Learning how to lead (or whatever that means)

Stephen McCarthy
3 min readOct 18, 2017


As I’ve taken on more management and leadership responsibilities my role as a designer has become more complex. These responsibilities are tough, energy sapping, but very important. They help facilitate an atmosphere where you can have a good, happy and productive team. Giving them the space to do great work.

There are many factors at play that can have a negative impact on these things. Dealing with those factors can be difficult. You don’t truly realise this until you have to face them. These are some of the things I’ve learned.

Know when to step in

Managing and mentoring other designers is rewarding and difficult in equal measure. It takes a lot of time and emotional investment that isn’t often acknowledged. Perhaps as designers it’s even tougher because we’re naturally empathetic and want to fix and improve things. The ability to adapt your ways of mentoring to different personalities is key to bringing the best out of people.

It’s important to give designers earlier in their career the space and backing to think for themselves and make mistakes. Making sure they are being rewarded both intellectually and monetarily as they progress is key. The monetary progress can be difficult to implement depending on the type of organisation you are in and the bureaucracy you have to deal with.

Doing all this while still being a ‘designer’ is a hard balancing act and one that’s difficult to master. I’ve had some creative directors that would undo all my good work and ruin it — just so they could put their mark on it. I’ve had others who trusted me to get on with it and gave me the confidence to improve as a designer. Stepping in at the times when I most needed their help or guidance. These are the things you remember as you take those steps up the ladder and decide the type of leader you want to be.

Build your resilience

Earlier in my career I lived in an idealist bubble. I felt that everything in my organisation or team should just run smoothly according to how I saw it. I struggled to deal with awkward people or processes. I consistently see younger designers struggling with the same things I struggled with.

The more experience you gain, the more you realise just how difficult it is to make things run smoothly and keep everybody happy. People won’t always get along and factors out of your control can hinder the work you are doing.

When things go wrong you need to have the resilience and nous to bounce back. In a leadership role you also have to have the resilience to help your team bounce back as well. This can be emotionally tiring as you’ll lose some good people along the way. It’s part and parcel of the job. During these periods it’s important to stay calm and not make any rash decisions.

Ignore the nonsense

I realised early on the importance of that person above me guarding my peers and I from the noise. Enabling us to get on with doing good work. As I get closer to being that person I’m starting to realise how hard it is. I’ve worked with some excellent people who have very different mechanisms to deal with this. Some are good at picking their battles and others just have an ability to ignore the nonsense. Over the last while I’ve had to figure out how I can handle this stuff.



Stephen McCarthy

Head of Product Design at Which? - Ex Head of Design for Government Digital Service and GOV.UK