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From Maker to Manager: Climbing the leadership ladder

How do you know if creative management is right for you?

Hello, fellow designers! We missed you!

Sorry for the radio silence, but we were a little busy getting married (!), among other things. No bots were in attendance at the wedding. (At least, we don't think so...🤖)

Kirk & Suzanne, two muppets in love

We cast a pod!

Recently, we had the pleasure of guesting on the UX Career Podcast with Kirill V where we discussed the exciting (and scary!) ways that AI is impacting professional creative fields. And how ChatGPT seems like a polite Canadian.

Cover image for episode 33 of the UX Career podcast with Kirill V showing Kirill, Kirk and Suzanne above the title ‘The Future is Here and Now’.

Those two hours flew right by! Check out Episode #33 on Apple, Spotify, YouTube or wherever you listen to podcasts.

Speaking of AI's impact on the workplace, a recent MIT study (PDF) found that incorporating an AI platform (like ChatGPT) into your work routine can boost your personal job satisfaction by a noteworthy 10%. Yet another reason to start dabbling, if you haven't yet. OpenAI reports over 80% of Fortune 500 companies have been using ChatGPT. Adoption is likely to increase further with OpenAI's recent release of ChatGPT Enterprise; features include the ability to protect company data, 4X longer prompt inputs, collaboration features, and API credits to build your own solutions.

But in this issue, we're going to take a break from chatting about the bots to focus on the real world of, like, jobs and stuff.

Why? Because we want to help you thrive in your design career, and that goes beyond tools and techniques. Finding fulfillment also means learning how to navigate your own career path.

And the question of how — or even whether — to "move up" in the design world is one that most designers will face at some point. It's also one of top 3 topics that people have asked us in mentorship sessions.

So how do you move into leadership? What's it really like up there? And, perhaps most importantly, will you actually like it?

Let's go!

At a Glance

  • Following the script

  • Making vs. managing

  • Finding fulfillment

  • Easy research

  • Train for the ascent

Straight to the top! (Or not?)

In our experience, many creative professionals — consciously or not — are following a sort of script in their heads.

It goes something like, "I work really hard, pay my dues, work my way up until I reach Director level — and then sit back, rake in the money, get all the good projects, and bask in the power."

After all, that's just the way our industry works. Right? Maybe.

But the "script" isn't written in stone, and there are a number of things to consider when deciding if leadership might be right for you. As the main character in your own story, you have the opportunity to approach it more thoughtfully.

Design ≠ management

Our society tends to assume that if a person really excels in one specific area (like design) then they're obviously the best person to lead a team of other individual contributors in that area.

But in practice, the stuff you're really good at today won't necessarily translate over to the world of leadership, which can rely on an entirely different set of skills than the ones you've built a career around so far.

We've known more than a couple of top-notch developers, for example, who found themselves floundering when they were tasked with directing other developers. (Turns out, coding ≠ management either.)

Likewise, being a kick-ass designer doesn't mean you're auto-magically ready to be a kick-ass manager of other designers. (Or, that you’ll enjoy it.)

Your subject matter expertise in design will be very valuable, of course. But the way you apply that knowledge will look very different when your focus is running a team.

You'll probably need to hone plenty of new skills, too, like effective communication and decision-making, conflict resolution, relationship-building, constructive feedback, and coaching skills.

Illustration showing the back of a woman in a suit jacket facing a colourful indoor climbing wall splattered with paint.

If you're a gregarious and social "people person," then the relationship side of management may appeal to you.

But if you're an introvert who prefers plenty of "me time," then you may find the constant social interaction is rewarding, but also draining. (That's okay! Remember: it's not a script.)

Making vs. managing

Lots of creatives assume it's "better at the top". But that can depend on a lot of factors, too. Here are a few points to ponder...

If you're a designer who just lives to make cool stuff, then leaving the trenches of production to start leading other creatives may rob you of the very thing you loved the most about your job.

Alternatively, Kirk found that he was more effective at (and fulfilled by) developing creative strategy and leading design teams than he ever was doing the design work itself.

Plus, since management didn't tap the same creative energies, he found he was still able to explore purely creative works at home — without the burden of deadlines and client constraints. (You know, "art!")

Still, if you’re assuming all the best creative work is found at the top, you should know it’s not always the case.

In fact, as your job function moves away from making and into managing, you won't necessarily find yourself in a position to make anything anymore.

Once upon a time, Suzanne assumed that moving up the ladder meant she'd finally get to work on the juiciest design projects and delegate the more routine work. She worked hard for many years and overcame many obstacles to land the coveted role.

But, she soon discovered managing left so little time for focusing on design work that she often had to pass on the work to her team — including the "good stuff."

It was so painful for her to let go that she often chose to work a double shift, managing in the day and designing at night. In retrospect, she would have been an even better (if not happier) manager if she had been able to let go and focus on being a better ‘director’ of design.

If you become a leader and feel a bit sad about missing out on your creative side, don't worry, it's normal. Feeling sad is a natural part of being human, and your body knows how to cope with it if you let it. Talking to close friends or a reliable counselor can help you feel better. Plus, you might find new things to enjoy in your leadership role.

It’s OK to say no

It’s also completely OK to have a taste of management and decide its not for you.

The Hollywood script implanted in our collective psyche typically includes a ladder going straight up, the steeper the better. But that need not be the case.

Suzanne stepped off the corporate ladder to build and run her own design business — sometimes hiring other designers, and sometimes doing all the work herself. (Yes, still doing those double shifts!)

It proved to be the right mix of creative leadership and hands-on design work for her.

Check your ego

If you do decide management is for you, then you’ll likely come up against another challenge for your psyche — not letting your ego get in the way of being a good leader.

Some novice design leaders can really struggle when a designer on their team doesn't approach an assignment the way they would have.

Faced with this lack of control, they might try to solve the toughest creative challenges in a brief all by themselves first, to ensure that things are done their way.

But doing so takes creative opportunities (and job satisfaction) away from your designers. Being a good leader ultimately requires trusting your team, and that means letting go of some creative control.

Illustration of different hands reaching for climbing holds on an indoor climbing wall.

At the same time, many of us creative folk derive our professional identity or self-image from the tangible design work we produce. When that's no longer your focus, and you can't easily point to things you made, you may start to feel your Imposter Syndrome revving up!

As a manager, your own contributions — no matter how valuable — can often feel a bit invisible. Removing roadblocks for the team, selling ideas through to clients, or building a healthy culture aren't always visible to people in the wider company, either.

If you're used to saying, "I did this," you may struggle when a designer on your team literally gets the applause for a design. Will you be able to step back and let them enjoy the moment? (Being a good leader also means supporting your team by keeping your own ego in check.)

Don't get us wrong: leadership has its own rewards, and they often run pretty deep. Beyond developing strategy, or steering its execution, leadership gives you an opportunity to mentor, guide and develop other people — helping them to thrive and succeed.

Being a leader has the power to literally change people's lives, including your own.

Do your own research

So, how do you know if managing is ultimately right for you? The most helpful advice we can offer is to do some research.

Reach out to a few Senior Designers, Creative Directors, Art Directors or Creative Managers ask them for an informational interview. People in our industry tend to be pretty helpful and generous with their time.

Don't overthink it. Just message them with something like, "Hey, I love what you're up to. I'm at a point in my career where I'm starting to look at roles similar to yours, and I wonder if i might pick your brain about what your day-to-day is really like."

Alternatively, can you test the waters a little without leaving your current role? Are there opportunities within your current team to take on more leadership? Could you oversee a Junior Designer's work on their next project? Could you take on a student intern?

Illustration of an indoor office that has been turned into an indoor climbing wall.

Think about where some opportunities for leadership might lie, and bring your boss a low-risk suggestion or two.

Of course, if you can't find opportunities at your current workplace, you might need change jobs in order to move into management.

Ready to climb? Safety first!

If you talk to enough creative leaders, you'll find they almost all have one thing in common: nobody taught them how to do the job!

For example, in our experience, less than 10% of Creative Directors ever received any formal training or mentorship as they moved into the job. The other 90% of us had to wing it.

Making the transition from Maker to Manager without any help can be pretty stressful, and can trigger Imposter Syndrome, too. We strongly recommend finding some external support.

Illustration of a very tall series of indoor limbing walls that stretch up into glowing bright light.

Track down some management training online, and ask your company to pay for it. If they won't, then consider paying for it yourself. It's a really smart investment, and it might help you find your footing sooner than later.

While we can't vouch for these ourselves, some of the better-known programs include:

Other resources include:

  • Mentors who volunteer their time on platforms like the ADPList;

  • Professional career coaches who specialize in supporting creatives; and

  • Slack and Facebook groups where design leaders congregate to support each other.

If you're like us, you'll always be a maker at heart. But if you're willing to climb into leadership, you may find the rewards are even more elevated.

If your goal is to feel challenged and satisfied in a role that lets you provide value, then your own script may look very different than what you once assumed.

Instead of a ladder (or even a climbing wall), think of navigating your career path like climbing a really cool and gnarly tree. You get to choose which branch to go to next, and determine which ones will best support you.

colorful digital photo collage illustration of a stylish young adult climbing a huge tree. te caption reads 'Career paths are rarely a straight line'

The goal isn’t necessarily to get to the tippy top, but to find a spot that feels good to you. Then you can settle in to build your own super awesome tree house.

Until next time, we wish you the best when choosing your own route — be it up, down, or sideways. Rock on!


P.S.: Did you enjoy this “real-world” issue of Design Unicorn — or are you like, "Where are the freakin’ robots?!" Hit Reply and let us know!

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