Design Management, Part 1

September 01, 2020

Cupped hands holding a lit lightbulb Photo by Riccardo Annandale on Unsplash

It has been seven years since I have looked for a job. Back then, I had no real management experience, and was still actively designing and coding interfaces. So when searching, I knew the value of having a portfolio of my work (Behance for design, GitHub for code). After all, they helped me land a job as a Front End Engineer (and unofficially our only UX Designer) at Hireology.

Management is not designing

For the last six years, I have been building and managing a team of UX Designers, User Researchers, and for a little while Front End Engineers as the head of our User Experience department. Throughout that time, my management and leadership skills have grown, while my skills in building interfaces in Figma or writing javascript have declined.

This is not to say that I am not involved in designing the features and experiences in our application. I have weekly one-on-ones with all of my direct reports, and having them talk me through the work they have done or dig into an interface issue they are stuck on are easily the highlights of my time in this role.

But I don’t design. I am not what is called an “individual contributor” any more. And quite frankly, I don’t think a good manager should be actively designing.

In my 20+ years of working in corporate America, it has been very obvious to me that just because someone is a great designer (or engineer or whatever) doesn’t mean they will automatically be a great manager. Management is a completely different set of skills that—to be frank—many great individual contributors don’t possess.

Which is probably why I was caught off guard by just how many “UX Manager” type of positions I found that require a portfolio of design work.

What makes a great (design) manager

A great manager is someone who knows how to hire. They know how to build a hiring process that will be fair to the applicant while also helping the team identify the best person for the job.

A great manager is someone who knows how to set the stage for success and then most importantly, get the hell out of the way. They will encourage at some moments. They will challenge at others. And in doing so, they will help their employees grow, and by doing so, help the company succeed.

A great manager is someone who knows that there is more to professional growth than just doing the work. They push the individuals on their team to grow beyond what they are now, and make sure they have the space, time, and money to do so. They celebrate when that employee moves up to a larger role, even if that role is with another company.

A great manager is someone who understands the business, and can balance the needs of their team against the needs of the company. Someone who celebrates successes and finds the lessons in failure. Someone who tries to live the culture of the company. Someone who isn’t afraid to have the tough conversations with an employee who isn’t performing where they should. Someone who doesn’t play favorites but knows the strengths and weaknesses of each person on their team.

A great manager is all of these things and more. And none of these things will be demonstrated in a design portfolio.

A series of light bulbs - some lit - hanging from a ceiling Photo by Diz Play on Unsplash

My “portfolio” is my team

To be clear, I am not saying that I am a “great manager”. While I believe in all of the things above, and I think I am pretty good at some of them, I will be the first to admit that I have plenty of room to improve. I am still learning. I am still making mistakes. I am still trying to grow.

But that growth I am looking to achieve is in design management, which is something wholly different from being an individual designer. So when you ask me for a portfolio of my work, I have nothing current to show you, outside of the stories of my successes and my failures and my growth with the team I have the honor of managing.