Sunday, June 03, 2007

Design leadership and the constant challenges

Early in my career I was faced with the challenge of being in charge of a section of the company I worked for which included having a person reporting to me. I remember feeling completely scared of becoming a bad boss!

At that time I consulted with a colleague of mine who’d had a lot more experience and he gave me a few pointers. In the end, his best advice was “just be yourself”.

So I became G’s boss.

G happened to be very receptive from the start as we were both learning all the technical aspects of the job.

In the beginning it was hard to get him to see the bigger picture, to plan ahead, he couldn’t imagine how he could predict the events and therefore, the actions to be taken for the upcoming weeks.

But during the five plus years that G and I worked together we both grew professionally to a point where we achieved autonomy in ourselves but presented results as a team.

This was an amazing growing experience and led me to want to continue to grow as a leader.

I recently was faced again with another “being the boss” challenge. Two girls reported to me. One fresh-out-of-college designer and another one with a bit more experience.

This posed a bigger test because I had to use different languages to speak to each of them.

Since my experience with G had been so good and we’d grown together at the same pace, I thought I could just use the same method with anybody.


Miss F, the fresh-out-of-college designer needed me to hold her hand a bit more, to walk her through the steps of the different activities, to guide her. And she would usually come back to me with “What do I do now, Carolina?”

And I found myself resisting the urge to give her a straight answer. I had to get her to think, to come up with solutions by herself, to be more independent every day, to ask me less.

In the eight months that we worked together she came a long way and could do most of her work all by herself. I was very proud of myself and her.

The other girl, Miss Q, she had a bit more experience and wasn’t afraid to speak her mind. Also, she was strong-willed and assertive. This demanded a different approach from me, one where the ideas would mostly come from her, with a little guidance from me.

This also resulted in a great growing experience; the more I demanded from her, the more she would give and the more she came up with new ideas and solutions.

I have a point, I promise…

Sometimes designers end up becoming creative directors or managing a small group of creative people, which may not be something they ever saw themselves doing.

So here are a few tips to be more effective in that arena:

Be yourself, really. As I’ve said in a previous post, it’s not about barking orders or being in a position of power. It’s about getting the best of people and people will give you their best when you are authentic, honest and real.
Be clear about goals and expectations. Communicate them frequently.

Spend some time trying to figure out what the other person is about, what their mental process is, how they handle information, so that you can figure out the best way to get through to them.

It’s not about them adapting to you or following your lead, but quite the opposite. It’s about you stretching yourself to find the most effective way to get the best out of your team and have some fun while doing it!

I am so looking forward to more leadership challenges in the future, as they are the most interesting part of my work!

Mi idea with this post is that designers think outside of the box and start reflecting on the direction their career can go in the future and if they want to be in a leadership position. If so, start preparing.

Read some books about personal leadership, building teams, managing people and resources… Become aware. There’s a lot of information on the web, podcasts and books.

Epilogue: G went on to take my position and is now the design leader there. Miss F and Miss Q continue to work in my previous company, where they are faced with bigger challenges everyday. The both insist that I was a great boss ;-)

All the best!

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