Managing more experienced people

This was first published on my mailing list The Looking Glass. Every week, I answer a reader’s question.

Photo by prakash.ame

Q: How do you manage people with more experience than you or people with deeper knowledge in a particular domain? Do you do anything different? How technical are your 1:1 etc?

I was just a few years out of college when I became a design manager. Having studied computer science in college and joined Facebook as a engineer, I mostly learned design on the job. In the company’s startup days, the culture of Moving Fast meant I rarely invested time into building my knowledge or honing my craft. I often felt like an imposter among real designers.

As a result, early in my time as a manager, I got along great with the new college grads, who I saw as (slightly) younger versions of myself. But I worried that anyone with real design experience wouldn’t respect me. After all, how could I be the boss of someone several years older than me, who by most counts was a more skilled, knowledgeable designer? What could I possibly hope to teach them that they didn’t already know?

I shared this concern with my husband one day when we happened to be watching the Olympics. He quipped “Do you think Usain Bolt’s coach runs faster than him?” It didn’t take much digging to realize that Glen Mills, the head coach for Jamaica’s running team who is responsible for training the most successful sprinters of all time, not only wasn’t particularly fast, but in fact hadn’t been a runner at all.

Don’t pretend to be perfect.

Being a design manager doesn’t mean you’re the “best designer” any more than being a running coach means you’re the “fastest runner.” The roles are just different.

If you’re spending 1:1s simply asking for updates without offering much feedback or coaching, out of a fear that you’ll look inexperienced or lose credibility, then you certainly aren’t going to gain any credibility, let alone add much value.

There is strength in vulnerability. A surefire way to erode trust with your team is to pretend to have all the answers. Admit honestly to your senior reports what you do and do not know, and work together on a plan for how you can help support them. Maybe you don’t have as strong of an eye for design craft, but you can help them frame the people problems you’re trying to address, and discuss how you’ll know when they’re solved. Maybe you don’t have the technical depth to go toe-to-toe in the tools, but you can encourage them to set more concrete goals, and help break their long-term work into documented, measurable milestones shared with the team. Maybe you can help connect them with similarly skilled peers, like encouraging a cross-org design critique process.

There is always something you can help with. Be willing to have open, awkward conversations to figure this out. For me, despite knowing I’m not as strong of a designer as my senior reports, I understood how to approach design at Facebook and could support my team members in setting ambitious goals and working effectively with their partners.

Welcome the opportunity to learn from senior reports.

As a manager, your role is to maximize the impact of your team. The clearest way to increase your team’s output is by having more skilled, capable contributors on your team. And on the flip side, one of the worst mistakes a manager can make is to only hire junior reports they feel they can control.

When interviewing senior candidates, one of the questions we’ll sometimes discuss in a debrief, when making a hiring decision, is “Could I see them becoming my boss some day? Would I work for this person? “ Saying “Yes” in a strong signal this candidate has a ton of value to add to the team.

I am undoubtedly a better designer today because of what senior designers on my team have taught me. It’s a privilege to work with people better than you because that’s the fastest way you learn. As their manager, encourage them to use those strengths to help the rest of their colleagues improve through mentorship, teaching, and setting a higher bar for the team.

You don’t have to do everything yourself. You just have to make sure everything gets done.

A good manager, just like a good coach, will help keep her team focused on the problems that matter most.

I may not have been capable of producing the same quality of design work as my most experienced reports, but because I was overseeing multiple areas, I was able to direct my report’s attention to where their skills will be most valuable, including finding opportunities for my senior team members to collaborate with other designers on the team.

Even when you’re not sure whether a design is good, you can always ask questions or give impressions

You are both on the same team, and you are working to support each other’s shared goals. There shouldn’t be any competition over who is the “better” designer. Rather, you should be working together towards the best solution.

Leaving your senior designers to their own devices, assuming “they’re experienced, they’ll figure it out” isn’t setting them up for success. Clarifying and probing questions, like “How did you make this decision?” or “Why do you think this is a good solution?” can help them articulate their thought process, and potentially catch areas that warrant another look. Even offering up personal concerns like “I think people will be confused by this UI” can prompt a healthy discussion around exploring more iterations or bringing in usability research to validate assumptions.

You are the sum of the people around you

To be a strong design manager, you need to develop a solid understanding of what it means to be a strong designer. Even if you cannot produce it yourself, you should know what good design output looks like, and the habits and qualities of highly capable designers. The skill to develop is your eye.

I’ve come to realize that the best way to grow as a design manager is precisely by managing the most skilled designers possible. My first-hand experience of witnessing great designers at work has helped me develop my understanding of what great design looks like, and helps our team produce better work. So, if you happen to have the Usain Bolt of design on your team, embrace this for all it’s worth, and go for the gold.


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