How to build management skills before you’re a manager
Many designers see management in their future career plans, but it’s not always clear how to build the skills you’ll need once you make the switch from individual contributor to manager.
Opportunities can also come suddenly — you can enter a meeting an IC and walk out a manager. It’s happened to me, twice. Startups. 🙃
If you have the intention to move to a management role someday, take every opportunity to learn and practice today so you can have a basis of experience to lean on when your role does change.
It’s possible to build experience while you’re an IC that will prepare you for a management role. Below are three core activities that managers do as often as every day that you can start to practice now.
And since I know you’re busy with your current job, the bonus is that you can build experience with these things during your regular day-to-day work activities.
As a design manager, you will almost certainly have to hire designers.
If you became a manager tomorrow, how comfortable would you feel with defining job descriptions, sourcing, and conducting phone screens and interviews?
The best way to learn how to hire is to get involved today in the hiring process at your current company.
It’s very likely your tenure at a company will overlap with at least one period of hiring, giving you a built-in opportunity to see the process close-up and build your own hiring skills. All you have to do is volunteer to help.
How to practice building teams as an IC
- Learn from your manager
When there are open roles on your team, tell your manager you’d like to learn more about the process. Ask them about their thoughts on hiring: how did they decide what to look for in a candidate? How did they write the job description? Where did they post it? Use the ongoing hiring on your team as an opportunity to get an up-close view of best-practices.
- Help source candidates
Your ideal candidate might never see your job description or apply, so it’s often necessary to reach out to candidates directly to generate more interest in your role. Help your hiring team by finding potential candidates on LinkedIn, Dribbble, or other networks and emailing them information about the open role on your team. You’ll build your network and get practice “selling” designers on the benefits the role at your company—a critical skill hiring managers need.
- Lead portfolio reviews and onsite interviews
Managers must know how to ask good questions and evaluate a designer’s skills in the interview process. Practice makes perfect here, so ask to be involved in interviews. A great way to start is by co-interviewing with another experienced interviewer. Observe how other interviewers ask questions, and start to write your own interview script — edit and evolve this over time and you’ll have an amazing resource that you can take with you wherever you work. Ask a few questions in each interview to build your skills and confidence. Work towards being able to lead interviews solo — ask for feedback from your co-interviewer after every interview so you learn how to make consistent improvements to your skills.
At many companies, having regular one-on-one (1:1) meetings with direct reports is a core part of a manager’s job — building relationships, giving support and encouragement, providing feedback, and discussing growth and development are all management responsibilities that often happen in 1:1s.
How confident would you feel if you had to start leading 1:1 meetings with your brand new direct reports tomorrow? Do you know how to drive a good 1:1?
The good news is, if you currently have a regular 1:1 with your manager, you have a built-in (typically) weekly opportunity to talk with someone who does the job that you want in the future. So use that time to your advantage!
How to practice driving 1:1s as an IC
- Learn from your manager
Tell your manager you want to learn more about 1:1s, and use your regular meeting time to have some meta-conversations about what makes for a good 1:1. Ask them what their best-practices are: what is their typical structure? How did they develop that structure over time? What did they try in the past that didn’t work? Do they use different structures with different people? What do they do with new hires versus tenured staff?
- Practice in your own 1:1
Let your manager know you’d like to practice running 1:1s by running your own. Come prepared with an agenda of items to discuss. Add calendar reminders for yourself to make sure you discuss your growth and development on a regular cadence. Proactively ask for feedback from your manager — This week I spent a lot of time on X activity; how did I do, and how can I improve? Take notes during or after the meeting, especially about any follow-up actions. Take those actions. Review your previous notes before the next meeting, and then close the loop on previous action items.
If you can drive your own 1:1 to produce a strong relationship with your manager and drive your own growth forward, you will be much more capable of leading 1:1s with your own directs in the future.
Giving effective feedback
Your success as a manager is measured by the outcomes of your team; giving your direct reports feedback is a critical way to drive better outcomes.
Feedback should tell you what to do in the future to get a successful outcome. This excellent anecdote from Sunstein & Thaler’s book Nudge explains how simple yet critical feedback is:
Suppose you are practicing your putting skills on the practice green. If you hit ten balls towards the same hole, it is easy to get a sense of how hard you have to hit the ball. … Suppose instead you were putting the golf balls but not getting to see where they were going. In that environment, you could putt all day and never get any better.
As a manager, you are the one with visibility into how well your directs are “putting.” By giving frequent feedback, your directs will have more ability to improve over time.
But giving feedback can be tough. As a manager, you’ll need to do it often, but at least from my experience, it’s not something I practiced as an IC. When my role changed, I struggled with feeling like the judge of others — I worried my directs would find me mean and dislike me. I really hated the mental image that someone who reported to me would go home to complain about me over dinner that night.
So if you see management in your future, practice giving feedback, and practice often. Books like Radical Candor can be a great guide on the theory and best-practices of giving feedback, but the more practice you can get now, the more comfortable you will be when you do make the switch to management.
How to practice giving feedback as an IC
- Use your 1:1s
Tell your manager you want to build this skill, then use your regularly scheduled 1:1 as a safe space to practice. (Are you sensing a theme yet?) Ask your manager to give you one piece of feedback a week; write it down and consider the words used, the structure of the delivery, and your reactions — think about what made it effective or weak, and discuss that with your manager. Practice repeating the feedback given to you out loud to get comfortable with speaking the words. If they are open to it, give your manager one piece of feedback each week, and discuss the delivery the same way.
Making your 1:1s work for you is a great way to fit in time for your own growth and development each week.
- Ask for more feedback about yourself
You can learn a lot about what makes for effective feedback by soliciting more feedback about yourself. Reach out to peers or other leaders who you work closely with and ask them things like, How could I make my presentation better next time? or I’d love your advice on how I can do X 1% better in the future. Knowing what it feels like to receive feedback, good and bad, will help you build empathy for your future directs and teach you how to phrase and deliver feedback with kindness and clarity.
- Practice with peers
If you have some closer friends at work, agree to give each other feedback. It can be easier to really say the hard truth to a good friend, since they already know you care about them. You’ll both get good practice with feedback and push each other to grow and improve.
This post grew out of a realization I had after moving to a management role myself and quickly needing to hire several more designers—I found myself thinking, I’m so glad I started interviewing years ago. As an IC, I had pitched in to conduct dozens of interviews of product managers, engineers, and designers, which helped me develop the skills needed to hire for my own team. I was so glad to have that basis of experience to guide me.
So I started to think more about the core activities of my job now that I have switched to the management track, and how I could’ve done even more to learn and prepare in my previous role. I hope these tips have shown you some ways to grow management skills within the context of your current job and day-to-day activities.
Have thoughts on this topic? Sound off in the comments or chat to me on Twitter!