The struggle between leading and managing design

Some readers spotted my previous articles (here and here) being more about management than leadership of design. They were right.

I haven’t been (un)fortunate enough to have a role that just focused on one of those. That would be far easier in some ways. But, I don’t think i’d want a role that was on one side rather than the other.

That said. The different types and amount of effort and energy required for both is not to be underestimated. It’s a huge struggle.

Two sides of design leadership. Leadership and Management.

That’s confusing isn’t it? Yes. It is.

Design management usually seems focused on management of agencies and design process in organisations. You can find lots of useful stuff at the DMI for this. The edges are blurry, of course. But I don’t like calling the management of design and UX folks as design management because of this. It is management. But not design management in the wider understood parlance within our industry. Well done design industry. You’ve confused people again.

For me, there are some distinct difference between the management of a design team. And the leadership of design within an organisation.

Design leadership is more about shaping and selling the offer of design

Design leadership, outside of management, usually has to consider the following. Warning, this is never going to be exhaustive:

  • Driving and ensuring the quality of work
    That infamous creative / design director role
  • Developing clear design strategy
    Whether that’s a vision, principles, missions and initiatives for teams to work on. More of a strategist, visionary role combined with the realism of what the team can do to support it
  • Focusing teams on delivery against the strategy and any outcomes from different stakeholders
  • Evangelising design and the team’s work within and beyond your organisation
    Doing the rounds across the business, on stage at conferences etc.
  • Tackling strategic projects

There are overlaps in the activities, roles and mindsets

At this year’s Leading Design conference, Peter Merholz talked about the roles of a design leader. Coach, Diplomat, Advocate and Architect. A nice way to describe different roles, or modes, that a design leader may have to work through.

For me, the coach is firmly in the realms of management. The advocate, more in the ‘leadership’ space.

But it’s the diplomat and architect roles (or modes) that are the more blurry. I think that’s where there is crossover.

To architect a team, and the processes people will follow. That requires an understanding of the team, its abilities and its potential. What you’d get from line management and the close rapport you should build with your team members. But also, it requires more of a vision, and managing upwards and across, not just down.

And also, the diplomat role, is something that both a leader and a manager need in varying degrees. Both require different types of diplomacy. I’d imagine when in ‘leader’ mode, you might be less diplomatic at times. To get the right cut-through. And as a manager, you might also need to be a little undiplomatic to develop the necessary rapport with your team. Being a bit more honest than I should be with my team, was often a conscious mistake on my part. Letting down your guard helps your team let down their’s. Either way, they both need diplomacy. All designers do. Sometimes.

There’s more than one person can do at one time

Despite having preference for responsibility, or at least accountability, for both leadership and management of a team, I have always struggled to do both equally well at the same time. Sometimes, i’d be a great leader, but a shocking manager. And sometimes, i’d be a great manager, but my leadership took a hit.

I think there’s two main reasons for this:

  1. The amount of time you have
  2. The challenges of mode switching

A lack of time to be a great leader

People will usually blame the lack of time. But let’s be honest, you’re never going to have enough time for anything. If you are a designer by nature, there is always more that can you do. Obviously, as your team scales, you will struggle with keeping up your one-to-ones, your team meetings, and your team reviews.

Line management takes a lot of time to do well.

Line management of designers that is. Designers are high maintenance. Lovely. But difficult, and volatile human beings. Loaded with emotions. Passionate. Talented. They do what they do because they love it. And when work threatens their joy, they can get quite angry. Or childish. Or both.

Leadership also takes a lot of time. Meeting people. Getting on stage at a conference or front of centre in a meeting or workshop. Preparing for this can be exhausting — especially, if you’re an introvert.

Mode switching between management and leadership is a killer

But the real challenge is switching modes between selling and connecting to others. Advocating design — and then looking after your own. It’s that mode switching that’s the killer. Advocacy, and evangelism (at its extreme) takes a lot of energy, and you individually are on show. On test. The stress before a presentation, no matter how experienced you are, can occupy most of your consciousness. That means there is little left for caring about your team.

Imagine if you had just come out of a one-on-one where one of your best team members tells you about his parent dying. How he needs to take time off. How are you going to forget about that and focus on selling the project that keeps your team busy, and in a job, for the next few months? It’s just super hard to compartmentalise these sorts of things. For me at least anyway.

Management demands a focus downwards on individuals

Although you have to consider the bigger picture and report to your seniors, management of designers is usually effort that is focused on them and their future. Not the team or the disciplines. You do have to consider how the individuals impact them, but not as much as you focusing on the specific people in your team.

Leadership is often focused upwards, across and outside

On the other hand, despite the team needing you to ‘lead as an example’. Leadership is more about you representing what your team has to offer to others. How they can help others. Whether to your management, to peers, other areas of the company, different companies, or across industry.

Different ways to tackle the struggle

Although, the above is in no way exhaustive, it gives a sense of some of the differences between leadership and management.

I’ve observed different models of dealing with this struggle, so I’d like to share these here.

  1. Split the roles of management and leadership
    There is some precedent at places like twitter where they split team and management from creative and design direction. It’s great if you have the scale and support to do this well. Also, the right people in those roles. But i’d argue that one of those roles becomes under threat in times of cutbacks. And there’s a high chance of conflict between the two individuals if one thinks they can do some of the others’ responsibilities better.
  2. Distribute the responsibilities across the best talent you have or can find
    As teams scale, line management may need to be distributed to be manageable, and it can’t just be the ‘Jason’ or the ‘you’ show all the time. Find others who can take on parts of the different types of role and support you. It might be that you have someone who is a great leader in all ways other than getting on stage in front of people. Or maybe you have someone who is happy to line manage and evangelise, but doesn’t need to focus on the work as much. If you have some good senior folk or are on the hunt for them, think about how you can distribute the responsibilities based on their capabilities, experience and aspirations to grow.
  3. Get some external support
    Sometimes, you can get sucked into the detail and can’t get necessary perspective. Sometimes, you need to admit that and get some support in. I did, and it was invaluable. Mags came in, caught up with the team, and advised an approach to rebuilding the culture. It really helped. I just didn’t have the time or the perspective to do it. Sometimes, you’ve got to admit you don’t have the time and get in the support. You may realise how much you still want a handle on some of the stuff you thought you could relinquish, or maybe you’re glad someone can take a lot of the load off your shoulders
  4. Try and do it all yourself
    This seems like the common strategy. I think it will result in failure, burnout or an unfair expectation for a future replacement. We are all different, and there are some superstars out there, but there is usually too much to do.

So, I hope to have illustrated some of the differences between leadership and management. I see it as a very fuzzy overlap. And Illustrated some of the ways to deal with the struggle.

I would be interested to know what you think as I know I have probably missed some important stuff.