How can I grow as a design manager? UX Question #85

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Tommy from Santa Ana, California, asks: I’ve been a designer for twelve years and now I’m managing a product design team of four. Managing feels very different. What can I do to grow as a leader?

I love that question. Thanks for asking, Tommy. This is UX Question number 85 and I am Ben Judy.

How can I grow as a design manager? Tommy, first, congratulations on being a new manger. Second, I love that you point out that managing UX people feels different. It requires, in fact, almost a completely different skill set than being a design contributor.

I would start by identifying different job responsibilities or aspects of your role as manager and focus on one or a few that you are weakest in, and that you want to grow in.

There are many books and blog articles and lists of management role competencies you could look at. If your employer uses a particular list or framework, I would start there.

For example, the consulting firm Korn Ferry has a list of 38 leadership competencies. Link is in the description. These are qualities of managers, such as: instills trust, manages ambiguity, optimizes work processes, and financial acumen. You can look over this list and identify areas you want to get better at.

I recommend finding a mentor—a more senior manager who is strong in the areas you want to grow in.

And I would ask your team to give you honest, direct feedback. How do they think you’re doing in those competencies?

Ask your HR or learning department if there are courses you can take or other development opportunities they recommend.

One of the unique challenges of transitioning from a career as a design contributor into design management is balancing your role as Creative Director versus people manager. You’re probably going to need to do both—assess design quality and ensure designers deliver the right outcomes in their project work, and also do all the people management functions such as performance reviews and coaching them through conflict.

But it may not be a 50/50 split. Depending on your company culture, the maturity of your design team, and other factors, you may need to act more or less as the Creative Director versus people manager.

This is a common area where new design managers struggle: they show up to work thinking they need to be engaged heavily in the design work—that’s familiar to them, but they neglect the coaching and mentoring and leadership aspects of management. A career as a designer doesn’t really teach you those skills, so I would study up, find a good mentor, listen to your team, and put some effort into building new muscles as a people manager and team leader.

Keep asking your questions about UX. Next time, I’ll answer the question: How can I make my website more accessible?

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