This past year, I’ve helped a few companies looking for design executives (“Head of Product Design,” “Chief Design Officer,” someone reporting into the C-suite, and may be in the C-suite) by developing a profile of the role that they can hire against.

Often, these companies begin with a fairly rudimentary understanding of the role, focused on some form of “being a creative leader.” Through my efforts, I’ve developed a four-part framework (different than the other four-part framework I shared earlier) to break down the responsibilities of what it means to be a design executive.

Executive

An organization-wide leader (not a “design leader”). Their ‘first team’ is with other executives, and the responsibility here is to bring a design-and-user-experience-informed perspective to company challenges—planning and strategy, business success, etc.  

There are also expectations for representing and advocating for Design throughout the company, its potential, and what it needs in order to be most effective.

Creative

As the head of a creative function, there are expectations around how this person inspires, and holds the Design team accountable to, the delivery of high-quality work.

In terms of practice, their work is oriented on systems and strategy, with the primary output of cohering the work of their team in some kind of end-to-end experience. This is particularly important if they’re overseeing Brand/Marketing and Product Design. 

People

As someone leading a sizable organization, they are responsible for building a healthy, performant, and long-lasting team. 

This includes overseeing recruiting and hiring processes, career and professional development, establishing a compelling team culture, and designer-friendly day-to-day people management practices. 

Operational

This role requires facility with the operational realities of an organization at scale, including people, process, programs, communication, coordination, annual planning, budgets, onboarding, managing partners, and more.

They may be able to delegate this work to a Head of DesignOps, but they need to know what it means for these efforts to be humming. 

With these four aspects identified, the next challenge is figuring out how much effort the Design Executive is expected to put against each area. It won’t be an even 25-25-25-25 split. It will vary from company-to-company, depending on the context in which this role resides. Generally, I think the following percentages are a good place to start:

Executive: 33%, Creative: 32%, People: 20%, Operational: 15%. 

The idea being that the bulk of the Design Executive’s effort is on the content of the work (Executive + Creative being nearly 2/3rds), while recognizing that there are very necessary People and Operational efforts necessary to maintain organizational health. 

Also, what often happens as an organization grows, is that the People and Operational aspects end up taking the majority, if not all available time, because they are the elements that must be addressed in order for anything to work.

When that happens, a framework like this can be a helpful diagnostic for that design executive to go to their boss with, and say, “I need to hire a Head of Design Operations” or “I need Design Directors,” so that they can return focus to the Executive and Creative work that is expected of them. 

In my next post, I’ll address the makeup of the Design Leadership Team, that includes that Head of Design Operations and Design Directors. 

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.

At a presentation I gave last year at the Design Leadership Summit, I began my talk with a bit of theater (you can see it at the outset of this video)—I stated a set of “Design Leadership Truisms,” inspired by Jenny Holzer’s work. I realized I haven’t published them, so, here they are:

DESIGNERS WERE MILLENNIALS BEFORE THERE WERE MILLENNIALS

PEOPLE ARE NOT THEIR JOB TITLES

TEAM MEMBERS ARE NOT “RESOURCES”

PEOPLE WORK BEST WHEN THEY CAN BE THEIR FULL SELVES

IF YOUR TEAM’S WORK ISN’T GOOD, YOU DIDN’T SET CLEAR EXPECTATIONS

BAD DESIGN IS A RESULT OF CONTEXT, NOT INDIVIDUAL APTITUDE

IF YOU FOCUS ON THE ORGANIZATION, QUALITY WILL TAKE CARE OF ITSELF

DESIGN QUALITY IS SUBJECTIVE

YOU CANNOT CALCULATE AN ROI FOR DESIGN

YOU WILL SPEND MORE TIME IN SPREADSHEETS THAN DESIGN TOOLS

OPENING A PRODUCTION DESIGN TOOL IS LIKELY A SIGN OF FAILURE

FRAMING THE PROBLEM IS MORE IMPORTANT THAN SOLVING THE PROBLEM

(DESIGN) LEADERSHIP IS MORE TALKING THAN DOING

YOU’LL DO A BETTER JOB IF YOU LIGHTEN UP

IF YOU HAVEN’T PISSED SOMEONE OFF, YOU’RE NOT DOING YOUR JOB RIGHT

FOR SOMEONE WHO TALKS A LOT ABOUT EMPATHY, YOU SHOW LITTLE FOR YOUR COLLEAGUES

NO ONE OUTSIDE YOUR TEAM UNDERSTANDS WHAT IT TAKES TO DO GOOD WORK

THE OUTCOMES ARE BETTER WHEN EVERYONE IS A DESIGNER

DESIGN IS INTERESTING BECAUSE IT IS DIFFERENT

AGILE TRANSFORMATIONS ARE HOSTILE TO GOOD DESIGN

INTROVERSION INHIBITS DESIGN’S ULTIMATE IMPACT

WHAT A DESIGN TEAM NEEDS MOST IS A CLEAR SENSE OF PURPOSE

A DESIGN TEAM WITHOUT A CHARTER IS A TEAM OVERWHELMED AND UNDERAPPRECIATED

MAKING AN EFFORT TO CONNECT TO ‘BUSINESS VALUE’ GOES A LONG WAY

YOU ARE ON THE FRONT LINE OF A GLOBAL WAR FOR TALENT

EVERYONE APPLYING FOR A ROLE HAS AN INFLATED TITLE

INTERVIEWS ARE A POOR WAY OF ASSESSING CANDIDATES

DESIGN EXERCISES ARE A BAD INTERVIEWING PRACTICE

YOU WILL NEVER HAVE ENOUGH DESIGNERS

YOU WILL NEVER HAVE ENOUGH TIME

THE SKILLS THAT GOT YOU HERE ARE NOT THE SKILLS THAT WILL CARRY YOU FORWARD

This year, I’ve helped 5 design teams draft their charter. At the outset of this work is a series of 4 2-hour group sessions (it used to be a one-day workshop in a conference room) to define different aspects of the team. Having done it a bunch now, I’ve developed a fairly strong agenda for conducting these sessions, which I’m now sharing publicly. Feel free to use it for your team!

Agenda for Group Sessions to Build a Design Team Charter

Embedded in that agenda are links to a series of public Miro boards for capturing the group work. I think (?) you should be able to copy the boards to your own account, and if not, they’re pretty easy to recreate.

Why draft a charter?

As design teams grow, they often realize that there’s a set of assumptions about they work they do, assumptions put on them by people outside design. These assumptions end up constraining the potential of the design team, and they find themselves focused on production when there is so much more they could offer.

I believe these charter projects have proven popular because they provide a platform for a design team to define itself, to set its own course and agenda. They help teams build confidence taking control of the kind of work they do, and how they do it. This empowerment, in turn, makes the teams more effective, as they feel greater connection to their work.

“If Design Were A Person” Activity

Most of the activities are fairly straightforward group work to arrive at some common understanding, with a divergent phase (generate a lot of ideas), grouping and organizing, and then a convergent phase (voting) to arrive at a result.

These activities tend toward the logical, verbal, rational. Working with design teams, I wanted to tap into the creative, pictorial, visceral. When I conducted these group sessions in a conference room, I would use the Design The Box activity to get people in that generative, lateral thinking mode, hoping to tap into stuff that’s subconscious. I tried bringing that into a remote session, but I find that drawing tools just aren’t sufficient in these platforms, and were getting in the way of creation.

So I changed it to a “If The Design Team Were a Person,” with the idea that we still have imagery, and there’s something subconscious that goes into the identification of that person, with a post hoc rationalization of the qualities of that person and how they apply to the Design Team.

That said, I’m not thrilled with the exercise. It works, and I’ve gotten good stuff from it, but I suspect it could be better. I’d love to hear from folks on generative, creative activities that they’ve facilitated remotely.

The Sessions Are Only The Beginning

The group sessions account for about a half to a third of the total effort in charter building. The sessions are great for getting ideas out of people’s heads, and the voting and discussion that happens places focus on the specific areas that are most resonant to the team. After the sessions are complete, then someone (or a small group) needs to take what’s been generated as input into the drafting of a charter, which is a process of distillation, wordsmithing, refinement, a lot of dead-ends, and occasional epiphanies—much like any writing work.

I’ve very much enjoyed facilitating these discussions, and if you’d like me to do so for your team, you can reach me through my website.