Chris Thelwell

The resilient leader

I was asked by InVision “What do you believe are the essential qualities of a good design leader?” This was my response.

Written on Wednesday, 23rd March 2016 by Chris Thelwell

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Design’s role in modern organisations is largely misunderstood. Executives now know they need design, but they don’t know what that means, how to manage it as a department and how to integrate it with the rest of the organisation. I think one of the most important qualities for a design leader in this environment is resilience.

Good design leaders are resilient

I asked the design team at Envato what would make a good design leader. One of the answers really stood out:

“Someone who can build and support a strong design team whilst promoting the importance of design within the company so designers have the influence and autonomy to do their jobs effectively.”

Paul Moran – Senior UX Designer at Envato

I think this statement really sums up the main goals of a design leader. Whilst it doesn’t directly mention resilience I think that it is a core ingredient to making all of this work.

Let me break it down:

Someone who can build and support a strong design team

Building a design team is really hard and it takes a long time. As the design leader you have to fight for the budget to grow the team.

But it’s much harder to convince senior management of the need for more designers compared to engineers. Who can be directly associated with shipping more of your product into the hands of the customer. You need a clear idea of how you want the future design team to look. Don’t give up or compromise on the team you want to create.

Don’t give up or compromise on the team you want to create.

Then there’s recruitment, perhaps the hardest part of growing a team. It takes a lot of effort to find the best talent—you take them through a long process to ensure they fit your team, and then they take an offer elsewhere. When you finally do fill all your open roles, somebody decides to leave. Then you have to start the whole process over again.

Supporting a team is also hard, but don’t forget you’ve hired talented designers. Talented designers aren’t easy to manage—just like you used to be. Remember what it was like to be in their shoes. Avoid micromanagement and hovering over people’s screens, and remember the bad managers you had in your early career.

Promote the importance of design within the company

Design should have a seat at the top table. As designers, we all know that, but it’s rarely the reality in most organisations. As a design leader you need to fight for the importance of design within your company.

It takes time and effort to spread the word about design—and it often falls on deaf ears.

You’ll get used to executives talking about design as just the visual part that’s hard to measure with business metrics, but we know different. You have to find away to talk design in business language in order to get them to listen.

Then there’s research. I once heard an executive at another organisation announce, “We don’t need to talk to customers—we know what they want.” It’s your job to change this, but you’ll find other parts of the business don’t want to talk to customers, as that’s your team’s role.

You have to keep on going and spreading these messages until people start listening.

So designers have the influence and autonomy to do their jobs effectively

You hired really talented designers, right? You’ve given them the influence they need in your organisation.

Now you need to give them autonomy.

Your team must believe you support them. 

But this means letting them make the mistakes that they need to make in order to learn. And picking up the pieces with the rest of the organisation when things don’t turn out well. Often they’ll come up with better designs than you could have, but that’s what you hired them for.

Your job has changed from being a designer to being a leader. You have to build the best team and then provide them with the environment to do their best work. This is never easy, but your team must believe you are supporting them, you must earn their respect by meeting all the challenges head on, again and again.

If you have no resilience you will struggle to overcome each of these challenges. Then your team will lose confidence in your ability to provide them with the environment they need. They will not trust you, and you’ll cease to be their leader.

This article was first published on InVision BlogWhat are the essential qualities of a good design leader?

Photo by Nicole Quevillon / CC BY