Moving from IC to Manager: What 4 months of being a Design Manager has taught me

How I felt 4 months ago…

Where to start? 🧐 Well, for some context I’ve spent the last 10 years of my career being a ‘maker’, designing experiences and products for customers in the media, marketing, charity, food and e-commerce sectors. I started out as a UI designer, before moving into UX, followed by Product Design and then Experience Design… many different job titles but all with one thing in common…. I made ‘stuff’. That was my sole purpose. Being an IC (Individual Contributor) meant I’d spend a large portion of my day sat in front of my iMac designing interfaces in Figma, S̵k̵e̵t̵c̵h̵, A̵x̵u̵r̵e̵, O̵m̵n̵i̵g̵r̵a̵f̵f̵l̵e̵, P̵h̵o̵t̵o̵s̵h̵o̵p̵, speaking to customers about how we could make their lives easier or more enjoyable, or working with engineers and stakeholders to build viable, compelling products. This was my bread and butter for many years and something I truly loved to do (and do still love!), but just over 4 months ago, for some reason, I decided to take a giant leap out of my comfort zone and throw myself into a design management role at Sainsbury’s! I think I may have had too many cocktails in the sun during lockdown before I made that decision! 🍸

Joking aside, it’s one of the best decisions I’ve made, and whilst I’m still learning a lot (and I mean A LOT), I thought I’d share some of my thoughts and discoveries from the past 4 months. Who knows, it might be helpful to anyone considering making that same leap out of their comfort zone and into design management.

Jumping into management like…

I should also say that for anyone who isn’t currently a ‘maker’, deciding to move into a management role is no small decision. The prospect of no longer sitting in front of my Mac churning out pixel perfect designs, spending hours crafting beautiful interactions with engineers, or days of ethnographic research with customers, was quite daunting! After all, that was what I had been trained to do, and the skill set required to be a good manager and leader was fundamentally different to that which had made me a mediocre (at best!) designer! Anyway, here goes…

Let’s get the obvious one out of the way first…

Being comfortable stepping away from doing ‘design’

FYI PowerPoint is now my go-to design tool 👌 😆

Yeah. You need to be ready for this. It is what it is, you’ll have a growing number of responsibilities so the time you’ll have to focus on hands-on design work will be reduced massively. And at the end of the day, it’s no longer your job to churn out wireframes or visuals. You’ll soon have a team of talented designers who are much better at it than you anyway. It’s now your task to help those designers be the best they can be and deliver high quality design work time and time again. To be honest I thought I’d find going cold-turkey much harder than I have, but I’ve actually been able to apply my design skills elsewhere, from visualising and communicating our goals and outcomes, facilitating workshops around our ways of working, or interviewing stakeholders to find out how our team can be more effective within the business… there are many ways you can still design ‘stuff’, the only difference is that your customers are now your design team and the people you work with.

Embracing conversation (it’s your most powerful tool now)

Moving into a more senior management role has certainly resulted in one thing… more meetings, but in a good way. There are an increasing number of teams and people you need to work with to achieve your goals, so it’s inevitable that your diary will be filled with meetings from 9 til 5, and the importance of building relationships with the people you’ll be working with should not be underestimated. Those foundations will only help you and the team in the long run. And at first I really struggled with this, not only because I’m an Introvert (INFJ-A), but because I had the constant worry that I had no time to ‘do any real work’, most likely a reflection of my previous role as an IC where I’d be able to see the fruits of my labour at the end of each day; a research study, a project plan, a wireframe or prototype. But now, my ‘output’ is less tangible. The impact of your hard work will be seen many days, weeks or months later, from bringing teams closer together, kicking off a new initiative, building culture, defining new ways of working…. these all take time to manifest and will require a lot of conversation to get there. I guess what I’m saying is, talking to people, whether that be in meetings or not, is one of your most important outputs now.

Developing and coaching others

How not to do it

Probably the most important aspect of my role is to develop and coach those around me to be the best designer they can. Ultimately it’s my job to get better outcomes from a group of people working together, creating something better than one person could do alone. And as the saying goes, ‘you’re only as good as your team’. And that really is true when it comes to management. If my team are unable to do good work, then I’m not doing my job properly, simple as.

This is where personal development comes in, and at Sainsbury’s we’re incredibly lucky to have a very thorough L&D programme. However there are many other ways we learn as designers, 70% of which is ‘on job’ training, learning from doing and from those around you. As a manager you’ll find yourself spending a lot of time speaking to designers in your team, understanding their goals, strengths and weaknesses, identifying opportunities to pair designers up with those they can learn from, or on projects that will stretch them and push them out of their comfort zone. It’s very tactical in that respect, but I get huge satisfaction from watching designers flourish, taking on challenges that they previously wouldn’t have and smashing it out of the park.

I also like the expression that ‘as a leader you should be constantly trying to replace yourself’. I like the sentiment behind that statement (as dangerous as it sounds!), as it encourages me to think about the things I’m good at, and instead of keeping those tasks to myself because “I’m the manager”, I try to find ways of understanding who in the team wants to get better at those tasks, and give them opportunities to develop themselves. Like I said at the start, there’ll always be someone better than me at an individual task, so if I can find those people within my team, not only will it let me move onto the next thing, but it’ll also raise the quality of everything we do.

Providing direction, not giving instructions

One of my favourite quotes about effective leadership is that “if you want people to think, don’t give them instructions, give them intent”. And I think that’s a good summary of how I’ve found this role so far. Managing a team of 18 is hard work, and even though I have only 6 Direct Reports, I can’t possibly know everything that’s going on all of the time. Therefore it’s important that I’m able to (and feel comfortable) giving a rough sense of direction to my team but trusting them to figure out the best way to get to our destination. After all, they’re the experts. And I guess through doing this (and this is something I hadn’t considered before), you’re ultimately trying to create leaders within your team, looking for those people who are able to help drive the team in the right direction and work together to figure out the best approach. It shouldn’t be my job to have all of the answers all of the time, so by having empowered, trusted decision makers in the team, we’re going to make better decisions more often! Therefore I’ve learnt that I need to trust my team do the right thing, and sure they’ll make mistakes along the way, but that’s how we learn and move forward, figuring this stuff out together as a team.

Being comfortable with feeling uncomfortable

When I first started out in my career it always felt like those more senior than me had all of the answers. I’d await instructions of what to work on, which problem to solve, which team to help, and off I’d go. As your seniority increases, you move further and further into a world of ambiguity and unknowns, where people are looking to you for the answers. No one’s telling you what to do anymore! And then it dawned on me…. I’m the one who needs to figure that stuff out now. 😬 It’s quite an uncomfortable feeling at first. I don’t work in a product team so I don’t have any product rituals to attend or launch dates to get my designs done by, plus there are fewer people doing a job like mine so I have less to benchmark myself against.

Instead it’s up to me to determine the best use of my time from day to day and the type of manager I want to be (and don’t get me wrong, people are more than happy giving me plenty of work to do!). Whether that be catching up with a stakeholder to see how we can help understand a problem space in more detail, working on a proposal for an idea we’ve had, or getting involved in other initiatives where I think I can add value. What I’m saying is, the balls in my court and the need for me to be proactive and self-motivated has increased tenfold.

Giving your time to others

In my opinion, the greatest skill a manager can have is empathy, to truly care for those you work with, and to put their needs front and centre. It’s my job to make sure they have whatever they need to do great work and enjoy what they’re doing. To do that, I need to make sure I’m listening to my team, getting a sense of how they’re feeling, having regular catch ups, retros and lean coffees, and then using my time to help where I’m needed most. This could be jumping into a product call to define priorities, helping someone with a personal issue, instigating team rituals to improve our ways of working…. all of which result in an incredibly varied and rewarding role!

Talking about ‘design process’… a lot!

I’d say the time I now spend evangelising UX within the business has increased massively. Having the time to build relationships with senior stakeholders and managers, as well as attending forums that I wasn’t previously aware of, has allowed me to talk about and demonstrate the value of a UCD approach, ensuring my team are at the heart of everything we do. This could be as simple as sharing the work we do more widely within the business, to finding new ways of engaging with disparate divisions, identifying opportunities for us to work more collaboratively with others, or talking to teams about how we work towards shared outcomes rather than outputs.

I’ve learnt that my design skills can be applied to a variety of situations, and while these may not be as tangible as the products I used to work on, the wide ranging (and hopefully lasting) impact they’ll have should only help accelerate the value my team can have within Sainsbury’s.

Managing during Covid

Finally, how can we not talk about the impact the pandemic has had on our ways of working!?

Fairly accurate representation of me working from home

A few years ago when I pictured being a design manager, I never quite imagined I’d be working from home in my PJ’s (including my elf slippers), and spending the majority of my day talking into my laptop. I thought I’d be that enthusiastic, upbeat manager walking around the office, chatting to my team, sticking work up on the walls to review and grabbing a beer after work to celebrate the launch of a new product. I’m sure that will happen soon enough 🤞, but for now, remote management is quite different.

For starters, it’s much harder to gauge the feeling of my team on a day to day basis. Talking over Zoom doesn’t allow you to pick up on those small cues that let you know if someone is feeling stressed, confused, or just a bit down. So you need to put in a lot more effort and time to understand the mood of the team, and invest in alternative ways to motivate people and lift team morale, from daily design shares (which I talk about here), to virtual coffee shops and virtual socials every Friday afternoon (all of which we do). And because of the ongoing lockdown affecting everyone, more emphasis is needed on looking after the mental wellbeing of everyone in the team, including my own. This makes it more important than ever that we’re united as a team, able to communicate openly and ask for help when we need it most, and I’m fortunate to work in a team where our culture allows us to do all of those things, pulling together as one team.

Although I can’t wait to grab a pint down the pub with everyone soon… 🍻

So there you have it. Those are my main discoveries since moving away from being an IC and into a management role. I’m far from an expert and still have plenty to learn, but I’m fortunate enough to be surrounded by people who are much better at it than me, and I’m learning from them every single day. 📝

I’d also highly recommend that anyone venturing down this path reads this awesome book from Julie Zhuo, who walks through her take on what a good manager looks like, and ‘what to do when everyone looks to you’. It really helped me.

Lastly, a useful framework I use to focus my energy in the right areas is to follow the 3 P’s; People, Purpose, Process. I try to divide my time equally between those 3 areas, ensuring the people in my team are happy, motivated, and set up for success; ensuring everyone in the division has a shared goal and sense of Purpose, and finally creating an efficient design process so that we can spend more time working on the things that matter most.

I hope my ramblings are semi-useful to anyone thinking about dipping a toe into the world of management and leadership. Managing designers is hard work. They expect a lot from the environment and culture they work in (and I know because I used to be one), and there are plenty of new skills you’ll need to develop over many years, but what I can tell you is that when you get it right, it’s a really rewarding role. Just remember the 3 P’s and you’ll be fine! 💪

Apologies for all the GIFs 😐

Experience Design Manager at Sainsbury’s | Ex-Deliveroo. Runner 🏃‍♂️ mountain biker 🚵‍♂️ Spurs fan 💪 Disney aficionado and kitten dad 🐱

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