Like my foray into design, I became a manager without much prior, formal, training. I’d like to think that’s not entirely unusual within the design industry. Not many of us opened Photoshop expecting it to one day turn into a bunch of humans you were now responsible for. But alas, here we are, making the best of it and using spreadsheets more than Adobe Creative Cloud.
I want to share a few resources that were helpful to me in my transition into Design Management. These will be especially helpful for anyone who finds themselves in the same position I was several years ago: lacking actual management experience, but eager to learn and grow. It’s my hope that these resources will aid you as much as they‘ve aided me.
One note before I dive in: resourcefulness is an attribute that likely served you well as a designer, and it can continue to do that as a people manager. Although people management might be new to you, and sort of newish to the design function in our industry, it’s not a new across the board. A majority of the problems faced in management have been faced by others before you, it’s just a matter of finding that right person, and learning about their approach. Ok, let’s dive in!
Resource #1: Crucial Conversations
Not long after I moved into my first Design Director role I went to my boss somewhat frustrated at my performance (or lack there of). Here I was a with the title of a senior manager within a great company… but I wasn’t able to do my job effectively. I can’t recall the specific details of what was said, but it likely went something along these line: “When I am in meetings with all these other strong personalities who have super important titles like I do, I can’t hang. The conversation is too intense.” What he recommended to me was the book Crucial Conversations. So, I read it. Realized that what I was feeling was completely normal and began to internalize the methods found within the book.
What I learned is that our bodies sabotage us when we get in uncomfortable situations. When our nerves kick in so does our adrenaline. Which means the blood leaves our vital organs (like… your brain) and runs to your extremities so you can a) fight or b) run away. Neither of those options are really appropriate in professional settings. As it turns out, they’re not really conducive to ongoing, thoughtful conversation either. This book taught me methods to help to keep my nerves in check so I can hang during tough conversations. It also taught me what true compromise and team work looks like (it has a lot less to do with giving things up, than it does finding common ground to build upon).
When I am at my best as a manager, I am using the approaches and mindsets I learned from this book. And when I am not… well… I’m just not at my best. This book has not left my desk since I first read it.
Resource #2: Manager Tools
I’m trying hard to put my design sensibilities aside and say this is the single most valuable resource in terms of formal management training that I have ever encountered. The Manager Tools site feels a bit dated and the podcast music is super cheesy, but if you can get past those things and to the actual content, it’s a gold mine. The folks who put this site together have this joke they like to say: there’s a cast for that. Kind of cheesy at first, but it’s true. Literally, any topic you might encounter as a manager, they have a podcast for it.
I had the good fortune of receiving some in-person training from one of the founders of Manager Tools not long after I first moved into a management role. I wouldn’t trade that experience for anything. It was two, long, non-stop days of lectures, practice, more lectures, and more practice. It was exhausting. But spending the energy early in my career to learn how to conduct 1–1s, coach effectively, give direct feedback, and adapt my communication style helped me establish a solid foundation that I could then build on as I learned from each new management experience.
In my opinion, the best time to learn, or relearn the basics is always right now.
Resource #3: Crucial Accountability
Accountability is hard. Especially when you want people to like you at the end of the day (which, I do). Crucial Accountability is the follow up book to Crucial Conversations. So if you are going to read Crucial Conversation, plan to read this book once you are done
Situations where you have to hold someone accountable rank up there in terms of things that make me uncomfortable. Which means my nerves kick in. Then my adrenaline starts pumping. And now I have to fight the urge to punch something or run away. Neither of which are conducive to facilitating a successful accountability conversation.
Just like Crucial Conversations, this book gave me a framework to have accountability conversations effectively. It helped me learn to use language that was neutral. How to keep the conversation from being one-part accusation and two parts defensiveness. How to approach accountability from an open-minded place.
Fortunately for most of us, having a successful accountability conversations can be a learned skill. This book showed me that accountability doesn’t have to be a negative, stressful thing. It can very much be a natural a bi-product of good management and a positive relationship with another person.
Resource #4: Time
Ya… so… this last one is a bit of a cop out. I’ll admit that up front. Regardless, I believe it to be true. Time is the one resources afforded to all of us that will make you a better design manager. In the same way that learning to design apps or becoming a strong illustrator is something you get better at the more you do it, managing people is something you can learn as you do. You can read all the books and listen to all the podcasts you want, but until you actually start managing people you’ll never really know how to actually manage people. The more time you invest into it, the more experience you’ll gain. The more difficult situations you flub, the more lessons you’ll have for next time.
Management, is just as much learning what not to do, as it is learning what to do. Sure some people are more adept at it than others. But the folks who are truly great at it, they’ve invested and practiced like any other great craftsman would. And even when they don’t get something right, they do their best to learn from it and do it better next time. Using an iterative process to continual improvement is just as much a part of management as it is a part of design. That’s not to say that every designer is going to make a great manager, rather there are many commonalities between the two functions.