The Intrepid Path to Design Leadership

It’s now over two years since I went from being an individual contributor and moved into a design leadership role; which seemed like an appropriate point to pause, do a little introspection and share some of the ups and downs of my journey so far.

Whilst this will be a short account of my personal journey into design leadership, I think many of the points I’ll cover in this article will apply and hopefully, resonate with anyone who has recently moved, or about to move into any sort of leadership role.

Contributor to leader

I wanted to start by taking a moment to be vulnerable and admit that my journey so far hasn’t been easy! At times I’ve felt out well out of my depth and wondered whether I’m actually cut out for leadership. At several points early on in my transition, I was genuinely worried whether I could ever live up to the expectations of others, and more importantly myself!

There have been a number of occasions where I’ve missed being a “real designer”; be that on the phone with customers, collaborating with a product team or tinkering with a detailed layout or interaction. That direct sense of genuinely helping to solve customers problems was why I fell in love with Product Design in the first place. Had I made the right choice? Had I left too many of the things I once loved behind? Would I ever feel confident in this new world of leadership?

Yet I was determined to push through the initial inertia, to be open to learning what it would take to be a good leader and accepting that I would inevitably take a few knocks along the way. I needed to experience first-hand what it meant to be a design leader, to develop my own leadership style and realise, much like being a good parent, leadership is first and foremost about being selfless and investing a significant proportion of your time and effort in the development and wellbeing of others.

Leadership lessons

Reflecting on my experiences to date, it’s fair to say that I’ve had a few stumbles and along the way have learnt a few hard lessons. I’ll talk a bit more about each of these in more detail below.

Downing tools of the trade

The likelihood for anyone moving into a design leadership role is that you will inevitably have to put down many of the tools you were once familiar with. Be it Sketch, Axure or a particular set of design methods; the tools and techniques you once used day-to-day, and to some extent will have mastered, are likely to be replaced in favour of developing softer communication, coaching, persuasion and negotiation skills (to name but a few).

Over time you can literally feel some of these hard-earned skills eroding; moving you further and further away from the craft of design itself. Fear and anxiety start to kick in. There’s every chance you may have been well regarded amongst your peers for these skills, and that these very skills may have helped paved the way for your transition into leadership. Would they now significantly degrade or worse still, be displaced entirely? It was, after all, the mechanical and regular practice of these that once made you a strong practitioner.

Lagging indicators for success

We all want to feel like we are doing good work and that that work is being recognised and valued. For most designers, that sense of fulfilment will often come from the feedback loops we’ve established with our teams, stakeholders and customers. For example, there is nothing quite like seeing a customer genuinely enthused by something you and the team have lovingly designed and built.

However, moving into a leadership role and embracing the types of challenges that come with it fundamentally change the types of work you are exposed to, and with that the cadence of success. Initiatives I’ve been involved with have often involved some degree of change management (people and process) and will likely play out over months rather than days. That is something I’ve had to learn to come to peace with; but has required determination, focus and sometimes just dogged perseverance.

People become your primary concern

As mentioned at the beginning of this post, being a good leader (in my opinion) requires that you put others before yourself. However, being selfless extends beyond giving up your time for folks and also includes what you do as a leader to sponsor, stretch and shield your team and perceptions of your team in the context of your organisation. You have an obligation as a leader to genuinely care for the growth and wellbeing of the folks you’ve hired.

In practice this means you succeed when they succeed. It’s no longer about what you did, your individual contributions to a project or what’s in it for you. Your job now is to stand back a little; to be the advocate for your people and practices, to amplify and credit examples of great work, whilst shielding them from some of the inevitable politics. To do this well you will need to leave your ego at the door, hire great people (some of whom may be more experienced than yourself) and empower them to rise to the challenges.

Trust is key to empowering others

Something I’ve personally struggled with is trust. Hard won, easily lost in my case. My natural inclination, therefore, is to hold things close, as I expect a certain level of commitment, quality and diligence. Delegation for me was hard and I had a habit of trying to step in too often/early to make sure things were done to my own standards. But that approach is not scalable, desirable or even helpful for the team! Of course, sometimes it makes sense and is necessary to be more directive (see Situational Leadership) but I would initially find it hard to adjust my style and bias away from my more directive defaults.

Trust, however, is key to empowering others and allowing them to work at their full potential. As above, part of a leader’s role is attracting and hiring talented folks who can join your organisation, do great work and help you inspire and grow others. But, how can they do that if they are not given these opportunities; and these opportunities will only come about if you as a leader can assume a position of trust.

Design is a function of business

As most designers will profess, it’s very easy to get lost in the craft of design. We can while away countless hours perfecting a workflow or interaction, without a lot of thought given to what impact our efforts will have on the business. Customers will always be our primary concern, but that has to also be in service of moving the company towards its goals. As a leader, it’s your job to bridge these two worlds and drive an approach that often favours pragmatism over perfection.

On the flip-side your likely for the first time to be at the coalface of arguing and advocating the merits (ROI) of design and why the business should continue to invest and scale. Once oblivious to the world of profit and loss, company strategy, objectives and measures; it’s now your job to really understand where design fits in and how it will play a part in the future success of the company. We have to be able to demonstrate how our research and design efforts will contribute to the bigger picture, as opposed to being lost in the purest pursuit of our craft.

Survival Tips for new leaders

Having discussed some of my personal learnings along my journey so far, I wanted to share a few of my own ‘survival tips’ for new design leaders, or those who are thinking about moving into a leadership role. These are some tactics that have personally helped me in my situation and I hope some of these will be of use to you.

1. Find other outlets through which to explore your creativity

Whilst moving into a leadership role might mean distancing yourself from day-to-day design tasks, it doesn’t preclude you from finding other creative outlets, through which to communicate and express your thinking. For me, this took the form of using design tools to visualise concepts like design and development processes, aspects of organisational design and individuals growth and personal development.

2. Apply your design approach/methods to other types of challenges

For anyone familiar with Design Thinking, many organisations have seen successes with applying a design approach to challenges they are not typically thought about from a design perspective. Wherever possible, it’s been helpful for me to continue to apply this problem-solving mindset to a range of divisional and organisation challenges, ranging from recruitment and hiring to improving aspects of how we share and collaborate across teams and divisions.

3. Design vicariously by supporting and challenging your team

Whilst you may not have the opportunity to be hands-on with product work, you still have obligation to get up close and personal with your team’s work. Your job here is to challenge and support your team’s design efforts and foster a community of feedback and collaboration. Being involved with activities like show & tells, design walkthroughs and critiques helps keep you connected to the team, your products and the quality of the design work.

4. Deconstruct initiatives and set intermediate goals

As above, tackling large initiatives or change management projects can be immensely daunting and with that create a sense of inertia. Think about how to take something that may on the face of it seem insurmountable and break it down into milestones or intermediate goals. Taking time to regularly reflect on your progress towards these shorter-term goals and recognising some of the achievements along the way can help to keep you focused and motivated.

5. Experiment with delegation — small steps, build mutual trust

Trust is mutual and has to be earned on both sides. If, like me, you struggle with the idea of delegation, then start small. Find folks with some experience of a similar task, who are pro-active and willing to commit, then give them the problem to solve and trust that they will rise to the occasion. Go through this loop a few times and slowly you’ll get more comfortable with the notion of stepping back, intervening less and seeing the results.

6. Understand what matters to the business

Leverage your design skills to empathise with senior stakeholders. Attempt to understand both what’s motivating and troubling them and seek out the opportunities where design can help. In your first few months find someone who ‘gets it’ and can help you traverse business speak and the wider commercial landscape. Start to develop enough of an understanding, such that you can begin to articulate the value of design in terms that the business recognises and values.

7. Question the intent and impact of design work

Whenever you or your team starts a piece of work, if it’s not immediately clear, stop to ask how it might support one or more of your product or company objectives. Whether it’s a programme of research or an implementation of a solution, check to ensure it can be mapped through to a desired outcome for the business or its customers. We all want to be doing valuable work, and now more than ever, you have a responsibility to ensure your efforts and those of the team will have the desired impact.

Salvation is out there!

Whilst I’ve learnt a great deal over these last few years, I’m still very much on this journey and will no doubt collect plenty more war stories I hope to share others who decide to follow a similar path. It does, however, give me great comfort to know that I’m not alone and there are many of us out there still trying to figure this stuff out.

Along with the writings of many inspirational design leaders, there are a growing number of communities and events tailored to support design leaders, of all backgrounds and levels of experience. I can personally recommend the fantastic community Andy Budd and the folks over at Clearleft have nurtured, and I’ll be returning again for my third year running to their awesome Leading Design conference.

By the way, we’re hiring! If you a Product Designer and looking for a new challenge, do take a look at our open roles on our Redgate careers site.