This is part of Design + Leadership: a short series about navigating the transition from individual contributor to design leader.
When the leader gets better, everyone gets better. - Craig Groeschel
Let’s imagine that you’re an engineer. You’ve been designing drones at a flashy tech startup for the last few years. Your area of expertise is propellor design and you’ve developed some of the quietest and most efficient propellors in the industry. In fact, this year you went to a global propellor conference (#PropCon) where you presented the keynote. You’re starting to be recognised in the industry. You’ve got a couple of patents to your name. The company that you’re a part of is being featured in the news. You’re a few years into your career and it’s going great. Before you know it, you’ve got 3 people reporting to you and your LinkedIn profile says, “VP Propellor Engineering”.
Here’s the rub: what made you great at designing propellors was creative confidence, engineering and analytical skills. Now you’ve got to manage people. At first it seems easy enough, but 3 months down the line one of your direct reports asks to be moved to another team because she doesn’t feel like she’s contributing or growing much. She’s very nice about it, but clearly she wants a change. Up until then you thought you were killing it, now you’re wondering what just happened?
This story is surprisingly familiar for a lot of designers, because most highly skilled individual contributors drift into leadership as if it’s the inevitable next step at a certain point in their career. It’s surprising to discover that the technical skills that lead to success early on in your career, leave you wholly unequipped for leading and managing people.
What is leadership about?
Leadership is influence. It is the capacity to take a vision and make it a reality. Without leadership it’s impossible to scale anything—ideas, products, organisations etc. Leaders influence individuals so that they contribute their very best. Leaders influence teams so that they work together productively. Leaders influence whole organisations so that they make progress.
But some leaders are better at it than others. Some leaders inspire people to do great things, while others simply aren’t as impactful. What is the difference between them?
Good leaders establish a vision and then get out of the way. Bad leaders micro-manage and constantly change the plan.
Good leaders communicate clearly to create focus, trust and accountability. Bad leaders have to say something about everything (by doing so they say nothing).
Good leaders take ownership of everything in their world. Bad leaders blame others when things don’t work out.
Good leaders care about their team’s success. Bad leaders care only for their own success.
Good leaders listen carefully and are decisive. Bad leaders wait around for consensus (which never happens).
Good leaders consider things from other’s perspectives. Bad leaders think only from their own perspective.
Good leaders say “no” to all but the most important things. Bad leaders say “yes” all the time.
Good leaders lead up and down the hierarchy. Bad leaders only lead downward.
Good leaders regularly have tough conversations. Bad leaders avoid tough conversations.
Good leaders take courageous, calculated risks. Bad leaders try to avoid all risk.
Good leaders make time for what is important. Bad leaders prioritise only what is urgent.
Good leaders are attentive and actively make the most of every moment. Bad leaders are passive and let opportunities slip past.
Good leaders take responsibility for their people, their teams and their organisations. Bad leaders grasp at authority but they don’t take responsibility.
Good leaders see potential in people and opportunities. Bad leaders see only what is obvious today.
Good leaders seek out honest feedback because they have a tough skin and want to grow. Bad leaders deflect feedback and are easily offended.
All of these leadership skills can be learnt. And if you’re already great at these things, the best leaders are still learning and growing and honing their skills. But where do you start?
Like any other design skill, to be a good leader you must develop your intuitions. It’s not enough to “know the right answer”, leadership must be part of who you are so that you naturally express it in every situation. Leadership is not just about what you say — it’s first and foremost about who you are and what you do.
How do you learn leadership?
Put yourself out there. In order to learn and you have to take some risks and do some things that feel uncomfortable at first. But you must take action. You must choose to put your hand up for the challenge.
Take ownership of everything. Leaders don’t just take responsibility for deliverables, they take ownership of outcomes. Ask yourself how does what I do contribute to the success of my organisation? And then start orientating your work in the answer.
Pay attention. Ask yourself what’s really going on here and how can I influence what’s happening in this situation? You may want to ask a mentor for help. Find someone whom you trust, but make sure they can give you honest, unbiased feedback. Remember that any good leader is invested in growing leaders around themselves, so if you ask them openly to help you develop, you might be surprised by their receptiveness and readiness to help.
Develop a tough skin. You will get some things wrong on this journey. You will make mistakes — that’s how you will grow.
In the following posts we’ll explore a number of leadership principles in more detail. We’ll focus on navigating the transition from individual contributor to design leader, so if you are a designer who wants to grow in this area, then this series is specially for you.
The ideas and lessons are focused on leaders working with design teams where creative collaboration is critical to success—but many of the principles apply more generally too.
Ready to start leading? Let’s get started.