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7 deadly sins of a design leader

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The line between great leadership and being a terrible boss is surprisingly fine. Each day you’ll find yourself walking a tightrope of nuance that spans between confidence and ignorance. Stepping in to a role as a design leader can be a tricky process, regardless of whether or not it’s a promotion, a new company or a new team.

With each role there are many traps that can easily taint your reputation. Most of which are not immediately obvious and some of which may push against your instincts.

What follows is a selection of actions and behaviours that I’ve witnessed in design leaders and have commonly found at the root of team members’ frustrations. As a design leader I’ve also fallen foul of some of these sins, but the most important thing is to recognise that as a team leader, all of these actions have negative impacts on your team’s wellbeing. None of them in isolation may be enough to make a designer quit, but together they can quickly accumulate to create a toxic environment in your team and chip away at positivity, which in turn will impact the quality of work your team is outputting. They won’t just make your people unhappy, but these behaviours can diminish your team’s work — which will reflect badly on you.

1. You criticised your predecessor

Unless you’re working in a brand new startup you’ll be inheriting a degree of legacy. Even if your role is new, the function you fulfil will have some form of predecessor and it’s all too easy to openly criticise the incumbent. This is not an appropriate way to measure your success or make yourself look good, as it breeds an openly critical culture.

Try to remember that your role is to bring something new to the team. It’s therefore only natural that you won’t agree with approaches or decisions made by your predecessor. Try to keep in mind that what has gone before you, did not happen in the same context and you won’t want to be reviewed poorly once you’ve moved on.

2. You didn’t defend your team’s work

A team leader is often referred to as a “shit umbrella”. This means it falls to you to absorb any negativity from outside of team and turn it in to an opportunity. This also includes protecting your team from any tasks, demands or types of work that in anyway degrade its purpose and/or relevance. This is a challenging and thankless role to play, but it is none-the-less vital. Nothing will dismantle your team member’s output and attitude faster than seeing their hard work compromised or their skills underused.

To avoid this happening you (the design leader) need to run a continual campaign on behalf of your team. Keeping up a momentum of presenting work to other teams, sharing project outcomes and regularly updating stakeholders on the people, skills and experience in your team. This will help help people around your team make more informed decisions and it will also give you plenty of solid ground, when you need to say ‘no’.

3. You spoke the most in the design review

Your role as a team lead is not to become the central point of failure. Unless you’re running a consultancy in your own name you’re part of an ecosystem, not an autocracy. Which means your behaviour needs to be balanced between leading from your experience and building autonomy.

 

Design leaders who think they will become a Steve Jobs type figure, placing themselves at the centre of every decision, will quickly find they are simply micro-managing and being a blocker. A design review is the starkest forum for these attitudes to be seen. If you find you’re talking the most in a review, then you should take that as a sign that your team is not confident, autonomous or feeling empowered.

In feedback and review sessions take the role of the facilitator. Encourage conversations, ask tricky questions, set the scene before work is critiqued, quell any disagreements and summarise any actions, but don’t make it the ‘me show’.

4. You rescheduled 1–2–1s for anything

Your team’s 1–2–1 sessions are an important outlet for them. It’s the supportive framework and the guiding hand they need. As a leader this is your most acute moment to perform your role, so when you reschedule it to go out for lunch it hurts them. If they get dropped, ignored or perpetually rescheduled it sends a clear message to your direct reports that their progression is not a priority.

Your time is in high demand. The more team members you have, the more closely your time needs to be managed. So you need to consider when 1–2–1s happen, how frequently and how long you can realistically commit to.

5. You took your time dealing with HR matters

Every manager will have to get involved in some form of HR related tasks. Whether it’s organising maternity pay, chasing p45s or recruiting, at some point these matters will rely on you. Let’s be honest; this work is not what you signed up for. You will struggle to find a design leader who is motivated by the prospect of dealing with HR processes, but these are the items that have a direct effect on people’s lives. By putting these tasks off you are de-prioritising the wellbeing of the people you are trying to motivate. All of us want to feel like we’re taken care of. On Maslow’s hierarchy of needs this stuff sits right at the base. No amount of cool project work will counter a shortfall in employee benefits or a miscalculated bonus.

It’s worth your time making friends with operational teams. If you can find allies in HR, IT, Security and Recruitment then you can find the most painless paths to getting important items dealt with.

6. You gave the best work to an agency/contractor

Every in-house team needs support. Whether it’s providing specialist skills or simply extra hands to get the work done, there will be times that your team needs to draft in an agency or contractors. If you find that the support teams are tackling the big strategic design challenges, whilst your in-house team takes care of “BAU” then you’re going to face a wall of frustration from your permanent members of staff. In the long run your team will feel they’re inheriting work from outsiders and they may also get the impression their skills and opinions aren’t recognised.

If you don’t have an adequate base of experience or skill inside your team and hiring more isn’t an option, but you do have budget then consider using then an agency to provide a support/training system for addressing that.

7. You ‘rolled your sleeves up’ and took over a design

A project wasn’t go well so you’ve stepped in to fix it. But instead of giving your team encouragement and helping them solve problems themselves, you felt you should take control of the design. The temptation is strong with anyone who has come from a practitioner (or IC) background. You may well have vented some creative frustration and you may well have got the design closer to what you had imagined, but the reality is that you’ve undermined your team and left them to wipe up your sparkling shit.

Remind yourself that it’s your role is to lead the design work. Your role is not to do the work for them. If your team is unable to solve a problem, then you (as their leader) are the problem. If your team is frustrated and confused, then this is a reflection of your leadership. In these moments of difficulty don’t give in to your ego and stay focussed on making yourself unnecessary. The more your team learns to work through these sticky patches, the more your time will be freed up to chase after new opportunities.