Now that I have over seven years experience leading and managing Design/UX teams, I’m clear on what works and what doesn’t.
I’ve never been a “command and control” manager – the type who is authoritative and decisive and usually has their team living in fear. My approach in recent years has been to be the quiet one working diligently behind the scenes, doing what I could to keep my team cohesive, happy and productive. Some call it “leading from behind”.
I’ve since learnt that teams need different styles of leadership at different times – sometimes leading the way to set clear goals and a vision, and sometimes getting out of the way so others can have their turn in the limelight.
Now I believe the spot to be is somewhere in the middle or just to the side – I don’t mean passively sitting on the sidelines, but actively jogging (or sprinting) alongside the crew, dipping in and out as needed to help them up or egg them on. This gives them just enough autonomy that they have real control and ownership of their work. It also allows people to stretch their capabilities, learn, grow and keep getting better.
I had struggled to find similar management styles to mine until recently, when I came across August de los Reyes (Principal Director of Design at Microsoft) and Freidoon “Doon” Malekzadeh (Senior Director Of UX & Design/Creative Director at Samsung). They’ve documented their approaches to management and it has inspired me to do the same.
So, I’ve stolen chunks of this from Doon who stole it from August. Both have encouraged folks, as I now encourage you, to steal this document and adapt it as you see fit. I plan to use this to remind me of my promises to you (if I’m ever your manager or director), and as a guide for anyone new who joins my team.
I trust my crew
If I have hired you, or you’ve been invited to join my crew, it’s because you’re smart and talented. I am happy to give you a fair degree of autonomy, trust your judgment and support your decisions (even if I disagree with them).
I’m likely to drop hints and make suggestions about what I think you should do or not do, but for the most part I’d say “I trust your expertise”. I will always give you my opinion if you ask for it (and sometimes when you don’t). However, there will be times where I feel strongly about something… and I’ll let you know and tell you why.
As a leader and manager, I’d much rather walk/jog/run/sprint alongside you to support and enable you. If you need direction from me, I’d ask you to be a “list maker” as opposed to a “list taker.” This gives you the opportunity to think for yourself what the right thing to do is while giving me the opportunity to provide feedback (instead of just telling you what to do).
• Think of me as the band manager (you’re the talent).
• I want to empower you and my crew to do what you need to succeed – once you’re on your way I will do my best to give you space to do your job the way you see fit.
• I do not raise my voice, yell, or have tantrums – I resolve conflicts with dialogue. After all we are adults.
• I will quietly drive and push you to succeed (if you succeed, then I’m doing my job).
• I will do my best to defend you and take blows for the crew as needed.
• I will never take credit for your work (but will bask in your glory and skite about my team’s achievements).
• Finally, it’s my job to create and nurture the frameworks (design and UX principles, strategy, plan, working environment etc.) for you to be successful. By fending off issues and solving problems behind the scenes, I strive to enable my crew to perform to their highest potential and be rock stars.
I’m not a machine, you’re not a machine
Your health and family come first
If you have personal or family issues that you need to attend, make them your priority. Just make sure to let me know when you will be gone, when you’re likely to return and the possible impacts of your absence – I’ll deal with those for you. When you’re away, focus on yourself or the people who need you. There are no expectations about you being online responding to work issues.
Give your best, then recharge
I don’t believe that a 24/7 work schedule is productive or sustainable, so you will rarely hear me ask anyone to work night or weekends. If this keeps happening then it’s a sign that either you or I are not managing our time very well (or somebody has unrealistic expectations). Of course, there are times where we need to stay in to meet a deadline – these are an exception, not the rule. I don’t want you to burnout – that’s not good for anybody. I expect a productive 40-hour week – not 50-60-or more.
Take holiday breaks
We have holidays for a reason. If at certain times of the year, you have banked more than 160 hours, you may receive a message from me reminding you to use it. There is never a perfect time to take a break. All I ask is that you give myself and the teams who rely on you plenty of notice so they can plan ahead to manage the gaps while you’re away.
Let’s not get too serious
Our industry can be incredibly complex and stressful and we need to counteract that with some light humour. I’ve had crew members in tears and angst over their work, dealing with difficult people or personal issues that are weighing on them. Sometimes work sucks and I’ll do my best to support you to get out of that hole. Usually though, laughter is the best medicine. Without going overboard, feel free to have some fun, share a joke, think up some clever (but not too annoying) pranks or play us a song.
I want your work to have meaning
Why are you being asked to do this?
The product or service we are working on will be better if we understand why it exists (its purpose) and we have empathy with the people who will experience it. We then need to understand the opportunity or problem we’ve been called on to resolve, the best way to approach it and ensuring we have the right people to make it a success.
• Does the work you’re doing make sense to you?
• Do you know who we are doing this for?
• Are we utilising you and your skills to the fullest?
• Are you excited about what you’re working on?
If ever you are unclear on any of these, let me know and we’ll get it sorted.
I try to run things smoothly
Catch-ups and performance feedback
I schedule catch-ups with each of my direct reports every couple of weeks, but I’m happy to meet any time you feel the need. This is your chance to let me know how you and your work is going. Unless you tell me, I might not be aware of what’s going on. Don’t assume I already know – I don’t hang around the water cooler! Our discussion will cover your highlights, performance and challenges, as well as an opportunity for you to let me know how I’m doing as your manager.
There are no hard and fast rules when I expect you to be at the office. We are all adults and I’m not your babysitter. You do not need to ask my permission to go to the doctor, take the occasional long lunch break or take care of errands during the day. Just let me know when you will be gone and for how long. Use your own judgment about how you structure your day and manage your workload. Think about the possible impact on others if they’re relying on you for something. Keep them informed.
Business decision-making is not a single individual’s responsibility. Get involved, speak up. We are driving the business together and to make the best decision we need your input. I recognise that we all communicate differently, so if you’re an introvert and prefer written communication, sketching diagrams or interpretive dance, that’s fine. Just let me know it’s on the way and make sure I get it while the topic is still warm.
I encourage you to show me work in progress. I’m not a fan of big surprises and I like to contribute my thoughts and critique early in the process. If I have a strong point of view or insight and you choose to ignore it, I would like to understand your reasoning. I’m not precious about my ideas, so long as you have a better one.
Where possible, explore and resolve problems on the studio floor by having direct discussions with your team members. Open dialogue is key. If calling a meeting then make its purpose clear and only invite the people who need to be there. If it can be wrapped up in 15-30 minutes, great. Sometimes longer meetings are required, but anything over 90 minutes is too long. That’s not a meeting, that’s a workshop (so you’d better have snacks and good coffee organised!).
Collaboration is essential in any project and this requires you to be inclusive and proactive. The way you communicate, negotiate, and interact with other team members will have a bearing on the success of the project as well as your trust in each other. Have respect for the expertise of your crew members and those from other teams. If you’re having trouble communicating with each other come talk to me, I may have some solutions.
Career development is a partnership between you and me/your manager. I am here to help you get where you want to go, but I expect you to be the driver (it’s your life, you’re in charge).
This is one of my blind-spots both at work and at home. I often forget to praise good work or celebrate achievements. This doesn’t mean I don’t care. I take great satisfaction in seeing my crew members succeed and grow. Feel free to prompt me when you believe yourself or a team member deserves recognition.
Our industry is full of complexities and gotchas, so effective communication is vital. I encourage open and constructive communication. You should feel comfortable pushing back if you disagree with something and feel free to come and talk to me about anything.
In the spirit of open communications, I am a believer in transparency. I know what it’s like to be only given ‘half the story.’ However, that does not mean that I will tell you everything; if you ask me a question and I don’t know the answer, I will say, “I don’t know.” If I know the answer and can tell you, I will tell you the answer; if I know the answer but it is not appropriate for me to tell you, I will say, “I know the answer but I cannot tell you.”
I expect my crew to be excited
The Power and the Passion
Show up to work and be excited. You’ve landed on your feet in the growth industry of our era, and it’s full of wonderful possibilities. Hunger for knowledge, find your super-power and become an expert in your field. Read and share what you learn. Challenge the norm. Ask why, form opinions, defend your opinions, and other people’s opinions if you agree with them, and good ideas in general. Gracefully pivot when your idea is not the best.
Learn from Your Mistakes
Mistakes happen. Learn from them. Repeated mistakes are the ones to avoid.
I am here, and there
Feel free to link, friend, follow me etc.
• Facebook: I don’t usually ‘friend’ colleagues I am currently working with as the line between being your boss and your friend can get blurred. If I don’t accept your friend request, don’t take it personally. I still like you.
• LinkedIn: http://www.linkedin.com/in/zefamedia
• My personal website: https://zefamedia.com
the best ways to reach me are
- Via Slack, Teams or wherever our team hang out most
- In person
- Email: Via my work email first. If no response then try my personal email
- Text: +64 21 619 629
- Mobile: I nearly always have the ringer turned off so will rarely answer. Leave a message or text me.
I look forward to working with you!
Learning and growing together.
Having fun with the crew.
My talented crew from Powershop on one of our regular lunch dates (2015).