Tackling the Challenges of Growing into a Design Leadership Role

Tackling the Challenges of Growing into a Design Leadership Role
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Many great designers end up progressing into lead roles, where you are leading teams, projects, and the design process. This is super exciting for many people, and also something they are not always prepared for. Becoming a lead or manager requires skill sets that you may not have fully developed in an individual contributor role, and comes with a unique set of challenges that you will need to overcome.

Challenge 1: Setting up the right conditions for the team

Being a great design lead is like being a great host – you set the conditions and context for your team to do the work, and then you let the (design) party happen! Learning how to set these conditions takes experimentation and flexibility. Being attuned to the needs of different teams, working styles and preferences requires ongoing reflection and willingness to tweak what isn’t working.

Google has found that the key condition for team success is psychological safety. Harvard Business School professor Amy Edmondson defines this as ‘‘a sense of confidence that the team will not embarrass, reject or punish someone for speaking up. It describes a team climate characterized by interpersonal trust and mutual respect in which people are comfortable being themselves.’’ As a leader, your role requires you to model the behaviors that create this safety.

Teams also need clarity on expectations and ownership. As a lead, you have to set the objectives and make sure every team member knows what’s expected of them. Allow people to chart their own course towards goals – give them objectives rather than to-do lists. There is a tension in finding the right level of oversight and management for team members – they should feel clear about their role and supported without being micromanaged.

Challenge 2: Knowing when to be hands-on with the work and when to step back

Moving from an individual contributor role to a role of leading and managing teams and projects can feel unnatural to designers who are very immersed and hands-on in their craft. Your instincts to roll up your sleeves and get involved in the work can often surface, especially since you likely are very proficient within your design skill set and enjoy using it!

While it can be tempting to be very hands-on, stepping back and allowing your team to execute on most of the work is what supports them to learn by doing. At the same time, being willing to roll up your sleeves and dive in when needed to support the team to meet a deadline or to demonstrate what good looks like is a crucial quality to foster. The rest of the time, it’s about taking calculated risks that allow your team members to grow without jeopardizing project success.

Part of a design lead’s role is to act as project ‘quality control’, and have the final say on what’s ‘good enough.’ This means picking your battles on what to get more involved in and timing those battles accordingly. Ensure enough time in review cycles to be able to give meaningful feedback and allow the team to iterate the work.

Challenge 3: Finding a coaching style that works

Being able to explain work and teach an approach is a specific skill set, and it can take practice to find an authentic coaching style that works for you. As Ben Holliday puts it, part of being a senior designer is “Being able to deconstruct your work in order to teach or coach others. This sounds simple but relatively few people that I’ve worked with can do this well.”

Part of developing a coaching style is exploring the most effective ways to give feedback to team members. Newer leads can shy away from giving constructive feedback for fear of hurting people’s feelings. You want to find the right balance between being direct and being sensitive in how you deliver feedback. Kim Scott has developed the radical candor framework in order to support leaders to find this balance – the key being that you need to care personally and challenge directly.

Honing coaching and feedback skills are often career-long endeavors, with lots of room to grow and adapt your style to the various contexts and people you will encounter. With any feedback, it helps to be able to articulate your rationale, as well as assess the work against the intended objectives. Asking great questions, demonstrating or modeling behavior and sharing resources are all great ways to support your team.

Challenge 4: Learning the ropes of people management

While leadership roles are often an exciting promotion, in some cases it can feel like starting from zero on a parallel track. Acknowledging your limitations and that you have a lot to learn will allow you to develop a learners mindset in your new role.

As the business management write Tom Peters puts it, “Leaders don’t create followers, they create more leaders.” It takes time to adapt to the responsibility in a team lead role of stewarding and supporting your team member’s careers and professional development. It will help to have resources on hand to share with your team – books, conferences, podcasts and articles that have helped you along your path.

One of the surprises for newer design leads is the amount of time that people management takes up, for example hiring, check-ins an one on ones, and handling performances reviews. Shifting from a hands-on design role to leading these conversations and activities means that the ratio of where you spend your time will need to adjust. The Manager Tools Basics podcasts are a great resource for learning how to approach people management.

Leaders eat last

Growing into a lead role means starting to put the needs of your team and projects ahead of your own, or at least finding a good way to balance those needs with your own aspirations and desires. Learning to do this effectively is not without challenges and bumps along the way, but as Simon Sinek puts it, “leadership is the choice to serve others,” and this is the ultimate reward of a lead role.

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