7 traits of great design leaders

Managers often make one crucial mistake. Let’s fix that.


Axel Lessio

3 years ago | 6 min read

Many designers start their managerial path after years of experience as individual contributors in design teams and they have deep knowledge of the processes and tools that work.

Therefore, they think implementing those best practices will instantly boost their new team’s performance and save them months of trial and error. And though they usually do that with their best intentions, it just doesn’t work.

Why? Because this results in a one-way plan of action that is excluding the team from understanding their strengths, weaknesses and values, making it almost impossible to reach their full potential.

Managers that want to build motivated, high-performing teams need to start doing it as a collaborative effort that is more tailored to the team, as opposed to blindly following some trend.

Here are 7 things that inspiring design leaders do to succeed and that will make you a better manager.

1. Listen, observe and empathize

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Your first goal as a manager is to get to know your team profoundly, both as individuals and as a whole.

They will have their own unique backgrounds, strengths as well as things they struggle with and they need to improve. By observing the team’s dynamics and listening to their ideas, thoughts and concerns, you will be able to gain precious insights to understand how you can truly help them.

Empathy is an essential trait to ensure your team feels listened and understood, which will in turn make them see you as someone who is there to help them improve and succeed without judging them. Someone they can really trust.

Tip: in your first couple of weeks as a design manager, make sure you participate in as many team meetings as possible — as an observer at first, as well as scheduling one-on-one meetings with every team member. Take plenty of notes and don’t jump into solutions just yet: take the right time to learn.

2. Involve and empower your team

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To start involving the team right from the aforementioned learning phase, you can run a design thinking workshop to brainstorm and prioritize ideas on what to improve, allowing everyone to contribute with their suggestions and thoughts. You’ll likely end up with a list of the main areas of improvement.

At that point, the worst thing you could do is to start working solo on planning all of the improvement initiatives. Instead, keep involving the team and give them ownership to propose a plan for each area of focus you’ve defined, while still providing your support and guidance.

That way you’ll harness your team’s knowledge and expertise. For example, a designer who’s great at UI design might take on the initiative of making the team’s design system more scalable, while a designer with a strong research background might work with you on defining and standardizing the research process, etc.

Your team will feel empowered and motivated to have a positive impact. Also, you will avoid becoming a bottleneck and putting too much stuff on your plate — trust me, you have way more challenges waiting for you.

3. Make your team learn and develop

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Encouraging and allowing your team to invest time in learning is a powerful way to make them grow both professionally and personally, and there are many ways you can generate that kind of impact.

At a team level, set up training sessions for the whole group on topics that can improve their collaboration as well as the quality of their work.

But also have each team member choose topics they want to learn about individually, to grow in their area of expertise or to fill any potential knowledge gap.

It’s very important to discuss a learning & development budget with whoever has the decision power in that area. If it’s you, even better.

Tip: there are many ways a team can learn. Purchase a team subscription to an online course, have some kind of book club, have external professionals come to the office for onsite masterclasses, etc.

4. Partner with other leaders

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It’s important that you develop a partnership with other leaders at the company to make sure your teams are aligned and are able to communicate and work together effectively.

Teach your team not to work in silos and encourage autonomy and communication: you don’t want to be the only point of contact for other departments, or you will quickly become a bottleneck.

Tip: connecting with managers from other departments is also a great opportunity for you to grow professionally by learning processes and strategies from seasoned leaders that have gone through some of your same challenges.

5. Encourage transparency, openness and respect

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Like in any relationship, open and respectful communication is essential for a team to develop a healthy and inclusive environment where everyone should always feel comfortable sharing their thoughts and concerns without ever feeling judged.

This includes handling problematic situations or coworkers with honesty, empathy and professionalism. Monitor your team’s morale and make small adjustments, don’t wait until you need to take drastic decisions or it’s too late to take action: it can cause high turnover rates which can have a tremendous cost for the company.

Tip: if you notice a harmful attitude in one of your team members, it’s your right and responsibility to bring that up with them — privately and respectfully. What if they take it too personal? Well, that’s one more counterproductive attitude they’ll need to improve.

6. They attract and retain talent

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Because teams often need to grow, recruiting will be an important part of your managerial duties. If you did a great job creating an amazing culture and work environment in your team, that’s already a big plus that will make your newly hired members comfortable.

But how do you attract the right talent? First and foremost, focus on why you’re looking for candidates. Ideally, you should never start hiring solely to respond to an increase in the number of workload and/or projects.

Your main goal when it comes to hiring is to build a diverse team with collaborative people who fit your team’s culture and can add value to the team and the company other than just adding capacity.

Hiring someone just based on the skills needed for a project will make it harder to find the right fit in terms of culture and will also put them in a position where they’re not really free to develop their career path according to what they love to do, potentially making them unable to do their best work.

Tip: hopefully, you’ll be able to partner with expert recruiters at your company. In any case, make sure you define a good hiring process in advance together with your team, and constantly look for ways to improve it.

7. Inspire and motivate your team

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Being a good leader is much more than building a high-performing team and efficient processes. You’ll need to develop your soft skills and emotional intelligence to handle the human and psychological side of being a manager if you want your impact to be reflected not just in the performance, but also in the team’s overall happiness and motivation.

A good rule of thumb is to lead by example and practice what you preach. You team will admire you and that, combined with your knowledge and expertise, will allow you to truly inspire them.

Tip: make sure to carve some time in your team’s busy schedule to do some team building activities that aren’t oriented towards improving performance and processes, but rather to build trust and harmony.

If you’re in the position to build and lead a design team, operate with respect and empathy and make it more a partnership rather than a manager-to-contributor relationship. You’ll be surprised how empowering this kind of leadership can be for your team and for yourself.

Thank you for reading and best of luck with your journey — whatever that is, make it special and always keep learning and inspiring.


Created by

Axel Lessio







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