I recently watched a fantastic podcast featuring Peter Merholz outlining some of the key challenges of designers transitioning into leadership. So, I wanted to share a short write-up of two big themes that resonated with my journey, and the challenges design leaders are up against.
Many designers can unintentionally believe that design leadership is what they see their leader doing. But there's much more to leadership. A good design leader will do so much more than their people will see, and that's often the majority of the job of leadership. This misperception can lead to a huge disappointment when designers step into a leadership role and realize the job is not what they thought. It can feel like a bait and switch.
As design leaders, we need to set better clear expectations about what leadership is truly like. Then, we need to prepare them with the skills required to flourish in leadership roles. A good leader will do so much more than their team will see, and that's a vital component of the job. We need to overcome the invisibility of what a leader does and find meaningful ways of making leadership more visible. Additionally, as designers start on the path to leadership, we can identify opportunities for them to put the critical relationship skills into practice so they have a baseline of experience to build on. And this leads us to the next big theme: relationships.
When we hit challenges in leadership, designers may naturally want to rely on design problem solving rather than building strong, productive relationships. In the podcast, Peter said (something like): "There are some problems that design isn't the best answer to." This non-design approach can be a brutal truth for designers to hear. And, it can be more difficult to live by a relationship-focused approach for people with design backgrounds. Designers are people of action, people who understand, and people who make solutions. Designers solve problems by creating. After years of design service, the transition to relationship-focused activities that don't produce concrete artifacts as an outcome can be jarring.
As design leaders, we need to be building relationship-based skills in our design teams, especially those who aspire to a leadership path. We can provide clear, honest, and actionable feedback on developing their relationship skills. Fortunately, design is generally a collaborative process, which means we can draw on observations and opportunities in the regular flow of work for that kind of feedback. We can also point designers to reliable leadership-focused resources that will help them orient to leadership and how it integrates with the field of design. Lastly, we can model how to balance design work with leadership work more transparently.
There's a significant need in our industry to prepare designers for the actual job of leadership. I hope that we will dramatically improve the quality of incoming leaders and build a future where they deeply understand how design functions and possess the skills necessary to help design be as effective as possible.
We have a responsibility to help designers create and own their plans for professional development that will set them up for success in leadership roles.