It's Scary Up Here - Design Leadership - year 2

Design Leaders, you made it through Year 1, congrats. Now you have a good sense of the players, rules and the game. You’ve built trust with your team and CFX partners and now it’s time to level up. Year 2 will require self-reflection, decision making, and balance.


The role: Where do you want to go inside the organization?

Have an honest conversation with yourself about your career trajectory. The IC path may be calling you back, management might be where your strength lies or perhaps you’re a hybrid. Many design leaders linger in this miasma for too long; wearing too many hats and saying “yes” to everything en route to invisibility and/or burnout. This choice should be framed by focus, not fear. It should be a choice that balances the scales of what energizes you and compensates you. Bear in mind that this decision needs to resonate with the culture inside the organization. Once you’ve made a choice there are 3 Career Topologies that you can use for organizational navigation.

1) The visible ladder — now that you have year 1 notched, the rules of hierarchal elevation should be clear. There’s folklore where you work about how people were hired, fired and promoted. The strategy of the visible ladder centers around slow-playing things and not rocking the boat. Follow the path of those that came before you, not everyone needs to be a change agent.

2) The quiet corner — this selection requires a CFX buy-in of reducing your scope. You’ll need to sell the value of tackling fewer initiatives and maybe even sacrifice members. It’s a longer play but a good hand to play when the management above or lateral to you is still solidifying. If you select this option, make your goals very clear and deliver on time.

3) Remodeling — in this selection you would commit to being an agent of change. In most organizations, this is the path with the greatest risk/reward ratio. In order to be successful here, you’ll need amazing timing and the ability to zoom in and out from the tactical to the strategic quickly.

The team: There are different organizational strategies you’ll need to take based on which career topology above you choose. Generally at the outset of year two, you’ll need to paint a picture of what your ideal team looks like and align your current employees against a projected headcount plan. You’ll likely have to sell that plan as it may require more budget or org map adjustments that ripple into other lanes. Riding alongside that plan should be a career pathing framework that provides a vision for career growth. If you don't have a career pathing framework you likely have unhappy, fearful employees. You should have a strong team leader to support you as you kick off your sophomore year. (Especially if you choose to be an agent of change.) If you don’t you may have not created enough trust in year one. The team should have a clear sense of what is expected of them as a department and as individuals. Resist the temptation to add infinite layers of management between you and your team.

The business: As you work to mature design inside your organization you’ll need to consume and create data. If you haven’t already, start digging into the numbers that drive the business. You’ll need to speak the language of your CFX peers and begin to interject your own unique data into the conversation. Communicating up will be critical to your success this year but opinion and experience without hard facts will not create trust yet. This is a make or break year for most design leaders. It is a time when you’ll be challenged to straddle the fence between focusing on the details that deliver great team results and communicating larger strategic initiatives with longer lead times and setups.

The politics: At this time you need to take a hard look at the present political ecosystem. A creative way to assess the politics — look at what you are outsourcing, consultants you are using and determine whose budget it comes out of. Are the capabilities of the agency or consultancy lying dormant inside the organization? If they are, why are they not being utilized? Quite often there are cross-departmental trust issues that trigger the hiring of vendors. Take a look at attrition rates across the organization, break them down by department and seniority. The outset of this second year you should have a good sense of your trust-quotient. If it’s high you know about things early. If it’s low you find out after the fact. You can turn this trend around but it will require going back to your Career Topology choice and making a strategic adjustment.

Year two is a balancing act. Stay alert.