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Google’s Xanthe Wells and Florian Koenigsberger on leadership

A Global ECD and an Image Equity Lead at Google tell us what it takes to lead on culturally sensitive projects

Illustration by Alysa Browne

Cameras have failed to accurately capture dark skin tones since their invention. Google sought to change this with Real Tone — a collection of technical improvements to the Pixel 6 camera and Google Photos that more accurately and beautifully highlight the nuances of all skin tones. The project won a rare Black Pencil for its inclusive product design, and scooped a Wood Pencil in the Impact category.

We spoke to two Googlers who worked on the project, from its inception to its introduction to the public. Florian Koenigsberger, Image Equity Lead, managed the five-year process that made Real Tone a reality, while Xanthe Wells, Senior Director and Global ECD, Google Devices and Services, launched the technology with a commercial by GUT Miami during the Super Bowl and an editorial collaboration with The New York Times.

We spoke to Koenigsberger and Wells about leading on culturally sensitive projects.

Pass the mic even when you’re in charge

Florian Koenigsberger says he was exceptionally invested in Real Tone, having been touched by image inequity in his own life and through the experiences of those close to him. While leading on the product development for Real Tone though, Koenigsberger says the most important thing for him to do as a leader was translate the experiences of others.

“I'm very aware of my skin tone and the context that I grew up in and the fact that I do not experience the brunt of this problem in a way that many other members of my community do. My job was not actually to come into the room and start dictating how this should happen, it was to identify the right people to whom we needed to pass the mic and then in my case, I think one of my skills in this (process) was translation,” he explains.

In translating people’s experiences to other decision makers Koenigsberger was able to get others working on the project at Google the best possible information to work with, optimising the quality of the product he was developing. 

Create a safe space for people on your team to feel heard

If you are developing a product that deals with photographing darker skin tones in a society where skin colour has historically meant people’s rights being stripped away, you should have people of colour in the room at a decision-making level and consider the emotive nature of the project for those people.

“The most important thing about taking on something like Real Tone is having a system in place that allows for radically candid discourse about how the messaging could work,” said Xanthe Wells. “Listening, taking everyone’s opinions and feelings into consideration is key and creating a safe place for those ideas to be shared is critical, regardless of where on the corporate ladder an individual sits."

Put the right people in the right rooms

When dealing with a product development project that includes expertise from so many different disciplines, moving things forward means speaking the language of professionals in your organisation you may not come into contact with in your daily working life. 

“I was very grateful to have a manager throughout the first few years of this project, Chris Conway, who always said ‘you know how to tell the human side of the story, but there are some rooms where that's not what people are going to care about and it's not because they don't care. It's because it's not the language that they speak of their prioritisation,” says Koenigsberger.

By putting the right people forward to speak up in the right rooms he was able to invest in different departments within Google to make the changes that needed to be made in their specific areas to push Real Tone forward as a whole.

“There was this sort of growing coalition of people who I think internalised this mission, stepped into the rooms where their voices went further and said ‘this is why we need to prioritise this’ this is how we talk about it in our world, so that we could actually get to a place where we have research teams and product teams and engineering teams and marketing teams, not only in the US but across regions engaged with the change that needed to happen,” he said.


Put the big picture ahead of your ego

Leadership has evolved and businesses are looking to be more inclusive which calls for a more holistic view and to be truly universal we need to look outside ourselves.

“I don’t think it does anything but help us when we don’t pretend to have all the answers,” said Wells. “I solicit advice and opinions from many people along the creative journey because I know that even though I’m in a place to make many of the final judgement calls, I want to be as informed as possible. I always push people to tell me how they really feel about a piece of work because sometimes in the hierarchical nature of any business, the truth is whispered and not vocalised. My goal is getting the truth on the table.” 

This is part of D&AD's Creative Leader Interview series. Read more insights from top creative leaders here

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