After years of producing designs, I wanted a new challenge, something that would involve more leadership, be more involved in the decision-making process. I wanted to influence what my company and the design team could do.

I came across this “design leadership” term and got intrigued, and it sounded like what I wanted to do! After reading more about it, I decided to set my new goal: to become a design leader. But there was only one minor issue…

I had no idea what design leadership involved, and furthermore how to get there.

I can’t say that I know everything about it, but I’ve made a lot of mistakes and learned a few things along the way on top of meeting incredibly talented people who supported me on this continuous journey.

If you’re like me and wonder where to begin, here are a few tips to get you started:

Leadership is taken, not given

You’ve probably heard that one before, it sounds a bit like a buzz-word, but it took me some time to realize that it’s true. If you’re interested in advancing in a leadership role, you don’t need to wait for permission or an invitation to be a leader, regardless of your current position.

I used to think that my manager will come one day and tell me this so-waited truth: “You are now ready to be a leader.”

Guess what? It never happened. And probably never will. Only you can make the first steps in this direction (remember: you own your career :) ).

Now it doesn’t mean you can start to roam in the company and boss around everyone, but ask yourself how you could be more proactive:

  • Are you identifying problems upfront for your team?
  • Are you suggesting solutions for those problems?
  • Could you act now to anticipate something that will happen to your team/company shortly?
  • Is there any way you could scale design in your organization?
  • How could design increase your company’s overall revenues?

Ultimately, it will come down to how you can use design to help your company achieve its goals.

Default to coaching (and not mentoring)

You’re sitting at your desk, boss standing up behind you. You’re presenting your design, he’s asking you to move a graphic element a few pixels on the right. Not wait, a few on the left. More people are joining, they start arguing whether or not you picked the right shade of blue […]

We’ve all experienced some form of micro-managing, and to cut it short… please don’t.

As a leader, there’re generally three types of behavior you can adopt with people:

  • Training: you’re helping someone learn something new
  • Mentoring: you’re helping someone already skilled, but you don’t think they have the answer
  • Coaching: you’re helping someone already skilled, but you assume they have answers and are better equipped than you to find them

It might not be natural, but I’d suggest to default to coaching. When you talk to people, especially more junior ones, it might be tempting to give away solutions quickly. We’re here to fix problems right?

Well yes but not entirely. It’s a short term solution that may put out fires, but it won’t help in the long run.

Whenever you end up in a one-on-one with another person, try to listen 80% of the time and only talk the remaining 20%. Ask short thought-provoking open-ended questions. You want the designer to come up with their solutions, not just use yours.

Why? A couple of reasons:

  • The person is closer to the problem than you, and therefore can probably find better solutions
  • You want to empower people and teach them to be self-directed
  • You should push the decision-making on the people closest to the problem

Be candid and challenge directly (but don’t be an a**)

I always found it quite easy to get feedback on my work or behavior. Maybe being a designer has taught me to get feedback, since unlike other disciplines (e.g., engineering, accounting) anybody with a pair of eyes can criticize design.

That said, it’s a whole different story when it comes to giving feedback to other people, especially when it comes to behavior and not only work. We all learned during our education to be kind to others, that if we don’t have anything nice to say it’s better not to say anything. Additionally, what if you’re not a native English speaker like me and end up using stronger words than what you mean? No one wants to offend people intentionally; I get it.

Let me tell you what one of my great previous managers told me:

“If you’re not giving feedback, you’re simply selfish because you don’t want other people to grow.”

Ouch. Am I selfish? But I thought I was nice by not criticizing others? It truly resonated with me. For the lack of better metaphor, think of parents, they must give critical feedback to their children whether they like it or not to help them with their education.

Now if you’re like me and it doesn’t come naturally, know that there’s a lot of existing frameworks that can help you frame the conversion. Here’s a simple one for instance that I often use:

  • 1. State the specific event, action or behavior that the person had
  • 2. State the impact of that behavior. You can also emphasize that you know that the intent of the person was good, but the impact wasn’t.
  • 3. Explore with the person how to change the specific behavior in the future

Find out which framework works best for you and adapt it to your communication style.

Strategy is important

Strategy rightly deserves its own set of articles and would be hard to address on its own here, but knowing that you should be interested and eventually have a say in it would be a good start.

If you can take anything away, know that as a leader, it’s essential to point where the team is going, but it’s equally important to ensure that each member knows how to get there. It doesn’t mean that you have to make all the decisions on how to do it, just guarantee that it’ll be done. And while this is addressed, think about what guiding design principles your product(s) will need.

Principles and people over processes

We’ve all heard about different design processes, whether it’s the double diamond, Stanford’s one… eventually, it all comes down to principles:

  • Understanding people’s problem (customers)
  • Diverging to find the best idea
  • Iterating on this idea
  • Put something in front of real users as soon as possible to get real world feedback

I would recommend pushing principles on people and not processes, explaining what we’re trying to achieve and why it matters. But let people decide how they want to do it.

Unfortunately “process” has become a trigger word, everybody shuts down as soon as they hear it and expect the worst. Always try to explain the reasoning behind first, and open a dialogue to find the best way to do it.

It won’t matter much if a person uses one process over another as long as you can ensure some main principles will be nailed down.

Be the bridge with other teams

Depending on the size and type of your company, it could be beneficial to have regular discussions with other teams.

Sales or customers support teams are in constant relationship with customers and can provide a lot of insights. Researchers can help you frame your assumptions and de-risk a project, marketers can help if included from the beginning… you get the picture.

I would invite you to build these relationships beyond the obvious cross-functional team. Help other disciplines understand the value of design and when to be called, understand when you should involve them in your design process and how they could be useful to the success of your products.

Understand the design maturity of your organization and evangelize design

You can find a lot of definition out there of a company design maturity (Jared spool’s take, Invision’s one, etc.). To summarize it, it goes from the absence of design to a company design driven like Apple.

Understanding where your company potentially lies in term of design maturity will help you frame your conversations. I’d suggest only to aim for the next logical step and not skipping one. You will probably have a hard time pitching a design system if you’re the first designer, in that particular case, you should probably spend more time talking about the value of design.

When it comes to design culture, the hard truth is that you can’t jump a stage. Changing culture is a slow ongoing process.

The list could expand way more, but I thought those could be a good start! Now your turn, comment about your top tips to get into design leadership or tell me what you would like me to write about.