How to Become a Design Leader in 7 Not-So-Easy Steps
Based on my time transitioning from a designer to a design leader, I’ve reflected on a few not-so-obvious steps I took in this journey. I’d like to highlight some things that might be hidden in plain sight, while also dispelling a few myths that still plague designers looking for opportunities to become design leaders.
1. Don’t stop designing until you absolutely can’t handle your workload
This first step is really just meant to help you level-set. There is no rush into leadership. I’ve felt like I had “leadership qualities” (whatever that means) for most of my life. But I’ve only been in a purely leadership position since my mid-30s. The point is that even though I felt I had that potential, I realized early on that I needed a lot of experience in the trenches before ever thinking about becoming a paid leader.
When I started my career out of grad school, I was anxious for any leadership responsibility. I got them in small ways as a designer. Then, when I got my first direct reports in my seventh year, I realized how far off I was from being a leader. Design leadership requires some pretty high-level skills, like helping others do their best work, managing expectations with other team leads, and simply taking responsibility not just for your work but that of your design team.
But in all these stages I was still a contributing designer. And I think that was what helped me grow into becoming a leader. If you like sports analogies, I think it’s similar to being a player-coach. This hybrid role of designer-lead gives you a period of time in which you are reflecting on your own work, while also having a meta-perspective on your role and understanding how you want to lead.
2. Avoid management positions as long as possible
The greatest myth in the design field is that management = leadership. In reality, management is its own job that comes with many skills that have nothing to do with leadership. Conversely, you can exercise plenty of leadership in traditionally non-leadership roles. I have colleagues who have actively avoided promotions to management for exactly this reason. Management is less a role tied to leading people than it is tied to executing a company process.
In the final year before I left my last company to start an agency, I was promoted to manager. During that year, my day was consumed with stand-ups, cross-functional leadership syncs, 1:1s across three time zones, and handling HR issues for my employees. It wasn’t fun for me, and while I had direct reports, my ability to lead felt handicapped.
I’m not criticizing the manager role itself, only its being touted as a conduit for exercising leadership. For those of you interested in becoming design leaders, I can confidently state that becoming a manager is not an effective way to do it. Instead, lead through your work and move up the ladder in functional ways: Senior, principal, or director titles are much more conducive to leadership.
3. Spend more time with cross-functional leaders than with other design leaders
As you make the transition to becoming a design leader, you will find that, ironically, you should begin spending more time with those outside your design group. There’s no better way to learn how your team fits into the broader picture than by talking with leaders from other areas. You’ll start to appreciate how your work is viewed and valued.
Part of becoming a design leader is obviously related to understanding design itself, but a big part is having an outside perspective on how design fits into the broader product team. If there’s one thing I wish I’d done differently in my career, it’d be to have built and maintained stronger relationships with other areas. I realize now in hindsight that a lot of my frustrations or ineffectiveness at times was due to not understanding the motivations and values of other groups.
4. Stay at one company for longer than two years
I’ve been in the industry for over a decade, and one thing that hasn’t changed is the belief that the way to move up in the industry is to make a habit of jumping to other companies and driving up your salary.
Yes, this is a good way to drive up your salary — if that’s really important to you. But in the end, it all kind of evens out. I can attest that for a decade, many in my cohort were making six figures while I toiled away with a measly five figures. I believe that I was underpaid for the first five years of my career, but now I feel more than compensated.
But this isn’t about salary; it’s about leadership.
Job-hopping is a terrible way to become a strong leader. We already established that management titles aren’t synonymous with leadership. But it’s also important to understand that true leadership can only thrive with consistency. You need time to learn the skills of those around you. How best to leverage others’ skills, how to handle conflict, how to get buy-in for projects — these are all things that take time to materialize in a way that fosters leadership. As you get more experience as a leader, you’ll get faster at recognizing patterns, but as you’re transitioning to leadership, it takes time.
So, I recommend exercising patience as you learn how to become a leader. Learn your organization, learn your team’s proclivities, and learn how you can grow in that environment. Only once you feel like you’ve been effective at leading in your current organization should you worry about leaving for a leadership position elsewhere.
5. Stay at a fairly large company
Okay, this one will sting, but the reality is that working for a large company is a great way to grow. I worked on large software teams for eight years before starting my own agency. While I wouldn’t necessarily go back to a large company anytime soon, I believe my time in those environments fostered the leadership skills I needed to build an agency. Why?
First off, large companies are often successful, and successful companies are great places to learn what success looks like. Yes, even if complicated politics and a negative culture exist, these companies often can teach you in myriad ways. They have other senior leaders that you can learn from, either by watching or by seeking mentorship. Trust me, after leaving the big-co world and seeing how often startup founders are desperate for leadership guidance, this is not something to take for granted.
The other way big companies help is by providing leadership resources. I took several corporate-funded leadership training courses and they were really helpful in providing a framework. I still read quite a bit on leadership on my own, but I wouldn’t trade it for the training I received on the big company’s dime.
Yep, read. I will advocate for reading until I take my last dying breath. And with leadership, there is absolutely no reason to avoid reading when there is so much out there to read. Here’s a few of my favorites:
- The 21 Irrefutable Laws of Leadership, by John Maxwell
- The Five Dysfunctions of a Team, by Patrick Lencioni
- Leaders Eat Last, by Simon Sinek
- Persuadable, by Al Pittampalli
- Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion, by Robert Cialdini
- Give and Take, by Adam Grant
- Measure What Matters, by John Doerr
- The Lean Startup or The Startup Way, by Eric Ries (whether startup or big-co is more your thing)
Inspiration from Silicon Valley
- Powerful: Building a Culture of Freedom and Responsibility, by Patti McCord (from Netflix)
- Trillion Dollar Coach, by Eric Schmidt (about legendary Bill Campbell)
- The Hard Thing About Hard Things, by Ben Horowitz
7. Write, speak, or organize
One thing that has helped me over the past two years is writing. It has forced me to get out of my shell and, as Brené Brown would say, “enter the arena.”
The act of getting your own thoughts out to the world will help you refine your own guiding principles in a way you simply can’t otherwise. Since writing isn’t for everyone, I extend this to speaking or to organizing meetups. In any of these capacities, you will be forced to think about what you stand for as a designer and then communicate that to others. It’s an extremely enlightening process.
So that’s it. Just do all those things and you’ll be a design leader in no time!
But truthfully, though these specific tactics can help you become a design leader, the path isn’t that easy and there are no shortcuts. If I’ve done anything in this article, I hope I’ve conveyed a path for growth that is more effective than “get promoted to manager in two years.” As the design field continues to mature, we need to make sure designers like you are maturing as well.