I got my first title as a Design Lead in 2014. At the time, I thought I knew how to lead a team like a boss and imagined becoming the best manager ever. Of course, I was wrong and there are a lot of things to not do I wish someone had slapped on my face back in 2014.
Over the last few months, I spoke with a lot of designers — over a conference and lot of interview rounds. The list that follows below reflects on things I wish I had followed back then. If you're a first-time design manager, I hope you'll find this useful as well.
1. Do frequent 1 on 1s with your team members
You need to hear your team. Your team members need to know and believe that they can talk to you. Structure your 1-on-1s and keep a log of the discussions and share with them. At UrbanClap, I conduct monthly 1-on-1s with each and every member of the Design team.
Here are some of the things we discuss every month:
Problems faced on a specific project(s), where can things improve
Things that are working out, things that are not working out
Ways to empower them further
Areas where I can unblock things
Areas where I need help from them
Their self-evaluation against UX, business problem solving, cross-team interaction, communication, team outreach within the company, team outreach outside the company
My evaluation against their performance (as required)
Discussion around team skill development, hiring
Where we should have our next beer party!
The following month, we look back at this document (I keep a Google Doc where I keep appending every month's notes)and do a health check on our progress. Simple!
When you do this often, you reduce the chances of surprises. You're better aware of your team's happiness quotient and the things you're doing wrong and right. I understand that in most teams, it may not be feasible to conduct frequent in-person meetings. It's best you speak with your team and mutually decide on something that works out for both.
2. Balance between being hands-on and hands-off with design work
This one's tricky. During my initial days, I found it extremely hard to let things go and always preferred undertaking certain projects myself than to pass on the ownership to a fellow team-mate. The reasons were many — not enough trust in the team, shorter turnaround time, easier to do it yourself than to spend a good amount of time to bring them up-to speed etc. I realised it months, years later that the more ownership you pass on, you create room to take up more responsibilities for yourself.
Here are few ways to go about it:
Encourage your team member to take up a project end-to-end and mentor him/ her through it.
Do daily discussions around the progress of the project and do design critique.
Involve other team members, product managers, engineering managers as well to the discussion so you bring all of them up-to speed. This way, you're creating other sources of knowledge in your absence.
Introduce your team member's new responsibility to the stakeholders — founders, product team members, business heads and have them take care of the discussion.
Silently observe the developments of the project and step in only when you feel a course correction is required.
This does not mean, you stop doing hands on work. In our profession, I believe, you cannot leave practice. You cannot learn or preach otherwise.
Take up time-sensitive project that needs your experience to do the heavy-lifting. It also sets a good leadership example for the team. Take up projects where you can heavily bring in your past experience and push it through production. Take up projects that challenge your skillset and then learn your way through it. As a leader, you should also take in ad-hoc design tasks that creep in from all over the organisation to ensure your team has razor sharp focus on the assigned projects.
3. Stay on top of the big picture
As a design lead, you should constantly be discussing how other verticals, departments are executing, envisioning and how can your team help them achieve something they hadn’t thought about it till now.
It’s very likely that your team’s visibility about the health of the company or it’s progress is limited to the monthly mails by Founders or company town halls. As a design lead, you should be in a position to answer as many questions as possible that they might have in between those monthly updates. You should pro-actively keep your team updated with company’s broad goals and how their (your) day to day work is adding up to achieve those goals. This will also help you immensely in taking non-trivial, critical design decisions and give your team a go-ahead.
4. Facilitate learning for your team and create their growth plan
When you’re leading a team, it is extremely easy to just assume that all the team members are equally motivated and excited about the work as you are.
It should be an ideal scenario but ridiculously hard to achieve.It usually starts once someone has spent about a year in the organisation and feel that they are not growing, learning anymore. They feel their day-to-day has become stagnant and they’re continuously doing similar work as in the project before. They feel disconnected with the overall goals of the company and start focusing on other companies where they could potentially learn more. They also feel their managers are not focusing enough on their career growth and eventually leave the organisation.
Here a few notes on how to tackle this:
Discuss areas of interest with your team-mates and assign tasks accordingly —If one wants to learn and grow in communication, allocate projects that require them to call customers, do a presentation in front of stake-holders and be able to take open firing of questions and critique. Projects that require one to talk to and collaborate with multiple people in different teams enhance their confidence in articulating their decisions better.
If one wants to get better in design-based problem solving, assign projects that require optimisations and multiple releases to go right. Once they design, they get to see results and derive next steps and release again. Over a period of time, they understand how to solve problems iteratively.
Create exposure for your team — Expose your team members to other departments in your company, to external design events. Invite other designers from the community to come and talk to your team and encourage them to do the same. This way, you are displaying an openness to knowledge and that as a team, you’re not working within the bounds of just your company’s collective wisdom.
Create their growth charter —The most important thing while building a team is to offer them a career, not a job. When they’re at the job, it’s your responsibility to create a career growth chart for all of your team members (I’ll share in detail about creating a Growth Charter in a future post).
Primarily, outline things that are working out, things that require improvement and enlist TANGIBLE list of things they can execute to become a better designer over the next 6 months, 1 year.
E.g. I want you to become better at designing for conversion funnel, so for the next 2 quarters, you’ll be responsible for conversion improvement in our on-demand services pre-request funnel on Apps and Web.
There are things that I may end up adding to this list but they will gradually come to you as they did for me and still are.
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