This week on the Full Stack Leader we’re talking to Haley Stracher, founder and CEO of Iris Design Collaborative!

Idc is a full-service design company that focuses on websites and apps. Haley has 6+ years of experience with website and app design as well as social media marketing. In addition to Iris Design, her experience at the Chicago Tribune paved the way for her to create a digital design agency with a high-level clientele.

Haley’s Top Leadership Tips:

Below is a summary of the Top 5 Leadership tips shared during the interview this week. Take a listen to the episode to learn more about the thoughts behind these tips.

  1. Listening
  2. Structure
  3. Be Aware
  4. Trust
  5. Empathy

We hope you enjoy the episode. You can find even more Full Stack Leader episodes here:


Show Transcript

Ryan: Hello everyone. And welcome to this week’s episode of the full stack leader podcast. This week, I’m here with CEO of Iris design collaborative Haley Stracher, Haley. It’s great to have you here with us. 

Haley: Hey, Ryan. Thanks so much for having me today. 

Ryan: Yeah. I’m excited to talk to you. We have similar worlds that we work in.

And I’m excited to hear about how you came up in your career. Maybe you can tell us a little bit about where you started and how you got to where you’re at. 

Haley: Yeah. Yeah, for sure. So, at least for me, I was always an artist at heart. I graduated in journalism and worked my way in art, in journalism.

Right. So I had done graphic design, photo journalism at different newspapers. And I was at the Chicago Tribune and I made these awesome infographics and things like that. And I was like, You know, everything’s moving digital. So how can we kind of take these storytelling and this information and move it into digital sphere where we can tell all these awesome stories and get all these inform, get all this information out to the public.

And I just ended up forging my own path. I left the Tribune and worked as a barista at Starbucks and kind of freelance digital design until I kicked off my company. And, you know, had enough clients to be able to stop being a barista at Starbucks eventually. Um, Yeah. And just grew the business from there.

It was, it’s been a really awesome experience so far. 

Ryan: That that’s amazing. Okay. So I know the barista stop is always a good inspirational in between jobs. So that’s great. I’ve been there. I know that I come from a similar background. I worked at the New York times a number of years back as well.

And I remember as they were making their digital transformation as well, like really the way they were. Exploring the concepts around how to bring digital visualization to, to the storytelling of the paper. What were some interesting aspects of that for 

Haley: you? Yeah, so I think for me, like I loved that like, infographic style. And so I was working in the print world and I was like, oh my gosh, like I would, I would kill to do this in the digital world. And funny enough, I remember I had applied to like a position for, at V for a digital infographic designer.

For like every time I saw an opening, I was like, apply, apply for every type of designer that they had. And then when I had I had my company for four or five years, I actually had Vox come to my company and hire us to do these micro sites that had all of these different interactions for these different, impactful stories they were telling.

So one of. One of the pages we did was for domestic violence. And we had all this different user experience for like, if someone is actually looking at that page, how they can quick exit, if they have, you know, a spouse or someone in the home who they don’t wanna have them see that they’re looking at that, but they could still see the stories of all of the people.

Yeah. Yeah. So it was just really cool to be able to have like design this interactive experience that was. Really sensitive to like, you know, an important, impactful topic that a lot of people struggle with, you know, not just women, but men and, and everyone in between. 

Ryan: That’s amazing. And how do you, like on some, a project like that, how do you work with the company to storyboard the ideas and, and come up with your own unique takes on the infographic itself?

Haley: Yeah. So we were really lucky. The in-house creative director at Vox gave us like these really awesome, like, branding ideas and mood boards. So we were able to like, bring that mood board to life on like the feeling of how you want the story to flow. We actually had one cool one that was.

Traditionally, it’s a vertical scroll, but we had like a horizontal scroll as you moved through it. This one was a travel one. So you were kind of like traveling through the different places that you were discovering through a, a horizontal view, almost like a, a Panorama, right? Like a virtual reality when you’re looking right, right.

And left. And so, yeah, it’s, it’s so fun and interesting to think about those different experiences and how people use websites or apps and how they’re actually gonna view them. So. that that one was actually a really other fun website that we did too. 

Ryan: That’s amazing. When you’re bringing on designers, what are some of the things that you’re keeping in mind in terms of their ability? Is there something different than an average web designer that you would need in, in a business 

Haley: like yours? Oh, absolutely. That’s a great, that’s a great question because hiring is one of the most difficult, but most important tasks I think you can do as a business owner.

Right. You’re always like, oh, I gotta go through all these candidates. yeah. And So I think for me we have such a, I mean, it’s in the name, but we have such a collaborative environment. You know, it’s important that people have the technical skill of actual design. Yes, of course. But there’s also the skill of collaborating with the clients and collaborating with each other.

Most of the time, our process kind of looks like we’ll collaborate with the client. We love having like those conversations from different perspectives of like, you know, Business owner perspective or they’re the industry expert, but we are the industry experts in U I U X. And then we kind of group together as well.

So if one of us comes up with an idea, we like pass it along together and we’re like, what do you think of this? What do you think of this? Is this obvious? Is it not obvious? So having people on the team who are open, willing to feedback and like. Are, you know, interested in doing that type of thing is a really important in like the company culture of things.

And I really look for that aspect, those soft skills when I’m hiring. 

Ryan: What are some of the things that you check in on, on that front? Because I know leadership often starts with picking the right kind of personalities for the organization, much like you’re, you’re sharing, but actually getting down to who they are during an interview can be really difficult.

Do you have any special tricks for that? 

Haley: Yeah, so That’s actually a really good que that’s a really good question. I think normally I can kind of tell from even just a 10 or 15 minute conversation, if the vibe of someone I’m talking to is kind of like matching what, how I want that person to represent the company.

Because they’ll be talking to clients or messaging clients or whatever. So. You know, if there’s a warm vibe, a friendly vibe and hiring is interesting because you need a mix of people, right? You can’t just have all these extroverts who are like, oh my God, hi, nice to meet you. Right. You need the, yeah.

You need like the mix, the introverts and the middle ground people so that you have different perspectives. So I think having somebody who’s like friendly and comfortable. Is an interesting way to do it. And we also have a technical skills test that we have everybody go through and we actually have them present the test to us as if they’re presenting to a client to kind of see how comfortable they are doing that type of thing.

Ryan: I love that. That’s great. I’ve always found on the design side of things that there’s a lot of pressure around deadlines. Do you have a way of kind of measuring how people deal with the stress of delivering or how they can collaborate to get through that? Is that something you keep in mind? 

Haley: Oh, my gosh. That’s a really great question.

I think I’ve learned a lot about deadlines. First and foremost, most people like don’t know how long it takes you to design something. Right. So, you kind of set your own deadlines and set your own expectations. Right? So at first I feel like, oh yeah, we could do that in a couple days. I’ll get, I’ll get that to you in a couple days.

And yes, while we could probably do it in a couple days, I like to give like a buffer time of. You know, things happen, right? Family, emergencies, traffic, just maybe unexpected things. And on top of that, if you take your time a bit and get second feedback from things you’re gonna deliver the better version of the design versus rushing through it.

So when somebody says to me oh, you know, when can you get this me by? I really need this in a rush. I’ll say. How does this time next week sound and we can get on a call, you know, like this time next week and review it together. And normally that’s fine if they have a crazy, crazy deadline, like I need this tomorrow.

We have to have it go live tomorrow. That’s when I say, okay, let’s meet tomorrow morning and do like a little a powwow, just like a catch up. And then I split the work between a couple of team members. So that one person in isn’t just overloaded by themselves with like, Massive undertaking. So those are like a couple of ways that I’ve learned over the years to manage deadlines is definitely a skill that you acquire over trial and error.

You know, you do something under a short deadline. You’re like, I’m never doing this again. 

Ryan: right. Yeah. I’ve been there. I know. I’ve, I’ve learned it the hard way. Many times. Yeah, I have an interesting question. I’ve been following this with a number of different people, but especially in the, in the world of design and what you do and the amount of presentations that you do.

And it sounds like the amount of interactivity and the types of design that you do, how much has the digital office versus the real world office space affected the team collaboration and how do you feel you’re doing in kind of the new way of. Managing people within the, the, this digital workspace that we’re all using so much more.

Haley: I actually love this question so much because I personally prefer a digital workspace after having been in like that cubicle environment for the first part of my career. 

Ryan: And, and what, how do you facilitate it with your team? Like how do you get the most out of them within it? Yeah. 

Haley: So I think like tools have come a long way.

The design tools now, like Figma has a collaboration. I literally won’t use anything that doesn’t have some type of collaboration aspect. Like instead of sending a Microsoft like document to someone I’m always using Google documents because I know someone can come in it and edit it and comment it, and you can see it live versus having the issue with version control version.

Control’s like a huge problem. When you have a bunch of different files and everybody’s like, you know, maybe. Your client has a file. Your team has a file and you don’t know who’s working and what, so having like one central master thing for everything is a really good way to work with everyone.

And then I love the way that this new remote work environment has made it easy for people to be like, yeah, I’ll hop on zoom. It’s no big deal versus before it was like you know, you would go out and meet for coffee or you’d go to a networking event or you’d have to like figure out where someone was.

It was just a little harder to meet people, or it took more effort like in the upfront effort of driving there and figuring out the plans. And now you can just send someone to zoom link. See you see you at 1130 and we’re all there. . 

Ryan: Yep. That’s amazing. You also brought up an interesting thing. One of the things I love about Figma as well is the, the live view.

So you can actually watch where people are going with their cursors, what they’re highlighting, things like that. We, we also use that in whimsical as well. I think that’s been a, a bit of a game changing tool in terms of like getting concepts back and forth from people. 

Haley: Yes, absolutely. I think like I’ve had multiple occasions where me and one of my teammates will be in a meeting and like, there’s something wrong with my screen share or whatever.

And he’ll just be like, it’s okay. I’ll screen share. And I’ll follow you cuz he’s just following my mouse around as, as I’m showing it. So it makes it so, so easy. Yeah, you’re absolutely right. I know Adobe acquired Figma recently, and so I’m really looking forward to whatever, like Adobe XD comes into and the collaborative things that I would like to see them do in all of those Adobe products that actually go with website design. Cause like when you’re doing the actual. Illustrations and things like that.

You need illustrator, Photoshop and all those things. It would be great to have the Figma like collaboration within Adobe. 

Ryan: Hmm. That’s great. Is there a specific tool that you use for just whiteboarding concepts with clients and having multiple team members in one session and being able to kind of just get concepts into a visualization?

Do you do that directly in Figma or is there something D. . 

Haley: Yeah, so we used to use lucid chart and then Figma came out with the fig jam whiteboard, which was also good. And I really like both of them. I think there’s a industry. Like people underestimate the importance and value of actually whiteboarding something versus just jumping straight into these like high fidelity designs that are all, you know, beautified.

Before really like whiteboarding and getting on the same page with how things should function or what the intention is like behind the beautification of things. So like whiteboarding is literally one of my favorite things at fig jam is my go to, but now that the Adobe acquisition of Figma, I don’t know, I’m gonna have to go back to Luci chart, maybe

Ryan: Yeah. And, and there’s some other good tools like Miro and whimsical. I would check those out as well. Both, both. 

Haley: Oh, yeah. I, I also love Miro. 

Ryan: Yeah. Yeah. They’re they’re great. So let me ask you this. If you are working with a client and you bring one of your team members in to work with them as well.

How have you, as a leader, best set up your team member to represent the company? It reminds me of something you brought up a little bit earlier in the conversation, but how do you have them? Really bring the, the sensibility that you want for Iris to, to bring. Yeah. So 

Haley: I think the soft skills are important.

So I think they kind of, you know, watching me lead and sort of, being in a couple of those meetings as a note taker at first is a good way. Sometimes ease someone into a project that maybe I have been managing thus far. And structure, I guess, is another really good thing is because without like structure, then you can’t really like hand off things.

You have to kind of write down everything that you normally do. You know, even if you, as the business owner you’ve been doing it forever and you’re like, yeah, I know this is obvious. We do this, this and this. Like, no, write it down. so with every single project, with every single. Client that works through, comes through the door.

We have basically a big brief of what they gave us initially, so that if somebody has to be added onto the project or caught up to speed, like there is structures in place where, okay. They know everything that’s going on. We’re doing this in week one, this in week two, this in week three and this in week four and the project debt’s a week five, so that they can kind of take it over in that way.

They know the structure. And when you have that structure behind you, they feel confident to just like be themselves. Trust is a big part of having a team around you. So there’s also a little bit of trust. You’re like, okay. You know, I’m trusting you and these, this is the structure, you know, the roles of the company, like go fly

And I’ve been amazed and it’s been awesome to see all of the designers just grow within the team. It’s really awesome. 

Ryan: I love that go fly. That is a, that is a great, great phrase. So one of the interesting parts of owning an agency, which I’ve, I’ve learned over the years Is that you’re servicing so many other clients all the time and thinking about them that sometimes it’s hard to be a leader and think about your own business.

I don’t know if you have the same experience or not, but I know it can be a challenge. What are some of the ways that you bring back your attention as the leader of your own business, even when you have a lot of clients to service. 

Haley: That is another great question. Cuz it’s also another trial and error, right?

Like you learn it over time, right? When you have gotten maybe a year. Or so with the same clients and you’re like, wow, I haven’t done any new client acquisition, cuz I’ve been busy, a good problem to have, but like, you know, you wanna continue to grow. And do like marketing and things for yourself. So I structure my weeks in a way where I make sure that there’s actually a time for, for my business, whether that’s accounting, whether that’s team management whether that’s just like checking it with people, Hey, how is it going?

How is this project? What are you, what, what have you been up to with this client? So what I do is on Mondays and Fridays, I have like a three or four hour block that I just dedicate to whatever administrative things. I need to do, and I won’t take any meetings during those times. I treat them as if like it’s a time that I’m like going to get my kid from daycare.

Like you cannot meet with me and so there’s a lot like my sacred times. And sometimes if I don’t have any business things to do, I’m able to use that time to like recharge myself, which is just as important sometimes as like some of the administrative tasks to just kind of like reset. And maybe go to a special coffee place that morning and take my time doing something.

Ryan: That’s awesome. Yeah. I, I understand that too, those blocks of the calendar really make a big difference and having this, this self restraint to adhere to them as well is really important. 

Haley: Oh, my God. Yeah. There’s sometimes where, you know, if you’re in the middle of a big project and you know, someone’s like, oh, I, I, I need to meet this time of Friday.

The only time I can meet. And it’s like in, I’ll call it like the golden hours. You’re like the sacred hours. Yeah. I’m like, oh, okay. We’ll do it. Cause because sometimes she doesn’t have to. Right. So it’s not a perfect system, but you try your best. 

Ryan: it’s, it’s a, it’s a, it’s an ideal. Maybe not perfection. Yeah.

yeah. Are there, are there any moments in, in since you’ve started running Iris, that you really have challenged yourself as a leader that you can think of that really represent either, either a big moment that you came into or a moment that you struggled with? Yeah. 

Haley: I think the most obvious biggest moment for me was when we found out I was pregnant.

Obviously me and my husband had talked about wanting kids, but, and we had just gotten married. So, you know, we were like, okay, I guess this is it, but what does this mean for my business? And up until that time, I mean, maybe I could take a four day weekend. I think I took like a week off for my wedding, which was a big deal, but I wasn’t able to kind of like take a couple weeks off.

So the idea of like taking a whole maternity leave, which is anywhere from like, A month to four months or, you know, whatever that might be was like really daunting and especially being pregnant at the time of thinking of how to do that. So it was kind of this big moment where I said, okay, team.

Here’s the news. And you know, we’re gonna spend the next nine months training and splitting things up and structuring the company. And this was a huge shift within mindset in the company too. So that it’s not just, if I have maternity leave, I’m just shifting every, you know, work on my teammates. But if anybody else has something that comes off, comes up.

It’s not like one person has all of the weight, you know? So it’s really like splitting weight evenly and really valuing, like work life balance within the company, because that just makes you. a better leader. It makes for a better company culture and, you know, you want that good work life balance. You wanna come into work and enjoy it, but also be able to like step away if you have something happening and have, there’s like a lot of value in being able to provide that to each and every team member like.

I think if anything has ever come up with a team member now, it’s like, no worries. We got it. We have the structure in place. We’re good. So something that was really scary at first, it took nine months to do , but we, we definitely did it. And I was just a, a better, a better leader for it. You know, there’s a lot of leaders who sit there and grind and grind.

And that was definitely me for a long time, like working weekends, working late hours and. That mental shift of having a kid definitely changes things. 

Ryan: I love that pregnancy opened up the concept of delegation for you and, and like real, real true delegation where you have to let go, cuz you have no choice in that scenario.

It’s it’s sometimes the most useful thing you can have as a leader. 

Haley: Yeah. Letting go is so, so hard and like, not letting fear roll. Like your decision making is also a really hard thing to just like move fast. Like, okay. Maybe some clients, you know, won’t be happy or maybe there’ll be bumps in the road, but like, Me fearing them.

Isn’t gonna make them go away or do anything 

Ryan: and, and Andy worked out a solution, right? You really were able to strategize an approach, lay it out effectively execute on it over the course of nine months. So it’s great. It’s a great step in leadership. 

Haley: Yeah. Yeah, absolutely. I was, I was very grateful.

Ryan: And at the end of it, you’re now also a leader of a different type as a mom. yeah, there you go. Yeah. Okay, awesome. Well, I, I really appreciate you giving us this look at, at your career thus far and kind of building your business. It’s it’s really amazing. And look forward to chatting with you a little bit more when we come back.

Break One

Ryan: Why do many entrepreneurs start their business? Often it’s because they’re looking to forge their own. Haley offers an insider’s look at the journey from more secure and established employment to freelance design, and ultimately to building a company of her own. One that allowed her to forge her own path.

She showcases how passion, dedication, and unexpected bumps in the road can inform a leader on how to craft the mechanics of an operation without sacrificing its creativity and unique.

All right. Welcome back with Haley. We’re excited to have you here, and we’re even more excited to hear your top five tips for today. So why don’t you tell us your number one leadership tip. Yeah. 

Tip One: (Listening)

Haley: So thank you for asking my number one tip here is listening. I think some leaders like myself kind of an extroverted person.

And so, you know, someone says something you’re like, oh, I had that experience too. Blah, blah, blah, blah, blah. But like I can be on zoom calls all day, slack huddles, all day, whatever it is. And most of the time I’m. Talking I’m just listening and gathering my thoughts. And sometimes even someone will say, well, I think this, this and this, what do you think?

I’ve even gotten to the point where I will pause and kind of say, well, let me gimme a second to actually gather my thoughts before I respond to you to think of the best solutions that of just kind of like, oh, well this, this, this, and this, and just kind of blurting out a train of thought. And so I think listening is important in that sense when you’re working with someone and also like listening to your employees and your team in like a really intimate way.

So on Fridays, our team has. Do like an hour call you know, where we just water cooler topics. Like, Hey guys, like, what did you eat this week? Did you cook anything? Did anyone like actually work out or did we all say we were gonna work out and we didn’t. 

Ryan: yeah. And, 

Haley: and if you, I really listen in those meetings to like how someone is doing right.

Like, and how their week has been. And take some of like the things that they say seriously, like I’ll even follow up with them and say, Hey, I heard in a meeting that you’re really struggling with this, this and this. Like, are you good this week to take on this, you know, project next week? Or should we piece it up a little bit for you?

Cuz a lot of times as a leader, people will. I’m not scared to come to you, but they don’t wanna come to you and ask for help because they just wanna be like, I could do it. I wanna prove myself, but that can lead to a lot of burnout among people. So really like listening out for those things has been a big thing that I did that I do, that I would say is my number one tip.

Ryan: That’s a great tip. And I know that listening is an art unto itself, and sometimes we forget it when we feel responsibility on us. So it’s an invaluable tip. All right. How about, oh, absolutely. How about tip number two? 

TipTwo (Structure)

Haley: Okay. So I , I talked a lot about this. When I was chatting about the pregnancy and becoming a mom I actually live by this, in my home and it is structure having some type of structure, both in business and at home is step number two.

It keeps me sane. I think like having like, just expectations of What you’re working on. This can be like a task that has all the details for the task. It could be like an employee handbook, which I have found really useful to create. It could be like a client contract. and in personal life, we literally have a weekly schedule on our fridge of like, who puts our toddler to bed that night.

So like, we both know what we’re expecting from each other that day. I literally use this in every sense of my life. 

Ryan: I, I feel you, I have four kids, so it’s. Imagine the multiplying the importance of that. It’s, it’s really important. That structure adds a lot. 

Haley: Yeah, absolutely. And I can keep going with the rest of the tips.

I know we got five. 

Ryan: Yeah. Let’s jump to number three. What do you 

Tip Three (Be Aware)

Haley: got? Okay, so, general awareness. I feel like sometimes I’ve worked with vendors or just. People who maybe have hired as contractors. And I’m like, oh, they got it. You know, like for example, accounting or bookkeeping, like, oh, they’re a bookkeeper they’re account.

They’re an accountant. They’re gonna do their job. This might sound a little cynical, but like don’t trust that they will just do their job. like, don’t micromanage them. But at a high level, just be aware of what’s happening and what’s going on, even with your vendors or things that like, aren’t really your specialty.

Just super important just to say, Hey, what’s the status update? Or just, what’s the next steps. Double check things. If you need to, obviously, if you have great vendors, you don’t have to like check them as much, but always initially when you’re feeling out vendors or feeling out contractors, just be aware of what’s happening.

Don’t think that you could just hand something off that you don’t wanna do and expect it to be done perfectly without any of your like input or things they might need from you to actually get the job. yeah, that’s 

Ryan: a great tip. And being able to handle that at a high level, like you mentioned, is, is a, a craft, like understanding how, when to jump in and when not to all right.

Tip number four. What do you got? 

Tip Four (Trust)

Haley: This one is trust. So earning trust, should definitely be earned in a lot of ways. Like if you just go about trusting everybody who you initially hire or initially work with, you know, You want to have people earn your trust, but be open to that trust.

There’s some people who have been burned and then they’re like closed off forever, right? Like, I’ve definitely met with people who are even hiring designers and they’re like, you know, this designer or this developer like did this and this and this, and now I don’t trust any of them. Like, definitely keep your trust.

Open and give people a chance to earn your trust, because when you surround yourself with people who you trust and admire, that’s when you can like truly actually you know, align yourself with things you wanna work on. Like, for example, some of my, some of my designers I would trust with like my kid or my dog, like that is the level of trust that I have with them.

And you know, Just having that around you makes you lifts you up as a leader. 

Ryan: That’s amazing. Thank you. All right. And the final tip, tip number five.

Tip Five (Empathy)

Haley: Tip number five goes with the trust and kinda listening. And this is just empathy. Yeah. If like, something happens where you know, you have a teammate who has a family member emergency or whatever’s happening.

Yeah, it’s, it’s gonna be rough for a second while you’re trying to figure out, okay. You know, how do I get this project to the deadline that I needed it to? And the same thing we were talking about with deadlines. And so there’s definitely been times where you push up against the deadline. So like just having empathy and understanding for just like.

What people might be going through because the creative being creatives, sometimes you’re not always functioning at that high, like 10 level, right? Like sometimes you got like a five level creativity. So, just really listening and kind of empathy goes with listening, but just like having that empathy and understanding for other people around you.

Ryan: That’s a great final tip. And I think being able to be open to helping foster that creativity is a pivotal part of what you do. So, really, really thoughtful comment to end on. 

 All right. Well, it was wonderful having you here with us today, your insights were amazing. We wish you all the best as you grow your business and, and learn more and more about the, these amazing leadership skills and hope to stay in touch.

Haley: Thanks so much, Ryan. I appreciate you having me here. 

Ryan: One key characteristic of a successful leader is their ability to listen and understand the flow within their own organization. A great leader learns how to time delicate processes like stepping into assumed control over a situation, versus applying patience and gathering a wide array of perspective from their team.

Haley demonstrates how, especially in the creative side of tech, this allows leadership to create an environment that accentuates the best in each member of the team. As she alludes to, the ultimate goal is to give them the tools to succeed while creating mutual trust across the entire company.