Things I wish someone had told me
I joined Samsung on a startup within the Visual Display division. One of the main attractions to the opportunity was joining early and getting to build out a team. Over my tenure at Samsung, I had the privilege of doing just that. I interviewed people across disciplines, and I ended up growing a small design team of 3.
Being able to interview candidates was by far one of the most rewarding experiences I have had in my career. I found it fascinating how different people thought through similar problems. I wrote a short post about that experience. But I digress, this post is about my experience leading a design team.
I am what you would call a full stack designer. I span the entire design discipline. I also venture into the product management and front-end development side of things. When it came time to grow my team, I first wanted to find other full stack designers. I wanted to structure my team so that each designer could own a project from start to finish.
As things usually go, life paid no attention to my plans. I interviewed two designers who were particularly amazing at and had great potential. I hired one UX designer and one Visual designer. I still wanted them to own projects end to end, but lucky for me, we had a culture of transparency and growth in our team. Failing is the best way to learn. We welcomed it and expected everyone to fail every once in awhile. It means you tried but you were just off of the mark. It helps you hone your intuition, and make you faster and more efficient.
lucky for me, we had a culture of transparency and growth
I always knew that a team needs some sort of structure to succeed. Over the course of our first year, I worked closely with all aspects of our product and team. I had developed a pretty good idea of what our design process was. I drafted up a visual guide for our process, and showed it to my first hire. She agreed with it, and we presented it to the whole team.
When you show someone a process that looks structured, the knee jerk reaction is to think it’s a waterfall process. It is important to note that Agile isn’t the absence of structure; it’s the adoption of scoping smaller for a more iterative process. That process looks a bit different when it comes to design. Design has a lot of phases within it; especially when you are building a product from the ground up.
I made sure to note that our process was more of a checklist to keep us honest to our craft. Each project had different needs. Designers need to think through things, and this flow corresponded to that thought process.
our process was more of a checklist to keep us honest to our craft
For more about the design process we settled on, check out my article on A Modern Design Process.
Roles & Responsibilities
How your team works with other disciplines is crucial to the success of your team. There are many successful companies that have a culture of “us vs them.” In a growing startup, that mentality can’t survive. Teaching your team to respect others, their discipline, and the relationship between the two is essential.
respect others, their discipline, and the relationship between the two
Coming from a larger company with a waterfall process, it was easy to fall into this trap. Forcing yourself to speak about the entire team as “We” and not “the PM” or “the Engineer” has a profound impact on how you subconsciously think about them. Showing your people that you respect not just them, but others in the organization sets the right example. It helps you create a positive environment that will help your people grow.
It is important to grow your people by challenging them. That doesn’t mean that you don’t take advantage of their expertise. I had two designers who were on the opposite ends of the design spectrum. One loved the thought that goes into the experience of the product. The other had a background in traditional visual and print design.
Each project requires a particular skill set. Each project also requires knowledge of various, different skills or areas of design. That said, one of those is the primary skill required. Assigning the right designer for a project should correspond to their particular strength. You should consider what the secondary and tertiary skills for each project are. Then see how those opportunities might be leveraged to help your people grow.
see how those opportunities might be leveraged to help your people grow
For instance, a new complex flow required the creation of new paradigms. This was much heavier on the UX side, so I assigned my UX designer. She wanted to grow her interaction design skills, and in this particular flow, motion could play a key role in simplifying it. I challenged her to try new prototyping tools to help further her interaction skills, while adding a new software to her resume.
How do you help someone grow? More than that, how do you even start to help someone who is content with what they are doing? This is by far the hardest question to answer as a lead. It is also an answer that is different for each individual in your team, and that’s important. There is no one size fits all solution when it comes to helping people. To be a good lead, you need to know those whom you lead.
To be a good lead, you need to know those whom you lead.
Understand what makes your people tick, then understand where they want to go. It is your job to get them from point A to point B. Do that by giving them assignments that give them the opportunity to grow into what they want to become.
E.M. Kelly once said: “The difference between a boss and a leader: a boss says, ‘Go!’ — a leader says, ‘Let’s go!’.” When it is all said and done, this is the key to help your people grow: lead by example. You are not perfect, and you need to know that you aren’t. The important part is that you identify the things that you lack and grow yourself. In doing so, your people will grow too.
I believe critiquing your team’s work is essential to the growth of the team. It goes deeper that just playing the devil’s advocate. It’s about educating your team with the knowledge and thought process to defend themselves. I learned the most when my managers and bosses ripped my work to shreds and helped me build it back up again. I learned from those mistakes, and didn’t make them again.
Doing this in a safe environment is what made it a learning experience. Set up formal reviews, and force yourself and your team to present as if the CEO was in the room. Force yourself to tell the story out loud. Don’t give your brain the chance to fill in the gaps and then you end up catching the holes in your story. Pointing out these issues helps you train your brain to catch itself.
Don’t give your brain the chance to fill in the gaps
My Visual designer was shy and softspoken. We used these critiques as opportunities for her to challenge herself. I wanted to get her ready for when I wasn’t in the room to provide assistance. I critiqued not only her work, but how she presented. By being the bad guy in those meetings, she was better prepared to face those who were not primarily concerned with her growth.
Networking is an essential skill for growing and surviving in a corporate environment. Your ability to network becomes a benefit or hurdle for those who rely on you. Learning how to network is crucial, and teaching it is an often overlooked lesson.
The more you network, the better you can position yourself and your team. The size of your professional network can help you with all the above points. Most importantly it can help you help your people.
Getting buy-in from the right people helps you secure the best opportunities for you and your team. Knowing who is who, and making the best impression raises your team’s status both within your company, but also amongst the industry. It also broadens your horizons on what is happening in your field, so that you can stay up to date.
By connecting my Visual designer with other designers within Samsung, she was able to stay current on platform design language, but also contribute to them to move us as a company forward.
Like networking, the skill of negotiation is a prerequisite skill to being able to achieve major goals as a leader. As an independent contributor being able to negotiate is the difference between finishing a project on track or missing the mark. As a lead the stakes increase. Your ability to negotiate can win your team projects, get you funding, but more importantly build the connections you need to help your team thrive.
the difference between finishing a project on track or missing the mark
The usefulness of negotiation is visible when dealing with stakeholders from different disciplines. As a designer, the ability to negotiate and get buy-in from engineering to build a seemingly complex experience that will ultimately position the product in a better place is often a hard argument to win. Negotiating with Product Managers to increase the scope of the MVP include the foundations of a good UX might be an easier argument to win. Feeling out who needs what and how to get everyone on the same page is the key to negotiating in the workplace.
Lead by Example
Steve Carell’s character Michael Scott in the TV series “The Office” perfectly captures the mayhem that can ensue from a boss who so desperately tries to be everyone’s friend.
Psychologists often prescribe patients a simple treatment: journaling. In doing so, they are prescribing something much stronger than just simple writing. They are prescribing a treatment that will eventually rewire the patient’s brain. It is often the case that many new leads reflect on their previous experiences. Though their reflections may not be as formal as a journal, our brains think of the extremes. A common reaction to this reflection on the extremes is to want to be your direct report’s friend and not a boss. Become aware of the actions you take, good and bad, and use them to learn from and teach your team.
Become aware of the actions you take, good and bad
Going back to the quote from E.M. Kelly, the key is to not look at your position as you being “the boss”; instead as an opportunity for you to be a leader. You don’t have to bark commands at your employees. Change your perception of the role from being the person in charge, to being the mentor who want’s to see their people succeed. To lead means to lead by example.
Protect Your Own
Humans are herd animals. In modern terms, this means we still like to feel safe. If we don’t feel safe, then we consider our environment to be toxic. To this our autonomic reflexes give us two options: fight or flight.
As an independent contributor, the environments I felt the safest in were the ones I knew someone had my back. Unsurprisingly, those were also the environments in which I grew and thrived. In contrast, the environments that I considered toxic were the ones in which knowledge is horded. In that environment there was no time to learn or grow as you constantly have to look out for yourself.
I felt the safest when I knew someone had my back
As a lead, I wanted to make sure that I was able to create an environment like that for my direct reports. A big part of doing that meant discarding my Ego, and taking the blame when it involved them. This isn’t to say that there are no consequences. Let your people know that you will protect them. Doing this will help ensure you are creating an environment in which your people can thrive.
The Bottom Line
To me, the bottom line of being a lead is being everything but that. It is not about holding a title, or the power and authority that might come with it. Being a lead is about being selfless for those who trust you enough to follow you. Commit yourself to your team; be honest and humble, and they will return the favor. As a leader you curate your team’s culture. You have the opportunity to create an environment people will look to find in the future or one that they will run away from. Most importantly, have fun.