Leading a team

Like your favorite sports team, building a successful design team requires different approaches for each individual while creating a culture that works for all.

I’ve had the privilege of leading design teams both formally and informally. I consistently observed that teams strive for balance between creating work, evolving skill sets, and building community. Through supporting individual needs, I strived for a scenario where team members eventually didn’t need me and moved on to a different challenge. Typically, folks will come back for guidance and input.

Adapting to differences

There are certainly differences across team members, not the least of which is motivation. How I’m motivated largely doesn’t map to how team members are motivated, be it a title change, salary increase, conversion to full-time, recognition, or type of work. Some folks prefer to express their thoughts via words while others want to chat. Lean into those differences.

Additionally, designers of different experience levels may require varying maintenance schedules. The more tenured designer may simply need casual check-ins while more junior members need a steadier hand towards developing their craft.

Building a consistent culture

Regardless of the individual, I’ve found that creating a supportive team environment with a strong culture is a consistent desire. Teammates find safety in sharing their work, struggles, and perhaps their personal lives amongst the group. Sometimes a simple push from a teammate can be enough to create change in another’s work.

Another similarity comes with structure – team members desire design reviews, or 1:1 meetings, or perhaps an entire meeting series that does not require my attendance. Having reliable, repeatable gatherings helps build confidence in team members and provides opportunities to develop better skills of presenting, writing, and critiquing.

The fundamentals

No matter the designer, I try to show leadership with several tenants:

  • lean on folks to be themselves, building their own career path,
  • give team members what they need, be it an ear to listen, a stern work critique, or suggestions on how to improve their craft,
  • build connections that go beyond work, like learning about families, hobbies, and future plans,
  • know that sometimes my role is simply to be a therapist,
  • introduce designers to new people across disciplines, and
  • let them run the show as much as possible.

What a treat it is to help develop fellow designers and guide them through their careers. I’ve learned that flexibility and versatility help for individual relationships, while building a strong, consistent culture helps the entire unit.

Let’s go team!

Illustration: Conference Vectors by Vecteezy