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Why This Teacher-Turned-Strategist Believes the World Underestimates the Teaching Toolset


Julia Keller, L+R’s director of research and operations, speaks to LBB’s Ben Conway about why her teaching background mirrors the strategy process and has opened up possibilities for her and the studio

Why This Teacher-Turned-Strategist Believes the World Underestimates the Teaching Toolset

Julia Keller is the director of research and operations at L+R, an international technology design studio and strategy consulting firm based in Brooklyn, New York. Entering the industry via an unexpected route - previously being a seventh-grade school teacher - Julia joined the organisation in its early stages in 2016 and has since become a key facilitator in helping the company grow as a strategist and research expert.

As a design-forward company, L+R works with legacy organisations and small businesses alike to integrate the design process and build digital technologies alongside brands - and to this, Julia brings her unique divergent thinking from her experiences from outside of the commercial landscape. This has also shaped L+R’s hiring strategy and approach to talent, allowing them to have a broader and more varied approach that places a focus on generalists and ‘truth seekers’ who can provide lateral thinking to any role.

LBB’s Ben Conway caught up with Julia to discuss her atypical journey and how it’s benefitted her career and L+R as a company, as well as sharing advice on what makes an effective digital strategist and why human relationships are so important.

LBB> What creative content inspired or interested you most when you were growing up? Do any TV shows, films and ads stand out to you?

Julia> I have always been drawn to live performance. As a kid, I loved going to our community theatre with my family - it made me feel very grown up. In my teens, I remember the conversations we’d have on the car ride home and those felt like the beginning of my wondering about the human experience more generally. The shared experience of a live audience and the tangible energy present in the room inspire a collective feeling of elation and eagerness. Maybe a sense of belonging for a moment too. And then of course the palpable human-ness of the live performers - anything can happen and you’re kind of rooting for each other.

LBB> You were previously a teacher - now a design strategist, how did that career change occur? What were some of the biggest hurdles that you overcame in this change?

Julia> I had been working as a seventh-grade teacher in New Orleans for a while and I was burnt out. I came on to support Alex Levin (co-founder of L+R) as his EA - for what I thought would be a couple of months - while I figured out my next move.

I’ve always thrived in team environments (I was a D1 athlete in college, and spent the majority of my childhood on sports teams) and I’m very comfortable being wrong and learning as I go. That combination led to me very quickly taking on more and different responsibilities throughout the organisation. Because the company was young and small, there was a lot that needed to be done, and I was on a team that offered both incredible latitude/ownership and support. So I just kept saying yes and sticking my nose in different parts of the business. 

The biggest hurdle was probably trusting that my perspective and input as a digital strategist was valuable, even though I didn’t have formal training in either design or technology. 

LBB> How does your less conventional background influence your approach to work today?

Julia> It’s allowed us to keep a really wide lens when considering folks for various positions. We love generalists and liberal arts backgrounds because we’ve found that the most impactful collaboration with clients comes from people who are ‘truth seekers’ to their core and capable of divergent and lateral thinking. It’s the embodiment of L+R’s ‘Strategy + Aesthetics’ mantra: being concerned about technical, strategic, design, and engineering excellence at every step, but also the business/user/human impact and ‘why’ in the very same breath. 

Separately, I think the business world underestimates the value of the skills you gain from being trained and working as a classroom teacher. The way teachers are trained to write curricula mirrors the design-thinking process 1:1. You are planning for the impact on and experience of the end ‘user’ (your students), and you are forced to recognise and plan for the diversity that exists within your user group (your classroom). How things are delivered is just as important as what is delivered, and the emotional plane is just as important as the rational plane. Every interaction and collaboration with a client is an opportunity for teaching and learning - we call it ‘design teaching’ at L+R. Design presentations or technical reviews can be more fruitful if planned and facilitated as teaching/learning experiences, instead of monologues with Q&A.

LBB> What’s the most important lesson/piece of advice you received early on in your design strategy career? How does it influence you and your work today?

Julia> The importance of relationships cannot be understated. Alex pointed out to me very early on that behind every digital experience, product or design, there is a human or humans. I think the prevalence of the term ‘user’ in our industry sometimes distances or abstracts us from that fact. Brands, businesses, services, products — behind all of them are real people! Not to mention that in the service industry, the value and impact you are able to deliver to a business is inseparable from the relationship and collaboration established with your client.

LBB> You were one of the first five employees at L+R, starting in 2016. What goals did you have at first - have these been achieved or evolved over time?

Julia> My goal was to do exceptional work for Alex. The competitive edge in me also wanted to prove that I had value to share from my previous experience as a teacher, even when it felt like that was undervalued in the business world. Those goals have without a doubt evolved over time. Now, my goals centre around co-creating an organisational model informed by inclusive and equitable practices, where team members experience a sense of belonging, ownership, and inspiration. We’re also really interested in evolving and communicating the team’s perspective and thought leadership in how design and technology might be leveraged in more mutualistic ways. 

Almost everything about my role has changed since 2016, aside from my close collaboration with Alex. Some of my favourite aspects of my current role include supporting and witnessing the evolving brilliance and impact of my colleagues, seeing the evolution of the organisation as a whole from a higher level, and co-creating relationships and solutions with amazing humans and business people we are lucky to call clients. 

LBB> What advice would you give to up-and-coming talent in the strategy space? What trends should they be keeping an eye on? Who should they be following in the industry? And what lessons should they learn from your experiences?

Julia> I’m not sure I’m qualified to give advice to others - but the advice I live by myself is to worry less about the specifics of a title or role, and worry more about getting into the room - in any capacity - with people I respect, who are doing work I am interested in, and doing it in a way I can get behind. From there, listen for where I might be able to contribute value and don’t be shy about offering that to the group. Also, I tell myself often to be patient.

To be an effective strategist it’s important to be aware of various trends but it’s more important to honour your innate curiosity and to go deep on that. What brings you energy and elevates your heart rate when you talk about it with your friends? Go deeper on that, and then see if there are aspects or lessons, direct or indirect, that can be drawn to your work as a strategist. This is what we mean when we talk about ‘truth seekers’ at L+R. 

LBB> What was your first professional project and what are your memories of that? And what was the project or piece of work that you felt really changed your career?

Julia> My first professional project as a strategist was Global Citizen’s mobile app. They are a long-time collaborator and I’ve continued working with that team to this day, which has been extremely gratifying. With that project there is a big crescendo with their annual festival in Central Park, so I remember the feeling of really pushing collectively towards that shared goal, the collaborative and solutions-oriented nature of their entire team, and the big pay-off of being able to observe in real-time the impact the work and planning we had done at the live festival event.

A project that changed my career was a collaboration with the Mighty Networks team. We executed and leveraged a pretty in-depth user and usability testing to validate a project concept they pitched, and then worked with them to define, refine, design and build alongside long-time partners of ours, Mangrove Web Development. I had the opportunity to work directly with their CEO and head of product, both women with decades of experience in the industry whom I felt fortunate to learn a lot from. They had very high standards mixed with a highly collaborative process and mindset- a great recipe for growth, in my opinion. 

LBB> Outside of work, what do you do to decompress or stay fresh? And what is it that motivates you in work and life?

Julia> I’ve been inspired recently by the research on ‘awe’, being led by Dacher Keltner and his Greater Good Science Center at Berkeley. It suggests that pursuing experiences that elicit awe - like witnessing moral beauty, collective effervescence (e.g., participating in a political rally or going to a concert), nature, music, visual art, spirituality, mortality, epiphany— are connected to a deepened sense of purpose and can lead to more kind and generous behaviour. It has been interesting to bring more awareness to these types of experiences or moments and even be more intentional about seeking them out - and to notice how it impacts my feeling of inspiration and motivation in work and life. 

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L+R, Tue, 18 Apr 2023 15:50:00 GMT