So You Think You Want to Be a Manager

An oldie but goodie I wrote over on Boxes and Arrows

“Your decisions shape an organization, and they help design someone else’s career. The choices and combinations of people you put together for a project is as much design as the process of fleshing out type or color or an interaction widget choice.”

When I made the shift from designer to manager, I had no idea how to make the transition nor did I have anyone to guide me through the changes to my role. I didn’t know that to be a successful design manager I had to change more than my title; I had to change my mindset and look at design differently. I made a lot of mistakes, but, thankfully, I have had staff who have been very forgiving as I have grown into the role of being a manager and a leader.

With that in mind, I want to share some tips and thoughts about managing that I wish I had known as I made the move from one aspect of design to the other.

You can’t design anymore

Big surprise. Just as you get to a point of comfort and expertise as a designer, you are promoted to a manager — right out of the role you are really good at — into a role you know nothing about. Now other people do the design, but they look to you for guidance. As a manager, a big part of your job is to delegate and early on, it will be hard. It will take longer to explain a project or task to an employee than just doing it yourself, but you have to remember that your job is not to do, but to guide. It’s uncomfortable and awkward at first, but that goes away with time.

I had a great employee early on (an individual I considered a peer) who would question any project or task that I took on myself, and ask, “Isn’t that something you should or could delegate?” As a new manager, I kept forgetting that I didn’t have to-and shouldn’t do-all the work myself. Every time you sit down to do a task, ask yourself, “Can this be delegated?” “Is someone else on my staff better equipped to do this?” “Would this exercise be a great growth opportunity for someone on the team?”

Giving orders is costly

As a designer, you are responsible for all the little pieces and all the big decisions that go into producing a successful solution. You had a specific way of working, and that process made you successful as you moved up and gained experience. Now this is all out of your hands. You must cede control over all these little decisions and think about the big picture.

As a manager, you must remember that your way of working is not the ONLY way of working. It’s easy to fall into the trap of telling someone HOW to do her job rather than offering guidance and feedback on the outcome of the work or to create the vision and space whereby your team can succeed. If you micro-manage your team, they will resent you. They won’t learn and grow, you won’t learn and grow, and you will see a turnover rate that isn’t healthy for the business. Remind yourself of the golden rule: treat others as you would like to be treated yourself.

You are always sending a message

It’s hard to let go of the design work, but you have to remember that employees look up to you for guidance and a framework within which to do their work. You empower them to be successful and to do great work. They can learn from you. But it is also important to remember that they bring their own experience to the table and they may just teach you something new if you let them. Let them teach you.

A good manager lets go. It isn’t about CONTROL. Success is about giving your team the space to be brilliant. Your job is to create that space and to deflect and filter the distractions that could create roadblocks.

Shaping careers

As a designer, you are responsible for advancing your own career. No one is going to do that for you. As a manager, it is part of your responsibility to help your design staff craft and grow in their careers. Even though I just said the designer is responsible for her own career, many often float from one job to another without thinking about actively shaping it. Despite that, designers can be poked and prodded and guided into taking that responsibility.

Ambitious people will already be doing this, but other folks will just muddle along without thinking about where they are going, or how this job moves them to the next or the one after. They need to be thinking about what will they be doing in five years, and you can help them craft a plan to get there. Of course, decisions such as projects, conferences, and training should line up with both the company and employee goals.

In addition to quarterly and yearly goals aligned to the business goals, I ask my team to also develop personal goals that help them to continue to grow and contribute back to the team. Additionally, I challenge them to think about their five-year goals, then partner with them to make choices and provide opportunities and projects that can help them achieve those goals. This is important because you want your team to stay fresh and continue learning. I believe this curiosity and desire rolls back into the work.

You are still designing

When you practice as a designer, you are solving a client’s problem, fleshing out an interaction to address a user task, or creating a communication vehicle for a message. When you practice as a manager, you influence these things but you also are designing something different. Your decisions shape an organization, and they help design someone else’s career. The choices and combinations of people you put together for a project is as much design as the process of fleshing out type or color or an interaction widget choice.

Just as you need to understand the media you work in as an individual contributor, you must understand personalities, temperaments, skill sets, and other factors about the people you have to work with. That understanding is critical to put together a good functioning team that will be successful together as well as individually. I find this aspect of design to be quite challenging as well as rewarding. When one of my teams creates a great design that they are happy with, our users are happy with, and the other cross-functional teams are happy with, and the process was smooth, then I know I have done a good job in my design role.

Managing versus Leading

So you are asking yourself, do I want to go into management? Is this the only way to move ahead in my career?

The answer is no.

You can move into very senior individual contributor roles. Many organizations have principal designers or design strategy roles that allow individual contributors to have an impact and affect business and product design at a broad, sweeping, strategic level without actually having to manage people.

You can be a team lead or an art director and lead a team and design projects without actually having to manage the other people on the team. In these cases there is sometimes project management in terms of setting expectations and milestones and providing design feedback as necessary, but not direct people management.

“seek out your own mentors, and embrace the ambiguity and discomfort of your changing role”

Managing versus Leading

No this is not déjà vu. It’s important to remember that as you move into a management role you are actually accountable for a couple of different facets of the job.

You need to be a manager-managing projects, schedules, people, careers, and so on. You also need to remember that you are a leader. You are leading this group of people you manage, and you need to remember that leading is done through example and by having vision and strength. This is the hardest part of the job.

Sometimes it is a lot easier to just manage the day-to-day, push the papers, write reports, and go to meetings than it is to really lead the team and have a vision that inspires them to do their best work. It’s harder to inspire people to rise above the crap that often accompanies us in the real world of work.

Keeping sight of what success looks like, creating the space for brilliant work, and inspiring your team are all part of what it takes to be a leader. It also means making hard decisions based on what’s right for the business and the overall company vision. Sometimes your team might not like those decisions, but it’s important to help them understand the context behind the bigger picture. Sometimes it means standing up for the right thing, for the product, or user even when your boss or other executives don’t agree. It’s important to back your team up and stay true to your ethics.

You can be successful in the most challenging environments, and you can nurture a talented and successful team.

In the end…

It is important to realize that you can progress in your career without ever having to manage people. And that’s OK — lots of people do it and are very successful. But if you do decide to make the move, do it consciously and thoughtfully and with as much grace as you approached your role as an individual contributor. Remember the advice I have shared, seek out your own mentors, and embrace the ambiguity and discomfort of your changing role. It will reward you significantly in the long run.