Reflecting — Early Lessons Learned as a Design Manager

Kaycee A. Collins
Feb 17, 2020 · 6 min read
Illustration Created by Katerina Limpitsouni via unDraw.co

As I round out my second year of being a people manager, I wanted to take this opportunity to reflect on my journey. In my experience, the best way to ground myself in what I’ve learned is to write it down. This time I’m going to try something new… sharing my reflection with others. haha We’ll see how this goes.

I’ve learned so much about myself, other people and their needs, and leading versus managing sine I started managing a team of 5 very talented and opinionated designers. My team has given me the gift of feedback, hard lessons, and what I hope to be some long lasting friendships.

Here’s a few of the major lessons I’ve learned over these 2 years:

1. Letting go of Nice in order to be Kind

You will better serve yourself, your team, and your teammates through being kind, than being nice.

This means that you should always focus on your teammates true needs over your own need to be liked. For example, not sharing constructive feedback because it is difficult or you don’t want to hurt feelings is the biggest disservice you could provide.

Be kind to your teammates and have the hard(er) conversations to help them grow (and — by the way — you get to grow from this as well). Not sharing that a teammate is minimizing someone’s voice in a meeting and how that will impact their relationship (and even with that whole discipline’s team) over time because everything else is going well — or because your not sure how to approach it will just lead to the suboptimal outcome you predicted. Have the conversation. Get vulnerable. Let them know the potential outcome of the behavior (minimizing) and talk through how the situation could be different in the future.

Additionally, there’s another another perspective to be concerned about. Not only does not sharing constructive feedback stifle that individuals ability to grow, but your entire team as well. The team you build is only as strong as the weakest player. Everyone on the team (including you) works to hold each other up through the course of organizational changes, solving hard problems, and difficult setbacks. If you have a a teammate who isn’t holding up their end of the deal and you aren’t talking to them about it — you are letting the rest of the team down. This is especially true for your most senior teammates — they want to be inspired and grow, but they won’t necessarily be fulfilled and enriched solely through mentorship and coaching.

I’ll be honest, this one is a struggle for me. I truly do care about what others think of me. (If you know me, I wouldn’t imagine that is much of a secret.) I want folks to enjoy working with me, but being ‘too nice’ can get in the way of that. So, I now focus on being the kindest leader I can be — call things out for each of my teammates as appropriate. I’m not always right, but more importantly we are growing stronger as a team.

To help myself remember this focus, I came up with a new mantra: Be brave enough to be OK with others not liking me.

2. Decisions should always start with conversations

Better serve your team by including them in decision making.

No matter the size, decision must start with conversations. As a manager, you rarely have all the inputs to make the best decision on your own. The best leaders look to their teammates and ask what they think. This is not only to involve them in the process so they too are bought into the solution, but for you as the decision-maker to ensure you are doing the right thing for your teammates.

I recently made a big mistake: I delivered a decision without question to a teammate. I was aware that I was going against this lesson I had learned before… But, the circumstances were a bit different and I thought I shouldn’t rock the boat. Well, I was wrong… big time. I was so wrong that others were raising their hands to ask ‘why would such a decision be made?’ Everything ended up working out OK. And, we learned a lot of lessons as a leadership team — however, we did erode some trust with folks.

Asking your team how they feel about decisions, even if you may not be able to influence the direction of the decision, ensure the team knows you are thinking about them, their careers, their success — not just the success of a project or initiative. Over time, this will build a stronger, more transparent relationship between you and your team — making the hard decisions a bit easier for you all to make… together.

3. We’re all human

Serve your team by showing that everyone is human — even the executives.

I think almost everyone can relate to being nervous or afraid to speak to the C-suite. Over the past 2 years, I have noticed if I am calm and unfazed by sharing our WIP to any level in the organization, my team will follow suit. Over time, through leading by example, teammates have become less nervous and overwhelmed when speaking to or presenting in front of the most senior leaders in the organization.

This takes a lot of time and effort on your part as a manager to help your teammates get comfortable with this required challenge (at least for my team of designers). Your job in this is to give your team the tools to succeed while amplifying their voice and ensuring they have the right platform. The outcome is absolutely worth it — a well-spoken and confident team.

Don’t hesitate to lead by example… that’s (partially) what you are there for.

4. Always hire people who are better at all the things than I am

Hire people who are better than you so your team grows together

When I first started hiring people, I questioned my abilities and if I should be in this managerial role at all. Some of the work I saw blew my portfolio out of the water — why should I hire someone who is going to make me look bad?

What I found was quite the opposite — I hired that stellar portfolio (with the help of my team) and have personally grown so much. I’ve learned a bit about how to lead an even stronger leader, how to find great side projects for the insatiable designer, and a bit about inspiring folks.

Instead of making these decisions on my own, I brought my team into the conversation. I shared resumes + portfolios of folks I thought could be a good complement to the team. I received feedback from my team, and was able to feel much more confident that I would doing what was right for them. I learned they (even the most senior members of the team) wanted to hire others they could learn from or get inspired by.

After hiring a couple of these folks that we as a team chose (and those candidates who chose us back haha), I am much less concerned about how my portfolio stacks up, and focused on much more important things like: finding compliments and inspiration for a team that will thrive together no matter what challenge is thrown our way.

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I’ve had the privilege of learning so much from my team and am excited to continue growing with my teammates. I can’t wait to share more learnings as they come. 🤓