In the run up to Clearleft’s Leading Design conference in London this October, the team caught up with BuzzFeed’s Cap Watkins to discuss his background, experience and thoughts on the subject of Design Leadership.
How did you make the jump into leadership?
I’m assuming this question is about management, but to be honest I don’t equate leadership and management. There are some managers out there who aren’t necessarily leaders, and there are non-managers out there who are outstanding leaders. Leadership is a professional skill that both managers and non-managers must develop in order to progress in their careers, and it is difficult to jump into. So, while I became a manager five years ago, my growth into a leadership role honestly started before that as a UX Designer at Amazon, where I had a great mentor who taught me what good leadership should look like.
Tell us about your typical day. Is it all meetings?
This is what my talk is about! Come to the conference!
What was the last thing you “designed”?
A better employee database for BuzzFeed. We have annual Hack Weeks, and I use that time to shirk my responsibilities and design/build some things with engineers.
What makes a great design leader?
Strong opinions and very low ego. I find the ability to admit you’re wrong (or even that something you think *might* be wrong), while also providing a solid vision and direction to pursue is a huge part of what makes any leader great.
What do most new leaders get wrong?
They try to control the outcomes directly at a very low-level, rather than set up principles and structures so that people can make good decisions on their own that, taken together, are congruous with other decisions being made across the team. Basically, you have to find ways to scale yourself and your vision for the team without it all relying on you being present for every decision.
How would you describe your own leadership style?
My primary objective is always to put myself out of a job by empowering people and teams to make great choices on their own. Anytime I find myself defining something or making a decision, I ask myself why I’m doing that and whether someone else should be doing that in the future.
What’s the biggest challenge you’ve faced managing people?
Managing managers is insane. With designers, you can see their output, easily track progress, etc. With managers, a lot of their output is opaque to me (I’m not in their 1:1s, I don’t attend their leadership meetings, etc.) — so finding ways to help them, support them and give them feedback at the right times is far more challenging than anything else I’ve done.
Are design tasks a good or bad idea?
We have two types of design tasks we use during interviews. One is a paid exercise, in which we ask people to spend about 10 hours with a prompt we provide and send us their thinking from that time. We use this somewhat sparingly, mostly because portfolio reviews are generally a strong enough indicator to help us move forward. But in the rare cases that we’ve needed more information or couldn’t get a good sense of process from a portfolio interview, I have found that design exercise an extremely useful tool that sends a strong, clear signal about how someone thinks about a problem.
The other type of task we use very regularly is a whiteboard session during our in-person interviews. We do this twice per interview, with two different designers, so that we can get two different points of view. We treat the whiteboard sessions as collaborative, which I’ve heard is different than how other companies treat it. But our goals in that session are not only to learn how someone approaches a problem, but what they’d be like to work with on a problem.
I think the issue with design tasks in general is that most people don’t know what they’re trying to get out of it, or see it as a test with right and wrong answers. We have very specific things we’re looking for in those interviews, based on our role documentation, and we also keep in mind that there are no right or wrong answers or approaches. In the end, we use these tasks and other interviews to ask the question: ‘Does this person’s strengths match up with what we need right now in the roles we’re hiring for?’.
So, to finally answer the question. I think they’re a good idea if you are very crisp about why you’re doing them. I think they can also easily be a very bad idea if you’re using them as tests or if you’re unclear about your motives.
What are your views on distributed teams?
Love ’em, but it works better when everyone’s distributed or when the team acts like that’s how it is (everyone dialling in separately to a meeting, for instance, even if in the same office).
What one piece of advice would you give your younger self?
Chill out. Think long-term and honestly evaluate which design decisions are critical and which you should be flexible with.