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How to NOT Be a Bad Design Manager

by Nate Schloesser
11 min read
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A Masterclass in What to Do (and not to do).

Over the years, I’ve danced the intricate tango of management — leading with grace at times and, admittedly, stumbling over my two left feet at other times. While the applause for successes is oh so sweet, it’s the sharp sting of my failures that sticks with me, teaching me lessons more valuable than any win ever could.

It’s said that wise people learn from their mistakes; even wiser ones learn from the mistakes of others. I have made a lot of mistakes. As your self-appointed guinea pig in the grand experiment of leadership, I present to you a masterclass of missteps, sprinkled with the wisdom of hindsight.

Learn from me — relish in my tales of what NOT to do. And then, for the sake of your team (and perhaps your career), heed the tips on what you absolutely SHOULD do. Buckle up; it’s a journey of epic facepalms and glorious redemptions.

I apologize in advance to anyone reading this that has been on the receiving end of bad management, especially mine. Names in my stories have been changed to protect the identities of others.

1. Encourage Learning From Failure

Celebrating Mistakes as Learning Opportunities:

Behind every design success, there’s often a trail of failed attempts. Those failed attempts? They’re the unsung heroes. They hold the lessons, the insights, the pivots that eventually lead to greatness. It’s crucial to remember: Perfection isn’t the aim; growth is.

Why It Matters:

In the realm of design, where innovation is king, the fear of failure can be paralyzing. If designers are constantly afraid of making mistakes, they’ll opt for safe, tried-and-true methods. While this might guarantee a functional design, it rarely leads to something groundbreaking.

My Failure:

During my tenure at Media Tap, I misstepped by sidelining Alex for a single project failure. Rather than diving deep into what went wrong and using it as a teachable moment, I impulsively shifted him to minor tasks. This not only crushed his morale but also cost us his innovative ideas for future projects. I was fortunate enough to have someone point out my blunder.

Tips to Excel at Encouraging Learning From Failure:

  1. De-stigmatize Mistakes: Start by sharing your own design failures and what you learned from them. It sets a tone of openness.
  2. Postmortems over Blame Games: When a project doesn’t go as planned, hold a postmortem meeting. Discuss what went wrong, why, and how to prevent similar mistakes in the future.
  3. Celebrate the Bounce Back: Recognize and laud team members who make a comeback after a setback. It reinforces the idea that it’s okay to fail and make mistakes.
  4. Safe Spaces: Create an environment where team members can voice concerns, share mistakes, and seek feedback without fear of reprisal.
  5. Invest in Resilience Workshops: Equip your team with tools and strategies to cope with failures and turn them into growth opportunities.
  6. Encourage Side Projects: Allow designers to work on passion projects or side ideas. Even if they don’t pan out, they’re excellent opportunities for exploration and learning.

Food for Thought:

It’s less about the tumble and more about the subsequent rise.

2. Foster Autonomy and Ownership

Trusting Your Team:

To genuinely foster an environment where autonomy and ownership thrive, one must first understand the power of trust in a creative workspace. Think about it — what’s the essence of a great design? It’s the ability to understand, explore, take risks, and innovate. But none of that is possible if a designer constantly feels like they’re being watched and evaluated on every single move.

Why It Matters:

In the fast-evolving world of design, it’s autonomy that allows a designer to experiment and stumble upon the next big trend or idea. It’s the space where magic happens, where the conventional is challenged, and the ordinary turns extraordinary.

My Failure:

Media Tap will always serve as my humbling memory. The year was 2011. Victoria, a brilliant designer, became my unintended experiment on the impacts of micromanagement. My over-involved ‘guidance’ forced her into a creative box, making her swap innovation for the predictable. The quality of her work took a nose dive and she became visibly frustrated. Then she quit. It was a huge failure on my part. I was a controlling, distrusting jerk. She went onto have a great career, with a much better manager.

Tips to Excel at Fostering Autonomy:

  1. Set Clear Expectations: While you’re giving freedom, ensure that the objectives and goals are clear. This allows designers to know the boundaries while still having room to play and innovate.
  2. Open Door, Not Hovering Shadow: Ensure your team knows they can approach you anytime with concerns or for guidance, but don’t perpetually lurk around their workstations.
  3. Celebrate Risk-taking: Even if it doesn’t always pay off, make it known that taking calculated design risks is encouraged and appreciated.
  4. Feedback, Not Dictation: When reviewing work, ask questions that guide designers to find solutions rather than directly imposing your ideas. “Have you considered another approach to this problem?” works better than “Do it this way.”
  5. Invest in Skill-building: Sometimes, all a designer needs to work autonomously is a little more knowledge or a new skill. Workshops, courses, or even books can be the catalyst.
  6. Regular Check-ins: Instead of incessant oversight, set regular intervals for updates. This keeps you informed without smothering your team.

Food For Thought:

More autonomy fosters greater innovation and job satisfaction. As managers, it’s pivotal to recognize and act on this insight.

3. Create Opportunities for Challenges

Pushing Boundaries, Not People:

The best designs often come from pushing the boundaries, from venturing into the unfamiliar. When designers are constantly fed the same type of work, their creativity may stagnate. However, the fine line lies in challenging them without overwhelming them.

Why It Matters:

Design isn’t a static field. With ever-evolving tools, tech, and trends, there’s always a new mountain to climb. Challenges help designers grow, adapt, and discover new facets of their potential.

My Failure:

At Covenant Eyes, I once mistook Sarah’s efficiency in completing tasks as a sign she was ready for more. Oh man, did I pile it on. Without discussing it with her, I gave her a ton of additional projects. The result? Burnout, missed deadlines, and a valuable lesson for me about the dangers of overburdening team members without adequate preparation or discussion.

Tips to Excel at Creating Opportunities for Challenges:

  1. Open Dialogue: Before introducing new challenges, discuss them with the concerned designer. Understanding their perspective ensures that challenges are exciting, not exhausting.
  2. Rotate Roles: Sometimes, a simple change of perspective, like swapping roles or tasks among team members, can be challenging and refreshing.
  3. Skill-Expansion Projects: Introduce projects that might require a designer to learn something new, ensuring you provide the resources and time they need to adapt.
  4. Hackathons & Design Sprints: Organize internal competitions where team members can work on tight deadlines, pushing their creative limits.
  5. Encourage External Collaborations: Partnering with other departments or external agencies can introduce your team to new challenges and perspectives.
  6. Set Progressive Milestones: Instead of one big daunting goal, break down challenges into manageable milestones, celebrating each achievement along the way.

Food For Thought:

There’s an optimal level of arousal or stress where performance peaks. Push too little, and there’s stagnation; push too hard, and performance plummets. So, in a workplace context, the sweet spot involves providing just enough challenge to spur growth without causing burnout.

4. Have Your Team’s Back

Standing as a Shield, Not a Hurdle.

A design manager’s role isn’t merely about supervising. It’s also about advocacy. Your team should feel confident that when they take creative risks or face criticisms, you’re there to support them.

Why It Matters:

The design world can be brutal, with rejections, revisions, and criticisms galore. In such a climate, knowing their manager has their back can make all the difference for a designer’s morale and motivation.

My Failure:

At Covenant Eyes, Mark, one of our talented designers, proposed a radical design overhaul to a project manager. The PM wasn’t thrilled and was rather vocal about their disapproval. Instead of backing Mark up or navigating the criticism constructively, I took the easy route and told him to work it out with the PM. The aftermath? Mark felt unsupported and isolated. The PM did what he wanted to. The product, the design, and the company were worse off because of this.

Tips to Excel at Having Your Team’s Back:

  1. Constructive Criticism: Frame feedback in a way that is solution-oriented rather than dismissive. It’s the “let’s find a solution” versus the “this won’t work” approach.
  2. Empathetic Listening: When a team member comes to you with concerns or frustrations, listen to understand, not just to respond.
  3. Mediation Skills: There will be conflicts — between team members, or between the team and clients. Your role is to mediate, ensuring everyone feels heard and valued.
  4. Public Praise, Private Critique: Always celebrate your team’s wins publicly, but if you have feedback or criticism, do it in private.
  5. Empower Decision-making: Allow team members to have a say in decisions that impact their work. It not only boosts their confidence but also shows you trust their judgment.
  6. Transparency: Be transparent about project goals, client feedback, and any potential issues. Forewarned is forearmed.

Food for Thought:

Having an employee’s back isn’t just good ethics; it’s a solid strategy.

5. Develop, Motivate, Support & Utilize

Cultivating Growth, Not Just Expecting Results:

It’s easy to forget that every member of your design team is a unique individual with distinct aspirations, strengths, and areas for growth. Treating them as mere cogs in a machine? That’s managerial malpractice. An offense I have unfortunately committed.

Why It Matters:

A motivated designer isn’t just one who’s excited about their current project. They’re excited about their career trajectory, the skills they’re acquiring, and the value they’re adding to the organization.

My Failure:

At Covenant Eyes, I saw Frank as our “information architect”. He was so good at it, why would he want to do anything else? Instead of probing into his aspirations, I pigeonholed him. Months later, I discovered he was frustrated and felt stuck. As I kept pushing him in one direction, I discovered he had aspirations and desires of his own. Who knew? People have their own desires and passions that don’t always line up with their managers.

Tips to Excel at Developing, Motivating, Supporting & Utilizing:

  1. Individual Development Plans: Schedule regular one-on-one sessions to discuss career paths, skill development, and aspirations. It’s about their journey, not just the company’s destination.
  2. Skill Swaps: Organize internal workshops where team members can teach each other something new, fostering a culture of continuous learning.
  3. Flexible Task Assignments: While specialization has its merits, allow designers to work outside their usual scope once in a while. It diversifies their skill set and breaks monotony.
  4. Recognition and Rewards: Understand what drives each team member. For some, public recognition might be motivating; others might prefer a quiet bonus or an extra day off.
  5. Resource Provision: From cutting-edge design software to courses on the latest design methodologies, ensure your team has the tools they need to grow.
  6. Encourage Side Projects: Side projects can be a source of renewed energy and creativity. Instead of discouraging them, see how they can be integrated or supported.

Food For Thought:

Nurturing your team’s career isn’t just about employee satisfaction; it directly affects business longevity.

6. Make Time For Your Team

Prioritizing People Over Paperwork:

It sounds obvious, but amidst the whirlwind of deadlines, client meetings, and administrative duties, it’s shockingly easy for managers to inadvertently deprioritize the very people they’re meant to lead.

Why It Matters:

You can’t genuinely know your team’s strengths, concerns, or aspirations if you’re always “too busy.” A manager who’s present and accessible doesn’t just gather essential intel but also builds trust and rapport.

My Blunder:

At Covenant Eyes, I prided myself on always being busy. “I can’t chat, I’ve got to meet with an exec!” was my favorite line. That was until Dotty, a wise and talented designer, informed me that I didn’t make time for her or other designers. When she needed advice, feedback, or for me to have her back, my perpetually closed door sent a clear message. What’s more, she wasn’t the only one on my team to point out this issue. This failure hurt to learn about. I had let my team down because I was too busy for them.

Tips to Excel at Making Time for Your Team:

  1. Scheduled Open Hours: Dedicate a few hours each week where team members know they can approach you without an appointment.
  2. Lunch & Learns: Organize casual sessions where you share updates or insights, and they share feedback or concerns over a meal.
  3. Active Participation: Don’t just assign tasks; participate in brainstorming sessions, design critiques, or even just casual team chats.
  4. Stay Approachable: It’s not just about physical availability. Ensure your demeanor communicates that you’re open to discussions and feedback.
  5. Utilize Digital Tools: Use tools like Slack or Microsoft Teams for regular check-ins. It’s quick, and it keeps the lines of communication open.
  6. Rotate Desk Locations: Every so often, shift your workstation closer to different clusters of your team. Being in their midst can offer insights a distant cabin cannot.

Food for Thought:

A manager’s accessibility and support are not mere “nice-to-haves”; they’re essentials in retaining talent and ensuring team cohesion.

In Conclusion: The Essence and Impact of Good Management

After all’s said and done, beyond the strategies and spreadsheets, beyond the meetings and metrics, management, at its heart, is about human connections. It’s about sculpting a culture where each individual feels seen, valued, and empowered to step into their potential. These aren’t merely aspirations or bullet points in a manager’s handbook; they’re the very fabric of a thriving team and organization.

Through the lens of our exploration and the reflections on my personal missteps, it’s become evident that effective management is far from being just another task on the checklist. It’s the lifeblood that ensures not only the growth but the sustainability and resonance of any organization.

Here’s why:

  1. For the Employee: Poor management doesn’t just affect performance; it stunts personal and professional growth. Employees under bad managers are more likely to feel undervalued and stuck, leading to lower job satisfaction and performance.
  2. For the Company: Bad management equates to decreased productivity, heightened turnover rates, and a decline in team morale. This not only impacts the bottom line but erodes the company’s culture and reputation.
  3. For the Manager: A manager who doesn’t prioritize effective leadership not only alienates their team but also diminishes their own professional development and opportunities for advancement.

In the world of business and design, where the pace is fast and stakes are high, the true essence of leadership is in the subtleties of understanding, empathy, and genuine care. And it’s these qualities that will define the legacy of a truly great manager.

post authorNate Schloesser

Nate Schloesser, In his role as UX Design Manager at Paychex, Nate not only oversees the direction and execution of user experience projects but also fosters an environment of innovation and collaboration among his team of designers. His primary focus at Paychex is mentoring designers, ensuring that they develop best-in-class digital interfaces that prioritize user needs. Through his writing, speaking, and workshops, Nate continues to equip, encourage, and teach designers within the larger design community.

Ideas In Brief
  • The article explores the nuances of effective design management by drawing on the experiences and insights of the author.
  • The author provides practical tips and lessons learned from past mistakes to guide design managers in fostering a culture of growth, innovation, and support within their teams.

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