Guide #027: How to grow design leaders within complex organizations

Large, complex organizations present unique needs for design leadership. Look for individuals that display a unique and valuable combination of alignment, trust, and curiosity, alongside a constant demand for results and excellence.

Enable individuals to advance their careers as either an individual contributor or as a people manager

Leaders can appear at any level of the organization. Before thinking about whether or not a person would be a great manager, first investigate if they are already a great leader. Recognize the risk of saying to someone who is a fantastic individual contributor, “now you lead the team”. Leading people (as opposed to leading work) is an entirely different skill set, an entirely different career and an entirely different work-life balance. Within your organization, create or advocate for a dual career path that allows individuals to advance their careers as either an individual contributor or as a people manager. In large teams, it’s rare that one magical person can fulfill both of these essential roles equally.

Get to know your employee’s goals and aspirations

Establish ongoing conversations—the sooner and the more informal the better—where you are exploring the question: are you more interested in a leadership role where you're focused on delivering great design outcomes? Or are you more interested in a leadership role where you are setting the stage for design to thrive sustainably within the organization? Frequently observe your employee’s interactions, skill sets, and demeanors. Have frequent and candid conversations with your employees to understand if they’re being fulfilled by the work they’re currently doing. Set high expectations that are specific to the individual(s) you are leading. It is also incumbent on employees to take an active role in their own career development and communicate their career goals with their manager.

Recognize the traits of a great design management leader versus a great individual contributor leader

Great design management leaders pay special attention to the team, how it operates, and how it’s interacting with the world/organization outside. They are good at setting designers up for success and can collaborate with non-design leaders to help eliminate the barriers teams encounter in order to deliver. Great individual contributor leaders are focused on the design practice and design products, and they typically work best with other designers. Paradoxically, non-designers can grow to manage design teams, even if they’re not designers themselves. However, to become a leader as a design individual contributor, you need to be an amazing practicing designer.

Identify team members who are aligned with company mission and goals

Employees that display a high degree of alignment can articulate the mission and strategies they are tasked with executing. Their leadership qualities reside in being able to communicate how these strategies impact the work and how the skills and the position of the team ladder up into those strategies. They have a “fire in their belly” that enables them to be vocal when they observe things that don't align with these strategies.

Recognize individuals who can leverage the trust given to them by the people willing to follow

Great design leaders are always striving to establish and maintain trust with their team, peers, and upline and cross-line leadership. Anyone in the organization, regardless of their position or level can build trust. Leadership is not about the use of power, nor is it about one's place in the organization or the projects they own—it’s about leveraging trust with integrity. Recognize that there are only a few people in an organization that can deliver edicts and even when edicts are delivered, generally, people don’t follow them if there is a lack of trust.

Identify individuals who set a high bar of excellence for themselves and their teams

Great design leaders are demanding, meaning they set a high bar of excellence for themselves and their teams. They prioritize outcomes over effort—that is, they value hard work but strive to place a greater emphasis on the value delivered to the business, users, or the team. Great design leaders balance urgency with quality and don’t ask team members to do things they wouldn’t do themselves.

Recognize team members that practice curiosity as a combination of humility and ambition

Great design leaders are never satisfied with the status quo. They can show humility by admitting when they need to learn new things and show ambition by actively acquiring knowledge. They are constantly reaching out to others to learn about what’s working, what's not, and how to improve.

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