My Reflections as a Design Team Manager

It has been just over a year since I was promoted as Design Team Manager due to the upcoming growth in the company. Looking back I thought it shouldn’t be too much of a difference. I have been the team leader of the companies small design team (2–3 people), so it would be a simple challenge. How hard can it be?

Well after 1 year, many hiring interviews, process iterations, team meetings, team building activities, development planning, KPI changes, etc. I can tell you I was very wrong. (I would like to punch my past self for being too self-confident.)

It was hard, frustrating and sometimes depressing. I mean like hardcore level in-game difficulty. Aside from that, an advantage is all that hardship did not come without some learning insights. I was able to identify a few things to know when managing a growing design team in a scaling company.

1. Hiring & Onboarding are important.

It’s often pointed out that hiring the right people is what determines a team’s success. This doesn’t always mean the designer with the best portfolio or highest predicted output or the best knowledge of design principles.

The right people depends on the values and culture you want your team to have. For example, in my team, I wanted people who have a growth mindset(self-development), curious and collaborative. However, make sure to match this with your companies overall culture.

These cultures/values you choose should have a big weighing when choosing your candidate. Often it should be the decider between two equally technically talented candidates.

2. You are no longer a high performer.

Often you get selected to be a team leader or manager because you are the highest performer. However, as a design team manager, this is no longer your main responsibility. I guess you can try but it will be extremely difficult to produce the same technical output along with your new responsibilities. In my experience, this was probably the hardest for me to accept. I liked the feeling of creating new designs, implementing projects and getting tasks completed.

As a design team manager, your main responsibility is to do everything you can to enable your team to be all high performers. Majority of which will be around these areas:

  • Purpose
  • Processes (more below)
  • People ( I will expand on this later)

To summarise a design team managers role is to be a multiplier. A tip I was told by senior managers to help with prioritising my task as a manager is to ask:

“What can I do today that will have the biggest effect on my team’s performance?”

3. It’s about people

In the beginning, I thought becoming the design team manager is about managing the projects, providing the final approval and providing design critique. More often it’s about the people in your team. As I mentioned above its about acting as a multiplier.

This means getting to know your team and understanding their needs and making sure they can perform at their very best. What this involves may change from day-to-day, example:

  • removing obstacles in their progress,
  • negotiating with other managers in behalf of your team,
  • setting a vision of success for a project their working on,
  • finding out what motivates them,
  • their development goals,
  • providing critical feedback to
  • just checking in on their mental health.

In my case, I think this is something that requires mental reminders until you get used to it. I find that it’s easy to end up just focusing on managing upcoming projects and tasks.

4. Processes, processes and more processes

In my year or so of managing my team. I found that it is important to find ways to improve your teams’ processes. This is a something I have a love and hate relationship with (ask my team they will tell you how I always have something I want to try changing in our processes).

As a multiplier, finding ways to make your design processes produce better products, reduce rework, communicate to stakeholders better, etc. Could have a big impact on your team’s performance.

I found what helped me on this part of the job is reading blogs about how other teams work. Try looking at small companies and how their design team processes work. Don’t just research how the big boys do it like Google, Spotify, UBER, etc. The main thing to remember is that there are no right processes. Use what works for your team and your working environment.

Currently, the biggest issue I would say with this continuous process improvement is knowing when to try new processes. There are always new process variations to try. However, you also dont want your team to be constantly changing their processes. This could become quite frustrating.

5. Managing and leading are two different things.

Leadership

I have always thought that being a manager goes hand in hand with being a leader. But with all the articles I have read and most courses I have attended states that these are two different roles.

Leading people is a skill on its own. A person in any position can be a leader they dont exactly have to be in a management position. I was relieved to find out that being a leader is not a talent a person is born with, it can be learned and improved on.

From what I can see with the managers I have worked with, is that by also being a great leader allows you to be able to bring out the best in your team performance. Therefore leadership is something to add into your list of things to improve on to be a great manager (I know it’s on my list).

6. Get comfortable with failing

This point goes a little hand in hand with no longer being the high performer in the team. When I was just an individual contributor, it was all technical work and managing myself. In the overall scheme of things it that was easy, I motivated myself, managed my development and all the other things I needed to do, to be able to produce great work. However, the ability to manage my contribution to a team came from experience. Like all things, you need to develop it.

At first, as I said I thought it would be easy. But as my team grew it became hard. Like all new skills, you have to start from not knowing much. That means making mistakes, like focusing on the wrong priority for my team or getting too involved with the technical work.

These mistakes cannot be helped, but what is important is to learn from them. The other is to make sure, to be honest when you have made a mistake or when you need help. No one should expect you to know what you’re doing in the first few months when it is your first time in a management role.

7. Success could mean losing your job

To try and get good at management I did some research. First I reviewed my role, then what it means to be successful in a management role. From what I understand, a managers role is to enable a team to perform at their best autonomously. Meaning you need to help your team maintain their performance in their environment. Then train them with methods to be able to do this on their own. Once you have done that technically they should no longer need you and as bi-product you would have produced potentially new managers.

It is a strange way of thinking about success in the role and ultimately hard to accept. “If you do your job well, you will not have a job.” — lol. However, I think accepting this possibility is one of the keys to doing the role well. You need to genuinely want your team to improve and succeed even with the risk on your position. Because if you dont, you will hold your team members back and yourself from being the best that you could be in your roles.

Should you do great in your role and produce new managers and lose your job (god forbid). The best thing to do is move forward and look at it as a chance to take on a new challenge and growth.

“The best thing to do is move forward and look at it as a chance to take on a new challenge and growth.”

Well, that was long. To sum things up, I still think I have a lot more to learn. What I have stated here may not be the same for everyone. No two roles are exactly the same from one company to another. Some of the things I said may also be incorrect. But that is something I will find out later on. Maybe it will be something I add in my next reflection.

If you have any comments or views on the matters above please feel free to comment below.

Design Team Manager @hle | UI/UX Design Consultant | All-around Curious Person. I will share what I learn through my journey in my career as a designer.