Demystifying Design Leadership
As digital experiences take their place at the heart of enterprise, design leaders are in ever more demand. But what is leadership and what is design leadership? I was invited to participate in the Google panel on Demystifying Design Leadership at UX Live last week to try and answer that exact question.
Here’s a written recap of my answers — as much as I could remember my answers on stage that day!
Mischa: Did you choose leadership or did design leadership choose you? How did you get into design and what was the moment where you transitioned from doing to leading?
My path into design is somewhat unconventional: I started my career on the business side, in finance at Societe Generale. Back then, I was explaining financial products to corporate and institutional clients ranging from farmer co-ops to regional banks. I suffered from having to use very complicated tools and it’s quite funny because today I design services and tools for the people who I used to be part of in the past.
Outside of work though, I was also a video game designer and I’m still working on an indie video game at the moment. So I was quite aware of affordability matters and started to work on design issues, before ending up building the in-house team.
There wasn’t a clear-cut transition moment for me to go into leadership. I believe that as long as you do your work with passion and intensity, the dots will eventually connect — 10 years ago, I wouldn’t have been able to even imagine where I am today!
Mischa: On the impostor syndrome, could you indulge us with a story of one of your own periods of fragility, what you learned as you made your way through it?
To be honest, everything is changing so far in this space, we’re all still trying to figure it out. What’s great though, is that because design jobs are still relatively new, everyone is coming from different backgrounds — pure design, development, business, etc. There’s no golden track.
In the team today, everyone brings something different to the table, no matter who they are. I may oversimplify it, but for example, I count on the senior designers to share their experience with projects and influence change. Junior designers, on the other hand, have more up-to-date technical skills as they likely have had more time to try new things — and since there’s a new tool every week, it’s hard to keep track.
One piece of advice I’d like give to junior employees though, is when reaching out to people:
Stop. Saying. Sorry.
I made this mistake at the beginning of my career. I used to start emails with “Sorry to bother you”, “Sorry to take your time”, “Sorry to ask this”, etc. And when I tell my junior staff to stop saying sorry, they answer: “I’m sorry for saying sorry!”.
The truth is, if you’re embarrassed of taking someone’s time, just make your point straight away at the beginning of your email. You will save 2 lines for them to read.
Mischa: Leadership has changed over the last few decades from being authoritarian to more emphatic and consensual. Where have you had to change or evolve the way in which you’ve led teams?
One concrete change for me is that that I learnt to speak last as I realized that by talking first or before others I was biasing the team, consciously or unconsciously.
And maybe it’s from my video game background, but I sometimes wonder how variations of my behaviour can affect the team — basically what might I do or say would destroy the team’s safe space? Unfortunately in real life, you cannot reload the game. And it’s hard to stay neutral. For example, 2 of my designers were once disagreeing on an approach and came to me to settle the matter. Before voicing my opinion, I asked them first to agree on the pros and cons of each solution. With this aligned vision, I could then tell them my preferred solution based on my insights on the broader context.
Leadership is not just managing down. There was a great talk [at UX Live] about managing across (leaders from other teams) and up (your managers) — you start to adapt your style to everyone.
Mischa: Have you been in a situation when your manager does not get design, and if yes, how did you manage it?
I may be biased with French culture, but my manager and I usually have direct and honest discussion s— he’s already quite convinced by the design approach! When we happen to really disagree, I’ll say it straight away.
Actually, I remember that at the very beginning, I asked him the following question: “Alain, I see your point but I disagree, can I give my view or do you prefer me to stay quiet?”. I guess it’s hard to say the latter (laughs). Try it at work and see how it goes!
And by the way, I expect the same from the people in my team — they need to voice when they disagree. I hire people that are more skilled than me on visual design, accessibility, research, etc. Why? Unless you decide to pursue a technical expertise path, as a manager you will inevitably be drawn further from the ground work. People working on it everyday will know better than you. So trust them.
Mischa: How do you tackle the disagreement with other leaders within the organisation?
Again, being French here, I kind of think that disagreement is good — it would be weird to be in a team or society where everyone thinks the same way all the time right?
We expect the other leaders to bring their points of view to the table, so we can all reach an agreement together depending on the strategy.
Mischa: What about design operations and the nature of design leadership? Has it changed the nature of how you lead design teams?
Coming from a business background, to me, operations are just normal things for teams. Sales teams have operations, developer teams have them as well. It’s almost funny that we consider that designers are different creatures, who can work in their bubbles without coordination.
So in my opinion it’s the natural consequence of design reaching maturity in an organisation. In terms of leading teams, having clear processes empowers everyone, instead of you trying to control or micro-manage people.
Mischa: In one sentence, what’s the one ingredient that’s most important to the success of a design team?
I heard this once at a design event and it has stuck with me ever since:
“It’s better to have a hole in a team than an a**hole”.
For big organisations, it’s actually easy to grow teams, especially because everyone wants their own designers. Growing slow, on the other hand is difficult. We’ve been trying to grow mindfully, and really trying to make sure that each new hire is the right person. That’s why I’ve referenced this quote a lot when talking about team strategy.
Thanks UX Live for the invitation and Mischa for being our super nice panel host! In addition to the panel, I did a talk on design and strategy for the practitioner stage, here’s a recap: