0 to 16: A journey of a budding Design Director

Open peek into the path I’ve navigated during the first 6 months of becoming a Design Director/Design Leader, twists and roadblocks included. I’ll discuss the the compass necessary for the hardest challenges, the tools and processes I lean on and what I still need to learn... the things you might face when it comes time to make the journey yourself.


Background: A Senior Designer for close to about 10 months, I walked into an impromptu 1x1 with the Head of Delivery. Not knowing the topic, I prepared to test the first conversation to my secret, maybe crazy multi-step plan to gain a one level promotion to a Lead Design Position, one that did not yet exist at my company. With no warning, I was dropped a shocking opportunity for my career in a single sentence, “Imagine a world in which you’re the Director of Design, how do you think others will react?” Stuttering at the shock, somehow I made it through the grueling weeks to follow as a pocket of our organization turned on it’s head. At the end I accepted, and other’s input allowed my elevation to become reality. But I now sit managing my peers and millennials while being one myself, all with a STEEP learning curve ahead of me. Now, here be dragons:


Team Member to Leader Shift: Critical Processes

1x1 Director Chats

The first new process immediately implemented was both for the team and myself. Upon the transition announcement, I scheduled 1x1 meetings with all 16 members of the team. The purpose was to answer questions and impart the initiatives I wanted to tackle, predictions for my leadership style, and my personal perspective on how this all happened. A direct route to chatting on a new level, plus a peek behind the curtain.

This tactic ended up being so successful and genuine, I plan to have reoccurring Director Chats every Quarter. It’s a chance to understand someone‘s motivations or hesitations, solicit their input for department changes and have their voice heard. A simple discussion is everything.

New Leader Assimilation

I was majorly worried about previously being a Senior on the team that worked side by side, to now being at the top. Would the team respect my decisions? Did they find me capable? Did they view this as a benefit (having ‘on the ground’ experience and feeling their strifes)?

The weirdest thing is walking past a room where you KNOW people are talking about you; and yet it is one of the greatest things I have been a part of. Our Head of People took the team into a closed room for group discussion or ‘New Leader Assimilation Process’ around my transition. The questions were basic:

  • What do you know about Christine?
  • What would you like to know?
  • What are our concerns about Christine becoming our Director?
  • What makes us most excited about Christine becoming our Director?
  • What do we want or need most from Christine?

Afterwards I received a de-brief as well as a very detailed notes document (that was up on the TV and filled in real time) around each discussion point. A great HR representative or group conversation facilitator, one the team trusts is objective, is key to this process’ success.

It is enlightening and more than reassuring to have a direct link into what your team is feeling. Much of it ironically felt the same: “What will her style be?” — No clue, right now I am mimicking the greats. “Is she ready for this?” — Ha, I worry about that too and hope to rise to the challenge.

Some of the commentary also hit home on a personal level. As an individual you hope you emulate certain personality traits you deem worthy, but to have a whole team say: “She has shown respect for people who have different interests” and more… I choked up, feeling validated on the most deeply intrinsic level.

While a majority of the feedback was inline with already targeted department initiatives, certain tactics were then adjusted in minute ways to line up with their desires. They practically handed me a checkbox manual of how to be successful for the team. Do this, if you haven’t already.

Managing Peers

Partners, not peons. Let me tell you, the absolute most constant and challenging aspect of this change is in the blink of an eye being levels above my peers — those who were best friends, allies behind the curtains of the ‘upper leadership’, confidants. It is rough, and not simple.

Friendships are now subtly altered, respect needs to be re-earned in a new role, and every conversation has unknown undercurrents.

Find the balance of blurring the lines of friendship and professional. Simple phrases such as #directorspeakinghere or #friendchristine seem silly, but are actually quite helpful with touchy subjects.

My gut instinct or compass so far —also for this entire discussion — has been to not allow myself to make any decisions or provide feedback without consultation or validation. Bring transparency into issues around the department or individuals, ask for advice and input; lean on your knowledgable peers as effective partners, not just solid ‘right-hand people’. Value any moment they question or poke holes in your logic, helping to widen considerations and your perspective for better decision making.

Expanding Your Vision

Every decision is now evaluated through at least 5 different lenses, sometimes seemingly 100. No longer do you have the blinders of creating great design for your client as your sole focus. One simple question and every consideration moment is now made on behalf of revenue, the individual’s growth, the team, the department, the projects, the company, other departments… etc. You have so many stakeholders, visible or not, that shape your gut responses into an objective only viewpoint.

Be cautious of removing your view so far your considerations seem heartless to the individual.

Your answers can easily become annoyingly practical, when someone just wanted to vent. Prepare for the frustration when others only focus on themselves and their career and you’re thinking big picture. Your perspective has been pushed to change, theirs has not been required to do so. As the leader, you are responsible for worrying on behalf of the team and company, everyone doesn’t need to fall in line to agreement.

Stress Management

One of the toughest things I have faced is balancing stress, especially in appropriate moments instead of all the dang time. When you’re all the sudden responsible for so many things: people, utilization, creative output, the never-ending list…. even a tiny worry in one place compounds the many others. Stress can stack up and become debilitating as you are also growing and learning to manage this new role. I’ve woken up dreaming about resourcing solutions. Now, when my brain is churning on a topic, I catch it, put it aside and come back later when we’re at work trying to solve the issue vs. when I’m eating dinner at home.

Try to let small things go, compartmentalizing moments to freak out during the meeting in which they’re related.

An unexpected stress, yet the majority, is handling the emotional impact of so many. I thought myself to be a very ‘roll off your shoulders’ and low-stress person; yet when you have team members upset, angry or even happy… that emotional bombardment is quite frankly, overwhelming. Top that with keeping your emotions even keel and projecting a calm, empathetic leader to reduce escalations. It’s not so easy to ‘leave at the door’ when you worry about your people on top of the day-to-day organizational tasks.

Hope on the Horizon

Your highest value are those around you, your go-to support team. Especially those willing to mentor your growth or support your decisions, while allowing you a bit of leeway to make mistakes and fail gracefully. Lean on these people, ask advice often and never think showing indecision or needing help means incompetency, it shows relatable vulnerability.

You were not dropped a bucket of wisdom with this new role , and you don’t always need the answers. Always remember others remember that too.

If you liked this, ❤ below to help other design leaders wandering around in the wilderness with a macbook and a prayer.

Tweet at me @cloobird.