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DesignBetter.Co

How to manage a design team

4 min read
Aarron Walter  •  Oct 31, 2019
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Great managers are not bosses—they’re servant leaders who wield their power to help others do their best work and develop fulfilling careers. Though being an effective manager can be a challenge and career-long learning process, even for the most experienced leaders, including Julie Zhuo, VP of Product Design at Facebook and author of The Making of a Manager

Getting her start in the tech world as Facebook’s very first intern, Julie climbed the ranks to become a highly influential design leader renowned for building top-notch teams at one of the fastest-growing companies on the planet.

During her dynamic career at the rocket ship startup, she’s learned a lot about what makes a great manager and a great leader. But the journey wasn’t always easy. When Julie was first promoted to manager, transitioning into a position of authority with people who were peers, she admitted to feeling like an “imposter”—a common sentiment I hear from a lot of design leaders, even those at the top of their career. Not only that, Julie admitted to learning a lot of lessons about managing people the hard way, by making various mistakes.

“One of the big mistakes early on was just thinking that management meant that you had to be authoritative and you had to act like a know-it-all instead of the insight that it’s okay to be vulnerable, and in fact, you’re going to earn more trust with vulnerability,” said Julie.

At first, she found herself competing with her reports until she realized that doing great design was no longer her job. Her main responsibility had shifted to helping her team do their best work together.

“I know today that management is just a very, very different role, and that I’m not competing as an individual contributor, and I can continue to help, and coach, and support my people even if I’m not the best of them,” Julie said. “When you look at the world’s top elite athletes, they all have great coaches, and those coaches are not better at the sport than they are. Everyone can benefit from coaching, and everyone can be pushed, and improved, and challenged through having a great coach.”

Through my conversations with Julie and other design leaders, I’ve gained numerous practical insights to help you become a more effective manager. Here are some of the top tips that can help you manage like a leader, whether you’re a newly appointed manager or more established in your career. 

Conduct regular 1-on-1 meetings

1-on-1 meetings are a great way for managers and their direct reports to connect individually on pressing issues, develop a strong relationship, and ensure that employees feel like they’re working toward their goals. These are not status update meetings; they’re an opportunity to give regular feedback and foster growth.

“The 1-on-1 is the only place where I get to connect with a person to help them and the company succeed,” said Rich Armstrong, former COO of Trello. “It’s where I get to find out what’s going on in the company without sticking my nose in and micromanaging.”

Feedback flows both ways. Smart managers ask team members for insight into how they could serve the team better. These honest conversations can help everyone improve.

“The 1-on-1 is the only place where I get to connect with a person to help them and the company succeed.”

Rich Armstrong, former COO of Trello
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1-on-1s are also an important time to get to know each team member personally and build rapport. The complexities of life often follow us into work and can affect our performance. Making time for personal conversations can give you insight into a team member’s emotional state.

“While it’s not the manager’s job to set the agenda or do the talking, the manager should try to draw the key issues out of the employee,” said Ben Horowitz, cofounder and general partner at the venture capital firm, Andreessen Horowitz and The New York Times bestselling author of The Hard Thing About Hard Things. “The more introverted the employee the more important this becomes.”

Sample questions for your 1-on-1s

Short-term goals

  • How do you feel the project is going so far?
  • Are there any projects you want to work on in the near future?

Long-term goals

  • What do you want to be doing in five years?
  • What are your big dreams in life?

About the company

  • What is the company not doing today that we should do to better compete in the market?
  • What’s one thing we’d be crazy not to do in the next quarter to improve our product?

Self-improvement

  • Do you feel challenged at work?
  • Are you learning new things?
  • What area of the company would you like to learn more about?

Manager improvement

  • What could I do as a manager to make your work easier?
  • Would you like more or less direction from me on your work?
  • How can I help you with your goals?

Say thank you and celebrate

With all of your responsibilities as a design leader, you’re going to be busy—very busy. As you focus on pushing projects forward and running your team, don’t forget that people need to be recognized for their contributions. Make a habit of saying “thank you” to each team member for their work. Everyone needs to hear it individually and as a team.

Research shows that the majority of employees value kindness over money in the workplace, with 70% of employees choosing a kinder boss over a 10% pay raise.

After wrapping up a big project, take time to celebrate with your team. They need to feel a sense of accomplishment and recharge their batteries. If you move on to the next project without recognizing the team’s accomplishments, you risk them feeling empty and uninspired to climb the next mountain with you.

And remember, criticism during a celebration will just demoralize your team. Save your feedback about the project until after the celebration!

Introducing new management layers

As your team grows, you’ll need to introduce additional layers of management to keep the team and their projects on track. You’ll know it’s time when you no longer have enough hours for all of your 1-on-1 meetings.

When you reach that point, you’ll be anxious to get extra help to relieve some stress, but fight the urge to take quick action. Putting the wrong person in a position of authority will only make your work harder.

When you’ve identified a prospective manager, assign them just one employee to manage and observe how they handle the shift in work. If they neglect their new management responsibilities in favor of design work, you know you’ve got the wrong person for the job.

“Make a habit of saying “thank you” to each team member for their work. Everyone needs to hear it individually and as a team.”

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If the team member performs well, add additional direct reports and remove design tasks from their to-do list. Continue to monitor and coach them regularly to help them get their bearings.

Twitter has a unique approach to how they transition individual contributors into management. In other organizations, career growth is often closely connected to a company’s org chart—to make more money you have to become a manager, which incentivizes the wrong people into positions of power. In contrast, Twitter sees the transition into management as a lateral move, and there is no pay raise associated with it. 

Raises are performance-based, which incentivizes the right behavior—designers who want to further pursue their craft will develop their career without sacrificing their passions.

Assign the right project to the right person

Put your designers in a position to succeed by playing to their strengths. Pairing the right designer to the right project is key to keeping your team productive.

While leading the UX team at MailChimp, I discovered that there are two very different types of designers: hunters and farmers. Each is essential to a design team, but when matched with the wrong project, chaos ensues.

The MailChimp UX team was shorthanded as it wrapped up a key project, and to help us meet a deadline I brought in another designer to help. The product workflow had been sorted out—we just needed some details polished. After reviewing the work in progress, the new designer immediately started redesigning everything. These were interesting ideas, but none of the work was in the project scope. In the end, the designer pushed the team further off course, making it even harder to hit the tight deadline.

I had sent a hunter to do a farmer’s work.

Later that year, with some extra time on our hands, I asked one of my designers to begin exploring ideas for a major redesign of MailChimp. She created dozens of concepts, but I could see it wasn’t going well. Her stress was palpable. She continually sought guidance, but we had little to offer—we were venturing into new territory. After two months of exploration, she could take it no more—operating without constraints proved too stressful.

I had sent a farmer to do a hunter’s work.

Put your designers in a position to succeed by playing to their strengths, and look for traits in each of your designers to identify farmers and hunters:

Farmers

  • Love constraints and feel lost without them
  • Enjoy slogging through existing products to find a more refined design solution
  • Thrive on product iteration and refinement

Hunters

  • Excited by freedom to wander—too many constraints deplete their energy
  • Comfortable with uncertainty and unfamiliar territory
  • Thrive on new products and redesigns

Learn to speak the “Business of Design”

The best, most mature organizations in the world—like Amazon, Starbucks, IBM, and McKinsey– have embraced design as a critical component of corporate strategy. Design-driven businesses have been proven to significantly outperform their competitors. In fact, 92% of companies who rank at the highest levels of design maturity can draw a straight line between the efforts of their design team and their organization’s revenue.

At design-driven organizations, design leaders have a “seat at the table” and are considered key collaborators in the overall success of the company. So in addition to helping your team do their best work together, you’ll also need to “speak the language of business” by effectively communicating your ideas and the impact design has on business outcomes to stakeholders. 

Share your LEGOs

Molly Graham, co-founder of design studio &Then, talks about the need for managers to “let go of their Legos,” something she learned while leading large teams at Google and Facebook. 

Many managers struggle with the emotional attachment they have to the work that once gave them meaning as an individual contributor. This is especially true when new people take over aspects of your job you’re no longer able to do as a manager. Just like a kid forced to share their Legos, you may feel anxious and reluctant, convinced that there won’t be enough Legos left for you to build your tower. 

“Conflict is uncomfortable, but it’s inescapable as a design leader. When conflict arises, confront it early to maintain the health of your team.”

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But as a manager, giving away some of your Legos—or responsibilities and duties—is the only way you’ll be able to move on to constructing bigger and more challenging projects. 

At Facebook, Julie admitted that there were numerous projects she was reluctant to give away after transitioning from IC to manager. For instance, when she returned to work after maternity leave, the weekly design meeting that she had created and managed for years was much improved. She realized then that she should have let go of the meeting a long time before.

“I should’ve realized that for me, it (the meeting) had become routine, and I wasn’t thinking every day about how I could invest in it or change it because we had done it this way for so long,” Julie said. “I should’ve realized that new energy would’ve breathed more life into it and that new perspectives and a new handle on ideas would’ve made this whole thing better. I wish that I could go back and have given that to someone else, even two or three years before it actually happened.”

Confront conflicts

Conflict is uncomfortable, but it’s inescapable as a design leader. When conflict arises, confront it early to maintain the health of your team.

Each 1-on-1 meeting is an opportunity to listen for the stirrings of conflicts. Don’t wait until deadlines are missed or the team seems ineffective. If a designer reports conflict between other team members, talk with everyone individually before taking action. Matters can be blown out of proportion when information is second hand, and you can make things worse if you act before you’re fully informed.

When you’ve identified a conflict, get all parties in the same room to have an honest conversation. Let everyone have the opportunity to be heard, and don’t conclude the meeting until you’ve collectively identified a pathway to resolution.