Lessons from (almost) a year of design leadership

Laura McGuigan
Dec 16, 2014 · 5 min read

This is a recap of my first year as a manager and design leader at TrackMaven — hope you’ll find it helpful. Let me know on Twitter at @grafxnerd.

Last year I wrote a blog post summarizing the lessons I had learned over the course of my first year working on design at a TrackMaven. At the beginning of last year, I was promoted to VP, Design and proceeded to build my team. In that time, I have hired 3 full time team-members (marketing design, product design and front-end dev) who work on our brand and marketing, as well as our core product. I’ve also worked closely with other executives at TrackMaven to prioritize opportunities and help the company understand the value of design. As a result, I wanted to take a moment to recap some of the lessons I’ve learned in being a manager and design leader — though this is hardly all of them.

You never stop learning

Over the last year, I’ve realized just how much of a sponge I have become. Whether it’s how to have great 1 on 1's, showing others they can have the creative confidence to push their ideas (even if they aren’t on the “creative” teams), knowing what “bad” words to avoid when talking to your team (alternatively, what “power” words exist to influence and inspire) or learning interviewing techniques that actually work (turns out, grabbing beers doesn’t tell me anything, but design challenges and white-boarding exercises are really helpful — controversial, I know).

Make yourself available

Drop the headphones once in awhile. Your team needs you for insight, input and direction. If you just assign tasks and disappear, you end up with more work on your hands as you constantly have to course correct your team’s actions rather than just being there for their questions.

This also exists outside of headphones — smile, seem available and in the moment rather than deep in your own thoughts. People will be more likely to engage with you, giving you the opportunity to form a connection that you may not have made otherwise.

But also make yourself unavailable

As your role evolves, you’ll have more and more responsibility coupled with duties you already have to take care of. If you are not wise with your time and learn to say “No”, you’re going to make yourself go grey (probably why I dyed my hair purple). Time management is key to keeping yourself sane, and there are plenty of techniques out there to help you: pomodoro, time-boxing, hell — just shut off the internet.

Lift your team

All three interns on my team have received job offers at startups post-internship. Make it a focus to help your interns in any way you can. Be a mentor, a source of inspiration, or a guiding light. You’ve been in the field for awhile, it’s your chance to form the mold for the future (/sap).

But don’t forget about the rest of your team either. Give credit where credit is due. I often get credit by default because for awhile I was the design team, but I make every effort to ensure proper credit is given so that the company can lift up the original creator.

Manage up

Sure, there is plenty to do when it comes to managing and leading your own team, but in order to achieve your own success you have to manage up. What is managing up? It’s the act of setting expectations you have on your manager. I meet with our CEO weekly to discuss design at TrackMaven, talk project progress and team growth. But it’s also an opportunity for me to ask him for help or for critical feedback. As a result, he actively offers feedback on ways that I can be a better leader and manager. Win.

“I want to insure the quality of output at TrackMaven is high.”

Everyone says this but I don’t do a good job of this one. I try to please everyone and in the first year of the company my hands were in more buckets than I can recall. So when work comes our way, I’ve almost always said yes. I have an idea but time for execution is a whole other story. Learning to say no in 2015 will be one of my big goals — not because I don’t want to help, but I want to insure the quality of output at TrackMaven is high.

Make your motives and expectations clear

I tend to be fairly intuitive and empathic, so I sense when I’m doing something wrong, something else is going wrong, or there is some larger issue I’m not immediately involved in. As a result, I make assumptions that everyone is like that and they just know what I’m thinking or feeling at the moment.

Unfortunately, that isn’t usually the case. By making it very clear what you expect out of others and why you are expecting it will empower your team to understand what to focus their attentions on.

Be a meanie

Okay, don’t actually be a meanie. But stick to your guns. You are a leader in your field — you are the final authority on the subject you cover, thus it’s up to you to stay strong if you truly believe in something. However…

Learn to play nice with others

In my agency life prior to TrackMaven, I couldn’t stand working with the business side of things. Sales people didn’t know what they were talking about in regards to design, project managers were a pest I couldn’t swat away — but when you are a part of the leadership of your company, it is up to you to form relationships with other department leaders — and it’s a great opportunity to learn! It’s also a fantastic opportunity to educate them on the principles that matter to your definition of success.

Numbers are important

Metrics for success in business aren’t measured by “users will like this more” but by “of the 10 people we talked to, 9 of them said this was actionable content.” They want numbers and it’s up to you to translate everything you do to numbers.

Know your strengths and your weaknesses

Understanding what you’re good at and what you’re not will allow you to do all of the above better. Using the list above, I’ve planned out what my goals for the next year are in order to grow as both a manager and a leader. As a result, I set myself up for success, because I’m already putting forth the effort and doing more than if I wouldn’t have tried.

As a candidate I interviewed once said,

“If you’re trying, are you really ever failing?”

By the way, we’re hiring for several roles across the company — including product design, front-end development, sales, customer success and more! Check them out here, and pass them along to anyone you think might fit the bill!

Ruff Concepts

Thoughts from the TrackMaven Design team

    Laura McGuigan

    Written by

    vp design at @trackmaven.

    Ruff Concepts

    Thoughts from the TrackMaven Design team

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