A common oversight companies make when hiring a Design Executive is that they do so in a vacuum, and thus overload the role with responsibilities. They seek a Creative Leader with Executive Presence who can Scale an Organization, Build a Compelling Culture, drive Design-Lead Product Strategy, ensure High Quality, and Deliver Business Results. 

And it’s not that you can’t find an Executive who can do this. But they can’t do this all at once, and they will have distinct areas of strength and weakness. But companies hold out for a Design Jesus, talking to countless candidates, and only after 6 months, 9 months, even a year, come to grips with reality and figure out what they actually need in that role.

Companies should instead think about how to establish a Design Leadership Team, a small group of senior design leaders who collaborate to ensure the effective practice and delivery of design. Every time I develop a profile for a Design Executive, I do so in the context of building a Design Leadership team, making clear that each member of that team has distinct emphases that, when combined, should lead to a whole greater than the sum of the parts. 

In The Makeup of a Design Executive, I listed the four components of that leadership makeup: Executive, Creative, People, Operational. This can help us navigate the makeup of the leadership team, as we place different emphases on the different roles.

Design Leadership Team

SVP of Design, Chief Design Officer

Executive and Creative Leadership

  • Holds own with executives
  • Strategic partner with end-to-end vision 
  • Inspirational and enabling leadership—models the culture
  • Recruiting and retention strategies
  • Advocate/champion for design
  • Establish quality standards

Head of DesignOps

Operational Leadership

  • TeamOps (effective delivery of Design, program management)
  • PeopleOps (recruiting coordination, onboarding, review programs)
  • Resources, facilities, and services for Design
  • Design Education programs
  • Vendor management

Design Directors

Creative and People Leadership

The folks typically oversee a significant swath of the design org (~20 people), and could be organized by product, customer type, or stage in a customer journey. They oversee the design teams doing the work, collaborating cross-functionally, and delivering the user experience. 

  • Uphold quality standards through the work
  • Connects design effort with product and business strategy
  • Recruiting and hiring for their teams
  • People and performance management (for designers)
  • Process and practice, both internally and cross-functionally 

Heads of Functions (e.g., UX Research, Content Design)

Creative and People Leadership

Obviously, Design is typically the most prevalent practice within a team, and doesn’t warrant specialized leadership. Other practices, such as UX Research and Content Design, typically are not staffed at the same rate, and the roles are deployed differently. It’s important to have heads of these functions to ensure:

  • Establishing best process and practices, internally and cross-functionally
  • Developing quality bars for these practices
  • Recruiting and hiring within the practice
  • Appropriate staffing across project work
  • People and performance management (for their function)

Principal Designer, Design Architect
(Super-Senior Individual Contributor)

Creative Leadership

I recently wrote about this role at length, so won’t duplicate that here. What I will say is that as design organizations scale, the SVP of Design and the Design Directors, who are expected to contribute Creative leadership, find that the other responsibilities of their role (Executive Leadership, People Leadership) take time away from creative engagement. And while they may be able to provide Creative leadership in bursts, they cannot sustain it. If that is the case, it is time to bring on Super-Senior Individual Contributors who can focus solely on Creative leadership.

With the idea of a complementary Leadership Team in place, it becomes easier to think about how to hire for each role, as you no longer are considering them without context.

And you may find yourself rejiggering the Leadership types represented here. Say you recognize the need to bring on an SVP of Design to scale the organization and drive design advocacy throughout the company, and you already very strong Creative leadership at the Director level. In that case, an SVP with emphasis on Executive and Operational leadership may be more suited to this context. 

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