How to grow as a leader and build a first-class design team

4 min read
Kaysie Garza
  •  Sep 11, 2017
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What does it mean to be an exceptional design leader? If you’re Netflix designer Andy Law, getting to the bottom of that question starts like all design challenges—with research.

He took the query to Silicon Valley, observed leaders at notable companies, and even spotted leadership gaps in the process. Law’s preparation tactics went above and beyond, but there’s a more efficient way to learn for the rest of us.

The question Law posed forms the entire basis of the third book in the DesignBetter.Co library. To capture all that goes into transitioning from individual contributor to leader, Aarron Walter and Eli Woolery penned the Design Leadership Handbook.

Even if you’ve never held a leadership position before, Walter and Woolery have good news: you’re already familiar with the right mindset.

As a designer, you’re accustomed to thinking carefully about the customer experience, a skill that will also come in handy as you lead your team. You’ll be designing an environment and structure that brings out your employees’ best work to serve both the company and its users.

The handbook also has you covered beyond your mentality. It delivers advice, methodologies, and actionable ways to ease the transition and build a first-class design team while you’re at it.

6 great insights for current and future design leaders

1. You’ll never be 100% prepared

After poring over books and notes Andy Law took in the field, he came to a profound conclusion: “I’m never going to be 100% prepared, but I’ll always be 100% committed.”

This attitude helped him absorb new ways of thinking—and new ways of working. Every environment will be different, but you’ll never be totally prepared for any of them.

2. Chemistry is key

When it comes time to hunker down and get to work, the success of your team will depend on who’s in it, according to Chapter 2 of the handbook. Therefore, you should look beyond an individual’s talents to assess how all the individuals you lead can work together.

“Great teams are composed of people with complementary skills—they think we, not me.”

Twitter Logo

Read: The full chapter on defining team values, hiring, collaborative mindsets, and more

3. You must serve and protect

As a design leader, you’ll help people do great work and develop fulfilling careers. Both can have a profound influence on your organization. According to Chapter 3 of the handbook, your primary job as a manager is to manage the careers of others.

But don’t think of management as control—great managers are servant leaders, not bossesTwitter Logo. Trello’s former COO Rich Armstrong summarizes a servant leader as someone who:

  • Discovers where employee’s professional goals intersect with the organization’s goals
  • Removes roadblocks between an employee and those goals
  • Holds employees accountable for moving forward
  • Shows them how far they’ve come from time to time

One way to make sure you deliver in this regard is by scheduling regular 1-on-1 meetings. Focus the discussion on Armstrong’s criteria, not just status updates.

4. Create clear, structured processes

Operationalizing design means creating clear, structured processes. A formalized feedback process will enable your team to move quickly without compromising on quality.

To set the stage, leave no surface unturned. Prepare physical office spaces by filling them with sticky notes and pens. Loop in remote team members with collaboration tools. Schedule design reviews, conduct standups, and organize retrospectives.

5. Think of design as a team sport

Chapter 5 of Design Leadership Handbook frames this idea perfectly. “Great design leaders recognize that their team’s work is but one piece of the broader ecosystem of their organization.” And to connect with that ecosystem, you’ll have to step away from your desk.

Forge cross-functional alliances by networking with team members you don’t directly manage. Look beyond lateral relationships too. Casual meetings with executives and stakeholders can get you a better view of the overall vision. These informal meetups are also crucial to creating “inroads” that make design less of an insider-only job.

“Your legs are your most effective design tool. Get out and connect with people.”
– Mark Opland, Facebook

Read: The full chapter on forging alliances and educating your company on design

6. Recall the story of why

People are wired for storytelling. As companies scale and sprint through product iterations, you can’t lose sight of how the product fits into a real person’s life. To keep the purpose fresh in your team’s minds, rely on storyboards, sketches, or videos.

This gives you something tangible to turn to in every stage of design. According to the handbook’s final chapter, “The act of creating a product story before you begin the design process…forces you to clarify your intentions for your product. You’ll step out of the maker’s mindset and consider how your product will fit into the lives of others.”

With these insights, and the detailed resources available in the handbook, your path to leadership will be much smoother than some of those before you—Andy Law included.

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