Design Management – One Year

—  Posted on January 20, 2023  —

I’ve officially hit my one year anniversary of taking on a design management role, and at the risk of sounding cliché, I’ve already been challenged to grow more than I have in any other time in my career.

It has been crucial to take time and journal my thoughts during this past year. Writing and engaging in self-reflection has allowed me to make sense of a lot of things that I’ve experienced so far as a leader.

The Challenges of Being a New Leader

Recently, I’ve had a few designers ask me “What has been the biggest challenge you’ve had in your new role this past year?” I feel like my answer has been a bit different every time—org changes, aligning teams to business needs, learning new products, people shifting, attrition, keeping up with changing HR processes, managing interpersonal conflict. There have been a lot of them, big and small.

And while some of those challenges have been hard to work through, I think the real challenge has been keeping myself in the right mindset to navigate them every day.

There have been many new situations that have pushed me from passively hoping I will have a positive mindset, to actively choosing to have a positive mindset each day. I find the right mindset makes all those other challenges become a much more manageable part of the job.

Management is a new career.

I was hopeful coming into management that the culmination of my experience where I’ve had to act as a leader (conducting interviews, mentoring others, leading projects, etc.) would cross over, and all my design chops and knowledge would have direct application to a variety of different scenarios every day. Looking back I can see that I was maybe a bit too optimistic. 😅 I knew I had a lot to learn, but I wasn’t capable of comprehending the breadth of what goes into management until I was actually doing it.

It has been a slow process to learn how different management can be from being an individual contributor. I worked a long time to become a good designer, and now as a manager, I’ve had to learn a very different skillset starting from scratch. There isn’t anything wrong with being new to a role, but it can sometimes shake your confidence not having those years of experience to fall back on.

I worked a long time to become a good designer, and now as a manager, I’ve had to learn a very different skillset starting from scratch.

I won’t say that there aren’t aspects of my design experience that have helped me transition into leadership, but there are still many things I do daily as a manager that I never did as an individual contributor. For the parents out there, it’s kind of like having your first child. You don’t really know anything about how your life will change until the baby is here and you realize you don’t even know how to get the car seat in.

Your organization can determine your focus.

When I started, I wanted to give at least half of my time to the growth of my team members, and the other half to the growth of the business. It was a well-intentioned goal, but I probably should have anticipated that my focus areas wouldn’t split quite that cleanly.

There is a good chance that where you hope you spend your time might not match your expectations either. I’d recommend learning as much as you can about the role you want to move into up front. Perhaps you want a stronger focus on coaching, but the majority of the role is strategy. That could be a big factor in your happiness and effectiveness as a manager.

This breakout was inspired by an article I read recently. At times, I even feel there can be some differentiation across teams in my own UX organization, and it can shift as priorities change.

Understanding how your company operates can help you identify opportunities. For example, our product organization drives the business strategy of our products, so a challenge our UX managers have is figuring out how to get design to be an active participant in strategy rather than just observing and being directed by product.

Energy is a finite resource.

Many things you do as a manager can take away from your energy. When you’re leading others, there is a lot of pressure (whether self-inflicted or otherwise), and it’s fairly constant. The problems I deal with now weigh more on me than the majority of problems I encountered as an individual contributor simply because my decisions impact people other than myself.

Looking at situations with the wrong mindset can cause stress, make you more pessimistic and cause anxiety. I’ve been looking for areas where I can shift my mindset. Rather than focusing on how I might fail my team members in some way (e.g. giving the wrong direction or feedback), I can focus on how I can support my team members so they don’t fail.

There is an amount of emotional labor that goes into being a leader. I find it’s easy to fall into the trap of trying to be everything to everyone. The reality is that it’s easier to be a “people pleaser” when you’re an individual contributor. How many times have you been in a situation where you’ve said “I can just work extra hours to get this design done this week, and we’ll be good!” When you’re leading others and you push past your limits everyone around you can feel it, not just you. I try to remember that I won’t be able to lead others without being able to take care of myself first.

Temet Nosce

Yes, it’s another 90s movie reference…

“Knowing thyself” is important. If I don’t know what my weaknesses are, I can’t grow past them. If I don’t know my strengths, I won’t be able to leverage them to their full potential.

I can’t think of any situation where I would have been pushed to grow and learn in this way apart from going into leadership. I don’t quite know how it’s possible for something to be so different than I expected, but somehow be more fulfilling than I had hoped.

It’s taken time to learn who I am, who my team is, how to operate in a company with a lot of complexity. I’ve also realized that you can make as little or as much out of leadership as you want.

I’ve had managers that I didn’t work well with, and I’ve had great managers as well. I strive to be one of the great ones, but I still have some of my own tendencies to overcome, as well as many experiences and situations I haven’t encountered. I also have to understand that even when I’m at my best, my personality or management style still might not be compatible with some individuals and may require a different approach.

I don’t quite know how it’s possible for something to be so different than I expected, but somehow be more fulfilling than I had hoped.

All that said, I’m very happy with the decision I made a year ago, but I’d be lying if I said I don’t have moments where think to myself “Man… I wish I was better at this!” If you do decide to go into leadership, realize that making that decision is already an accomplishment. It’s certainly not easy, but I can absolutely see it being career long journey that is well worth pursuing.

Caleb McGuire

I'm a father, husband and musician living just a little east of the Twin Cities. I've been designing awesome experiences professionally for over 15 years.

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