12 ways to be an awful design leader

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Sara Vilas
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Intro: the problem with Design Leadership

For better and for worse, large design teams started happening only recently. A few years back, only advertising agencies had an abundance of designers led by art and creative directors. However, with the boom of the digital world, rare is the organization that doesn’t leverage design in one way or another, setting up teams that are getting bigger and bigger.

This is very difficult, though. We are all just learning to create great online experiences, to become better at our craft, and all of a sudden some of us are thrown into the Design Leader role (in any title variation such as Design Lead, Design Manager, Head of Design or Director of Design). We were promoted because we were very good at doing design, and all of a sudden we’re in a role we’re not prepared for.

In the wise words of the hierarcheologist Laurence J. Peter:

People rise until their level of incompetence.

Peter’s principle is essentially telling us that we’re doing promotions wrong. We take someone exceeding at a role, and then we give them completely different tasks and expect them to excel at those, too.

It’s just how the cookie crumbles in companies all around the world. As individuals we essentially have 3 choices:

  1. Step down from management so you can get back to the craft path.
  2. Work your ass off and spend about 25 hrs per day figuring things out.  
  3. Ignore your blind spots and act like you know what you’re doing all the time.

This article is about those that chose #3. You know, those who take “fake it until you make it” to the next level.

As a designer, I have encountered this way more often than I wish anyone did. As a leader, I chose to take my learnings from them as to how not to be a leader.

Check out below how to be one of them - or what to avoid to not suck as a leader.  

Section 1: Talk, talk, talk

Talk more and do less. Promise the moon and don’t deliver anything. Minimize all the problems. Never own your mistakes, always blame somebody else. Here the first 4 things you can do to be an awful leader.

1. Talk all the time, don't listen to others

This is possibly the most important principle to suck as a leader. Just talk, because you know more than others. What they say is not important, it’s wrong, and you can’t spend your time listening to them.

Whether someone in your team is having a hard time, a project manager is complaining about the lack of resources or your team is having trouble aligning on something, just talk yourself. Don’t even listen to the whole problem, say the solution magically so you impress them.

C’mon yo, do it properly

As designers we should have a heightened ability to listen to others and empathize. Even if you’re a leader and need to provide a specific solution, listen first to all the sides of the story. This way, when you actually talk you deliver value instead of just wasting people’s time.

2. Use 3 buzzwords per sentence to look smarter

Smart people talk with buzzwords. Use all the overused terms together to explain your rationales, even when the words don’t really describe what you’re saying or when the principles are obsolete.

Here some key buzzwords you can sprinkle around like glitter:

  • Mobile first
  • Responsive
  • UX
  • Validation
  • Paradigm
  • Design Thinking
  • Innovation
  • Form factor
  • Proactive
  • Agile
  • ROI

You get to look even smarter if you introduce random numbers on your speech. Percentages, ratios, anything. Doesn’t have to be true, no one checks those things anyway.

C’mon yo, do it properly

Buzzwords exist for a reason and sometimes they are necessary and an easy way to communicate an idea. Do your research and know what each one really stands for. Never say numbers or ratios that aren’t true because someone in the audience might now the real number and your credibility will immediately go out the window.

3. Say what others want to hear, then go back to your desk and do whatever you want

You don’t want people in your way, so it’s important to master the art of saying what they want to hear. This is very easy, actually: when someone is complaining about something, just tell them “I understand your problem, let me fix it”, then just go back to your desk and do nothing about it. Even better if you go and do the opposite of what you told them you’d do. Who cares? You’re the boss anyway.

C’mon yo, do it properly

Needless to explain this one, right? Empathize with people and be real about what you can or can not do, always with a positive attitude towards finding common ground or helping your team.

4. Always say "no".

Everyone knows that saying “no” is really important. Just say it all the time to gain authority.

They ask you to take on a new project? No. They want to set up a meeting? No. The client sends feedback that needs to be implemented? No. The project is delayed and needs some extra work? Hell, no.

You can gain even more authority when you follow the “no” with a rant that makes the other person doubt themselves and what they are asking.

Practical example: Someone asks you to set up a meeting to discuss the new tasks you delegated to them. In this case tell them something along the lines of: “No, you should know all this already, figure it out on your own because this is just way too easy and I can’t believe you need help with this”.

C’mon yo, do it properly

Saying “no” is indeed important, as it is setting expectations (i.e. what your weekly availability for meetings is). However, when your “no” collides with empathy and a team spirit, you’re screwed. People trust and enjoy working with each other when they have each other’s backs. Even Google’s research backs this up.

Section 2: Don’t let others work

You need to be protective of your own work and the path that has led you here. You can’t let anyone know that things could be done better differently. Check below the best 4 ways to not let others do good work.

5. Ask your team to do things your way

This is very important. You got promoted because you were good at your job, so you NEED to make others do things your way and only your way. As the proverb should say: “only one road leads to Rome”.

Insist on them using Sketch as you do, approaching problem-solving in your specific way, preparing deliverables just like you would, and even presenting their work your way. Leaders pave the way after all.

C’mon yo, do it properly

Your role as a leader is to set a direction, then step back and let your team find the best way to get there. Only step back in if it’s absolutely necessary. Specifying people where to go AND how to get there without any creative freedom is called micromanagement, and it only leads to frustration and quitting.

6. Delegate only the tasks you don't want to do yourself

When you’re the boss, you get to choose what you work on. The people you hire are there to support you and make you look good.

So when a big project comes around, make sure only you talk with the client, you hold back details about the project so you can leverage that information, and take the time to set up the concept and create a couple of key screens. Then, ask your team to just complete the rest of the interactions, make them in many different screen sizes, and essentially take on all the hard work from you so you can present the project again at the end.

C’mon yo, do it properly

Does anyone enjoy doing in-between designs? Not at all. Each to their own. I am a firm believer in accountability and taking on full responsibilities on projects. Accountability drives success and high performance. Shitty work makes people browse through other jobs.

7. Always strive to do less.

AKA. always exaggeratedly over budget time estimations that throw off projects.

If someone asks you to estimate something, always make it 2 to 3 times more than it actually is. Especially if you need to do the task yourself. You need to account for what could happen. Plus, there’s no need to stress out about anything. Let Project Managers deal with the problems. In fact, just push all the problems to others in general.

C’mon yo, do it properly

Own your shit. Seriously. It is true that when you become a leader you end up doing less craft work. However, there are a ton of new tasks that fill up your time. A leader should never do less, but more. One of the skills you will have to develop further is mediation: striving a balance between different stakeholders. You’ll have to give your team enough wiggle time, but never purposefully throwing off a project. And if mistakes happen, you have to own them and take the hits, protecting your team as much as possible.

8. Don't allow your team to collaborate with others without your explicit permission

To continue gaining authority, you need to ensure that your team doesn’t work directly with anyone without your explicit permission. You need to know everything that’s going on and prioritize your own agenda.

So if you have them doing in-between designs that have them bored to death and they look around to other teams to help out with tasks that could help them grown, shut them down immediately. They should focus on the tasks that make YOU better. They should never look out for opportunities to advance themselves.

C’mon yo, do it properly

You are there to support your team, and not the other way around. This needs to be the main principle for any leader. You have already grown a lot in your career, and being a leader means to help others to rise, too. You need to understand everyone’s goals, and help them when possible to achieve them. It’s totally okay to set expectations and priorities with the team so everyone is aligned and things get done. It’s a trait of a leader that sucks to stop people from developing themselves.

Section 3: Pull yourself up by pushing others down

After talking more than doing, and not allowing others to do good work, comes straight up pushing others down as the quickest way to make yourself look better. Read on!

9. Push for mediocre work

The work of your team can never be better than your own. If they have a good idea, make sure you shut it down firmly and ask them to go through a more average and mediocre one.

Always praise mediocre ideas and ways of working, and never ever praise anything that could potentially be better than what you usually deliver or that you didn’t think about yourself.

With time, you should get better and better at shutting down novel ideas so they never see the light. Find all the reasons why they won’t work. Here some crushing rationales you can use to shut down almost any good idea:

  • We don’t work that way, so this new way won’t work.
  • Don’t ever fix what’s not broken, there’s no need to improve something that works.
  • That’s not a best practice.
  • Amazon/Google/Facebook/YouNameIt don’t do it that way.
  • We have never done that before, and it would require to spend too much time and money on testing.
  • I don’t like it. And I’m the boss. I just know it won’t work. (Important: don’t provide any further rationale)
C’mon yo, do it properly

Once again, you’re there to support your team. This means giving them space to be better than you were. You’re not responsible for pixels anymore, you’re responsible for those that are responsible for pixels. If a design is risky, a quick prototype using Invision and showing it to 3-5 users can easily show if it’s going in the right direction. Unless you have specific evidence of something you’ve tried before and why it didn’t work, let your team explore options as much as possible. Getting outside the comfort zone leads to greatness.

10. Take credit for others' work

Try to always be the one presenting your team’s work to clients or executives. Talk about how YOU did this or that. Never say “we” or mention your team at all. Make up the rationale for designs you’re just seeing on the wall for the first time.

This is especially important when actual good ideas go through or when someone on the team gets praise somehow. Take credit for thinking about it first, tell a fictitious story about how you proposed that idea to your team for them to execute upon,

C’mon yo, do it properly

Taking credit for others’ work only pisses people off. Your team doesn’t only interact with you and others will also know that you’re lying. Your credibility will go out of the window, and your team will run away from you. Always praise them privately and in public for the good work, give them the chance to present their own work, and let them shine by themselves. In fact, neuroscience research shows that praising the good works much better than pointing out the wrong. You can take credit for a happy team and improvements on processes and performance.

11. Take every opportunity to make your team look bad so you can shine

You can do this in many ways. Here some ideas:

  • Push them to deliver mediocre work, and if the client or stakeholder complains, make sure you talk about how bad your team member has done this and how unacceptable it is.
  • Ask your team to do one thing, and then complain to HR that they do the opposite of what you ask them. For example: ask them to go to a meeting for you, and while they’re away, ask for an urgent meeting with your manager so they can help you deal with unmanageable team members. This will make sure no one believes them when they dare to complain about you.
  • Ask them to come along to a client, then tell the client in front of them to not speak to them because they will get nervous.
  • Ask them to shadow you on a project, but not do anything. On the final presentation, tell everyone in the meeting that you’ll present your idea and then your team member will do the same. They won’t have anything ready and will look really bad.
  • Spread rumors about your team, especially personal ones. For example, tell someone that a person on your team has had an inappropriate sexual relationship with some married executive or even the CEO. People love to gossip, it doesn’t even have to be true.
C’mon yo, do it properly

All the examples above are things that have actually happened to me in the past. Needless to say: don’t ever do this or anything similar to this. You can pull yourself up by yourself, without pushing others down. Again - you’re a leader to support your team, not to crush them.

12. Avoid hiring stars or seniors

In order to keep mediocrity in check, always hire juniors or fake seniors that don’t really know what they’re doing.

You want to always be above everyone else, and you can’t risk anyone learning to do things differently or delivering results. So do not ever hire a star or a very senior person that could threaten your position.

C’mon yo, do it properly

In business, one way to refer to employees is by letter types: A, B, or C. A being the start and C the underperformer. Only As (Steve Job’s preferred team structure) can become too stressful and competitive. However, only Bs and Cs is the formula to just keep the status quo and err towards mediocrity. Maybe some people actually enjoy being in a mediocre environment, but most of us don’t. A types are necessary to push the team forward.

BONUS Section: 3 more ways to suck as a design leader

There are always more ways to be an awful leader. Here 3 more bonus ideas!

Bonus 1: Evangelize everywhere that design is the most important function of any company

You need to ensure design lasts in the company while you make yourself look like a Guru. Evangelize in the company, in meetups, and in every opportunity you get how design (especially UX) is the most important function of every company. All other functions are just there to serve yours.

C’mon yo, do it properly

Any company works like a watch - with many pieces that work together and enable each other. Without marketing and sales, it won’t matter how well designed your product is. Without dev, your design won’t ever be real. Design is just one part. The sooner you understand how important the others are, the sooner you will start leveraging amazing partnerships across your organization.

Bonus 2: Make "Good artists copy, great artists

Picasso said it, so it should be a great mantra to live by.

Copy what Amazon/Facebook/Google/Instagram/YouNameIt does, and your design will be good.

Download a UI kit and change the logo to your customers’ and you’re winning.

C’mon yo, do it properly

This really gets on my nerves. When you put Picasso into the right context, what he meant is that in any creative work we’re copying or stealing from what others have done before us. Sometimes we take something that already exists and put it into a different context and we actually create innovation. It is not possible to fully reinvent the wheel. In the digital world, for example, patterns are there for a reason and in many cases, they can help make an interface easier to learn and use. However, this isn’t always the case, and copying and stealing are not a mantra to live by.

There’s a very fine line between that and being a straight up fraud. When you take someone’s work (such as a UI kit) and stamp on top of it your client name, you’re failing miserably. You’re not doing your job, you’re assuming everyone else is dumb and won’t notice, and you’re putting the client relationship at risk. Nobody wins, and you just suck.

Bonus 3: Be a ghosting master

Most of the points described here require actual action. However, there’s a less talked about but equally awful way to suck as a leader: ghost everyone.

Don’t answer emails. Don’t pick up calls. Be late to every meeting. Avoid conversations. Don’t send over necessary information.  Do not ever follow-up. Commit to whatever is necessary to commit to, but don’t do it unless they ask for it 5 times.

That’s the best way to do less on your day-to-day.

C’mon yo, do it properly

Who hasn’t dealt with a client, stakeholder or manager like this? They suck big time. And there’s very little we can do about it, because they’re not actively doing anything wrong. Just don’t be the most common type of incompetent leader. Supporting your team means being there for them. When you’re not there, they lack direction and grow on frustration.

Conclusion: Be nice. Also, leading is hard.

All of the 12+3 ways to be an awful design leader come from personal experience. They are all ways in which leaders have failed me in the past and an individual contributor.

Once I became a leader myself, I made a promise to be the leader I needed earlier in my career. To be there to support my team, and to enable an environment that empowers them to do their best job.

I didn’t have any help along the way, and learned most things the hard way and through bad examples. I’ve always believed there should be a different way. We don’t teach business or management to designers, yet we expect them to excel in a leadership position.

After talking with many Design Leaders, I realized it wasn’t only me struggling with this, we all did! We all learned by trial and error and we all believe we could have been much better off if someone just gave us the unwritten rules of leadership.

For this reason, I am creating the Design Leadership Program to share all my learnings with you including practical ways to start applying them right away. It will be live on Q2 2019 be the first to know signing up below:


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