by Joseph Flahiff

How Tim Gunn makes supportive leadership work

Sep 21, 2015
CIOIT LeadershipMentoring

As CIO you can amp up your one-on-one relationships by learning from a master

“Hello Designers…”

With his first words, Tim Gunn affirms the artistry, person and vision of each person on Project Runway. When Tim Gunn walks into the workroom, there is an electricity in everyone. You may want to hear what he has to say or you may fear what he has to say, but everyone wants to please him. They know that no matter what he says, Tim’s comments will help them find their way.

Do your team members anticipate interactions with you with the same excitement and interest? Do they know deep in their soul, that you have their backs? Do they believe that no matter what you say, it will help them find their vision? They should.

Everyone needs a personal vision

As one of the show’s producers, Tim has a vested interest in each designer living up to their potential. Contestants on Project Runway go through a rigorous evaluation and competition. If they make it to the show, it means they have the chops to be a great designer. Your employees do the same, unless you intentionally hire losers. You hire the best and brightest. You hire people who fit your culture of high achievement. But just like contestants on the show, the people you support may lack direction and personal vision.

A critical part of your job as a supportive leader is to help them find, define and live up to their personal vision. Tim calls it taste and style. Sometimes he calls it “sense of style,” but it all gets to the same idea: A designer’s personal signature is the thing that makes them unique.

Supportive ≠ weak

Project Runway wouldn’t be interesting if there wasn’t a twist. There is always a twist. Every twist puts new pressure on the designers. Tim uses his experience as a designer and his skills as a mentor/coach to bring out the best in each person. In his one-on-one consultation with each designer, Tim doesn’t pull any punches. If he doesn’t like something, the designer knows it. “I’m honest about expressing my opinions. At the same time, I’m diplomatic in how I do critique things if I have a negative response,” says Gunn.

He knows that tearing someone down is no way to inspire them to produce better, more creative work. When you meet with the people you support, do you inspire them to do and be more than they believe they can? Too many people think being a Supportive Leader or a Servant Leader means that you are wishy washy and weak. There is nothing wishy washy about Tim. If he doesn’t like what the designers are doing, he tells them so. If he likes it, he tells them that too. Either way, he inspires contestants to do more, be more and to live up to more than they believe they can. 

No Mini Me

Tim’s goal isn’t to make every designer in to a “mini-me.” His goal is to help each designer develop their own personal vision. He does this beautifully with subtle coaching questioning, prodding and blunt but diplomatic critique. When the pressure is on and the work is headed in a bad direction, what do you do? Be like Tim Gunn and inspire your team to achieve new heights in innovation and creative problem solving. Don’t try to solve the problem for them. If you do, you are just creating a bunch of “mini-me” subordinates, not a team of people you support.


Take a few minutes and consider the following questions. Think about them carefully and ask them about yourself and about your boss. How do you interact with the people you support? Do they anticipate your input with the same kind of energy that Project Runway contestants do?


Watch a Project Runway episode with a critical eye on how Tim interacts with each contestant. Notice how he critiques with a kind but firm word. This is a skill that needs to be carefully developed. It is all too easy to be too blunt and end up as a cruel jerk that no one wants to talk with.

Schedule a one-on-one with each of the people you support and help them find their own vision. Ask yourself, “What would Tim do?” If you see something going in a direction that you think is off the rails, attempt to redirect without being directive. Ask twice as many questions as you give answers. Even when people ask you questions, try to answer with questions.


Do not make this a secret. Share this article with the people you support. Then tell them that you are going to be trying the Tim Gunn approach. If you just start doing it without telling them first, they will notice and get suspicious. Transparency is important. It also models being a person who is always learning.