Over the last 2 years or so I’ve had the privilege and huge responsibility to manage a team of 5 designers. My transition into it was probably similar to most of the design managers out there. I was an IC (individual contributor) in a product team, working closely with the product owner, developers and content editors to bring the best and most viable ideas to life. I was also reporting to the product owner, which was absolutely fine but if I wanted to grow my career I had to step up. The most natural thing for me was to go up and in many organisations, up means management.

While doing my design work I kept seeing things I wasn’t too impressed with, you see, one of the byproducts of agile methodology, especially in the beginning is teams become siloed and with that inconsistency creeps in. Another thing, which at the time kind of made sense given the size of the team, was the product team members were all reporting to the respective product owners. What that meant was when designers wanted to get some feedback about our design work or some career advice, we would either go to more senior members, such as myself, or we would have to reach out to the community.

So as time went by, some of these things just became a bit more obvious and I figured that the best thing to do was to come up with some solutions, even if I didn’t have the official manager title, here’s 5 of them.

1. Weekly design meetings

This probably seems obvious and it is, but many people forget how important it is to just hang out and chat about what’s going on. With big or small teams, this needs to happen at least once every two weeks. Just one hour to chat about what you’re working on and you’ll realise that slowly other subjects just come up, stuff that the team wants to start doing or if something is lacking, this is a huge opportunity to find quick wins and address them.

Most of the stuff I found out in these meetings was simple stuff, like tools we were missing, some design overlapping where a designer changed something and affected other parts of the product, the problems were just surfacing, which was brilliant, we could fix this.

2. 1:1s

Team meetings are great but we know how people dynamics are, you always have a loud voice in a group and introverted people will just shut down and not participate. 1:1s are probably the best way to know each team member and their opinions, not only about work but what motivates them as individuals too. I had practically no experience in this apart from my own 1:1s with my manager. I had no idea about what a good or a bad 1:1 looked like. Fortunately, there are extraordinary books out there and I cannot recommend them more, Radical Candor and The Making of a Manager, please read them.

Once I read these, things were clear to me, just let them talk and your job is to listen. As a manager, these sessions are about them and their career, not about what you want them to do. One thing that I found very useful in these 1:1s was asking them questions about what they were thinking on the subject they were just talking, all people need to do is reflect, most of the time they know what to do. This doesn’t mean you can’t give your opinion, just don’t make these conversations about you.

3. Vision, Mission and Values

This is probably one of the most challenging things you’ll do but there is a lot of material out there on where and how to start. The best way is to get your team together and do a series of exercises to uncover what to do, where to go and by when. You need to uncover what are the biggest challenges you have as a group and what to tackle. You can define a series of visions (short, medium and long term) and missions on how to get there. Values normally stay the same over the long term, but it doesn’t mean they can’t evolve.

My short term vision was to have a solid team, like the A-Team, each has its strengths but as a team, we kick ass. The medium-term vision was to make sure we were always aligned and within the bigger team, we would be an influencing voice. Long term vision was that design is part of the company’s culture. My mission was to make sure design was viewed as a valuable tool to achieve business goals in the most efficient way possible. Good design is good business. All this will take time and dedication, see the pointer below.

4. Having a strategy and a roadmap

Having a vision gives you a direction, having a strategy and a roadmap gives you a way to get there. Your strategy needs to be inspiring, making sure everything step you take gets you and your team closer to the end game. I did my strategy using OKRs framework these items needed to be actionable and measurable, this is important to define the success of each initiative, here’s just a few of them:

  1. Deliver a design UI roadmap (To tackle that consistency issue we were having);
    • UI components are done and ready for dev;
    • Implement CES/Feedback on major key journeys to understand design impact;
  2. Develop a user testing capabilities and framework (Make sure what we’re designing is fit for purpose)
    • Work with internal team to set up a beta user testing program;
    • Design recruitment emails and instructions;
  3. Conduct regular user journey mapping to uncover pains and gains (Make sure product backlogs were always being fueled)
    • Deliver User Journeys mapping roadmap;
    • Have the capability to measure user experience both on Web and App

I also assigned a designer as a lead for each initiative. This guaranteed I had a clear point of contact when I wanted to understand where things were at as well as develop fundamental skills for each of the designers, such as forging relationships with other parts of the business, presentation and communication skills, being comfortable with quantitative data, and so on.

5. Design ladder – a clear path for career progression

One of the things I found about reporting to a product owner was, my career development was in the hands of someone who, while extremely capable and amazing as a product owner, wasn’t very proficient in the design topic. So when I wanted to know how I could be better within my area of expertise I couldn’t seek my manager’s advice.

This got me thinking and as a designer, I did my research, collected a few ladders from other companies and then adjusted to the company’s culture. The result was something clear and transparent, under a few values and traits, everyone knew where they were and what they needed to do to be better. Some people will be motivated by money, some by career progression, my job was to facilitate the latter. If you’re curious about this, check the ladder here.

Doing any or all of these is not the fail-proof recipe for becoming a manager, or a good/bad. In my opinion, the ultimate signal you’re doing a great job is your team’s success without negatively affecting anyone else in the business, it sounds cliché but it’s true.

In these last 2 years in my people management journey, there are two big lessons I’ve taken away:

  1. Culture change is a long game! I often give this example, changing culture is like sculpting David out of Everest with nothing but a mini pickaxe, it’s chipping away little by little.
  2. As a manager you’re like a coach, define the gameplay but in the end, it’s your players who play, not you! You just need to make sure you’ve given them all the right tools and support they need to get the job done.

I probably boiled down a lot but hopefully, you’ll be able to take away some insights and apply them, whether you’re a manager already or thinking about becoming one. Oh and please read those two books, they will definitely give you way more pointers that this article ever will.

Radical Candor & The Making of a Manager