“What does your job entail?” is the most common question I get when speaking with junior and senior designers alike. It reveals a phenomenon we see in the UX/product design field: most people don’t know what designers do, making the role of design leader even more obscure. With the field maturing, I believe it’s important that we demystify design leadership. Read on to learn about the dimensions of the role and my favorite resources for new and aspiring design leaders.

Caveat: Most of my career involves leading internal teams at tech companies, and these lessons draw from those experiences.

Design leaders build strong teams

“We need teams of missionaries, not teams of mercenaries.” — Empowered: Ordinary People, Extraordinary Products

First, let’s lay down the difference between two terms—leadership and management—which are often used interchangeably yet are so different.

I think of them as different mindsets: leaders lead people, and managers manage resources; leaders work for the team, and managers work for the company. When leaders think of their team as people and not resources, we get strong teams of missionaries who are invested in the company, leading to a successful business.

Different mindsets lead to different types of activities. Management involves team building and logistical activities such as hiring, defining career paths, building culture, and planning budgets and compensation. Leadership involves inspiring and empowering people, aligning the company to a vision, setting strategy for the future, and more. Based on these different types of responsibilities, you can imagine that there are people who lead without managing, and vice versa.

The best design leaders don’t focus only on leadership activities to build strong teams. Management activities are a crucial enabler of leadership effectiveness—people need to be managed well so that they can have psychological safety to be creative, reach their full potential, and be inspired by the company mission.

When leaders do this well: We see a team of strong individuals working together cohesively, in a culture based on integrity, inclusive collaboration, and no drama.

Here are some resources that will help you build strong teams:

Design leaders mature the practice

“Product owns the why, and Design owns the how.” — Dropbox product leader

It’s not enough to have a team of great people—they also need to work in an environment where they can make user-centered design decisions. The more mature the design practice, the better design decisions we see.

There are two pieces to maturing a design practice: frameworks and alignment. The first piece involves defining and implementing strategic frameworks, such as design principles, design critiques, and iterative, user-centered processes. I’ve found that every company stage, team size, and culture will respond well to some frameworks and not to others. Leaders should collaboratively work with their team members to figure out what’s right for them.

It’s not enough to just create new frameworks and pray that partners will implement or follow them. In larger organizations, design leaders need to actively socialize and educate partners on design’s practice and value. Many designers see this as “playing politics,” but it’s crucial for leaders to elevate the role of design in order to enable its frameworks and principles to have the desired impact on business. If partners don’t regard design as a serious, necessary function, why would they care about its principles and processes? This is the reason why many design principles and processes fail. Leaders need to manage up, across, and down—all at the same time—which is the second piece to maturing a design practice.

When leaders do this well: We see designers making user-centered decisions, and partner teams having a good understanding of what design does and why.

Here are some resources related to maturing a design practice:

Design leaders guide business strategy

Design, at its core, is user-centric, creative problem solving. A great design leader applies their knowledge and experience to the advantage of their organization, identifying and meeting the needs of its customers. The design leader must understand how the organization works, and have the ability to tie design initiatives to business strategy.

When leaders do this well: The company actively seeks to measure and improve the customer experience beyond short-term fixes. Designers and design leaders have a seat at the strategy table and thrive in helping to reach decisions for the business.

Resources related to guiding business strategy:

Leading design is a totally different job from doing design

By now, you’ve realized that design leadership doesn’t entail doing design at all. It’s about building a team, empowering them, and enabling the business to thrive with collective design knowledge as an advantage.

I hope this post is helpful to designers who aspire to be leaders (and to those already in management). Your time will be spent on building the design team, maturing the practice, and delivering the best impact for your organization’s business strategy.

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