My first 8 months as a Design Manager
What I learnt, and what I’m still learning along the way in this new role
In October 2021 I was promoted from a hybrid role, Team Lead, to a manager role at Docplanner. I felt excited and motivated to be growing albeit thinking it was not such a big change since I was already acting managerial tasks; but I was wrong about that 😆.
The first few months were pretty overwhelming, and I felt (and still feel) a bit of anxiety when showing my managers and the team that I’m able to handle the role, all whilst still knowing that it’s my first experience.
Now, already in my eighth month, I’ve started to feel “comfortable with the uncomfortable”. I think I’m handling anxiety a bit better, but I still have a lot to work on. Anyway, I can finally put into words my journey so far. Here are my top seven insights if you are interested, or are going through a similar transition in your role:
1. You’re not a Product Designer
At first, you might still think of yourself as a designer, but it’s over once you become a manager. Some people might say that, in the end, you are still a designer, just solving different problems. The truth is that being a design manager is a completely different job than being a product designer, and you need a different mindset and skills.
I definitely recommend preparing yourself for the transition by participating in some courses, reading books (I recommend the great book: The Making of a Manager by Julie Zhuo), listening to podcasts, etc. But these resources are not meant to be instructions that you can follow: they are meant to spark imagination and debate in regards to how good managers think and act.
The fact that you’re dealing with other human beings means that everything is simply unpredictable. So don’t expect any magic, because without stepping in, allowing yourself to make mistakes, and responding to real-world situations you can never be truly ready.
It’s essential to have a solid plan to transit to the new role and the trust/support of your manager and team. In my case I worked with my manager to prepare a plan that could help me to gain experience slowly and make a move in a natural way for me and the team. I started managing 1 designer more than 1 year ago, and now I’m the manager of a team of 7 great designers.
2. The dynamics will change
No matter how nice or pleasant your relationships with team members are, you can’t expect to stay friends the same way as before with everyone. I read some articles about how managers sometimes feel left out of the team, and I thought it wouldn’t apply to me. But now I know that it does, even if just to some degree. At some point you’ll feel like you’re not part of the same dynamics as before, mostly the informal ones. And that’s something you need to accept.
Also, you’ll need to be more careful about what you say from now on. Your words, whether you want them to or not, now have a different weight. You need to accept that you won’t feel comfortable communicating in the same way as you have been doing in the past. And the same goes, even if it’s hard to accept, for your team members in their communication with you. Relationships with your peers will change, and you need to get ready for that.
It’s so valuable to have other managers on your side, because there are some topics that you can only discuss with them. At Docplanner I have the opportunity to work with experienced managers and great people who are always available to support, help and save my sanity during difficult situations.
3. Be aware of your emotional condition
I think that for anyone in a leadership position it’s important to always keep a cool head and try not to freak out when the unexpected happens.
I’m not saying a manager should be emotionless, but I believe it’s important to have some kind of awareness of your current emotional condition. You need to know when it’s not the right time to make decisions (or even to talk), and also to be aware of what can help you to get your emotions back under control.
I know, it sounds easy to say, but there will be situations where your emotions will be severely tested. For example, when you have to communicate with your colleagues about difficult matters, like when you have to let someone from the team go.
To be honest, I still don’t have enough experience to know or to share any tips on how to deal with these situations, but I think being aware of our current emotional condition is already the first step to being a better manager and human being.
4. Let things burn
This is one I’m still struggling with. I think it’s not only because of the new role, but I believe it got amplified as I gradually stepped out from focusing on one aspect of the product to now having a view of an entire business area and the team that works on it.
Also, my expectations about the new role were wrong, as I was thinking that I could improve quite some aspects in a short amount of time. With the move I got exposed to situations I never deeply thought about, and I quickly got overwhelmed.
The majority of the challenges you will face are not projects you can quickly work on and move on: they require a lot of time and, most importantly, big energy, as you probably have to deal with unpredictable situations, other departments and bureaucracy. As our energy is limited, picking the right battle and keeping the focus is more challenging than ever.
You have to be patient and, in the meantime, accept and live with certain aspects that don’t work perfectly (or that don’t work at all), and this could be very frustrating and dangerous, because you can get used to these inefficiencies.
During my time as a designer, sometimes I was surprised not seeing my manager solve some challenges that were important to me and the team. I didn’t understand why. Now I understand that 😆. There are many challenges to solve, and delivering the right solution can take a lot of time. In the meantime, you need to accept that not all aspects can be improved, and not all problems can be solved immediately and let things burn.
5. Fight the micromanagement beast
I think it’s tougher than I expected. I’m still trying to strike a good balance here. The line is pretty blurry: always support the team, but not so much that it could be perceived as micromanagement, even if sometimes it would be so simple to just say what is obviously wrong and how to solve it.
It’s also important to remember that your team members are different from each other. Some of them need a closer relationship and direct help/support, some need a lot of space, and the majority are between the two. Also, this could change based on the time and the project: you need to understand the differences between your team members and always have them in mind.
As always, transparency is key. Check in with your team every now and then and make sure to read between the lines, because most of the time people won’t tell you directly that they need help or space.
6. Adapt your communication style
Communication is a significant part of most jobs, and it’s especially important in managerial positions. Your communication style should be tailored to suit the person you have in front, the topic you are discussing, and the particular situation you are in.
It may seem easy to say (at the end you just need to share a message), but your goal isn’t just to communicate a message. Your goal is to ensure that the person receiving it fully understands the meaning behind it. Sometimes you need to communicate important matters, and that’s why it’s so delicate to know the most effective way to communicate with the person in front of you.
As it’s not something you can get an easy answer to, you need to figure it out by yourself. It’s still so important for me to establish and keep an honest human connection with each person in the team. This helps me to understand how I can adapt my communication style and be more effective. It’s a very hard aspect of the job but so valuable, and I’m trying to invest my energy in doing better everyday.
7. Take care of yourself
Last point but probably the most important one. There are times when you get overwhelmed with emotions, challenges and problems. You have big projects to work on, tons of work that need to get addressed and also some problems inside the team. On top of that, you have personal issues to deal with, and outside factors like a pandemic or a war that, whether you want it or not, have an impact on you.
It’s very easy to put things off and forget about taking care of yourself. This may happen on many levels, but now you need to support a team of other human beings. In essence: if you’re not fine it won’t just impact your work; it could potentially impact your team as well.
To support others you must take care of yourself
I’m still fighting here, and I don’t have any idea how to separate my personal life from my work life during high-stress situations. What I think is helping me is to talk with my manager and other managers, and to be transparent about when there’s too much on my plate and I need to slow down. But it’s not always easy to recognise (or even accept) when it’s too much: it’s kind of recognizing that you have limits, and that doesn’t feel good.
These first 8 months in my new role have been incredibly challenging but at the same time inspiring. Building and managing a balanced team of 7 great product designers is one of the most exciting things I’ve experienced in the past year.
I’ve learned a lot and I’m sure the next months will be equally amazing, rich in learnings, and probably the insights I shared in this article will change too.
If you want to know more about our kickass design team, have a check out our website 👉 docplanner.design. We are hiring! ❤️
Finally, thank you for the time to read this article.