A challenge for design leaders and managers, especially new ones, is to understand all that is expected of them. Typically coming from creative backgrounds and roles, they don’t know what they don’t know now that they are accountable for the work of others. 

To help design leaders navigate this, I developed a framework for thinking about the different aspects of leadership, rooted in four archetypes. Originally only shared as presentation, I’m finally writing it up here.

Also, I’m publishing a Leadership Skills and Practices Assessment that design leaders and managers can use to assess themselves and the leaders on their team. I’ll talk more about the assessment at the end of this post.

The Framework

👩🏾‍💼 Coach

This is where you manage down ⬇️, getting the most out of your team. Most design leaders understand this role, because they had someone serve as a coach to them as they were coming up.

🤝 Diplomat

You also have to manage across ↔️, particularly with peers leading other functions (product management, engineering, marketing, etc.), to coordinate activities and processes that enable successful cross-functional work. It’s labeled Diplomat as leaders build relationships with non-designers, so that means appreciating others’ motivations and desires, and communicating with them so they understand what your team needs, without dwelling in designer jargon.

Some design leaders have developed this as senior practitioners, but this typically requires a new set of skills and practices.

🛡Champion

Leaders also must manage up ⬆️, handling executives and other stakeholders who can empower the design team or, conversely, inhibit it. Key to this is developing the ability to ‘speak the language of business’ (a phrase which is now so common it feels cliché), to connect the efforts of the design team to broader business strategy. This develops credibility among senior leaders, providing opportunities for the Design team to ‘move upstream,’ and contribute earlier in the process.

Also key to being a Champion is to serve as the 💩 ☂️ , shielding the team from executive foolishness, whether swoop-n-poops (fly-by critique done with little context and no follow-up), requests for work done on short notice, shutting down efforts with potential, etc.

This is probably the archetype design leaders are least aware of, because when they were coming up, they had no idea that their bosses had to deal with this. And often, their bosses didn’t know they should be doing this work, and their teams suffered.

It’s worth recognizing that this is the most difficult archetype, because by nature it involves dealing with those with greater power and authority in the organization, often requires expending social capital, and it can feel like you’re putting your job in jeopardy. But doing this well is crucial for your team’s success. Too often I’ve seen teams feel like they’ve been thrown under the bus by a leader who did not Champion them, and that leads to a morale spiral and attrition.

🏛 Architect

Once a design team hits a certain size (around 12-15 team members), the design leader then needs to embrace the archetype of the Architect, putting in place systems, practices, and processes that enable effective functioning at scale. Without this type of effort, design orgs suffer as they grow, because coordination overhead is too costly, quality is not maintained, people are perpetually over- or under-utilized, recruiting and hiring is poorly executed, and more.

To support this archetype is why we wrote Org Design for Design Orgs, as many design leaders didn’t realize just how much of their job is organizational and operational once the team grows beyond a certain point.

As design orgs grow, much of this architectural effort becomes the responsibility of a DesignOps team. The design leaders are still responsible for understanding and directing these efforts towards delivering great design work, but aren’t expected to be developing and implementing these systems themselves.

Leadership Skills Assessment

To get a sense of how well you and the other leaders and managers on your team are doing in performing as leaders, I’m publishing my Leadership Skills and Practices Assessment tool. It uses the framework above, with a couple adjustments:

  1. There is no “Architect” assessment. Architect is about scaling the skills and practices reflected in the other areas.
  2. I’ve added “Self Management.” This is about how leaders show up as professionals — managing their team, their energy, their attitude.

This Assessment tool is something I’m eager to evolve, so any and all feedback welcome.

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