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Career Advice in Design — Leadership, Career Paths II

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Career Advice in Design — Leadership, Career Paths II

The topic for this article came about as a result of a conversation I recently had with a good friend, but it is in itself a topic I’ve been questioned about in the past in different contexts, including past job related interviews. The topic focuses specifically on the path to seniority and leadership in Design, understanding where the ceiling for that domain lies. This article also focuses on clarifying the different venues of interest that may provide alternate career paths for Designers who want to expand their footprint and responsibilities. In some of my previous articles I already discussed the multiple paths professionals can tackle in order to achieve the Leadership momentum so many people ambition, but this is a topic that can and invariably has multiple perspectives and also ramifications. The first part of this article can actually be read here, though this second part is going to be focused in a slightly different direction. The focus will be on what effectively happens when you reach that stepping stone of leadership and responsibility, and where does a Designer/Design Professional go from there. Hopefully as my previous articles, this gives everyone something to discuss and reflect upon.

Design Leadership. In the first Chapter of this article I enumerated the qualities that make for effective Design Leaders, which included Transparency, Organizational/Operational Qualities, Humbleness, to name but a few. However and even before one gets to understand and reflect on what type of leader a Designer actually is or wants to be, that same professional has to gain the experience and insights to get to that point (I’m deliberately moving past the vocabulary “Credentials”, but we’ll get to that soon enough). Or has one? Anyone who browses through different job postings, and I’d say in the context of the past 3 years, can witness that for many Organizations, the requirements from an experience level perspective for Leadership positions varies tremendously. Some require 5 years of experience, others 7, others 10, depending of course on the organization itself, and the talent they’re trying to recruit and bring forth. What’s even more interesting, is that at times, those years of experience that are listed as a requirement, are not years of experience in leadership positions, but overall professional experience in the Design industry. These requirements also open another topic of conversation, pertaining to professionals who have been in the industry for over 15 years, and how those same professionals find themselves questioning where do they fit, should they be in leadership positions based solely on their years of experience or should they remain in positions focused on Individual Contribution. Here’s a few of the observations I’ve come to realize throughout the years, as a result of my own experiences, and also from talking with many professionals on the field. Hopefully these observations provide something to reflect upon:

1. Experience is shallower than one may expect — Prior to even getting into this section, I’m going to state that I may be a bit biased in my understanding of what constitutes expertise and experience levels in the Design Industry. That bias is derived from the fact that my own path to Design Leadership was one where I actually went through the different stepping stones of the Design Industry when it came to roles and responsibilities, starting with my internship, all the way through Teaching roles, Interaction Design roles, Senior UI/UX Roles, Principal/Lead roles and finally Director roles.

When I read a job posting for a Director of Design, which requires 5 years of professional experience, that comes as a surprise. And I say this with all due respect to everyone’s exceptional skills, insights and points of view on Design, processes and Technology. The lifecycle of a product, including research, gestation, iterations, implementation, testing, refinement, is always a process in itself that carries through the duration of a few years (at least one year and a half to two years). Someone with 5 years of experience has effectively delivered to market 2 or 3 products? And that’s assuming these professionals with 5 years of experience know exactly what to do the moment they join an organization, fresh out of their Academic training. All this to say, 5 years of overall professional experience to be a director/leader of something, inspires some incredulity, though of course, each professional is a case in itself, and kudos to all the ones who manage to get to those roles with that type of experience. For everyone else, having the time to work through product development cycles, if possible different industries, allows for professionals to move into different roles, gain more expertise, understand how processes are established, and start dabbling in mentorship and leadership roles. This typically usually starts with informal processes of guiding teams, establishing processes that can be scaled and applied to multiple initiatives, and eventually morphs into more formal roles of management. All of this to say, this progression requires time, growth of responsibilities , and ultimately gaining of a solid professional perspective which allows for Designers to devise a strategy for where they want to actually be. While ambition is something to be commendable, Designers also need to be self aware, and come to the realization that one shouldn’t become a lead on the heels of how many articles one reads, or books, or workshops one attends. Reading about a process, based on what others write about, is at times diametrically opposed to experiences one has, since different industries, different organizations operate quite differently, and that’s something no book or article can solve for.

2. Leader with no one to Lead — I’ve taken positions in the past where I was the first Design hire of an organization. I was hired to divulge Design Literacy and implement Lean Processes. I was simultaneously responsible for hiring professionals, essentially scaling the capacity that the Design Discipline & Group had and how it could successfully impact an organization and its product deliverability. Now the question I’ve posed myself, and hopefully others have as well pertains to what happens when for a variety of reasons, the scalability of those teams never occurs, or falls short from its original intention. Is a Design Leader still effectively a leader, if they have limited to no resources at all? The answer to this question is somewhat loaded. And it starts with another question. Bear with me.

As Designers go through career ladders, becoming experts in their fields, eventually quite a few of them morphing into Directors, can these professionals still be considered craftsmen/craftswomen, experts in the field itself or do they become solely managers, still specialized in Design, but not directly involved in the operational aspect of it? The answer to this question is actually tied to the conversation I had with a friend of mine recently: firstly, not all Designers want to be managers. The many paths of professional development hopefully enables Designers with a certain level of expertise to become valuable individual contributors, without having to embark on managerial aspects of mentoring, supervising and collaborating on the crafting of career paths for other professionals. Is this a ceiling for this type of career path? Possibly so, but this is the type of professional who can expand his/hers influence by coaching others, essentially impacting the process itself. For Designers who embark on the managerial track, quite a few of them stop being involved in the operational process itself, and become people managers. This is another career path which can be rewarding, but it essentially requires for Designers themselves to gain a new level of training and expertise, deeply tied with managing others (leading personalities, building trusting relationships, building inclusive practices in teams, among many other topics, which are things to keep in mind). Leading people and processes is not an easy task, since essentially the focus for the leader has to be simultaneously the quality and well being of the team itself, and also its productivity based on a series of business and quality metrics that are needed to be met (not to mention the quality of the output of the Design group itself of course). Due to these demands, many Designers who embark on Leadership roles with a managerial stance, are frequently outlining what the expectations and general directions are, including process definition, leaving the execution and granularity of what comprises that same process to others. For some, this distancing that occurs between crafting strategy and actually implementing aspects of it, is just a natural career flow. For others, this type of gap becomes a problem, since you’re essentially directing without truly understanding the breath and depth of what you’re proposing.

How one becomes a manager and leader, while retaining their focus of attention, very much depends on the Designers themselves, and how the organization in which they work can cooperate with them to craft their roles in a way which enables them to achieve their goals. Going back to the original question, which ties with these latest scenarios. There’s an affirmative response to that question, in the sense that leaders can thrive, even with limited resources (or none but themselves really). Understanding where the limitations are, how to create partnerships, being strategic about time management, automating processes, are all venues in which Leaders can develop in order to sustain initiatives, until those resources make themselves available. The answer to the question is also tied to timelines, and someone’s goals. While resource constraints allows Designers to be strategic, it can also reveal unsustainable pathways, and ultimately lead professionals to question what future lies ahead for themselves and for the practice itself. It’s fundamental that Design Leaders understand strategy for their own Discipline and focus, but also how that integrates with the overall Organization’s endeavors. To summarize this topic, Leadership ultimately shouldn’t be solely guided by the fact that a Design Lead has 1 or 100 people to supervise, and put into practice what is devised strategically. Leadership is derived from the fact that a professional is able to understand problems, strategize with others on how to solve them, and put plans and actions in motion to solve them (and navigate the process efficiently when problems present themselves, and they always present themselves). These plans and actions, will of course include contemplating the resources and teams (or lack of) that are available to them, in order to fulfill that strategy.

3. Career Ceilings and moving to other venues — independently of the field one tackles, there are ceilings for every career path. For many Designers that ceiling comes in the shape of titles such as Director of Design or even VP of Design. In the past I’ve worked with professionals in this field, where the ceiling for them was actually defined by having their own business, or agency, and controlling not only the Design aspect of the projects they tackled, but also the business aspect of their own venture. All this to say, Designers have the bandwidth to choose which path is more agreeable with their aspirations and ambitions. And that also includes moving into different fields. Quite a few of Designers I have met during my career shifted their focus into Product Ownership and Management. Whatever the reasons may be, ultimately each person, particularly as they mature in the field, gain experience and truly understand how products and experiences are crafted, becomes more aware of where they want their focus to be. However one fact remains unperturbed: stunted experience only gets someone so far, independently of where a professional finds themselves in their career path. Being able to constantly educate oneself, learn from others, and have the initiative and foresight to compliment whatever is lacking in our skills only makes us better professionals and also far more well rounded individuals.

Reality check. As I stated previously in other articles, each career path is unique, and everyone has a distinct set of capabilities and expertises which makes them uniquely qualified to navigate the professional world in general and the active job market in particular. Here’s a few statements and summarizations that I’ve always mentioned to my students and colleagues throughout the years that have crystalized from observing behaviors and people in the professional world, particularly in the Design Industry. 1. Don’t let others define how you see yourself or your career — it ultimately doesn’t matter what anyone says, in whatever context they say it, when it comes to your own career. It is every Designer’s responsibility to map out what they want to do, where they want to go, and how they want to achieve their goals. With that being said, always practice a game of self questioning and self awareness. Question your motivations, what is driving you, and where you really want to be. 2. Always respect your work and give credit where credit is due — independently of the quality of a product, or how rewarding an experience possibly is, always remember that every single experience is a valid one. It is our responsibility as people and professionals to learn from those experiences, and be able to communicate our learnings from them. Only by respecting our experiences and their value, can we move forward with self awareness, humbleness and on a path which enables us to grow. If the people we interact with aren’t interested in understanding why our experiences are relevant or important, that issue ultimately lies beyond yourself and more likely is tied with their own inability to listen. Also, always remember that experiences are made of interactions with others, and highlighting roles and how those interactions with peers informed the experience, is always fundamental. 3. Learn to say no when needed — at times the temptation to say yes to everything is there. As one matures and understands the direction in which we’re going, the clearer it becomes that some experiences, people, jobs and paths are simply not aligned with who we are. Saying no, isn’t synonymous with fear of being adventurous or fear of the unknown. Being adventurous and fearless are commendable traits, particularly when we embark on journeys we know and feel are sensical with who we are. When we start making excuses to justify an option, is when we need to reevaluate that choice to begin with. 4. Don’t be afraid to walk away — with experience, also comes the realization that at times we’ll be confronted with situations that are just not working. The only real wealth we as individuals actually have is time and health. Being able to clearly identify if something is working or not, and walking away from it when there’s clearly not a rewarding path moving forward, is not something to shy away from. As singular individuals and professionals, it’s important that we reflect on what we’re investing into and what we are getting from situations themselves. If everything in life is like a undulating wave, are we still in balance with that wave, or has that stream dried up? Something to think about.

I’ll conclude this article with a quote on the topic of growth from Winston Churchill:

“Success is not final, failure is not fatal: it is the courage to continue that counts.”


Career Advice in Design — Leadership, Career Paths II was originally published in UX Planet on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.