From boss to coach: how to build a winning design team

A strong design leader works side by side, not top-down, and pulls team players toward a deep belief in themselves.

When I say the word “manager,” what comes to mind? I won’t judge you if you picture Bill Lumbergh from Office Space, looming over the wall of a cubicle with a mug in hand.

For many years, the role of my design managers was part instructor and part creative director. They were the ones who taught me how to use the tools, how to kern, how to slice and export and redline and everything else that went along with the early days of digital design. They set direction, and I executed. They were the experts and I absorbed everything I could from them.

Fast-forward a few years (I won’t tell you exactly how many) to 2020 and I’m now the one with “Design Manager” in my email signature. 

I could never hope to teach my team at Abstract how to use the tools they employ in their day-to-day. The product design industry landscape shifts so rapidly and I’m so far removed from individual contributorship that it would be laughable. Most of the time when a new tool is introduced to our workflow, my team are the ones teaching me how to use it. I also don’t dictate direction or execution for their design work; those decisions are made by the designers in partnership with their product and engineering partners, and refined in a series of weekly critiques with their peers.

So what’s a manager to do? How do I fill my time? What keeps me from an existential crisis?

The role of design manager in our industry is evolving from director to coach. I think of Pete Carroll, head coach of the Seahawks (warning: sportsball analogy ahead). Pete’s not a football player. He played for a few years in college, but at 68 he’s certainly not out on the field demonstrating how to execute a pass. Pete understands the sport intimately, but his strength is in identifying the unique gifts of each member of his team and finding ways to tap into and grow those gifts.

“There’s no question that it’s easier to manage a ‘fitting-in’ culture,” says Pete in Braving the Wilderness by Brené Brown. “You set standards and rules. You lead by ‘put up or shut up’. But you miss real opportunities — especially helping your team members find their purpose. What serves leaders best is understanding your players’ best efforts. My job as a leader is to identify their unique gift or contribution. A strong leader pulls players toward a deep belief in themselves.”

Agile and iterative development means your designers are making hundreds of decisions on the fly every week, responding to customer feedback and data in real time.

The pace of most product design teams is so accelerated that top-down direction becomes a bottleneck. One manager can’t hope to make decisions for an entire design team. Agile and iterative development means your designers are making hundreds of decisions on the fly every week, responding to customer feedback and data in real time. 

Note that I do mean coach, and not cheerleader. My job is not to wave pom-poms along the sidelines and boost everyone’s spirits. I’m here to build a high-performing team and catalyze each designer to do their best work. Sometimes that involves hard conversations. But more often than not, what it means is focusing on each designer’s strengths and providing them the tools and opportunities to channel those strengths into the work. 

It’s also about taking time to understand what motivates each member of my team. Traditional management techniques made great use of the carrot and the stick to coax workers toward high output. Work hard, and you’ll get rewarded. Let productivity slip and there will be consequences. This is what’s called “extrinsic motivation” — motivation that comes from outside of oneself, motivation by external pressures. There are a myriad of problems with using this method in the modern workplace, but one of the biggest risks is creating a culture of fear and distrust. Studies by Google and others have shown that fear is the antithesis of innovation and effectiveness in teams.

Designers who are driven by passion for their craft, empathy for the user, and joy in the design process are designers who will bring innovative and powerful ideas to the table.

Good coaches know that intrinsic motivation is what builds effective teams. Designers who are driven by passion for their craft, empathy for the user, and joy in the design process are designers who will bring innovative and powerful ideas to the table. They are the designers who wake up thinking about the best way to solve a problem, who discuss technological challenges over lunch with their engineers, and who throw themselves into a design sprint with all the energy and excitement of a team headed into a playoff game.

Tapping into that intrinsic motivation and understanding what it means for each unique member of the team is what any great coach does. And that means looking at the whole person, not just what they’re doing in their current role. Do you work with a designer who’s passionate about ethics? They might just be the right candidate to lead your accessibility and inclusivity efforts. Or maybe it means that the designer who also loves architecture and city planning is the perfect choice to architect your internal design system. 

This kind of insight means taking time to listen to your team and understand them as unique, complete individuals who have lives and interests outside your office. It means understanding not only what they want out of the next six months, but also where they want to be in five years, or even 10 years. I will never forget the design leader who listened closely when I said I loved to solve problems and understand people, and said, “You should consider design management some day.”

Telling your team how to execute might get you through a project quickly, but only for as long as you’re standing there giving them instructions. If you build a team that depends on your direction, your carrot, and your stick to get the work done, what happens when you have a busy week? Or when someone offers them more carrots?

Take a page from Coach Pete’s playbook instead, and work to understand each of your team members. Learn what drives them and what unique skills they bring to the table. Build a culture in which each designer understands their purpose and believes in their ability to contribute to a winning team. We’ve ditched the cubicles and ties. It’s time to ditch Bill Lumbergh as well.

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