As part of the free mentorship sessions I have been running for the past couple of years, there’s one question that frequently comes up:
“ What do I have to do to become a design manager? ”
The question often comes from designers who have been at a Senior level for some time, and are now looking to be promoted to a Lead/Manager role within their companies. They have been actively seeking that promotion, taking action, changing their behavior, taking on more responsibilities — but for some reason, their managers don’t seem to think they are ready to step up into that new position.
Instead of prematurely jumping into giving my mentees tactical advice on how to get that so-deserved promotion, I throw back another question at them that can often feel unsettling:
(Long pause, and then the emphasis)
“Why do you want to become a manager?”
The immediate response is:
“Because it’s about time! I’ve been a Senior for 4 years.”
Well, that’s not a proper why.
That’s why you think your company should promote you.
“I’m asking why you want to become a manager. What is the reason, deep inside of you, that makes you want that? What do you think you will like so much about being a manager?”
I have some good news for you: being a leader ≠ being a manager.
You can be a junior designer and be a leader.
Your job title shouldn’t define your attitude.
Leadership is a mindset, not a title. Designers who are able to step up without being asked to are certainly more valuable than the ones who wait for the right title before doing so.
Now, on to the hard questions:
- What are the specific motivations that make you want to become a leader? What about leading people makes you happy? Try breaking down the real motivations behind that aspiration, and writing them down without showing it to anyone (that way you won’t censor your real feelings). Is it the feeling of power that makes you feel good? Is it because you like being heard in meetings? Is it the ability to control/guide other people’s career paths? Or is it because you think your current manager isn’t great?
- What if people don’t like your leadership style? I’m sure you have had experiences in the past where you didn’t like or agree with your manager’s leadership style. Have you considered the fact that other people might not approve your leadership style once you become a manager? How would you feel if that happened?
- In which direction do you want to lead people? Leading is about knowing the destination, not necessarily knowing the path. If you are a designer who is too attached to having a structured design process, leadership might not be a good fit for you. People expect leaders to have a vision, to see things that others don’t see. A leader who is just good at following processes can be uninspiring for their team, and end up making other people leave.
The reality of our industry is that the most obvious path to a higher salary is a managerial title. As an industry, we need to do a better job on treating senior individual contributors as equals with people managers. The status quo in most companies that have an in-house design team is that if you have a team reporting to you, chances are you’ll make at least 20% more money than the most senior person in your team.
But that’s not the only path.
People tend to think becoming a manager is the only path to a higher salary. Not anymore. More design-mature companies have realized some designers want to continue to be specialists at their craft — and have started to adapt their career plans to accommodate for both a specialist and a generalist path.
In many cases, the value that super-senior specialists can bring to the company is so high and unique, that it’s worth paying higher salaries for those specialists year after year, even if the designer’s title doesn’t change.
The first step is to talk to your manager and be honest about which direction you want your career to grow.
But remember: to be paid more as a specialist, you have to provide additional value to the company. That can happen for one or more of these reasons:
- You are becoming better at your craft. How much time have you invested in the last year at learning a new method, improving your prototyping skills, and generally getting better at your craft?
- You are becoming more efficient and creating more things, faster. How much more efficient are you at your job than a year ago? Are you able to create higher quality deliverables in less time? Does that enable you to explore different directions that other designers wouldn’t be able to in the same amount of time?
- You are becoming more strategic in your thinking. Sometimes it is not about the craft quality, but about how strategic you are when making design decisions. The thing here is: you have to show to other people the thinking behind your design decisions — otherwise they won’t realize any improvement year after year.
If you’re just doing design-as-usual, and have not shown significant improvement in your craft, process, or thinking — then you can’t expect your company to pay you more next year.
Also, it might be the case that your company is not one that allows for a higher pay when you are following a specialist track. If your company does not offer you two distinct career paths (Individual Contributor vs. Manager) and you’re planning on staying on your company for a while, then the conversation with your manager should be about how to accommodate for your career goals.
After digging deeper into people’s real motivations for wanting to become a design manager or design lead, it is surprisingly common to find out it has a lot to do with how they compare themselves to other people at their level.
- People who went to school with me are sharing on Linkedin that they have been promoted to a manager level role.
- I think I am more qualified than other designers within my company who are at my level.
- I don’t agree with my manager’s leadership approach, and I want to be promoted to become independent of her/him.
If the first step to answering the question posed at the title of this article is to understand the real motivations behind your desire to becoming a manager, the second one is to try to gauge whether a managerial position is a good fit for you at the moment.
Here are a few questions that can help you decide:
- How much do you enjoy designing? As you step into a manager role, chances are that you will be spending less and less time sitting down at your desk with headphones on and a design software open in front of you. If you are a designer who really enjoys the feeling of being “in the zone” or “in the flow”, be prepared for days that look way more fragmented than that — often interrupted by meetings and other project emergencies that require you to step away from a hands-on role.
- How much do you enjoy talking in meetings? The more you advance into a managerial role, the more vocal people will expect you to be in internal meetings and design reviews. Not only that, but you will be required to be able to speak not only to the thinking behind your design decisions, but also about how it will impact the company’s business KPIs.
- How self-organized are you? With more work on your plate and more meetings on your calendar, you will need to be more efficient on how you organize your time throughout the day. If you struggle with self-organization or you feel like your days are already going by too fast, you will have to rethink your time management methodology to be able to continue to deliver what’s expected from you in this new role.
- How good are you at handling conflict? Deciding when to use a dropdown vs. an accordion is a fairly simple decision, compared to the decision on whether to promote someone or let them go. When you step into a manager role, people will start coming to you to help them resolve certain conflicts — whether project-related red flags, relationship issues amongst team members, or career-related aspirations and uncertainties people have. Think about all the problems you have raised to your previous managers, and ask yourself: would I be comfortable in a new scenario where people start to raise those very same problems to me?
- Is there an individual contributor career growth path within your company? If not, is this something the company would be willing to change to accommodate for your own ambitions as a designer? Or is this one of those cases where it’s time to start looking for a new place to continue to grow your career as an individual contributor?
Planning their own career is one of the most important exercises a designer can do. The more thoughtful your decision to become a manager is, the more successful of a manager you will be. Understanding motivations, and the relationship between cause and effect can be quite similar to the thinking process you go through as you are designing experiences for other people — why wouldn’t you do the same when it comes to your own career?
This article is part of Journey: lessons from the amazing path of being a designer.