4 ways design managers can nurture growth outside the levels

It’s easy, and even normal, to think happiness comes from winning. But the point of playing games is for fun. Winning or losing is just the outcome.

I love the certificate scene in the 90s nerd hit film, Searching for Bobby Fischer. A young chess master and his tutor are at a stalemate. The student won’t play until he knows how much is move is worth. And the teacher tells him the points don’t matter. I remember this scene when designers tell me they want to get to the top of the levels chart.

We can do a little better than Ben Kingsley

Levels outline stages of expertise like L1: Junior Designer or L6: Principal Designer. They help managers and HR bring structure to fair compensation, hiring planning, and consistency across the team. But levels can also be reductive and frame career growth like a game to win.

Here is what I’ve tried as a manager to help designers on my team find meaningful, tangible direction and growth.

1. Play to their strengths

Designers are professional perfectionists. You the manager can gather feedback outside performance review cycles. It’s important to work on problem areas. But that alone doesn’t lead to actual growth. Helping your designer recognize their strengths will make it easier to exercise, deepen, and shape their career in a way that probably will feel easy, natural and successful.

I managed a few designers who could lead a room with their eyes closed. It was so natural they didn’t realize their own super powers. We looked for teams that needed this skill, projects that required more facilitation, and higher profile public speaking gigs. It became obvious in one-on-ones and daily musings this new direction was meaningful, visible, and fun.

2. Make Introductions

Designers usually have the deepest relationships with people on their immediate team. Managers, by nature of their work, get more opportunities to have relationships with people in other groups. You can share your relationship to move your designer forward.

Many designers at my last job wanted to do projects in offices half way across the world. Since I couldn’t create projects or budget, I made introductions. I wrote a short email between my designer and the design manager in the far off land. I explained how I knew everyone, proposed ideas on how they can collaborate remotely, and recommended they have a checkin about once a quarter. While it didn’t guarantee anything, it certainly increased the odds.

Develop Expertise

I’ve heard a lot ofdesigners ask for a specialist title before they earned it. The title is like the Chess Master Certificate, ultimately meaningless if there’s nothing to back it up. This is especially true for companies that hire generalists.

I met a designer who wanted to be the animation guy at his company. He didn’t want to be a manager but wanted a title to set himself apart. Here’s what I said:

You want to be a specialist? Become the person everyone goes to with this problem. Hone the skill. Talk about it. Write about it. Think about it. Push the boundaries. Let other people give you the title. Earn it.

He didn’t like this advice but I stand by it. If you take this route with a designer you manage, schedule yourself reminders to checkin on this during one-on-ones. If your company doesn’t need the kind of work your designer is passionate about, they might be in the wrong job.

3. Prepare for promotions

Not everyone can be a manager and not everyone wants to be a manager. But you can prepare the ones who do.

Six months before I got promoted, my manager asked me if I was interested in the role. This gave me time to really consider it, envision myself doing it, watch other people do it, and make a excited “yes” when the opportunity was really available.

I love this approach and brought it into my own practice. I shared more of my process and responsibilities with designers on my team who could see themselves as a manager someday. When it was time to go through the formal promotion process, designers up for the role had a bank of experiences that made the decision easy.

4. Create a good environment

I saved the best for last.

Happiness at work does come from climbing, but it’s more like the hierarchy of needs, rather than the ladder from junior to senior. In one of my favorite management books First, Break All the Rules: What the World’s Greatest Managers Do Differently they say professional happiness from comes successful and productive workplaces. Here’s a snippet from the executive summary on the questions your designer should be able to answer (in this order):

  1. Do I know what is expected of me at work?
  2. Do I have the equipment and material I need to do my work right?
  3. At work, do I have the opportunity to do what I do best every day?
  4. In the last seven days, have I received recognition or praise for good work?
  5. Does my supervisor or someone at work seem to care about me as a person?
  6. Is there someone at work who encourages my development?
  7. At work, do my opinions seem to count?
  8. Does the mission/purpose of my company make me feel my work is important?
  9. Are my co-workers committed to doing quality work?
  10. Do I have a best friend at work?
  11. In the last six months, have I talked to someone about my progress?
  12. This last year, have I had opportunities at work to learn and grow?

Later the book says people are usually ready for a role change around step 12, sending them back down to number 1. So even if you get the certificate, you haven’t really won the game.

As a manager you can guide help your designers shape their path. But ultimately, everyone is responsible for their own career.

There are no universal rules in design and leadership. Adjust these practices for the individual, the context, and your personal management style. You can also replace every occurrence of “design” with the role you are managing and it mostly works.