Why I Was Reluctant To Become A Design Manager

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Four things that made me wait for too long

Through primary school, I spent most of my summer breaks with my grandparents in our remote village in Marathwada, India.

One of the things I looked forward to was the 5km trek to the Sunday Bazaar in the nearest town called Ambalner with my grandpa. The trail snaked through rugged hills, with bushes of wild berries lining the narrow path on either side, briefly pausing under the cool shade of sprawling banyan, neem and mango trees to escape from the sun and to catch our breaths.

As I perched on my grandfather’s shoulders, clutching his flaming red turban for support, I listened in rapt attention to his words of wisdom; “Study well and grow up to be a Manager”, he would say. For a marginal farmer who never got the opportunity to study, he sure knew the importance of management and the rewards it would bring with it. “…then you can buy that…what’s it called, Fridge? The cold cupboard rich people keep food in?”, grandpa would continue. And I would nod and mutter a sagely, “Uh-hmm”…since at age 7, I was better read than him, or so I thought.

I grew up to be a designer and also managed to buy a fridge but I didn’t quite manage to fulfill my grandpa’s dream to become manager until very recently.

In my 18 years of being a UX professional, I kind of meandered along in a serendipitous flow not unlike that village trail, picking up various fancy titles starting from Interactive Designer, UX Architect, Visual Interaction Designer to Senior UX Designer. Not quite consciously planning any “career-moves”. Then suddenly, for the first time in my life, I had a real “Manager” in my title. The first one, UI Manager in 2005 did not quite count because I was an individual contributor, “managing” UI.

The role — not the title, landed on my lap one day out of the blue, two years ago. My manager had just transitioned to another team and I was propped up to “lead without authority” a team of 7 designers. The title would come much later but I took on the challenge from which I was shying away for most of my career. Why now? It just simply happened to be a “Why not?” moment, I guess. A few factors played out subtly and subconsciously in the background as well— I felt comfortable with my manager who encouraged me to try the new role out, as did my wife. I did not feel any external pressure to prove myself. I already had a great rapport with the team I was about to lead. I had nothing to lose!

What took me so long?

Call me a late bloomer but I never thought I had it in me to lead people. I have been a mentor, yes — the greying temples count for something! I have taught. I have set up the UX design function in startups but not quite built a team so far. I was fine being perceived as an expert at something and being hired for that expertise. Ideally, as an individual contributor, consultant or a lead. That way, I could sneak away into my hole, work quietly on the problem and emerge when ready with a solution. That brings me to the first in the list of reasons, why I am a reluctant manager.

1. Don’t move my cheese

Change is scary. Especially for designers who are typically content with solving a problem plonked by someone in front of them. I was good at picking up the onion, looking at it from all angles and slowly peel away at it. As designers, aren’t we all good at doing exactly that? It is so all-consuming to just get to the bottom of things — mull over the problem, diverge, converge, iterate and voila, out comes the solution! And then continue to chip away at your design lovingly to craft it into something so sophisticated that you want to eat it.

Designers find it hard to break away from that deeply satisfying high of focusing on and solving a vexing problem — individually and independently. New design managers often fight the temptation to yank the problem out of the hands of their designers and try to solve it themselves. THAT is a grave mistake.

This love of your craft can be self-defeating. Agreed, as you start in your design career, it helps to hone your primal problem-solving skills. Once you decide to embark on this new adventure of leading a design team, you must learn to let go and be comfortable delegating and then guiding your team to solve problems. At scale.

2. I am not ready yet

There comes an opportune time in your design career when you can make the shift to design management. And no, it’s not when your hair turns grey. For me, it could have been earlier but I chose to ignore the signs. It does take a certain amount of time to hone your craft, build credibility in the market, learn to mentor other designers, etc.

Eight to ten years is a good time frame to make the transition. You would have had the chance to develop your core capabilities, master the UX process, and the soft skills necessary to lead teams. Earlier than that, you may have gained the ability to delegate, but are likely to face the pitfalls of not having developed enough of the softer side of leading a design team — intuition, maturity, patience, empathy, resilience.

Any later than that and you start to become too set in your ways or too smug in the belief, “How hard can it be?” Before that happens shake things up a bit. Push yourself to learn the new ropes of people management. As Julie Zhuo, VP of Product Design at Facebook says, if you have the opportunity, take advantage of formal training because;

Great managers are made, not born.

3. I am no extrovert

I like people. Honest. But mostly to hang out with once in a while when I have nothing pressing to solve. When I have a problem to solve I would rather give it a go, alone. I learned along the way that introverts actually make great managers and leaders. Alison Rushworth, who is a design leader herself and a self-proclaimed introvert, has written an in-depth essay, The Introverted Leader, right here on Medium. Like me, designers assume there’s too much effort in dealing with people and one needs to have extroverted qualities to manage effectively. However as Alison points out,

Because introverts typically have a more reserved demeanor than their extroverted counterparts, they are well equipped to steer their teams in times of stress, grounding and focusing them to the task at hand. They also typically prefer small group settings and one-on-one discussions, which can make them highly effective mentors and coaches.

That’s me, right there! Phew. But of course, I already knew this somewhere deep down. You are who you are. Imposter syndrome be damned. Be aware of your strengths and learn to leverage them.

4. Managing is too political

I have had my fair share of disappointments when it seemed like nobody around me valued design. I have worked with organizations that indulged in mere tokenism when they said they are design-driven. The ground reality is that you are often forgotten when product launch party invites go out. Half of your designs gather dust in some obscure corner of the office after a high-powered design review with product leadership. You oscillate between victimhood — “Nobody cares about design” and assuming higher moral ground — “These guys know shit about design”. As you consider being manager, you often think, this will just get compounded when you have your own squad of disappointed designers — “How the hell will I handle this whole-sale low-morale?”

I can more than walk the talk with helping designers tap into their potential and produce their best work, build trust with the team and create the right conditions for the team to flourish as a community. That’s my strength. However, I admit I haven’t yet figured out how to navigate the halls of power. I am irreverent but awkward in the presence of authority. I find it difficult to read their motivations and manage their expectations. I can’t do small talk. I botch up networking opportunities. Hell, I can’t pose for a freaking selfie to save my life, if I get invited to one of those launch parties!

Managing upstream is still an uphill task for me. But I tell myself, non-receptive, unresponsive leadership is just another constraint. And we are not alien to constraints. Good design happens in the midst of challenging constraints. Being realistic about your goals and being clear and pragmatic about what you can achieve within these constraints is a hallmark of a good design manager.

I am still learning. Especially, the upstream bit. But I know there is help around. After much thought, I finally bought the book by Julie Zhuo — “The Making Of A Manager” who found herself in exactly the same predicament as I and many other ripe-to-be-design-managers. I might find some answers in there…

So, go forth and take the plunge and wing it if you have to. Just be genuine about it. Play to your strengths. Be nice to your people. Earn trust. Fail together. The rest is just know-how. You’ll learn it along the way.

Don’t be reluctant. Be Manager. Make your grandpa proud!

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