Thoughts on Hiring a Design Leader (director-level and above)

April 2018, I suddenly found myself out of a job—included in a round of layoffs that shut down the office I worked in. As there was no long drawn out descent preceding my being let go, I wasn’t burned out, and, in fact, found myself energized. I dove into the job market, looking for opportunities to channel these energies productively.

After numerous discussions as a candidate, including 4 or 5 day-long onsites with different companies, I came away with the distinct impression that most (nearly all?) do not know how to hire design leaders. And it’s not just me—conversations with many peers suggest that this is a widespread phenomenon. Recent evidence includes this moderately viral Twitter post:

First: Understand What You’re Actually Hiring For

(For this post, I’m focusing on director-level and above roles, including the nebulous “Head of Design.” While much of what follows applies to hiring anyone, there are elements discussed specific to the more senior roles on a design team.)

The foundational issue affecting hiring design leaders that is that the role of design leadership is poorly understood. This is to be expected: for the vast majority of companies, real-deal design leadership is a totally new role. The hiring manager for such a role (often a head of Product Management) has never hired for this role before, has only a vague sense of its importance (as part of a product-engineer-design triumvirate within product development); and there’s no one internally to turn to to get help.

The hiring manager falls back on what they know about design, which is not sophisticated or nuanced. It’s often along the lines of: “Design is the execution of visual interfaces, and so I want my head of design to be good at executing visual interfaces.” Or, “We need a creative visionary to inspire the team to greatness.”

This is probably the single biggest shortcoming I’ve seen in how companies profile design leaders — as creative visionaries with shiny portfolios. What this doesn’t take into account is that design direction is at best a third of a design leader’s role, and often less than 25% of the work they actually do. Most design directors-and-above are:

  • Creative leaders (providing direction for their team in framing and solving problems)
  • Managers (recruiting and hiring designers; growing their designers through 1-on-1s and other professional development practices; conducting difficult conversations with team members who are struggling)
  • Diplomats (engaging cross-functional peers in helping them understand how design works; where design can be most valuable; coordinating practices and processes; advocating for giving ‘space’ for design to be done right)
  • Champions (managing up with stakeholders and executives; serving as a 💩☂️ to protect the team from executive cluelessness and misbehavior; sticking up for good solutions in the face of resistance from senior leadership)
  • Operators (working with internal functions such as HR, finance, and facilities to make sure the team is getting the resources they need to succeed, the compensation they deserve in the marketplace, and the career paths they warrant as they grow)

It often turns out that creative direction is the least important aspect of a design leader’s role, as that can be delegated to capable design managers or senior designers, whereas the management, diplomatic, champion, and operator activities are the ones truly specific to the leader.

And so when a company hiring a design leader insists on seeing a portfolio before having a conversation, or decides not to hire someone because, regardless of their organizational aptitude, their prior work doesn’t appear “inspirational,” it’s a symptom of how the company simply doesn’t appreciate the work that needs to get done.

What’s most disappointing is how hiring managers who should know better fall into these traps. Recently I had a VP of Product, who was ex-IDEO, tell me that: “I’m looking for someone with a longer track record at consumer product companies.” It’s hard to know what to make of a statement like that, because it suggests that it doesn’t matter that the person has built and lead successful design organizations in multiple contexts. By calling out “consumer product,” this VP of Product seems to think that the head of design will be hands on in directing the work day-to-day, responsible for the look-and-feel, and that their team exists to execute on their direction. This is not at all how design actually happens.

Second: Run your recruiting processes right

Looking past the fact that many/most companies don’t really know what they want in a design leader, the mechanics by which they then recruit and hire them are also poorly managed.

The Catch-22: Hiring a design leader without a design leader

Most companies approach hiring a design leader like they do any other role—as a joint effort between a hiring manager and a recruiter. However, the hiring manager often doesn’t understand the role (as described above), and the recruiter is primarily there to manage the process. The duo stumbles ahead, resigned to their cluelessness. This doesn’t have to be. Finding the right design leader is too important to conduct in a haphazard way. If you don’t have someone internal you can turn to, then bring on an external consultant to help manage the process.

By which I don’t mean to simply rely on an external recruiter. Recruiters can be helpful in sourcing and doing an initial vetting of candidates. But, for director-level-and-above roles, most leadership recruiters are new to design, and don’t understand the idiosyncratic particularities of what the role entails. And there is a dearth of design-focused leadership recruiting who really gets it.

Instead, seek consultants, preferably folks with recent experience running in-house teams, to provide guidance through the process.

Conducting hiring interviews responsibly

A cursory Googling reveals that practice and process of hiring interviews are a mess. This is particularly problematic because these interviews end up being the leading factor in making a hiring decision. It is possible to run a useful hiring interview process. Some (non-exhaustive) guidance:

Use phone screens judiciously. Bringing someone on site for a day of interviews is a big investment for everyone —the candidate and the interviewers. Make sure it’s worth the time by conducting solid phone screens. The whole point of the phone screens is to qualify the candidate (and for the candidate to qualify the company) to determine if it’s worth everyone’s time to bring this person on-site.

Conduct 2 screens. The first screen is done by the hiring manager (or the external consultant supporting the team) and ensures that the candidate understands the role, appears to meet the basic requirements across the role (such as the 5 elements listed in the role definition section earlier), and demonstrates strong communications skills through how they articulate their experience. If the candidate passes the first screen, then a second screen (performed by either a peer leader or a senior person on the team to be joined) digs deeper into the candidates skill set to evaluate whether this person is suitable for the role. The second screen also simply provides an alternate perspective before making the commitment to bring someone in.

Structure a cross-functional, range-of-experience on-site interview day, including a portfolio presentation, but try to keep it to no more than 5 conversations… AND NO DESIGN EXERCISES. During their on-site, a design leader should meet 4 or 5 people, representing a cross-section of folks they would work with — including their hiring manager, someone who would report to them, a functional peer, and a cross-functional peer (e.g, a product manager or engineer). The day begins with the candidate presenting their work history (kind of like a portfolio, but less about ‘stuff they’ve designed,’ than key work experiences they’ve had) to the entire hiring panel, so that it doesn’t have to be repeated in each separate interview. 

Avoid exhaustive interview practices. Interview panels see diminishing returns once you get past 5 interviewers, and it’s important to be mindful of the time investment being made.

Give each interviewer a specific and distinct area to address. A common failing of interview days is that there is no coordination across interviewers, and so folks just ask whatever they’re interested in. The goal is to paint a complete picture of the candidate, which is why the panel represents a set of different relationships. Make sure each interviewer knows what they’re expected to focus on.

Make sure a direct report is on the interview panel. I have been stunned by the number of times I’ve interviewed for a managment position and no one who would be reporting to me was involved in the process. It’s shameful, and sends a miserable signal to the team that their views are not worth considering.

And this should go without saying, but the example from the Twitter post above suggests, sadly, otherwise: no design exercises. I’ve written at length about why they make bad interviewing practice.

Be explicit about what you’re looking for ahead of time. The judgments made about a candidate during an interview should not be arbitrary. There should be a clear understanding of the criteria under consideration, what you’re looking for, and an instrument that enables a fair assessment of the candidate against those criteria.

Be empathetic and recognize a range of communication styles. For many candidates (including myself!) interviews are stressful situations. You’re being grilled. You feel like you’re being judged. You want to demonstrate your capability. The anxiety ahead of time may have affected your sleep. Given these situations, candidates are not often their best selves. For me personally, I get in my head, over-excited about the subject at hand, and come on too strong. Others may trip over their words, not look you in the eye, fidget, etc. This is why it’s so crucial to have articulated a set of criteria to gauge success (point 3)–you have to be mindful of the potential impact of personality to inadvertently sway a decision.

Balance what transpired in the interview with thorough reference checks. For all the folly that transpires during the recruiting process, none perplexes me more than how few companies routinely conduct reference checks. Who better to know how someone performs and behaves in the workplace than people who have worked with that person? That companies will give more weight to a series of 45 minute interview conversations with what are essentially strangers, than someone’s actual coworker experience is mind-boggling. I have directly felt this pain, as more than once after an interview process, I was told that they were not going to go forward because I came across as domineering. I grant that I come on strong in those situations (as explained before). I also know that in every internal 360 review I’ve been part of, my communication style has never been an issue. And I don’t want to make this about me — I’m using my story as a case in point, and know that countless others have had similarly troublesome experiences.

That’s not all, but it’s enough for now

There’s plenty more than goes into successful recruiting and hiring — writing a job description and placing it well; sourcing candidates; pulling together a strong offer. Recruiting and hiring is a bear to contend with (detailing the process was the single longest chapter in our book), and most companies just don’t appreciate what it takes to do it right.

For those that are looking to hire design leaders—what are the biggest challenges you’re facing? Please let us know in the comments below. 

The Most Important Role In Your Design Org: Team Lead

Discussions of design leadership tend to look upward, toward the executives and directors who sit atop the organization. And while those folks are indeed important, their efforts overshadow what I’ve realized is the most impactful role in a design organization: the “lower-middle management” of the Design Team Lead.

Defining Team Lead

To make sure we have a common understanding, let me illustrate. Here’s a design organization close to 50 people, lead by a VP, who in turn has Design Directors (DD) reporting to her, and they in turn each have three Team Leads (TL) reporting to them.

teamlead

A Team Lead is, well, just that: the leader of a specific design team. In this model, each design team has 4-7 team members, spans a range of skills (strategy, research, content, interaction design, visual design, prototyping), and works cross-functionally across a contiguous chunk of the experience, illustrated here in a generic e-commerce example:

crossfunction

There are 5 squads dedicated to different aspects of the e-commerce experience. Each squad has a Product Manager (PM) and some usually around 6 to 8 Engineers (E). Instead of designers embedded in squads, they work across a range of squads (we explain that in Chapter 4 of the book). The Team Lead does double duty as both a leader, peering with a Director of Product (DP), and a Director of Engineering (DE), and working with a squad (here Search/Browse).

What’s crucial to recognize is that Team Leads are the creative leaders closest to delivery. The members of their teams are doing the detailed design and content work that will be shipped. Because Team Leads have to have a handle on everything their team members are doing, they are in the challenging situation of spanning the range of conceptual levels from Strategy through Structure to the specifics of the Surface, as shown here:

scope3Team Leads may find themselves in subsequent meetings where they’re at the 1,000ft level of discussion strategy, to the 1ft level of pixels and copy, to the 50ft level of a solid flow and structure. They must navigate these discussions without losing their place or getting the bends.

Coach, Diplomat, and Champion

Given this range of activity, Team Leads must excel in three archetypes of the design leader: Coach (managing down); Diplomat (managing across); and Champion (managing up and out).

As a Coach, a Team Lead does what it takes to get the most out of the team. They recognize that the team is not an extension of themselves, but a unit of individuals where, when orchestrated well, the whole can be greater than the sum of the parts. The Coach establishes the parameters for success, creates a Big Picture vision that directs the team’s efforts, provides guidance in technique, and holds team members accountable when they don’t measure up.

As a Diplomat, the Team Lead often finds themselves in challenging discussions where other functions are asking the design team to behave in a way that is suboptimal. The Diplomat must assume positive intent on everyone’s part, and educate non-designers to help them understand the nature of Design’s contribution, how Design works best, and how to integrate it in the flow of cross-functional work. The Diplomat needs to strike a balance of being a cross-team player, with some flexibility in their approach, while not being such a pushover, or get-along-to-get-along, that they neglect their values.

balance

As a Champion, a Team Lead manages up and serves as their team’s evangelist and protector. Executives and other stakeholders will regularly ask the team to do more than they have capacity for—the Champion must be comfortable with the word, “No.” Executives will fly in for the dreaded “swoop-and-poop,” and the Team Lead can either step aside, and let the crap hit their team (demoralizing them), or they will step up to be the 💩 ☂️, protecting their team’s good work and showing they have their team’s collective back.

Leverage is Power

It is because of all that pivots around them, from the details of delivery to the connecting with big picture strategy, that Team Leads are the crucial (literally, at the crux) role in a design organization. Look at the cross-team diagram above: 6 designers are working with 30-40 engineers, which suggests design efforts have greater leverage. That leverage means a successful Team Lead amplifies their team’s abilities and wields influence throughout the broader organization. But it also means that a weak Team Lead creates a black hole, dragging down not just their team, but their whole part of the organization.

Team Leads Are the Pivot Point for Scale

If you’re in a design organization that’s growing, Team Leads are important not only for the reasons listed above, but two more that are essential for successful scaling.

The first is easy to explain: Team Leads are your front line of hiring. They are motivated to make their teams great, and strong team leads will excel as hiring managers. It was because of the strong team leads I hired that I was able to scale my Groupon design organization from 25 to 55 in 18 months.

The second is a little more conceptual. As the organization grows, and their efforts are spread across more and more teams, Team Leads are essential for maintaining coherence across an increasingly complex experience. Continuing our e-commerce example above, let’s say the company has grown, and there are more product squads:

teams

In our cross-functional diagram earlier, I showed how the design team works across a contiguous aspect of the experience. That should remain true as the org scales:

experienceWe can’t expect every designer to work with every other designer. But, as the arrows suggest, we can ask these three Team Leads to coordinate with one another ensuring coherence across all these squads.

Support Your Local Team Lead

Hiring Team Leads, or promoting people into this role, must be done with extreme care and high expectations. There’s too much at stake to place someone in this position who isn’t ready yet. Senior leadership (VPs and Directors of design) must expend extra effort to recruit, train, and support Team Leads.

That effort, though, will pay off. A transformative experience occurred for me when I was at Groupon. After spending 9 months recruiting and hiring high-quality design leads around whom I could build teams, I found that how I spent my time shifted. Before, I expended much of my effort on recruiting and hiring, management, and operations. I didn’t have the bandwidth for the kind of creative leadership the organization expected of me. Once we had those leaders in place, I could shift my focus to areas that warranted the attention of a VP — strategy and vision; specific high-value hires; incorporating other practices such as creative technology. Basically, with strong Team Leads, the organization can almost run itself.

If I were to write a second edition of Org Design for Design Orgs…

It’s been about two years since Org Design For Design Orgs came out. After having worked with it, taught it, and spoken with many design leaders and seen many design orgs, there’s a list of things I know I’d want to address if we wrote a second edition (note: no plans to do so).

Make dual-track career growth more explicit. In the book, we presented a single levels framework, with the idea that it could support career growth either as a manager, or an individual contributor. In retrospect, those paths are different enough that it warrants calling out, as I have in the levels framework we developed at Snagajob.  I’m also intrigued with the work Athenahealth did on establishing “Dual Track Leadership.”

In the “evolution of design organizations,” go beyond stage 5, to at least stage 7. We charted 5 stages of organizational evolution, from the “initial pair,” all the way to “distributed leadership,” where there’s about 70-80 people on the team. We yadda-yadda’d beyond that, saying, “just keep doing this, but more.” Since writing the book, there have been an increasing number of design teams that go beyond 100, and it’s clear that there are patterns in that development. It’s worth addressing what comes into place when the team hits 150 (stage 6), as  that’s when Design Operations / Design Management becomes quite robust, and again when it gets to about 250 (stage 7), where it can support deeper craft leadership, “principal” or “distinguished” designers, and also when it’s time to consider–should it remain as a single centralized org?

Dig into the crucial role of the Team Lead. In chapter 4, we dedicate a page to the role of the Team Lead, including the line, “the best team leads are a combination of coach, diplomat, and salesman.” That line became the seed for my talk on design leadership, and the process of writing that talk, and sharing these ideas at conferences and inside companies, has shown me that there’s much more to share about this crucial role. In fact, I consider it the most important role in a design organization, more than any VP or Director.  (That will be the subject of a future post on this site).

Go deeper on Design Operations / Design Management as a role and practice. Though the book has been called “the bible of design operations,” we don’t really tackle Design Operations / Design Management head on in a thorough way, particularly around matters of Program Management (budgeting, scheduling, coordinating efforts), Education (internal training and skills building), and Measurement (tools, systems, and approaches for understanding the impact of the work).

Do a better job distinguishing between Product and Communication Design. In our utopian desire to merge all design activities under the rubric of “service design,” and have product designers and communication designers working side-by-side on design teams, we neglected to delve into the very real differences between delivering product design and communication design. They operate on different cadences, work with different parts of the organization, and most of their time, simply don’t interact. That said, there is real value in having product and communication design on the same team (it was essential when we rebranded Snag). This is still a point of contention for many design orgs, and so warrants more honest, pointed discussion rather than our hand-waving of “it’ll be great”.

Soft power as a tool for distributed teams. However much I believe a centralized design organization to be the right way to go for, like, 95% of design teams, the reality is that many function in some kind of distributed, federated, siloed fashion. For those organizations, I’ve been applying the notion of “soft power” as a tool to get these distinct design teams aligned with a common goal, purpose, and set of practices.

Even more about recruiting and hiring–Portfolio Assessment Tool and design exercises. Even though it’s the longest chapter in the book, it turns out there’s still more to say about recruiting and hiring practices for design. The community still is at odds about the value of design exercises (though we’re not). Also, since writing the book, I’ve had the opportunity to craft a Portfolio Assessment Tool that brings a needed level of rigor to the practice–a clearer set of prompts to guide the discussion, and a guided worksheet to aid people in assessing a portfolio as to remove bias and focus on the content of the work.

What do you think?

So, these are the ideas I’ve had. And I’m sure Kristin has a bunch of things she’s considering. And I am wondering: for those who’ve read the book, what more could we address that would help you?

 

 

Read about athenahealth’s smart, pragmatic approach to scaling design within an agile product organization

For the kind of nerds who dig this website, I suggest visiting athenahealth’s Experience Design’s recently updated Medium site, with 5 articles related to design org matters.

Of particular note are:

  • Embedding Product Design in a Large Agile Organization“, which addresses the challenge of having ~85 designers work across >200 scrum teams while maintaining quality and not losing their minds
  • “How we approach DesignOps at athenahealth”, with the different functions DesignOps fills (measurement, research at scale, and design systems), in an attempt to realize efficiencies in order to deliver in an organization where the ratios conspire against you (that whole 85 designers across over 200 scrum teams thing).

There’s good stuff here, and it’s all the better as it’s real deal (actual application of different org models and structures), recognizes initial shortcomings (they iterated on their dual-track design leadership ladder), and offers details that can help others figure out how to begin considering these approaches on their teams.

 

Coach, Diplomat, Advocate, Architect – My talk from Leading Design

In October, I gave a new talk titled Coach, Diplomat, Advocate, Architect, where I dissect these four archetypes of the design leader, and share the difficult news that, in order to fully succeed, that design leader must embrace all of them. It’s my first new material in a couple of years, and though I ended up having to speed through it at the end (I typically put too much stuff in a new talk), I think it came out well.

Coach, Diplomat, Advocate, and Architect: The Leveraged Design Leader: Peter Merholz, Leading Design 2017 from Clearleft on Vimeo.

Pretty much every talk was worth watching. Some personal favorites include Stuart Frisby sharing his experience growing design at Booking.com from 6 to 100 (and beyond), Kim Lenox’s frank sharing of how her personal growth allowed her to become a better leader, Ben Terrett’s funny and real grappling with being the bottleneck, and Cap Watkins’ confessional on the neuroses of the design VP.

Some videos to queue up for holiday viewing!