What I’ve learned from leading and scaling a Product Design team — 2 years on

Rowing boat illustration

I’ve been leading design teams for around 3 years now and it’s been quite a journey of discovery. Having spent most of my career as an IC (individual contributor) this was always going to be a stretch for me, but it’s something I’ve always aspired to do, to help others, improve design maturity, and create a high performing team where people love to work.

2 years ago I wrote about the big things I had learned in my first 4 months of leading a team of 20 at Sainsbury’s, and it feels about time I followed up with an update, reflecting on what I said back then, and what I’ve learned about design management since.

For those that don’t know, I had been leading a team of 20 designers as the Head of Experience Design at Sainsbury’s for the last 2 years, helping build and grow the design team in a complex business, and have recently moved to Moonpig Group 🐷 to do the same again 💪 which I’m really excited about. If you’re an IC who’s thinking about progression into a design manager role, or a design manager who’s been through the same thing, hopefully you’ll find this interesting! I’d equally love to hear your thoughts and observations so please leave comments or drop me a message!

There’s a lot I’ve learned, but I’ve attempted to distill that down into a few key points to address the elements I believe are most important.

TL;DR

Key takeaways from what I’ve learned over the last 3 years…

  1. It’s always about the people. Understand the skills you need in the team, and then spend time hiring the right people. It’ll have the biggest single impact of anything you do.
  2. Spend time building a strong team culture. We need it now more than ever.
  3. Figure out what type of leader you need to be, and which type you want to be. This will help drive your progression.
  4. Lead by example by understanding the values and qualities you want to embed in your team, and demonstrate them every day.
  5. Take a step back, let your team get on with what they’re great at, and focus on identifying opportunities across the end to end experience.
  6. Spend time understanding your business, stakeholders, and build empathy for their needs and concerns.
  7. At the end of the day, you need to do whatever the team needs you to do most. Spend time with them understanding where you can add the most value.

It’s always about the people (no shit Sherlock)

I’ll start with the cheesiest and most important thing I’ve learned, and it’ll be no surprise that it’s about the people. I won’t spend time talking about why you should care about your team and put the people first (because that’s obvious), but instead I thought I’d focus on a few specific things I’ve discovered.

Spend time hiring the right people.

Recruitment is hard. You’ll spend a lot of time (and I mean a lot) looking for the right people to join your team. And when there’s work to get done, and headcount to fill, it can be all too easy to focus on bums-on-seats. But putting time into finding the right person for your team will pay back 10x the effort and time you put into finding them.

If you bring people into your team that need a lot of support and guidance for extended periods of time (beyond what you might reasonably expect) it draws time and energy from you and others in the team, causing inefficiencies. Bad eggs will also discourage others from performing above and beyond if they see teams tolerating negative behaviours. Instead you should focus on 2 things;

  1. Strong hires rather than weak hires (bring people in that you’re genuinely excited about working with), they’ll elevate the entire team
  2. People that will add to your culture rather than simply fit into it. A diverse team is a strong team.

Understand your team to be able to design your team

To be able to recruit the right people you first need to understand the current shape of your team, the skills, behaviours and competencies you have, and the gaps you need to fill. Doing a thorough assessment of your existing team will ensure you tailor the interview process to finding candidates who will add quality and depth to your squad. These can be things such as…

  1. Competency frameworks (soft and technical skills)
  2. Progression frameworks (do you have the right skills at the right level in your team, considering both manager and IC progression routes)
  3. Personality traits that complement each other, considering those who enjoy getting their head down and tackling complex problems vs those who enjoy collaboration, facilitation and presentation.

After all, when you build a football team you don’t want or need 11 strikers. You’ll need a balanced squad of great defenders, midfielders and strikers who together make a brilliant team.

“The greatest skill a manager can have is empathy. To truly care for those you work with, and to put their needs above your own. You don’t work hard to get promotions or recognition, you do it because you truly care about those you work with”

Building culture is hard, especially remotely (which makes it even more important btw)

Whether you spend time on it or not, you have a team culture. There are good cultures and bad cultures. The question is how important your culture is to you and how much time you consciously focus on making it better.

In a world where teams are mostly working from home, building a strong culture within the team couldn’t be more important. And team culture is often misunderstood and underrated. A great team culture not only creates a place people love to work, but also demonstrates shared values within a team and provides a network of support, help, and the ability to bring yourself to work each day. If the culture is strong, new people become the culture. If the culture is weak, the culture becomes the new people.

However it has definitely taken a lot longer and a lot more effort to build a strong culture when we’re not colocated. Those random relationship building chats in the kitchen or between meetings is lost. Replaced with formal 30 min ‘catch ups’ and forced ‘social time’. It’s much harder to really get to know people from behind your laptop camera.

But it’s not impossible. You just need to persevere and keep trying. If you can get people into the office once a week, or doing a social out of the office every now and again that will go a long way to building strong relationships where people genuinely care for each other. But if that isn’t possible, here are a few things I’ve found helpful…

  1. Create a set a shared team values to align behaviours and decision making
  2. Demonstrating humility
  3. Lead by example (more on that below)
  4. Reach out to people often, like, really often (design is hard, make sure people feel they have a support network around them to chat openly with)
  5. Share and talk about the work at least twice a week, in an environment that promote honest feedback and debate
  6. Have a team focused on measuring and improving culture (we built a survey to measure team health)
  7. Create a thorough onboarding plan for new starters so they get to know the team and business before getting stuck into project work

Culture is a funny thing. You can just create it out of nowhere. And it isn’t one big idea either. It’s a series of small things then happen by lots of people over and over again. Focus on the small stuff.

You need to figure out what type of leader you want to be

Just like design competencies, there are different types of leadership skills to learn. You can’t (and probably shouldn’t) be all leader types at once. Of course it’s helpful to be able to apply different leadership styles and techniques depending on the situation, but most people will have a default style they gravitate towards, and the best leaders are authentic leaders. I’ve found it very helpful to self-identify which type you are so that you can acknowledge you’re strengths and focus on your growth areas. And the best way of doing this for me has been…

  1. Surrounding yourself with other leaders (inside and outside the design team)
  2. Gathering 360 feedback often

By spending time working with and observing other design leaders (if there aren’t many in your company try to connect with leaders in other companies, there are lots of mentoring networks on Slack and ADPList), you’ll quickly identify those who have a different style and set of skills to you. I’ve worked with design leaders who are incredible storytellers and vision setters, those who are great at personal development, those who are strong with business metrics and financial performance (spotting the quick wins and getting shit done), and those who can create a kick ass culture.

By doing that I’ve not only been able to identify my growth areas, but I also now have the perfect mentor in mind!

360 feedback is also a great way to understand which parts of design leadership you’re good at. Set up a benchmarking survey that covers the different leadership traits and send that to your team to see where your development areas are.

But remember, much like a footballer you don’t need to be great at everything. You’ll have a specific style and set of skills that (hopefully) complements the other leaders you work with, which ultimately makes a strong team. So this is all about understanding whether you’re the defender or striker. You’ll then make your own assessment on the skills you need to develop based on what the team and business needs most.

My final learning on this one is that while I see management and leadership as having 2 separate sets of skills and responsibilities, a great leader is able to do both.

Leadership = inspiring others to be better.

Management = helping them get there.

I’ve seen great leaders who aren’t great managers. They can inspire others but when it comes to building pragmatic plans that help you achieve that vision, they struggle. I’ve also seen it the other way around where certain managers are great at personal development and short term plans, but lack the character to push and inspire others to do more than they ever thought they could.

“Being a good leader is about inspiring others to be better. Being a good manager is helping them get there”

You have to lead by example, even if that means doing what feels like the wrong thing

This is a bit of a weird one, but I’ve observed this on a few occasions. It’s standard practice that you need to lead by example. You need to live the values and qualities you want your team to align to (and if you want the team to do more of a certain thing, you need to introduce a reward mechanic for doing those things). But sometimes those values go against your natural instincts, especially if you’re coming from an IC background where you’re used to (and rewarded for) having all the answers.

As a leader you need to empower others to figure out the answers for themselves, otherwise you’ll quickly become a bottleneck and lead a disempowered team. This means you’ll need to be comfortable…

  • Talking about your failures so the team know they’re allowed to get things wrong, and fail fast
  • Saying you don’t know, so the team start asking others for help more often, and earlier!
  • Staying quiet so others speak up and feel comfortable sharing their opinion and ideas
  • Replacing yourself with someone who’s better at doing certain tasks. It’s your job to find people who are better at things than you.

Sometimes, but not all the time, the best thing you can do is take a step back and let the team crack on. I’ve found that a lot of what you do as a design leader is tactical and behind the scenes, often going unnoticed. I wrote a fair bit about this in my previous post, that the value you add can’t always be seen or measured on a week by week basis but will add endless value over the course of the year (as designers start to feel empowered to make decisions, speak up and take risks more often).

“As a leader you should be constantly trying to replace yourself. Delegate tasks that you think others can do better than you, it’ll stretch them and allow you to focus on the next mountain to climb”

Design strategy, vision and focusing on solving the right problems

One of the most enjoyable parts of my design leadership roles has been having a holistic view of the entire customer experience. Within large design and product teams, more often than not you’re structured by customer journey stages, be that top of funnel and bottom of funnel, or homepage, browse, pdp, checkout, account and after sales, or some other variation along those lines.

This allows each sub team to have a super detailed focus on their specific stage, but limited focus on how all of these stages work together to offer a compelling customer experience. That’s where my role comes in, being able to take a step back and spot opportunities for designers to work together to solve complex challenges end to end.

Spotting those opportunities is one thing, but figuring out the right problems to solve is another. Not every problem can be solved, and prioritising where the team focuses is a big part of my role. Hopefully you’ll be fortunate enough to work alongside counterparts in product and engineering who have a similar breadth of role and own the end to end experience, and between the 3 of you you’ll possess the skills needed to determine what those high priority problems are. In my experience product typically owns viability, engineering with feasibility, and design with desirability, but all 3 of you should work as a unit.

However, it’s not your job to come up with the solutions. Empowering your team to be problem solvers is so important (see my points above), so instead you need to provide the team with direction and guardrails to ensure they understand the desired outcome. Mostly this is done through the creation of OKRs, giving the team a high level objective and key result they need to hit. It’s fair to say a large chunk of time goes into this, ensuring these goals are broad enough that the team have scope to generate their own ideas, but specific enough to address key business or customer problems. Supporting teams to make sure they have everything they need to prioritise, test and learn, and fail fast naturally all follow on from this.

Once teams are mobilised, and you have the right resource in the right place, focus typically turns to vision creation. OKRs work well for quarterly goals, but don’t articulate an inspiring future vision that gets the entire business excited about what could be achieved, not necessarily what should be achieved. Working with many stakeholders (and the teams themselves), it’s vital you spend time crafting this future vision of where you’re headed, and it’ll change en-route, but it helps everyone remember why they are here, why the product they’re building matters, and why they should care about hitting their OKRs every quarter.

Creating a strategy is hard work. It requires choice, choice to stop doing some things and move resources to focus on something else. A key decision will need to be made. Don’t try and do everything.

You need to build empathy for the business, they’re your new customers

As a design leader, one of the most important parts of your job is to ensure design has maximum impact within the business. Not only will this help the business hit it’s performance targets, it’ll also help gain increased levels of credibility and buy-in for the design team (and a user centred design culture).

Everything you do should have this focus at it’s core. Sure, individual success will add value in the short term, but over time the influence you gain as a team by demonstrating your value will have a 100x impact, whether that be helping the business create their strategic vision and OKRs, or getting sign-off to grow the headcount of your team. These things will add value through all parts of the business.

At the core of this is really having empathy for those you work with, outside of the design and product teams. You can do this in a number of ways, much like you would with your customers.

  1. Spend time getting to know your stakeholders. What do they care about? What makes them tick? Where do you see opportunities to help and gain influence you can cash in over the coming months?
  2. Understand how the business is performing, and why. Review performance reports to help you spot the big challenges the business may be facing. Showing that you understand your P&L will help you gain lots of credibility with senior execs and commercial teams.
  3. Understand how the business gets work done, and what can be improved. Showing that you can improve internal process and culture is a sure fire way to drive impact and gain influence. How do the teams work together? Where are the bottlenecks? How are your flow metics?
  4. How quickly can you test ideas with customers?
  5. What relationships need mending?
  6. Where are there quality issues that need addressing?
  7. How are the team feeling? What’s the churn rate and why?

Doing this will allow you to spot opportunities to demonstrate the value of user centred design within your organisation, form stronger relationships, and build long term credibility for the design team by better understanding the people you work with.

Ultimately, it’s your job to do whatever the team needs you to do

Surprisingly I don’t have much more to say on this one. Your job as a leader is to serve your team in whatever way is needed. Spend time getting to know your team and the business in detail in order to understand the areas your help is needed most.

The types of things I’ve spent the last 3 years supporting design teams on has been…

  • Building design process to increase speed and quality
  • Refining recruitment processes to attract and retain top talent
  • Career development frameworks to make the most out of the talent in the team, finding the right problems for the right people
  • Improving ways of working with other departments to ensure the team have maximum impact and influence
  • Advocating for design inside and outside of the organisation
  • Building a strong team culture to ensure everyone loves coming to work and feels empowered to do their best every day
  • Building prioritisation processes to ensure we’re working on the most impactful work
  • And loads of other stuff that I can’t remember right now!

This ended up being a fair bit longer than I anticipated 😬 but just about covers some of the key things I’ve leaned and spent my time working on over the last few years as a design leader. Whilst fairly high level, hopefully it gives anyone thinking about stepping into design management a flavour of what your role could look like.

I’ve personally loved it, and whilst it’s been a huge challenge and learning curve, needing to adapt to new scenarios and learn skills I hadn’t needed in previous roles, I’ve genuinely loved it, and believe that design folk who want to get into management typically make fantastic leaders (after all we’re trained to build empathy for others and solve problems quickly 😉).

But I’m aware I know very little and I’m only 3 years into my journey into formal leadership, so I’d love to hear your thoughts and observations from your own experiences! Please feel free to reach out directly or comment below 👇

Feel free to connect on LinkedIn

Further reading…

The making of a manager — Julie Zhou

Leaders eat last — Simon Sinek

Good strategy bad strategy — Richard Rumelt

The coaching habit — Michael Bungay Stanier

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Ben Brewer

Ben Brewer

Senior Manager Product Design @ Moonpig 🐷 | Ex-Deliveroo & Sainsbury’s. Runner 🏃‍♂️ mountain biker 🚵‍♂️ Spurs fan 💪 Disney aficionado and kitten dad 🐱