5 more lessons I wish I had learned earlier as a design manager

From handling user interfaces to handling people: Part II

I’m a designer by profession and a cheater in people management. I was lucky enough to know the bitter truth about management in advance but couldn’t believe it was true. My wife, an expert in this area, always told me stories from her work, and I was like, “Why cannot they just…?” Now I see why, and here are my humble lessons.

You want to hire and develop proactive, skilled, creative team members as a manager, don’t you? But are you ready to face the consequences? Hmm, that sounds ridiculous. The only consequence of hiring people with remarkable traits of character is remarkable work, right? Not quite.

I noticed that people’s traits of character go in batches. Simply put, if a person has X, they are likely to have Y as well. And if this X is desired for the team productivity (like fast learning or attention to details), the complementary Y can be an unwanted thing, for example:

  • fast learners = adapt to a changing environment + grow faster than the rest of the team, can derail your career growth processes, and want more exotic activities over time;
  • “stars” = strengthen the team’s brand and lead by example + may be very choosy about projects you assign to them;
  • proactive people = initiate useful tasks and don’t need control + can fail to continue/execute someone else’s idea and start improving everything around despite the priorities;
  • people with an analytical mindset = make sense of complex, diverse data + might be stuck in the conditions of uncertainty.
  • missionaries = devoted to achieving the ultimate goal + tend to sacrifice everything else, including relationships with peers.

Of course, these examples are pretty sketchy, but hopefully, you get the point. We are humans, not robots, and developing a desired skill or virtue means you’ll inevitably miss something else.

Let’s take a look at the following case:

Anna was a lead designer at a small studio. Then she joined your much larger firm as a middle designer. She came across as a “unicorn” with diverse experience and impressed everyone in the job interview. During her first year, Anna organized a UX club and launched a podcast.

A perfect specialist, isn’t she? But let’s continue:

Anna expects a promotion. You admire her contribution to the team’s brand but cannot overlook her poor primary design job. She acknowledges her skill gaps but postpones fixing them. If Anna struggles to get a senior position for too long, she’ll give up and quit; you’ll lose a powerful brand promoter. If you make an exception for Anna, other specialists may manipulate it and skip direct tasks in favor of public activity.

As you see, managers cannot extract what they like from a person and ignore the rest. Of course, we cannot change people’s nature; however, awareness of these “complementary features” helps you select a suitable managerial style and not get surprised by harmful conduct from seemingly good subordinates. And as a famous aphorism puts it:

Build a star team rather than a team of stars.

I used to perceive corporate culture as nonsense invented by large firms to control people. I considered it an artificially inflated list of values that a company declares to strive for but can never achieve. This ideal image should somehow motivate employees to do their best, but instead, it serves as inspiration for “The Office” TV series.

But corporate culture itself is okay — the way people interpret and practice it sucks. Corporate culture is like user experience or, let’s say, gravity: it exists anyway, regardless of whether you’ve defined it in a fancy guideline or not.

Maybe this is a bit simplified, but culture = behavior. I don’t remember what book or keynote I stole this from, but you can get a flavor of the company’s culture through these basic questions:

  • Who gets promotions? What do people do to gain success at work?
  • Who is punished? What do people do to be stripped of privileges or fired?
  • What is considered “good” and “bad” in practice, not words?

When I think of corporate culture, I always recall the following case (not fully related, but quite vivid):

In 2011–2016, American bank Wells Fargo opened around 2 millions of accounts without clients’ consent. At first, investigation blamed individual branch workers, but later the bitter truth was unveiled: the staff had a strict KPI of opening as many new accounts as possible; they were encouraged to order credit cards without clients’ consent and use their own contact information to prevent victims from discovering the fraud.

Positive and negative stimuli shape the staff’s behavior. If bad things happen without consequences, they are a norm; if good things are encouraged, they become expected by default. For example, it’s okay to compete with peers in some firms; in others, it’s unacceptable to argue with a boss. Some companies offer team members unlimited days off, and others put much effort into staff education.

I think harsh cultures aren’t necessarily evil until they are honest. We are all adults and can choose what suits us best. Corporate culture is always alright; it flows through employees’ everyday actions. The real problem is when words don’t match reality, and someday employees realize that the company that hired them exists only on paper.

Here is a not-so-rare situation to think about:

Your company is a busy bees’ hive. As a middle-level manager, you know that people deliberately come here from small studios to gain experience. All successful team members focus on achievements and rarely complain about poor office perks. Since 2020, wellbeing and mental health have become HR trends worldwide, and your hiring department wants to use these values somehow on the “Careers” website. So, what will you do?

Feel free to share your thoughts in the comments.

🇺🇦 While you are reading this, my country, Ukraine, valiantly resists the Russian invasion. They target our peaceful cities, slaughter civilians, abduct our children, and wage genocide on Ukrainians. This is Russia’s 13th war of aggression in the last 30 years, and they aren’t going to stop.

Please keep on supporting Ukraine: we fight for our right to exist, but we also resist the tyranny that menaces the whole world with nukes and hunger. Donate to the special account of NBU or Come Back Alive. I’m grateful to all the incredible people who #StandWithUkraine. Thank you!

Everyone likes seniors.

They have abundant experience and skills to get the work done but haven’t yet developed managerial ambitions or tiredness of their profession. So, why don’t companies put more effort into “cultivating” those precious seniors in-house to get rid of hiring headaches?

I noticed that designers’ growth from a trainee to a middle specialist is often transparent and gradual: try to google “begin a design career” — and all the lists of recommended books/courses/exercises won’t be radically different. Even heartless businesses push juniors to become middles as soon as possible because a middle specialist is a better balance between cost (salary) and value (work scope and quality).

In contrast, growing into a senior feels like an accident.

You cannot predict when a person will show relevant qualities. In real life, many seniors are rather survivors than evolvers. They’ve seen some shit (willingly or unwillingly), learned the cost of a mistake, and, what’s critical, haven’t lost enthusiasm in the process.

Many seniors are survivors rather than evolvers.

Three years ago, I wanted to change this unfair situation, so we created an advanced design course at Projector Institute (Ukraine). My co-trainers and I had an ambitious goal: to streamline the middle-to-senior growth and launch no less than a “factory” of senior professionals.

Although our students achieved great results and were generally satisfied, I had an unpleasant after-taste. We imagined the training to be a magical place where you learn years’ worth of stuff in a matter of weeks. Instead, we had quite a few conflicts, some semi-successful lessons, and a couple of students who decided to ditch studying halfway.

I realized that the making of a senior designer is a matter of:

  • time,
  • challenges,
  • and a doze of suffering.

It’s relatively obvious how to practice UI precision, wireframing, or usability testing. But is there a definite recipe for designers’ self-organization, adaptability, and crisis problem-solving? Maybe that’s why not everyone in the industry is a senior yet.

To sum up, growing seniors in a “greenhouse” outside of real unpredicted challenges contradicts the nature of a senior specialist. Or maybe it’s just me? How did you become a senior? Tell your story in the comments.

First rule of usability? Don’t listen to users,” wrote Jakob Nielsen, the Father of Usability, in 2011. And if his article rings you a bell, you remember that it doesn’t mean negligence literally. Surprisingly, a similar approach applies to people management.

When I started leading a team, I asked people what they expected from me and how they’d like to spend time as a team. I received a list of generic wishes (mainly about training and leisure) and evergreen complaints that couldn’t be solved unless you cease to work as a designer (lack of time, “bad” clients, “bad” projects, etc.).

If you ask people directly, they’ll start amplifying each other’s dissatisfaction instead of letting you solve their problems. As a result, you’ll get a team of unhappy specialists who expect their problems to vanish magically someday. So, I preferred asking people one-on-one, analyzing their needs behind the scenes, and then tackling shared issues at once.

Sounds like UX research, huh?

The team doesn’t fully know what’s better for them. Of course, they express real needs. Of course, they share valuable insights and valid feedback. But it’s only a piece of the puzzle. There is a lot of stuff people will never ask about but will benefit from. As a manager, you try to combine people’s self-evaluation and their perceived needs with your bird’s-eye view of the team, the company’s strategy, and industry benchmarks.

What the team usually wants

  • Fun skills that aren’t necessarily business-critical but spark curiosity (advanced UI animation, design for the IoT, no-code apps, etc.).
  • Complex teambuilding that usually needs a dedicated organizer and budget (road trip, golf course, river cruise).
  • Processes and materials that make designers’ lives easier (knowledge bases, templates, subscriptions).
  • Cross-functional activities with people whose expertise sparks interest among designers (data analysts, UX researchers, etc.).

What the manager tries to achieve

  • Skill gaps that hinder people work effectively right now, especially if the team isn’t very excited about those skills (e.g., documentation, facilitating workshops, negotiating with stakeholders).
  • Future-proof skillset: developing skills that the team will need in the near future to match the company’s strategic goals. (The key trick is to organize a sandbox where people can practice; otherwise, training won’t work.)
  • Long-term engagement: ensuring that team members’ comfort (like being part of an interesting project) won’t vanish soon even if designers say everything is wonderful right now. A manager’s duty is to build bridges between silos and ensure people get some added value apart from salary and normal work conditions.

Team members will almost never request things from the second list but will definitely appreciate someone taking care of it. And in my opinion, this is a real management paradox.

Maybe the weirdest thing is team rituals — cement that glues individual contributors into a team. I always worked with groups of designers not connected by a joint project. Some team members felt isolated, and those who didn’t tended to live in the world of their project and, consequently, distanced themselves from other designers nonetheless.

When asked explicitly, designers didn’t really want recurring team gatherings because it felt like stealing an hour of their precious work time every week and squeezing just another hateful meeting into their already busy calendars. However, team gatherings encouraged knowledge sharing and helped people leave their project bubbles. Of course, the format had to be engaging — not just task reporting or watching slides.

The key thing about team rituals is persistence.

Such meetings worked out. The team socialized and learned from each other, and I had better visibility of people’s moods. I tried to never skip team gatherings — regardless of whether only 2 team members can join or 10. It became a ritual that was always there. What’s interesting, people wouldn’t gather themselves in a manager’s absence. So again, if people don’t do it, doesn’t automatically mean they don’t need it.

Skills and expertise can be gained, but one can hardly change character. I’ve seen quite a few newbie leads and managers who soon got disappointed in management, and they all shared the same trait:

Impatience toward other people.

Yes, impatience. We are not talking about the lack of responsibility, empathy, and strategic thinking because this all prevents an individual contributor from becoming a manager in the first place. But impatience doesn’t seem to be a major obstacle and thus is more dangerous.

What does it mean in practice? It’s when you, as a manager, would rather:

  • redo a task yourself instead of explaining it to a teammate again;
  • keep a person on the bench after their major failure;
  • lose the motivation to mentor a colleague if they haven’t made discernible progress after a few sessions;
  • focus on team members with the same working style as yours.

Nothing catastrophic, right? But such conduct will gradually poison both the team and the manager.

I’m not saying terrible managers are terrible people. Not at all. They are usually brilliant, self-rigorous, and hard-working designers. Designers whose self-organization and high responsibility have been mistakenly interpreted as an ability to manage others. For example:

A company hired several designers in another city and initially managed them from the HQ. Steve, a Design Director, noticed that Maria was the most skilled and trustworthy newcomer able to perform on multiple projects. So, Steve gave her several managerial tasks, and after she had coped successfully, promoted her to a team leader. Maria was efficient but got upset quickly. She struggled to lead people who couldn’t perform like her.

As an individual contributor, you are in full control of your “design team of one”: when you do great, everything is great. But in a leadership position, responsibility grows larger and encompasses other people. Your teammates’ problems become your problems, and you cannot fully prevent them from happening. While you can always rely on yourself, there is no magical formula to get what you want from others.

Self-management ≠ managing others

Leaders should not necessarily love people. All in all, management is a job. But it requires a minimal level of patience, forgiveness, and tolerance. However, this level may be a heavy burden for some people or just not worth it. Many fantastic designers simply can’t stand caring about peers longer than 5 minutes and, consequently, get quickly bothered by:

  • more emotional people;
  • not-so-fast-learners;
  • people less passionate about their job;
  • those who complain more frequently, and so on.

People management is taking care of others. And taking care is always an investment of time, effort, energy. For some of us, this investment feels risky, unpleasant, and tedious; for others, it’s lucrative and attractive, although a bit challenging at the same time. So it’s no surprise that above-average designers might become better managers than design gurus. Then why do the latter still try management? Several reasons:

  • Urgent, poorly predicted need for a manager or team leader, and a low-quality hire/promotion as a result.
  • Lack of alternative career growth directions for designers apart from design management.
  • Confusion between “managing designs” (planning, quality, reporting) and “managing designers” (motivation, training, payment).

Here are my lessons in a nutshell:

  1. People’s great traits of character inevitably have unpleasant counterparts that you have to embrace as a manager.
  2. A more objective way to understand the company’s culture is to observe actual behavior vs. trusting declared values or codes of conduct.
  3. Seniority is earned in “battles,” not in a classroom. It’s not the matter of a training program — it’s life.
  4. The team, in most cases, doesn’t realize what it actually needs, so if you are a manager, you’d better observe and try things instead of asking.
  5. Not everyone can be a manager. Unfortunately, we often confuse designers’ high responsibility and self-management with an ability to manage other people.

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