What I Learned from Leading a Team

Things I Wish Someone Had Told Me

When I joined Samsung on a startup within the Visual Display division, one of the main things that attracted me to the opportunity was the chance to join early and build a team from the ground up. Over my tenure at Samsung I had the privilege of doing just that. I interviewed people across different disciplines and ended up growing a small design team of three.

The process of interviewing candidates was by far one of the most rewarding experiences I have had in my career. I found it fascinating to see how different people approached similar problems and I wrote a short post about that experience. But I digress; this post is about my experience of leading a design team.

I am what you would call a full-stack designer: I span the entire design discipline. I also venture into the product management and front-end development side of things. When the time came to grow my team, I first wanted to find other full-stack designers. I wanted to structure my team so that each designer could have ownership of a project from start to finish.

As so often happens, the reality of life paid no attention to my plans. I interviewed two designers who were particularly amazing and had great potential. I hired one UX designer and one visual designer. I still wanted them to own projects end to end and, luckily for me, we had a culture of transparency and growth in our team. We believed that failure is the best way to learn so we welcomed it, and expected everyone to fail every once in a while. It means that you tried but were just slightly off the mark. It helps you hone your intuition and makes you faster and more efficient.

Process

I always knew that a team needed some sort of structure to succeed. Over the course of our first year, I worked closely with all aspects of our product and team. I had developed a good idea of what our design process was, and I drafted a visual guide and showed it to my first hire. She agreed with it and we presented it to the whole team.

When you show someone a process that appears structured, the knee jerk reaction is to think that it’s a waterfall process. It is important to note that ‘agile’ is not the absence of structure; rather, it’s a case of scoping smaller for a more iterative process. That process looks a bit different when it comes to design. Design has a lot of phases within it, especially when you are building a product from the ground up.

I made sure to emphasize that our process was more of a checklist, to keep us honest to our craft. Each project has different needs, and designers need to think things through, so this flow corresponded to that thought process.

For more about the design process we settled on, check out my article on A Modern Design Process.

Roles & Responsibilities

How your team works with other disciplines is crucial to its success. There are many successful companies that have a culture of ‘us vs. them’, but in a growing startup, that mentality cannot survive. Teaching your team to respect others and their disciplines, and understanding the relationship between the two, is essential.

Coming from a larger company that adopted a waterfall process, it was easy to fall into this trap. Forcing yourself to speak about the entire team as ‘we’ and not ‘the PM’ or ‘the engineer’ has a profound impact on how you subconsciously think about them. Showing your team that you respect not just them, but others in the organization, sets the right example. It helps you create a positive environment that will stimulate your people to grow.

Assigning Work

Each project requires a skill set as well as knowledge of a range of different skills or areas of design. Assigning the right designer to a project should correspond to their strengths. You should consider what the secondary and tertiary skills for each project might be, and then see how these opportunities might be leveraged to help your team grow.

For instance, a new complex flow required the creation of new paradigms. This fell much heavier on the UX side, so I assigned my UX designer. She wanted to grow her interaction design skills and for this particular flow, motion could play a key role in simplifying it. I challenged her to try new prototyping tools to help further her interaction skills, while adding a new software to her resume.

Encouraging Growth

How do you help someone grow? More than that, how do you even start to help someone who is content with what they’re doing and where they’re at? This is one of the hardest question to answer as a leader. It is also made more complex by the fact that the answer will be different for each individual in your team. There is no ‘one size fits all’ solution when it comes to helping people. To be a good leader, you need to really know those you lead.

Understand what makes your people tick, and where they want to go. It is your job to get them from point A to point B, and you can achieve that by giving them assignments that offer the opportunity to grow into what they want to become.

E.M. Kelly once said:

The difference between a boss and a leader: a boss says, ‘Go!’ — a leader says, ‘Let’s go!’.

When all is said and done, this is the key to helping your team grow: lead by example. You are not perfect and you need to know that. What is important is that you identify the things that you lack, and grow yourself. In doing so, your team will grow too.

Critique

I believe critiquing your team’s work is essential to the growth of the team as a whole. It goes deeper than just playing devil’s advocate; it’s about educating your team with the knowledge and thought processes to put up their own defense. I learned the most when my managers and bosses ripped my work to shreds and helped me build it back up again. I learned from those mistakes and didn’t make them again.

The crucial point, though, is that this took place in a safe environment: that’s what made it a learning experience. Set up formal reviews and force yourself and your team to present as if the CEO was in the room.

My visual designer was shy and softly spoken. We used these critiques as opportunities for her to challenge herself. I wanted to get her ready to be able to carry her own when I wasn’t in the room to provide assistance. I critiqued not only her work, but how she presented. Having me play the bad guy in those meetings meant that she was better prepared to face those who were not primarily concerned with her growth.

Networking

Networking is an essential skill for growing and surviving in a corporate environment. Your ability to network becomes a benefit or a hurdle for those who rely on you. Learning how to network is crucial, but teaching it is often overlooked.

The more you network, the better you can position yourself and your team. The size of your professional network can help you with all of the above. Most importantly, it can help you in helping your team.

Getting buy-in from the right people helps you secure the best opportunities for you and your team. Knowing who’s who and making the best impression raises your team’s status, both within your company and throughout the wider industry. It also broadens your horizons on what is happening in your field so that you can stay up to date.

Connecting my visual designer with other designers within Samsung positioned her to stay at the cutting edge of platform design language, and to play an active role in moving the company forward.

Negotiating

Like networking, the skill of negotiation is a pre-requisite to being able to achieve major goals as a leader. As an independent contributor, being able to negotiate is the difference between keeping a project on track and missing the mark. As a leader, the stakes are even higher. Your ability to negotiate can win your team projects, secure all-important funding and, more importantly, build the connections you need to help your team thrive.

The power of negotiation is evident when dealing with stakeholders from different disciplines. As a designer, the ability to negotiate and get buy-in from an engineering team to build a seemingly complex experience that will ultimately lead to stronger product positioning is often a hard argument to win. Feeling out who needs what, and how to get everyone on the same page, is a key to negotiating in the workplace.

Lead by Example

Steve Carell’s character, Michael Scott, in the TV series ‘The Office’ perfectly captures the mayhem that can ensue from a boss who so desperately tries to be everyone’s friend.

Returning to the quote from E.M. Kelly, the key is not to look at your position as being ‘the boss’, but rather to embrace it as an opportunity for you to be a leader. It’s not about barking commands at your employees. Change your perception of the role from being the person in charge to being the mentor who wants to see their people succeed. To lead means to lead by example.

Protect Your Own

Humans are herd animals and thrive in environments where we feel safe. If we don’t feel safe, then we consider our environment to be toxic. As an independent contributor, the environments that I considered toxic were the ones in which knowledge was hoarded. In that environment, there was no time to learn or grow as you constantly had to look out for yourself. In contrast, the environments that made me feel safest were the ones where I knew I had support. Unsurprisingly, those were also the environments in which I grew and thrived.

As a leader, I wanted to make sure that I could create an environment like that for my direct team. A big part of doing that involved putting my ego to one side and shouldering the responsibility (or blame!), even when others had made mistakes. This isn’t to say that there weren’t any consequences, but it is essential to let your people know that you will protect them. This will help ensure that you are creating an environment in which your people can thrive.

The Bottom Line

To me, the bottom line of being a leader is to be everything but that. It is not about holding a title or the power and authority that might come with it. Being a leader is about being selfless for those who trust you enough to follow you. Commit yourself to your team, be honest and humble, and they will return the favor. As a leader, you curate your team’s culture. You can create an environment that people will pursue in the future, or one that they will flee from.