I had a great time at my second Leading Design Conference last week. The talks focused on leading design teams within an organisation and I left with a lot more awareness and knowledge of management and design operations. There were aspects I hadn’t considered in-depth before such as:

  • The challenges of growing a design team from 1 to more.
  • How do you design a new hire’s onboarding process into the team?
  • How do you define and compensate performance levels?
  • How do you design a designer’s career progression?
  • How do you balance maker time vs manager time?

I currently work as the only UX/UI designer amongst a team of around 20 developers spread across 3 scrum teams. With the prospect of hiring a second designer soon, what I learnt was timely and it left me eager to learn more. I immediately purchased Org Design for Design Orgs by Peter Merholz and Kristin Skinner which gave helpful guidelines for building and managing an in-house design team.

Feeling inspired, I began drafting design-op processes for my company in Confluence. It wasn’t required yet, but I enjoyed the process and it will allow me to hit the ground running when it’s time to hire more designers. That’s for another blog post though.

Here are a few of my notes from Leading Design 2018:

Company politics

Politics is everywhere where people are.

Study the landscape:

  • Who is thriving? Who is struggling?
  • What tactics are working for others?
  • Who has the skill or resources that you need?

Know the business:

  • How does it make business?
  • How does business contribute to how the business makes money?/add value?
  • Who is your closest ally who primarily makes business decisions? Ask them to mentor you in what you don’t know.

Invest in how others perceive you and your team:

  • How do you communicate to others and groups?
  • You’ll always be a minority having the perspective that you do.
  • As a believer of design, see yourself as an ambassador of design landing on a planet that’s never seen you before.
  • You’ll always be explaining design. See it as an investment.
  • The Inclusion / Exclusion paradox: Designers want to be seen as equal (part of the group) whilst also wanting to feel special.

Talk one on one:

  • Meetings are theatrical
  • In group meetings, the most important people are probably restrained in what they can say in front of everyone. Talk with them one on one.

Read the room:

  • Know what’s going on.  
  • Know what motivates people, their goals and challenges.

Getting ahead of decisions:

  • Decisions can be made before the meeting via informal discussions and small pitches and meetings

Manage your boss:

  • As you rise, they have less time for you.
  • You need to tell them what you need.
  • Learn how to make them look good.
  • Be efficient – earn reputation of being effective and reliable.
  • Over-communicate
  • Push back on some jobs – don’t let team to be spread to thin
  • Stand up to execs who don’t know better
  • Be relentless in getting what you want

Attributes of a Leader

Attributes of a leader are similar to those of a destructive child: Strong point of view and a strong debater.


Most of the time we’re listening to win or listening to fix. Slow down and take the time to understand when faced with the unfamiliar. Be actively open – invite people to give their perspectives. How you make people feel is how you are remembered.


  • Help team communicate by making ideas tangible
  • Specify goals (and non goals)
  • Check for understanding


  • Protect and promote the creative process
  • Protect nascent ideas
  • Spread the user perspective


  • Elevate your team’s taste
  • Hold the (quality) line
  • Know the medium

On leadership

  • People don’t leave companies, people leave managers
  • Leaders have a lot of power and they say things they don’t think about and it can stick

Things that make us weak self managers

  • We’re fascinated with being hands on.
  • Confusing what can be done vs what needs to be done
  • We set ridiculous deadlines.
  • We ignore boundaries – work life balance

Tactics for better self management

  • Relocate yourself on the hands-on spectrum (are you more or less hands on?). As a manager, you get to decide where you are in the spectrum.
  • Expect less. Your brain has limitations. You’re not going to be the designer you were before you managed.
  • Maintain a critique system: “I think you did or did not solve the problem and here’s why…”.
  • Embrace burnout: When you give everything you’ve got to move a project forward. There are times when burnout cannot be avoided but you can manage it. Recognise it for what it is – the natural outcome of taking on your most challenging projects. Recover afterwards, then start again. Burnout can be worth it as the results can be significant. There’s no such thing as work life balance, just things you get paid for and things you don’t. It’s all life.

The design career journey

  • Companies with design career ladders have higher employee engagement and lower attrition. You have to own this. You don’t want HR to design your career ladder.
  • As a leader your priority is developing org and people.
  • Career ladder is different than pay-scale model. People want meaning, purpose and growth opportunity.
  • Leaders are in the people business. Leadership is not a position, it’s a responsibility.

Building and leading design organisations

  • Every leadership role [the speaker] had she’s created herself.
  • There’s people, projects and processes.
  • We used to think we needed to get the design right. Then the strategy, then the organisation.
  • You can’t change the product or service without changing the organisation. Much of what causes design stress is a result of flawed operations.

Designers as business people

  • Think of yourself not as a design leader but a business leader. We have to turn up as if we understand the business. We are responsible for business outcomes. Leaders own outcomes. Call out if it’s failing. “It’s my job to I erase recovery rate by X”.
  • Designers need to show up like business people first.

Design Ops

What is design ops?

Everything but design. It allows design people to design whilst design ops works on the other stuff.

Design Producer role

The number one role of a design producer is to keep designers out of meetings and focused on design.

  • Provide visibility.
  • Build relationships.
  • Design process.
  • Drive operations – budgets.

Design Program Manager role

  • Works on the designer experience
  • Onboarding
  • Comms and visibility
  • Mastery of craft,
  • Design resources – learning and career development, wiki etc.
  • Design culture

Studio time

Designers usually work in feature embedded model teams but get together once a week so they can share what they’re doing.

Building Skills While Building Products

  • Design ops ensure design team is sustainable and scalable. A scalable design team has a career ladder as team can realise their career potential no matter where they’re that.
  • Experiential learning is the foundation behind all learning. It increases engagement and retention. Build learning into your team. Senior designers mentor junior which increases their value.

Reviewing performance

  • Focus on what you want the person to do. Not the person.
  • What does excellent performance look like?
  • Use performance profiles, not job descriptions  

Growing a design team from 1

  • Don’t let your ego and fear get in the way of hiring other designers. Hugo (the speaker) missed opportunities to hire new designers as he was ‘in the cockpit’ and wanted control. He feared that if he hired more they would realise he wasn’t that good.
  • Don’t isolate “your” team.
  • Seek feedback constantly and take it on board.
  • Take control of your time.
  • Shorten meetings.
  • If you say you’re too busy more than twice in a week, you’re doing it wrong.
  • People can’t read your mind. Be explicit and repeat.