From a VP of Design I work with:

“I had to have an intense conversation with someone on my team, who is struggling with the shift from Design Manager to Design Director. The Product Lead this Director works with has started reaching out to me again. When I dug into it with her, I found that she’s still doing the thing that Product Managers love, getting into the nitty-gritty details. But the Product Lead is still waiting for a vision statement, a hypothesis around where the experience could be going. She went too deep too fast, and hadn’t gotten alignment on strategic direction.”

When working with executive design leaders across organizations, I often hear something along these lines. Their Managers and Directors don’t know how to best spend their time, and where to focus their attention. Interestingly, I hear something similar from C-level people about design executives—they’re too focused on their team, and not the organization as a whole.

What many design leaders don’t understand is just how much their role changes, in particular, the relationships they need to have, as they advance in their career. 

Design Manager

A Design Manager is someone relatively new to formal leadership, and has people reporting into them, anywhere from 3 to 8 (any more than that, and the Manager will be overwhelmed). 

Diagram of how a manager spends their timeTheir primary orientation is downward. They’re focused on getting the most out of the team the manage, making sure they’re delivering on expectations in terms of addressing problems and upholding quality.

Their secondary orientation is sideways, working both with Design Manager peers to drive coherence across teams, and working with cross-functional peers (Product Management, Engineering), to coordinate and plan delivery efforts.

Design Director

When we promote a Design Manager to become Design Director, we often don’t communicate how this is a fundamentally different job than the one they had before. As the quote that started this post shows, many new Directors resort to the practices that helped them succeed as a Manager, but those will get in the way of their performance as a Director. 

Diagram of how a Design Director spends their timeA Design Director’s primary orientation is sideways, and not only that it’s mostly outside of Design. An effective Design Director should be spending more of their time and energy working with non-design peers and other stakeholders than with any other kind of colleague.

Their secondary orientation is downward, with a focus on managing their Managers. Their job isn’t to get into the nitty-gritty themselves, but to provide guidance and mentorship for their reports. Directors are also crucial for establishing the management culture and philosophy for their teams. But they shouldn’t need to spend anywhere near the time they used to in managing down, because, well, they have managers to handle that. 

Lastly, a Director will spend a small portion of their time managing up, to their VP and non-design leadership, keeping them apprised of what’s happening in their world, and learning overarching strategy and vision in order to make sure their organization is aligned with global goals. 

Design Executive (S/VP of Design)

When talking to CEOs, their primary concern about Design Executives is that they see themselves as a Design Leader first and an Organizational Leader second. CEOs expect Design Executives to see their cross-functional peers as their “first team.” with the design organization as their second.

How a VP spends their timeAnd in terms of time spent, it goes even farther than that. The Design Team should be where a Design Executive spends the least amount of time. Their primary orientation is sideways, toward their executive peers. This is about planning and strategy for the organization, identifying opportunities for the business and how their coordinated teams can realize them.

Their secondary orientation is up and out. It may seem counterintuitive that an executive would spend so much time engaging with a small number of even more senior executives, but that’s the reality. That’s your key audience. They’re the ones who are needed to support the plans of the Design Executive and their peers, to commit the resources necessary. “Out” may mean executive leaders outside your direct reporting chain, and in some environments it may mean key customers or partners. As a Design Executive, you now represent the company in a variety of contexts, both internally and externally.

A high-performing Design Executive should spend their least amount of time focused on matters within their Design Organization. It may take a while to get to this point—it requires a strong Design Leadership team, and effective operational practices around recruiting and hiring, staffing, performance management, quality standards, etc. But, really, a Design Executive shouldn’t need to spend much time orienting downward, because they should be able to rely on their org to get stuff done. 

 

5 thoughts on “From the Weeds to the Board Room—How Design Leaders shift from managing down to up and out

  1. This post makes total sense to me. Although I have never been in a Design Executive position, I have been in a Director level positions and I spent most of my time managing across and up. I strongly believe that this allowed me to be successful in expanding the reach and the depth of practice in my organization.

  2. This seems pretty clear. I do sometimes wonder whether the fact that it often doesn’t happen like this is at least partly due to the fact that many people in design director positions simply don’t know what a design strategy and vision actually is (as opposed to business ones).

    At least, I’ve not worked anywhere in which a design strategy worthy of the name has been articulated at that level. This means directors have little choice but to gravitate to the weeds, partially as a means of justifying their existence.

  3. This is exactly what I needed to read today. As a Design Manager transitioning (hopefully) to a Dr. role soon, I really appreciate framing it as “sideways” orientation. I understood “leveling up” from the day-to-day design work but always thought of it as aiming up. This shift to thinking about influencing product (and tech) partners rings true to me (as I take a break from collaborating with my product manager on our strategy deck for next year ?)

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