In the run up to Clearleft’s Leading Design conference in London this October, the team caught up with Facebook’s Russ Maschmeyer to discuss his background, experience and thoughts on the subject of Design Leadership.
How did you make the jump into leadership?
I wish I could say it involved pulling some kind of magic laptop out of a stone or being handed a mystical iPhone by a lady in a lake. Simply put, I had the honor of being the lone designer on a team that suddenly needed to get bigger, fast. We had just finished shipping a new product after a long push and folks seemed to think I had handled the pressure well and therefore might be the right person to grow the team. They asked and I accepted. Thus began my career in design management.
Tell us about your typical day. Is it all meetings?
I’m back to being a designer again actually, but up until recently my typical day as a manager was truly wall-to-wall meetings. Internal product reviews, external product reviews, 1:1s with my designers, 1:1s with various product partners, critiques, meetings with other design managers, leadership roundtables, meeting with other teams we partnered with, project brainstorms… The list goes on. Lunch was often whatever protein bar I could grab in a mini-kitchen on the way to my next meeting!
What was the last thing you “designed”?
I’m currently designing tools to help elected representatives connect with their constituents. Even when I was managing I never stopped designing. I was always working on something, whether it was a personal to-do-list app or a dining-room table (I caught a powerful woodworking bug).
What makes a great design leader?
I want to draw a distinction between leadership and management. What makes a great design manager is care for the people you manage. Full stop. You’ve got to spend a great deal of time thinking about where the designers on your team are at in their skill and career progression and figure out how to help them grow and stretch themselves so that they can do their best work and have impactful careers. All the best managers I’ve known really connect with their reports and form lasting bonds. What makes a great leader is different. A great design leader inspires you to fall in love with a big problem that needs solving, and pushes you further than you thought you could go toward an elegant solution. To find someone who is both a great leader and a great manager is an exceptionally rare thing.
What do most new leaders get wrong?
Too many new leaders don’t seek out enough help and guidance on how to lead. There’s this cognitive dissonance that comes with being anointed a leader. It’s so counterintuitive to seek guidance when you’re supposed to be leading. After all, you’re the leader, you’re supposed to have all the answers. But that’s exactly what all new leaders need: a lot of advice, training, and support.
How would you describe your own leadership style?
I spend a lot of my energy trying to frame complex problem spaces in approachable ways. If you can make it clear to everyone on the team what the big problem is and how it breaks down into smaller, more incremental problems to solve, then you can empower everyone to bring their best ideas to the table and coordinate efforts organically.
What’s the biggest challenge you’ve faced managing people?
Changing the culture of a team is hard, but changing the perceived culture of a team is even harder. Once there’s a perception out there, people will self-select in or out of that culture, thereby reinforcing it and making it even more difficult to change. This is why team culture is such an important thing to stay on top of. Once it veers off track, it’s a Herculean task to put it back on course.
What one piece of advice would you give your younger self?
Don’t wing it. Ask a design manager you respect to mentor you. Take every management training course your company offers. Read at least one great tactical book on design management. The few hours/days it takes to accomplish these relatively simple tasks will pay enormous dividends.