Design Management — The First Six Months

—  Posted on July 26, 2022  —

At the start of this year, I took on a management role at my company. It’s been a wild ride so far, and I wanted to come back and capture some of my thoughts on the transition.

When I made the decision to move into design leadership, one of my biggest concerns was getting away from the work. What I’ve found is that it hasn’t been as big of an issue as I initially thought it might be. I really do miss aspects of doing design, but I find that I’m still immersed in it every day through critique, feedback sessions and 1:1s, albeit through a much different lens.

There definitely are some things that have taken some time to get used to being a new leader, but stepping into this role has given me a whole new perspective on business and how things operate behind the scenes that I haven’t had visibility to in my career as a designer.

Shifting My Focus

As designers, we spend most of our time working towards completing specific goals—Ideally, those goals are tightly correlated to the user’s needs, and we arrive at outcomes that we’re happy with and feel solve the problem. As a manager, my job is to help my team achieve their goals and be successful. That puts me a layer separated from the actual work which is quite a bit different way of operating than doing the work itself. I no longer have a deliverable I’m building, and my success is tied to the success of others which is tied to the success of the company.

Instead of having a very specific understanding around key focus areas, I need to have a broad, higher-level understanding of a wider range of areas. As a manager, it’s harder to know if I’ve done too much or too little to help my team succeed, and I’ve found I need to identify strategic places to have impact rather than diving deep into the details of all the work.

Titles Sometimes Matter

This might have been a bit of a no duh moment, but I remember the first time I went into a discussion with a Product Owner after I was just announced as a manager. Without warning, there was not only an expectation that I would contribute to the discussion as a leader, but there was also a different response to my suggestions. Being in a leadership role gives my feedback more weight than when I was an IC. That’s not to say that I didn’t have influence as an IC, but the influence I have is more tangible as a manager because there is organizational responsibility tied to it.

I quickly learned that being in a leadership role gives my feedback more weight than when I was an IC.

With my team, I see fewer opportunities to provide “lukewarm” suggestions and more situations where I need to be direct. I also have to consider that any feedback I provide will likely have more influence on the actions my team members take than when I was just a peer.

Team Culture and Being “the Boss”

I’ve found that I am responsible for creating, or at minimum, being a representative for the culture my team works in. I am continually trying to strike a balance between discussing the gnarly details of the work, trying to build rapport and helping create an environment where people are happy and proud to be a part of a team. As a leader, you set the tone of the conversation.

We always start our meetings with some light conversation not related to work. I like that we can be personal and learn more about each other, but I also feel the onus on the manager in the room is to help keep conversation on track. I guess the manager innately gets the wonderful privilege of being the party pooper.

My old boss used to say “When the cat is away, the mice will play.” I always thought that had some sort of big brother-eqsue vibes, but there is some truth I’ve found to it. Even if we’re not trying to be “the cat”, your team will probably think of you as that authoritative figure in some capacity no matter how laid back you are.

Managing Ambiguity

Before taking on this role, everyone told me the biggest challenge I would have would be ambiguity. It’s a bit ironic how ambiguous their forewarning was. The difference I’ve found between ambiguity as an IC vs as a Manager is that I now have to manage within the ambiguity in order to keep it off my team’s plate. There have been times these past 6 months where I’ve known less than I would like about changes that could impact my team. I’ve also learned that it is all a part of the process. Bigger companies move slow, and the bigger an organization gets, the harder it seems to be to find quick or easy answers.

The difference I’ve found between ambiguity as an IC vs as a Manager is that I have to manage ambiguity in order to keep it off my team’s plate.

I’ve found there are many instances where I need to operate and lead with 80% clarity. Sometimes the remaining 20% needs extra attention, and sometimes it doesn’t. The good thing is that (for the most part) everything seems to end up in the right direction. It helps to not worry and trust that everyone is well-intentioned and issues will get sorted over time.

Final Thoughts

I’m really enjoying Management! I actually didn’t even capture close to half of the bullets I wanted to say for this post. There is so much that goes into this job, and I have a huge amount of learning yet to do. I’m grateful I’ve been able to do it at a place where I’m supported and people genuinely want the best for each other and our clients.

Sometimes it’s really hard being the boss, and it’s definitely not for the faint of heart. You have to come to the role willing to learn about yourself and also be comfortable putting your weaknesses out on display. You also have to get comfortable giving a lot of direction or guidance when you don’t have 100% visibility into every problem space. You don’t really get the luxury of putting your head down and focusing on delivery, and down time becomes a commodity because you’re always out there hustling, going to meetings and trying to remove blockers.

I’ve only started to grasp how much of a people role this job is and what it’s really about. The best moments I’ve had so far have been when I’ve been able to provide my team members with feedback or direction that unblocks them or helps them solve a problem. I am amazed at just how many different ways there are for me to improve and grow in my leadership skills. It’s a bit daunting at times, but I’m excited and looking forward to seeing how much more I’ll have learned in the next 6 months (and beyond)!

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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