Leading Design: You’re not alone

I’m reflecting on Day One of the Leading Design conference in London. The event is targeted towards leaders of UX and Design teams and is in its second year of running. Talk topics ranged from how to create the right habits and develop teams, to lessons learned on the way to becoming a leader.

Personal stories

My favourite parts of the talks so far were the insights into speakers’ personal journeys towards career success. There is a strange trajectory for many of us, where we start working in a job because we are passionate about the subject or craft, increase our skills and experience, then become managers and find ourselves with a new set of challenges. It can often feel like you are isolated when dealing with these, so it was heartening to hear that many of us face the same problems. Russ Maschmeyer told a great story about his development from a designer to a manager of designers. He was initially excited to be offered additional responsibility and felt that he didn’t want to miss out on the opportunity, but over time realised that the type of work involved in management had become less inspiring to him. He found a way to return to being a designer but still offering leadership in different ways. Stanley Woodalso talked about his own journey towards design leadership, which involved working out what kind of leader he wanted to be and speaking to other companies to see how they ran design teams. It was great to hear both talk about the challenge of being an introvert and a leader. The two are not incompatible but you have to acknowledge your personality type and figure out how to make it work with the tasks you need to do.

Psychological safety

Julia Whitney used the term psychological safety in her talk ‘The Human Blueprint’ to describe the factor which research has shown enables teams to perform well. They have to feel comfortable being able to take risks, make mistakes and discuss them openly. Leaders have to be vulnerable, willing to fail and learn. The problem is that often whilst running teams and ensuring everyone has support and mentoring, the leader’s own development can slow down. Several speakers recommended taking time to reflect, finding a network and asking for help. I have found being part of a small community of other UX leaders a useful sense-check in making decisions and exploring solutions. It’s worth remembering that we do have common challenges and admitting we need support is a step towards learning and becoming even better. Irene Au discussed the challenges faced by design leaders in different company cultures and her article on the health of design teams is a great reminder of how detrimental lack of morale can be.

Creating strong, diverse teams

Having spent the past few years working on a graduate scheme for UX designers, it was excellent to hear how other companies are approaching the task of recruiting the next generation. Adam Cutler talked about IBM recruiting 1,500 designers and lessons learned in the process. It was interesting to hear about the culture evolving as the new designers were influenced by those already in place. Having the right mix of experienced designers to new graduates was important. I was also enthused by GE’s UX Leadership Program which Samantha Soma discussed. This is a two year scheme involving rotations around the company, which is the format we also use for our graduate scheme. Many tips were familar, such as the need to manage the transition into the business environment and create stretch opportunities. Janice Fraser gave a very clear summary of why it is more difficult for women to advance to senior leadership positions. This reinforced the need to have a strategy, be a sponsor and find a sponsor to support your development. Lots of inspiration and actions to work on!