10 things new startup design leaders should do
1. Apply your design skills to building your team.
While you may have just received a promotion to the Head of Design or the first design manager on your team, that doesn’t mean that you’re not a designer any more. I quickly learned that one of the most valuable assets I had as a leader was my experience in design. And my new role wasn’t just building and hiring a team, it was about designing a team that met both product and organizational needs. Welcome to one of the most stimulating, complex and exciting design challenges you’ve ever faced.
2. Identify your top three problems/priorities and forget the rest.
You’re going to find out very quickly that there is an endless list of things you think you should be solving. And, in a rapidly growing startup, that’s never going to change. (Sorry, I wish I could tell you otherwise!) The list will be diverse, long, and often overwhelming. It’s a trap to try to do it all.
Identify your top three areas of focus for each of the next 30, 60 and 90 days and make sure you’re driving towards solving them. Then, the things that fall below your top three are perfect candidates for delegating to your team, if possible. Use this as an chance to give your team growth opportunities and contribute beyond their day-to-day project work. Not only will you feel like you’re achieving more, but your team will appreciate the opportunity and you’ll start to identify natural leaders on the team.
3. Build your cross-functional bridges.
You know from your years of working as an individual contributor that one of the most valuable things you can do as a designer is build great working relationships with your cross-functional peers. This doesn’t change when you step into a leadership position. Instead, it becomes far more important.
One of the most valuable meetings I had at Pinterest, was a daily standup with the Head of Engineering, Product and Operations. We not only were able to build trust and address burning issues quickly, we also signaled to the organization that collaboration across functions was critical at all levels.
4. Schedule time to think.
Another common trap is letting your calendar fill up (and it will). You probably know leaders who aren’t good at setting aside time for themselves, and you can see it on their face and in their constant scramble from one meeting to the next. They reek of distress. (Don’t let this be you!)
One of the most valuable lessons I have learned over the years, and that I have observed many senior leaders struggle with, is the ability to set aside multiple hours per week to think. This time can be useful to digest recent meetings and discussions, problem solve, check-in on your goals, and — perhaps most importantly — seek out inspiration. I preferred a block of time at the beginning and end of every week, but find what works best for you. You need focus time where you won’t be interrupted, so get out of the office in a way that works for you: go for a walk, find a nearby coffee shop, or even a museum. Give yourself the time and space to focus on your design challenges (the team). Otherwise, you’ll be constantly scrambling to solve other people’s problems.
5. Connect design results with business impact.
Now that you’re an official advocate for design within the organization, a huge part of your role is communicating the value of design in business terms. This includes identifying key opportunities for impact, directing the team to execute well, and sharing those stories broadly.
Time and time again, design leaders ask me how to create time to do design-specific or sponsored projects. One of the most tried and true ways of creating more space for your team’s creativity is helping the larger organization see the impact that projects have had not only on the people that use your products, but on the business too. Show the impact and value, and your team will gain the trust necessary to take on bigger risks.
6. Create a recruiting strategy.
It sounds obvious, but this one is often neglected or assumed it’ll be done by the recruiting team. Even if you have a recruiting team, one of the most highly leveraged tasks you’ll take on as a leader is bringing new talent to the team. This means you need to have a clear story to share with the world about who you are, what you’re working on, and how they can contribute.
Consider your messaging and potential outlets for sharing this message (social media, conferences, community events, etc.). Get really clear on profiles for folks you want to hire. Your recruiting team will populate your pipeline if they’re good, but they’ll help you find amazing hires if you have a clear, strong strategy.
7. Define what “good” looks like.
This will certainly take a lot of your time and energy, but the impact of having a clearly defined perspective on what “good” looks like for your product/brand is astronomical. If you joined an existing team, they probably already have a set of ideas they use to drive their work. Help extract some of that thinking and develop a clear set of principles or frameworks that help not only your design team, but others throughout the organization understand what a well-designed, high-quality product looks like for your company.
8. Iterate often, even though it’s a public act.
Iteration is another principle you should be incredibly familiar with from years of scrapping ideas for better ones. Now you must iterate on your team’s structure, process, and beliefs. Yes, it’s a little different from your v1-v10finalfinal document naming structure, but the same approach applies.
Learn as much as you can about the challenge at hand, explore potential solutions, and then launch and learn. As designers, we spend our careers putting a lot of our personality into our work and then learning how to remove ourselves during the review/feedback process. This doesn’t change when you become a leader. In fact, it’ll only become more challenging because the feedback will often be on your style and decisions, not a separate and tangible object. Cultivate your inner resilience and use team meetings and 1:1s to gather feedback from your team regularly. Your team will appreciate that you’re open to iterating and constantly improving, and will likely be more open to change if you authentically seek out their input along the way.
9. Bring your inspiration back to the team.
If you’re actually doing #2 and #4 well, you’re creating time for yourself to find inspiration outside the office from other individuals or creative endeavors. Share that with experience with your team. Not only does it illustrate healthy behaviors around creative processes, but it’ll help the team understand what’s driving some of your new ideas and perspectives. When a design leader is inspired, their team is too.
10. Get a coach.
Sometimes leadership roles can get a bit lonely, and finding honest, unbiased feedback can be challenging. One of the greatest investments I made in my past was working with a coach or mentor to evaluate progress against my goals, solve really tough organizational/people challenges, and seek out advice. Don’t ever be afraid to ask for help, because not only will your team appreciate your desire to grow as a leader, so will the people that use your team’s product.
In your new leadership role, you’ll find yourself facing a lot of ambiguity, challenging feedback, and seemingly impossible problems. Just pause, breathe, and remind yourself that you’re a great designer. You already have many of the tools you need to create a great team that builds amazing products. It’ll just take some time, feedback, and humility along the way.
Mia Blume is a Design Leadership Coach living in San Francisco. Currently, she advises companies on how to build useful, well-crafted products and shape healthy design organizations. Follow me on Twitter.