From a Product Designer’s Point of View

I recently moved back into the managerial design track. In this transition I reflected about my past . What were their strengths? What did they teach me about how to work effectively with others? What did they teach me about me? What can I adopt from them in my management style? What can I borrow from them that is true to my own principles and philosophies about working with people? And, not to forget, what did I learn from them that I can still improve? Always be learning, right?(This is my personal motto.)

A little history. In the past I managed a small team of five designers and front-end engineers. It was easy. We were all senior, got along fine and I was still producing along-side them. The difference was I attended more meetings, had more insight into company information (and when I could I shared this with them) and I did their performance reviews. I saw the main part of my job as keeping them engaged and productive. I respected where they each were in their careers. I gave the autonomy I thought they needed. I asked them for feedback about how I was doing and how I could better support them. So yes, I have some experience, but there is also so much more to learn.

Learning from the best and worst of our past work experiences makes us better managers

In my reflection of some past managers, here’s what I learned from them about managing designers and about myself:

Andrea. One of the reasons I have respect for this manager is because she always told me how much faith and trust she had in me. And she followed this through by going to bat for me 100% of the time. In turn this made me want to always exceed her expectations. Not everyone got this kind of feedback from her. She provided me the perfect balance of autonomy and guidance. Even though her calendar was jam-packed and she rarely spent an hour in total in a day at her desk, she always found time to talk or meet with me. This relationship was especially valued since I worked remotely and many company changes occurred while I was on her team. In a time where instability was felt daily, she instilled confidence in me that I was a valued team member and encouraged me to keep on keeping on. So I did just that.

David. The circumstances in which this person became my manager was completely a surprise. One day a meeting was called and our team was told he’d be our new boss and our current boss would become a peer. Unexpected, awkward and a bit disconcerting, I decided time would tell if this was going to work for me. From this manager I learned that you have to prove your skill set and value even if you have been in your position and the industry for a while. New boss, new rules. I also learned you are never too senior to be flexible and should remain eager to learn. David encouraged me to think about how I worked with people and my communication style. Indeed I was both a bit surprised and grumpy about this since I had never had this kind of feedback before. But I turned this into a plan of self-improvement. I made it an exercise of perspective. What do I look like and sound like when I present, make a comment or as I’m listening? Interestingly, I became more self-aware and also, unfortunately, even more self-censored. I learned to think before I spoke. I learned to pay attention to body language, both mine and theirs. I learned that this applies to my whole life, not just the workplace. And a result, this is a good thing to always be working on. As time went on it became clear David never liked me. He was critical, direct and also did not have my best interests in mind. He micromanaged. Things always had to go his way. His feedback was inconsistent. But this all happened in our 1:1s. He never blatantly surfaced his annoyance with me when others were around. The company was small. There was no where else I could go. He gave me junior work and set me up for failure. I gave it a year. And in that year my confidence took a big hit. My family felt it too. I tried to keep a growth mindset. Finally after 12 months I made my mind up. I had to leave. Life is short. He is not worth my time. I have so much more to offer than he recognized. My lesson in this: when it’s not working and there’s no win-win, move on. Actively look for the right situation as soon as this is clear to you. Yes, people don’t leave companies, they leave managers. In my case this was 100% true. When I left the company I expressed my gratitude to the founder for the opportunity and also asked they get some training for David. That’s behind me now. Fortunately I found my return to leadership and am in a supportive environment where I am growing.

Have you ever had a bad manager? If so, what did you do and what advice can you offer?

Kevin. This manager was the one who actually gave me specific examples of how I could move up from my long-time role as a Senior Designer on other teams. Kevin provided the right amount of guidance and check-ins. His feedback was always presented in terms of project or company goals. It didn’t seem like I was getting opinions or biases, but rather constructive advice toward meeting the goals. A friendly relationship, this manager always had his eye on the ball and kept projects and design deliverables on track. There was a cordial business focus in our manager-report relationship and I respected this.

Kelly. This manager gave me more autonomy than I’ve ever had. And this was within a company culture of great trust. Additionally, this was in a smaller company. I had never at once felt so much freedom and the opportunity to make an impact in both the product design and in a company. I was my own lead and there was no one telling me what I should or shouldn’t do. In fact, “do” is a company value. Do things. Make things. Share things. Proactively making stuff is encouraged and even celebrated. I’ll admit there were times I felt a bit misdirected, but Kelly was always available to talk and always reminding me to reach out to her anytime. She reminded me her job was to help me grow at the company and in my career. So much autonomy allowed me to take more chances and gave me the confidence to make decisions.

Beth. This manager and I clicked right away. She had a team of talented designers which I was fortunate to join. I learned over time she has a very high bar for good design. From her and this team I learned to raise my own bar of what good work is. This took many iterations which she never saw. It challenged me and it paid off. This was valuable early in my career. I also learned from her how to work in a big company. Time was not the main deadline, but rather designed experiences that made the cut of what the rest of company was producing. We got to work on interesting content and we had fun with it. From this manager I also learned to not be so serious. Play is part of work and so is taking breaks. And meeting for coffee can be considered work, too.

Mike. This manager was a manager who immediately identified me as talented and a good employee. I was initially a bit surprised by this because he wasn’t a designer by trade. But what HE IS – is a fantastic people manager. He really paid attention to the projects, situation of team dynamics and individual team members. In response to his support of me he became the manager I wanted to impress. I wanted to live up to and even surpass the expectations he had of me and my performance. Unfortunately I didn’t report to him for long due to a reorg. However, fortunately he is still one of my greatly valued mentors today.

Alex. This manager taught me many things. How to think about usability and design in a framework relevant to the clients goals. How to document it in a way that is clear and accurate, yet open for discussion. He taught me how to visualize systems. And maybe most importantly, he taught me how to not censor myself. He helped me understand that my experience, thinking and ideas are good; that ideas are seeds that can grow and can be nurtured by many. His belief in me continues to this day as we are always trying to find ways to work together again. We align so well in our thinking and dreaming. I am fortunate he encouraged me to do this early in my career. He’s one of my cheerleaders, and in life, those are hard to come by.

Pete. This manager taught me how to be invested in my role as though the business is my own. I learned that if I’m willing to help out ways that my role didn’t call for this would make me adaptable, a team player and appreciated. And being in individual sports my whole life (diving, golf and skiing,) the team player mentality was not a familiar nor preferred way in which I approach things in life. I did take the approach that if I’d present myself as a supportive employee and that tasks weren’t ‘beneath me,’ I’d always be learning (hence my motto.) The unanticipated result was great appreciation and respect, so much so that I earned the title, “Jen the Wonder Girl.”

In our careers we may have great, good, ok and bad managers. There are things you can learn from all of them. Be cognizant of your relationships and how it affects the work you do, and try to see how you can grow from your various experiences. And when it’s your turn to manage, remember your experiences and put your learnings into practice and continue to grow. After all, we are all work-in-progress.

Note: to be fair to past managers different names were used.

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