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From a Military-Trained Electrical Engineer to Design Director

December 17, 2019

Patrick Davis’s background (so far) has included military training, electrical engineering, consulting, an attempted political run. It may not seem obvious to the outsider, but design became the tool to pull it all together. During his time in the Global Executive MS in Strategic Design and Management (GEMS) program he continued to build on his leadership skills, growing far more than he ever imagined possible. We chatted with Patrick to hear more about his diverse trajectory.


Tell us a bit about yourself and your professional progression.
I started by earning a degree in Electrical Engineering at The United States Military Academy at West Point and then served as a Cavalry Officer in the US Army for five years, which included 27-months in Iraq across two deployments.

I earned a Master’s degree in Civil Engineering online as I was transitioning out of the Army, and then spent several years helping organizations such as Fannie Mae, Royal Bank of Scotland, Bank of New York, and UBS get a handle on their data and leverage analytics while recovering from the global economic crisis.

While in consulting, I completed my MBA at The Wharton School in their executive program, and then transitioned into a role where I built and deployed a fully custom web-based application to help five of the world’s largest banks manage their compliance with the most difficult and contentious provision of the Dodd-Frank regulatory regime (the Volcker Rule). Over the course of my career, I’m thankful for having the opportunity to spend considerable amounts of time working in New York City, Washington DC, the United Kingdom (Edinburgh and London), and Buenos Aires.

In 2017, I stepped out of the private sector for 4 months and ran a losing local political campaign for the office of County Executive in Orange County, New York. My current role is leading the design for a global data platform aimed at helping tens of thousands of PwC professionals use data to better serve their clients across all industries.


You obviously don’t have a typical “design” background. How do you see design?

I have a background in engineering and see a lot of similarity to design. I’ve never been picky about the definition myself. It’s all about using creativity to solve hard problems.

I used my creativity throughout my time in the military and continued in the corporate environment through consulting. I saw how design would help even if I never formally acknowledged it. Design is about getting to the root of the problem in a way that you can test and make sure what you’re doing is working.

You don’t start knowing the answers. Design gives structure to the creative process.


How did you find out about this program?
I think I found it through LinkedIn.


You’ve had a wealth of experience in industries ranging from the military, to global financial services, to politics. Why did you deem this program as the best fit for your career goals?
I knew that I wanted to continue developing myself as a leader and as a student of the world. It’s important that this was an executive format so I could continue working while learning, as I’d experienced before.

I was very attracted to the idea of supplementing my background with something a bit more creative, something very different than what I’ve done in the past—being around people with backgrounds I was not familiar with at all. The opportunities in the GEMS program to help me explore areas I’m passionate about with a new set of tools, from a global perspective, while building new relationships was extremely valuable for me. 

My decision to do GEMS was because I’m very committed to being of service. During my political run I saw the opportunity to return to service and have an impact. I also saw inside the system and understood how we’re stuck in old ways. I wanted a program that provided a space to be creative and bring new solutions.


Prior to enrolling in the GEMS program, you also earned an MBA. What skills are you learning in the GEMS program that were missing from a traditional MBA, or how do the two complement each other?
I did my MBA in an executive program while working full time from 2012-2014. I think the programs can be extremely complementary, but in most ways, the structure of the programs are completely different. My MBA program had a cohort of 160 people coming from an impressive set of the world’s largest companies. GEMS is much smaller, but still represents an amazing, and arguably more diverse range of companies.

During GEMS I built my entrepreneurial tools that reach far beyond the industry-specific strategies taught in business school. I also saw the parallel between many contemporary work environments in how you creatively collaborate when people are not always together in person.

I learned the most from the studios where you work with real organizations on real world, tangible projects while getting exposure and opportunities to skills from leaders in their fields. We got to meet influential leaders like the CEO of National Geographic, the head designer for Lloyd’s Bank in London, and the VP of Market Development for Smart Cities & Regions for Deutsche Telecom, among others. Those relationships will continue into the future.

In GEMS I experienced a lot more personal growth, by way of improved understanding of myself as a creative leader in business and by immersing myself in a cohort of other creatives from all over the world and across many industries.


What did you learn from the various global intensives that you may not have learned in a more traditional program?
The intensives were great opportunities to directly work with people from industries and organizations that I had never been exposed to before. Although I was familiar with the general constructs of the finance industry for our Community Reinvestment Fund (CRF) studio, I had never spent any time in fashion or textiles before, which was the industry for our second studio.

Again, the small cohort size gives you a great level of access to the clients, and the creative design focus of the GEMS program gives us quite a bit of flexibility in how we approach the most challenging problems that our client partners were interested in solving.

Throughout the program, we spent a considerable amount of time in Paris, our home away from home, as well as Copenhagen, New York, and Shanghai. All of these helped shape the learning environment in very interesting ways.

GEMS visit to IKEA headquarters in Sweden after the Copenhagen intensive weekend.


What is a challenge your industry faces today, and how does this program give you the tools to solve these design problems?
Regardless of industry, I think we are facing many challenges as a society that have been introduced over the past few decades by advances in technology, the internet, and social media. The very nature of how individuals come together and operate in an organization, and how those organizations exist in an increasingly complex and interconnected world continues to be disrupted in ways that we don’t yet fully understand. I do believe that business and design are the answer, and it’s important that any of our solutions—or more generally, how we create a better future in the face of uncertainty—must be focused on solving human problems.

This program spent a lot of time building personal and team-level empathy and compassion (and in a global, cross-cultural context), which is completely necessary to have in order to understand what problems are out there and the impact—both good and bad—that different solutions might have on people.


Can you give an example of how you’re taking what you’ve learned in the program and applied it in your current position? For example, what specific tactical skills do you have now that you didn’t before and how have these skills driven business growth?
Roger Manix’s course in Leading Creative Teams was like nothing I’ve ever experienced in any other learning environment. The immersive nature of the play-based learning techniques that he expertly deploys are so effective at delivering intellectually challenging and impactful lessons in emotional intelligence and human compassion.

Because of this experience I am a better, more inclusive, leader. I can also confidently state that he had (and continues to have) the same level of impact on the lives of many members of our small cohort. Each one of us has taken learnings from Roger’s course into our daily work environments by showing up as more compassionate leaders. Many of us, including myself, have brought Roger and his organization, Ludolo, to conduct workshops and experiences in our organizations.


How did the GEMS program impact the way you approach work, clients, your team, and leadership?

At West Point, every undergraduate student studies leadership more than any other program. I’m also constantly reading about leadership, so I thought I’d learned what there is to know about the subject. I never envisioned that I’d come to this program and grow so much.

The value of the program for me is that I’m approaching what I do from a much more confident, human-centered, and design process-enabled way. The program has also improved my ability to manage and lead creative people and teams, and how to interact with stakeholders who are relying on the creative work.

My creative confidence has never been higher. Interacting with my cohort and world-class faculty, and exploring the use of design tools, has given me different ways to test the intuition I had developed through years of experience about the problems we are facing and the impact of our environment on the lives of people at scale. As a result of the program, I think about my work completely differently, and have the confidence to make some pretty serious changes in my career that are necessary to make sure the work I’m doing aligns with the impact and change that I’m interested in creating in the world.


What was it like bringing a military mindset into design thinking? How could design thinking be useful for other military personnel and veterans?

The military, like any other “business,” is all about people. Our work in understanding how to develop and foster emotional intelligence in people and within teams (through play and otherwise) is absolutely critical in that type of environment. I’d love to see more of this type of learning happening in the military.

As a veteran, I’m also excited about the personal opportunities this program uncovered to help me build my identity in a way that wasn’t directly tied to the military or my service, but honored both of those things by helping me look at them through a different lens.

I’d love to see emotional intelligence and compassionate leadership taught to all future leaders in the US military. It’s something they focus on quite a bit already, but I really think that the play-based approach we studied in the program is unmatched in its impact in teaching these difficult things.

There’s not a problem out there where design can’t be used. Design leadership is important for building teams more effectively and dealing with issues of morale and cohesion.


Why is a globally focused design driven program important today?
It’s about perspective. Technology and the pace of life today forces us all to exist in our own silos and bubbles. Having first-hand experience learning from people experiencing what is going on in the world in their own ways, and from their unique perspectives, creates the opportunity to build insight that you wouldn’t be able to build through anything other than immersion.

By comparing how certain cultures or areas of the world are differently and similarly impacted by or responding to many of the same types of issues, we are able to develop a better understanding of potential solutions and systemic challenges that wouldn’t exist otherwise. We are now connected in a way that makes that learning and insight possible, and therefore it’s necessary and helpful to have it.

The program is global, not just in name. A good portion of our cohort was from abroad or living abroad. GEMS is also interesting for anyone considering working abroad in the future.

How has GEMS made you think about the relationship between design and leadership?

I have defined three evolving beliefs about the power of design and leadership.

First, design is a powerful tool that can produce, and has historically produced, both extremely good and completely disastrous outcomes for society. Therefore, design is a weapon that must be wielded carefully by leaders who have the immense power to motivate many people and dedicate scarce resources towards an objective. Leaders must understand the consequences of their actions on the people they serve and on the world we share.

Next, design is critically dependent upon and inextricably linked to a fact-based view of the world around us, how things work, and the human condition. There are no shortcuts to achieving this, and design in a vacuum, without acknowledging these realities, is not valuable. Leaders must relentlessly pursue the truth on behalf of the people they serve.

Finally, I believe that design which embraces the complexity of systems, and which is done intentionally following a thoughtful process, will always be better than designs that do neither, and will almost always result in something better than the status quo. Leaders must have the courage to seek and create innovative solutions to problems, and then lead through change, even in the face of great difficulty and countless challenges.

At the end of the day, systems designed (or not designed at all) with the wrong values in mind results in a democracy and markets that are beholden to extreme wealth, special interests, and bad actors. We need to do better with thoughtful design. Our solutions for the future must directly address the human element from all possible angles, and design thinking is an extremely transformative strategic tool for building sustainable businesses, better government, and a better world.

Learn more about the Global Executive Master of Science in Strategic Design & Management (GEMS).

Written by Anne Ditmeyer.

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