Tips for Becoming a Design Leader
One of the things I love about working at Facebook is the emphasis we put on personal growth and the objectives people have for their careers. We believe a person shouldn’t have to be a manager in order to lead people at the company.
Strong leadership from individual contributors (ICs) drives product development, and as a designer it’s the best way to develop in your career. In fact it’s the reason the IC and manager tracks are parallel, not sequential. Becoming a manager isn’t seen as a promotion, it just means you’re shifting your focus.
I joined Facebook during the summer of 2014, as an IC in the London office. It was an exciting time to join, as product teams were being established in London for the first time. There was just a handful of product designers in the newly opened office, which sits in between Euston Station and Regents Park, over three glass-clad floors.
The London office was a stark contrast to the sprawling headquarters in Menlo Park, smack-bang in the middle of Silicon Valley, where over a hundred designers were based. I got to witness the boom of the London office, as it went from being a quiet, sparsely populated space, to being a hive of activity, with fully staffed product teams and a close-knit culture of its own.
I remember getting feedback from my product manager that I’d be more effective if I played a stronger strategic role on our team, guiding what we work on and how we should go about it. The topic of leadership then became a regular theme of conversation during 1:1 checkins with my manager. Up until that point, leadership wasn’t something I’d been actively working on, or seeking out.
Fast forward a couple of years, and I found myself as a design manager working in Menlo Park. Along with the other design managers on my team, we’ve been thinking a lot about how ICs can develop as leaders. What follows is a list of 7 key things we’ve learnt, and that I’ve experienced myself.
1. Drive discussions
A team I used to be on was thinking of ways they could grow a particular metric. A lot of ideas that were gathering popularity felt really hacky, people were focused on pushing the metric and not the end experience. In this situation, simply saying no and pushing back against these ideas was the most valuable thing I could do.
What’s the important topic that no one’s talking about? The toughest problems get solved when you can have hard conversations with your team. Whether you’re guiding discussion around design feedback, raising concerns about the direction of a product, or you’re trying to fix your working relationship with someone, it’s important to get comfortable having these conversations with your team.
2. Drive initiatives
A designer and researcher I work with were digging through research insights during a design sprint. They highlighted an area our team wasn’t really thinking about. By the end of that week, they’d developed a prototype showing how we could tackle this opportunity. This got the rest of the product team really excited about the idea, and it’s now on our roadmap. If you think an initiative is important and you can prove its value, you’re best positioned to make sure it gets built.
What opportunities can you see that no one else is working on? Discover opportunities for your team, frame and present them. The key is to not only rally people and get them excited about an idea, but to follow through and make the idea a reality.
3. Collaborate beyond your design team
ICs I work with are active at maintaining relationships with other teams, even when there’s not specific reasons to do so. These relationships make future collaboration much easier.
What teams have a shared interest in the problem you’re trying to solve and how could you connect them? So much of our work relies on the relationships we form and how we can navigate and connect the dots between people and teams. At companies of all sizes, it’s easy for silos to form and similar streams of work to run in parallel.
Look for opportunities to showcase what you work on and invite others to share as well. If this forum doesn’t exist, take the initiative to set one up.
4. Seek feedback often
I used to work with a product manager that carved out an hour 1:1 meeting for us every week. Most of the time (if it wasn’t raining), we’d walk through Regents Park and talk about work and life in general. I realized that these walks were the perfect opportunity to get feedback on how I was doing and how I could improve. Product managers often have great insight into the way you work with the rest of your team, so lean on them for feedback.
Who are the people you work with that would give you the most useful, honest feedback? Finding these people and talking with them regularly is a good way to grow. This isn’t necessarily an easy thing to start doing. It can be pretty daunting opening yourself up to feedback, especially if it’s negative. However uncomfortable it feels, this type of feedback ends up being valuable to your development as a designer. The reverse of this is also important.
5. Don’t wait on anyone else
Recently, a designer I work with ran a quality sprint, to fix design and experience bugs for the products we work on. They weren’t asked to do it and they didn’t ask if they should do it. They saw that it was valuable and got people together to make it happen.
What processes can you start to do on your own? If you’re relying on your manager to drive a project forward, or manage meetings and communications with another team, these are all things you can do.
The point isn’t to remove your manager from the picture, if anything they’ll be thankful that you’re helping them out. If a project isn’t being run the way you think it should be, talk directly to the people on that project, rather than waiting for your manager to relay it to the team.
When I was working in the London office, we had a mentor for every new designer that joined the team. It was especially important in a smaller office, where we had less people that could support new people.
What are you great at that others can benefit from? Whether you mentor people on your own team or beyond, there’s always opportunities to help others develop.
You definitely don’t have to be good at everything in your discipline to be a good mentor. A good starting point could be to share what you’re not good at, so you can set expectations and bring other people in to help. Whether you’re helping someone with a certain skill, or just being a sounding board for their frustrations, carve out regular time and don’t cancel on them!
7. Be vulnerable
Facebook was the first place I had conversations about personal growth and career development. These conversations made me reflect on the areas I needed to develop, and how I could tackle them over time.
What are the areas you know you need to develop in? Talk to your peers, your manager and people that have followed a similar path. Be open and honest with them, so they’re best set up to help you out. Like with a lot of the points on this list, it will feel unnatural at first, but learning from others and opening yourself up to new opportunities is the best way to start.
These points aren’t meant to be a checklist. Leaders aren’t always strong at all of these things and there’s not one approach that will work for everyone. Focusing on one or two of these behaviours is a great place to start.
When I was starting out in the London office and the theme of leadership came up, I was still relatively new to the company and it was kind of daunting. You wonder: What it is you can offer in the form of leadership? I hadn’t totally realized the impact I could have on my team, outside of just producing design work.
After being encouraged to mentor people in the London office, I realized it was something I really enjoyed and was a large part of why I became a manager. But, the point is that growing as a designer and having more influence doesn’t have to mean becoming a manager. If you’re looking to grow as a leader, don’t wait for someone to promote you into that position. Uncover the areas where you can lead and just start doing it.