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. 

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