and what have you learned? And on the flip side, do you mentor any aspiring leaders and how do you approach that relationship?

Maciej> I had great mentors. The first one was Gilles Boisselet, UNIT9 Tech Partner back in the days. I was barely 21, and I started as a passionate Interactive Development (Flash) intern. As my boss, his leadership style was new to me. Simple, brief, no bs. I literally remember our briefing chat to be something like “Here’s a Tech Lead you’ll be working on, here’s your computer, good luck”.

Some could find it odd, but to me, that was what allowed me to grow so much as a professional. I saw no limits. No boundaries. Just the “computer”. And I knew I had to kill it. But how - that’s only up to me. It allowed me to find my way. This is still very strong in me when leading other people. Give them the “computer” (the tools), and let them fly.

Later in my life, I started working closely with Piero Frescobaldi, the UNIT9 Group Chairman, who taught me more about business than I could get by reading all the books available I think. It was a much more pragmatic knowledge, but his leadership also shared the freedom and flexibility for me to implement. Once again in my life, I got the tools (the knowledge), but I wasn’t given boundaries. I wish everyone could be this lucky in who they meet as their leaders and mentors.

Personally, I’m not sure if I should take any credit for it, but I brought in to UNIT9 my dearest friend, Krzysztof Wyrzykowski, who rose by my side from a junior dev to an amazing tech director and leader. I was also lucky to mentor developers who now work e.g. at Apple. It is heartwarming to hear them say they learned from me, and that they loved our collaboration. All I’m doing though is just trying to inspire, listen, and be honest in the feedback I’m giving.

LBB> In continually changing market circumstances, how do you cope with the responsibility of leading a team through difficult waters?

Maciej> Personally - it tends to be stressful. But my cure for this is work. Probably not the healthiest cure, but well, it works for me. As long as I’m actively trying to work on solutions, the stress is suppressed. But practically speaking I certainly tend to always expect that we might suddenly have way less work. I’m being open about it with my team too.

But I try to put people first, not making any drastic moves until absolutely necessary. Finally, I focus on a vision for the future. I try to anticipate what might be useful in a few year's time, and we prototype and prepare the solutions ahead of time.

LBB> As a leader, what are some of the ways in which you’ve prioritised diversity and inclusion within your workforce?

Maciej> As a global organisation, we are open to hiring people from all over the world. We try to focus only on the requirements that are necessary for the job, while ignoring the rest. To facilitate this, we also embraced a fully voluntary office attendance, making it possible literally for anyone to work with us, from anywhere.

LBB> How important is your company culture to the success of your business? And how have you managed to keep it alive with increases in remote and hybrid working patterns?

Maciej> Culture is important. But a common vision and mission is more. In times where hybrid or remote work takes over, it is impossible to keep the same level of cultural activities and habits as it is when working from the office. We can try - we have monthly company meetings with updates, pizza, and games. We have off-topic Slack channels and activities.

But we need to be realistic about it - remote work is a different culture. Not worse. Just different. This is why having every employee understand the company mission and vision is so important. The mission doesn’t change when in- or out of the office. And it keeps everyone going in the same direction.

LBB> What are the most useful resources you’ve found to help you along your leadership journey?

Maciej> People with a much greater leadership experience than I have. And audiobooks.
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