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Bad design managers

Bad design managers


It's going to become harder for mediocre design managers to stay relevant in the years to come. With generative-ai tools improving every month, influx of talented & hungry young talent, if a manager doesn't show enough value to the team or the company, they're likely not going to make it.

I'm not generalising but there's something that I have observed for the last few years, and only penning it now; it wasn't obvious to me before. Bad managers, after getting promoted to a lead and above, stopped learning. They stopped having the curiosity of a young designer.

Bad managers started relying a lot more on what they already knew from the past. They don't follow their leaders. They don't expand the company's vision. They stopped talking to customers. They stopped drawing rectangles. They stopped testing their designs. They stopped accepting harsh feedback. They stopped iterating. They stopped being an individual contributor.
They stopped being the designer in a Design Manager role.

Some symptoms I see in bad design managers:

  1. They have none, limited, or forced cross-functional interactions: Bad managers would not proactively reach out to cross-functional stakeholders to plan. They would typically complain about other stakeholders not valuing the design function. Almost every time, they'll externalise the issues. They're typically responsible for wasted effort in design. In most cases, the lack of cross-functional interactions reflect in never-ending reviews.

  2. They wait for someone to give them work: Since they don't interact with stakeholders from other functions, it's difficult for them to identify impactful opportunities. As a result, beyond the day-to-day or obvious projects, they wait for others to tell them what the important work is.

  3. They don't take new, meaningful initiatives: Taking new initiatives require ideas, understanding leverages, timing, context among many more. Bad managers aren't able to identify these and as a result, take weak, non-impactful initiatives or don't take any.

  4. They're poor with project management: Being siloed, not involving stakeholders from the get-go in a project leads to continuous back and forth. As a result, everyone suffers. Planning works best if it captures all nuances from business, product, design, and engineering.

  5. They outsource vs. delegate: Bad managers often use folks as a pair of hands for the part of work that was supposed to be done by them. They don't delegate by onboarding, co-working, or aiding development for the project. Good delegation prepares the team for current and next few projects. Outsourcing prepares the team for the job at hand.

  6. Lack of coaching or mentorship initiatives: True mentorship or coaching requires hard work. Documenting specific strengths, weaknesses and then planning pointed, actionable program. Bad managers skip this and rely on in-passing comments, vague recommendations, and non-structured ways of mentoring. Bad managers are also reactive in coaching and mentorship.

The list is not exhaustive but enough.

I'd like to believe that no one chooses to be a bad manager but under circumstances tend to exhibit these symptoms. These are fixable, of course.

Here are some things you can do immediately:

  • Stay hands on with designing. Read about it here. In this blog, I recommend some actionable methods to get your hands dirty.

  • Expand your role beyond just a manager. Read about it here.

  • Coach your team structurally. Read about it here.

  • Read books. I'll share a list of books that I find helpful. Meanwhile, here's a list of books I recommend for product content writing. I didn't include the ones you can easily find on Google. Read those too!

  • Build your network. First within the team. Then within the company. This is the network of people who know that you're there to help them. Encourage these folks to also give you feedback often.

  • Proactively take feedback and more importantly act. When you take feedback and don't act, your team will stop giving you correct feedback and stop trusting you. When you take feedback, act and communicate back, you'll keep receiving more feedback with trust.

  • Get the obvious things out of the way if you're new design manager. Learn timeline, project management. How? Google.

I'll keep updating the links as I write detailed notes on specific "hows".

Thanks for reading.

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