Nobody's born a manager; managers are made. Taking on the challenging role of a leader is an endless journey of missteps and learnings, and it's a task in which you're never complete. Even so, when you're willing to be humble and honest and focus on the strengths of each individual in your team, the sky is the limit. Successful leadership takes trust, patience and above all, the ability to listen. These are the key insights of Emmi Aaltonen, Design Manager at Lyyti. Take a moment to read her growth story, from Frontend Developer to team lead of our international Product Design Team.
It's been almost a year and a half since I took on the responsibility of setting up and leading the Design Team at Lyyti. Nothing truly prepared me for the transition from design to design management, even though I did read The Making of a Manager by Julie Zhuo (which is an awesome book, I highly recommend it), which gave me great insights at the beginning of my management path.
I wanted to share some of the insights I've gathered along the way to help anyone making the transition from design to management.
1. Building your team is crucial
Building a team is hard, but it's also the most important thing as a manager: from hiring the right people to setting up processes that enable designers to create amazing work and building a culture of trust and open communication inside the team where people are allowed to challenge each other, ask for advice and show their weaknesses and celebrate successes.
A team is built on trust; it's the cornerstone of a successful team. And I don't just mean trust between team members, but also my trust towards them. It was daunting for me at first to delegate work to others, to trust that they can do it the way it needs to be done. But most of the time my teammates have exceeded my expectations, and I've realised that I was worrying for no reason.
Having trust within the team means that you can discuss even the difficult things and give each other constructive feedback. From the beginning, I've advocated for radical candor within the team, which basically means caring personally while challenging directly. It's giving feedback and guidance because you care about the other person and want to help them succeed.
Building a culture of trust and open communication takes a lot of hard work. Get to know each team member personally, because you need to keep in mind different personalities, different ways of handling conflict and create the structure to enable the team to safely give and get feedback! In our team, everybody loves feedback. It isn't given from top to bottom, but instead, it's something that everyone gives and receives freely, no matter what your title is.
And the hiring! Oh, the hiring! I wish it was easy, but it's not. The team's culture and performance are greatly influenced by the people working in the team. Teams that consist of persons with we attitude instead of me perform better – it's important to choose people who unite, not divide. One way of achieving this is including the team in the interview process – they can ask questions and see if they can imagine working with the person, and weed out dividing candidates at an early stage.
2. You are not alone, even though it might feel like it
As a manager, you have to juggle many things at all times. You need to work very closely with your team to provide support and guidance when needed, help steer the direction of your whole area of expertise inside the company and balance requirements from your team and from upper management.
When I took the role of a manager I was still doing design. Our team was small at first, with only two designers, but it has gradually grown to six. I transitioned from the role of individual contributor and had to balance design work with my management responsibilities. I felt like I was doing everything only at 50% efficiency, especially since I had so much to learn about being a manager.
How to juggle all of these different things? Watching my colleagues or other managers do it, it seemed so easy and natural like they were born to lead. I felt lost, barely keeping my head above water and not having a clue what I was doing. I felt like an impostor.
During my first half a year as a manager, our team's Officevibe (a software that we use to keep our finger on the pulse about what's going on with the team) score for Personal Growth was 5.1/10 and Mastery score was as low as 1.8/10. My inexperience was clearly showing.
So, what did I do? I went to my team and explained the situation. Of course, they already knew that they weren't happy about their personal development, but I wanted to be open and own up to my mistakes. I asked for their help. I found out that they didn’t know how the company wanted them to develop as designers and they felt that they didn’t have time to learn new things on the job. They also felt that they weren’t getting enough feedback from me or their colleagues.
Together, we devised a plan to map out their skills, make personal development plans, to implement a framework for giving feedback and allocate the time and resources for learning alongside the work. Now our scores in both categories are near 8.
I ask for help from my team, my colleagues and my own manager all the time now because I don't need to do it alone. I work with brilliantly smart and clever people and I don't need to be ashamed of asking for their help.
3. You can't be afraid to address things
If you see something's not working, you need to step up. You are now responsible for the performance and wellbeing of your team as well as the key driver of your own area of expertise. When you see a problem, you need to address it. The faster you do it, the less painful it'll be.
As a person, it's in my nature to include everyone equally and want to ensure that everyone is having fun. If it was up to me, everyone would be having a jolly good time around the year. But as a manager, I'm not afforded that luxury.
In my role, I need to make sure the gap between design and business is being bridged, envision the future of design at our company, scale our team and collaborate with other leaders. I also need to make sure my team is taken care of, that they have everything they need to do their jobs and also have the role of telling someone when they are underperforming. This can create possibilities for many (positive) conflicts that need to be addressed or else you aren't performing your duties.
As we were a young team within the company, we had to find our place amidst the other teams. The design team was involved in building our new brand and it wasn't going as planned. There were internal conflicts within the company and no one was happy – my team's morale was sinking.
I had no choice but to grab the bull by the horns, take a radically candid approach and sit down and discuss the issues we were having with the different parties. I could have easily just swept it under the rug, continued forward as nothing had happened, but instead, I chose to act. We managed to navigate out of those waters, deal with our issues and now we have better collaboration than ever before.
4. From tangible to intangible output
As you transition to a leadership role, you need to change your mindset from "I design" to "I empower others to design". Your role has fundamentally changed from delivering tangible design deliverables to something intangible.
The time I had to spend designing decreased a lot. My day to day activities went from doing user research, pushing pixels in Figma and brainstorming with developers to having 1:1s with the team, preparing for meetings, attending strategic meetings to decide the path for our product, interviewing and hiring new designers, planning and setting up processes etc. Every single thing is important and brings value to the team and to the company, but I was left with the feeling that I hadn't been productive. I had nothing tangible to show for it.
My mindset changed quite quickly as I became more comfortable in the role of a manager. What helped me the most was when I realised that now my most important job is to ensure that my team performs well. To do that, I need to empower my team to do the best work that they possibly can and remove obstacles for them. The greatest gift I can give to my team members is to ask questions that focus on the process, not the end result. And then, listen. Actually, listen. Not trying to formulate a response, not needing to be right, but to silence my own insecurities and listen. It's something that takes a lot of practice.
With all of the work I was doing, I was actually empowering people to work at their full potential. I wasn't bringing anything tangible to the table but I could see the results from the way my team members were answering their Officevibe surveys, how we got new processes set up to increase our efficiency or building collaboration between different teams. It changed from "I designed" to "I supported" and "I empowered". My new output was to build the infrastructure that allows other designers to consistently deliver amazing, tangible outputs themselves.
These were some of the things I've picked up in the first year and a half of my design management journey. I'm curiously looking to the future, as I have many things I still want to develop and explore. The next steps in my journey are to find a mentor to help me navigate the seas that are design management and to build an even better design culture together with the team.