IBM Design
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IBM Design

Design Lead into Management: how I discovered motivation through ambivalence

discover, management, leadership
Photo by Merlin lightpainting from Pexels

First day excitement and jumbled thoughts:
Will everyone like me?
I love what I do, what can go wrong?
Everything can go wrong!
I can’t believe I’m here, and where is here?
This is a huge responsibility.
I got this!
Will I remember everything that I learned?

Rewind: how I faced the chaos

Wait, let me back up. About a year ago, I faced a career choice, a proverbial fork on the road that urged me to choose what was next for me in my career. One path led to continuing as an Individual Contributor (IC), while the other pointed towards Management.

I faced my inner chaotic thoughts to understand what I wanted. I completed ‘T model’ exercises for years, to understand my strengths. However, this time it wasn’t working. It was important for me to see where my passions felt reconciled, so I sat down and kept a running list of my career goals. As an IC, I could continue my detailed project contributions to the team. As a Manager, I would be responsible to develop talent and contribute to future strategy. Do I actually have to choose? Why can’t I have both?

Ultimately, I leaned towards the Management path. But please note, becoming a Manager didn’t happen overnight. This journey takes us back a few years to when I was a nurse. Prior to getting into design, I was a Registered Nurse (RN), helping run the day-to-day family business. I juggled both clinical shifts as well as office management. For my clinical shifts, I administered patient care and collaborated with the care team. For my office manager shifts, I concentrated on our resources: how to keep great talent. Our weekly payroll operations also kept me quite busy. In retrospect, this experience became my building block for leadership and career growth.

How I filled my knowledge cup

“I think you travel to search and you come back home to find yourself there.”
- Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

I’ve always been an inquisitive person, the somewhat annoying child, always asking “Why why why?” As an adult, my questions focused on people’s motivations so I could understand my own. Questions like: “Why do people make the decisions that they do?” My natural curiosity led me towards reading. Especially during tough days, when I felt depleted, one way for me to replenish my energy was to read a good book. I read a lot to fill my knowledge cup, and there were always days when that cup needed filling. I had questions like: “What makes a team successful? What does it mean to be a woman and POC in a managerial position? How can I better advocate for my team members?”.

Here are some books that I read (or listened to) that filled the gaps in my knowledge:

How I pursued help when needed

As this self-exploration journey continued, I found I wasn’t sleeping through the night. Something needed to change. Through IBM’s Employee Assistance Program (EAP), I found a therapist who I talked to on a regular basis.

To ‘seek’ help seemed to trivialize that help was essential to my work-life balance. I considered myself a strong female individual, but what does that strength include? This past year stretched my capacity and I felt an unprecedented weakness. It was deep and unrelenting. I labeled my fears and identified losses.

In addition to therapy, I established formal mentorships that gave me comfort, like a warm blanket on a rainy day. All the amazing people gave me encouragement. They enabled me to build back my confidence to focus on my career goals. I created an intent, one that I can go back to when I felt doubt about my purpose.

I didn’t even know it, but all this guidance helped me to heal and recover. Through this, my goal is to create an environment of optimism that empowers each individual on my team to perform at a potential that even they do not imagine possible.

How I closed my rings

Apple Watch Close Activity Rings
Image by Apple Watch

During my first few weeks/months as a new manager, I established a weekly system to offer a sense of completion. It’s like how my Apple Watch reminds me to close my activity rings each day:

  1. Confirmed that each individual understood the work is part of something bigger. I noted the things that made each individual excited. Any small thing that made him/her/them happy, energized and engaged in the work. I used these observations to make connections between project work and passions.
  2. Made sure they understood their superpowers. During our 1:1 meetings, I gave compliments when warranted and was not bashful about what I observed. I used direct language: “Your strength lies in knowing what types of questions to ask at the right moment in time.” Another example: “Your greatest strength can sometimes be your weakness, I’ll tell you why…”. I communicated possible action items and made sure each individual understood my expectations.
  3. Completed my managerial checklist at the end of each week. This one seemed obvious, but it’s a critical part of each week. I dedicated uninterrupted time to get my checklist done. For example, if the first step of a task revealed steps that weren’t accounted for, I time-boxed those extra tasks. It was crucial to check off those incremental to-dos off my plate to keep momentum going.

This journey reminded me of my commitment to the design community. My support system helped me through tough times and I am forever grateful. As a result, I can proudly say that I now sleep through most nights. I am able to give back wholeheartedly and cultivate a culture of trust and belonging.

“This is the crux of management: It is the belief that a team of people can achieve more than a single person going it alone. It is the realization that you don’t have to do everything yourself, be the best at everything yourself, or even know how to do everything yourself. Your job, as a manager, is to get better outcomes from a group of people working together.”

- Julie Zhou, The Making of a Manager: What to Do When Everyone Looks to You

Chris Rader is a Design Manager at IBM based in Cambridge, Massachusetts. The above article is personal and does not necessarily represent IBM’s positions, strategies or opinions.

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