Three traits of successful design managers

Mark Busse – One Comment

The following article by Mark Busse was published in the Jan/Feb 2013 issue of Design Edge Magazine.

The roles authenticity, humility and purpose play when leading a design team.

If I read another management article lauding the virtues of vision, passion, inspiration, or any other platitudes to explain leadership mojo, I just might yank out my own teeth.

Until someone can instruct me in practical ways how to be more passionate or inspirational, this just isn’t useful information for me or my business. But the question of what defines a good design studio leader is worthy of consideration and I’ve been developing a theory about three key traits common among effective leaders: authenticity, humility, and purpose.

Design managers, consider these questions: Does your team view you as sincere, consistently acting with integrity? Would subordinates describe you as a leader who sets up employees for success without taking credit for their work? Is it clear to your team why your design firm actually does what it does?

My father was the most authentic leader I ever met. When I was growing up, my dad — an ex-pro athlete turned elite coach — groomed and led sports teams to victory through his forthright management style, which I’ve tried to emulate ever since.

I’ll never forget being a young bat boy hiding in the corner of locker rooms listening to my father talk to his baseball team at practices and games. Never disingenuous or self-serving, the way he conducted himself came to exemplify authenticity for me. He would calmly and clearly explain his strategy and what he required of individual players and the group, but he was always open to input and ideas. He would ensure his players understood that it was okay if they disagreed with his decisions, and that failing was part of improving. And if he was wrong, he would admit it openly and own it. He would praise a player for an outstanding contribution as easily as he would yank a player from a game who was underperforming or not following instructions, and no one questioned him. His credibility was undisputed; he had earned their trust.

Was it my father’s vision, charm, or contagious enthusiasm that inspired his team? Partially perhaps, but most of all it was because he was honest, respectful, and consistent with those he led. He also displayed a clarity of purpose: victory through commitment, hard work, and teamwork. When collaborating with my team in my own design studio — be it describing project goals and strategy, or making a tough choice for the good of the project or company — I try to emulate my father’s approach.

Another superb leader I’ve had the privilege to collaborate with, observe, and learn from is Ian Grais, founding creative director at Rethink. Grais has worked for some of the biggest brands and won nearly every prestigious industry award. Coaching sports is obviously different than managing communication design, yet Grais uses techniques not dissimilar to those I witnessed my father employ so many years ago. Like my father, Grais doesn’t try to be his staff’s buddy, but possesses an ability to instil trust through his personal commitment, sincerity, and calm demeanor. When I spoke to him about his reputation as a soft-spoken, self-effacing creative director, Grais pointed out “we’re all human and feel vulnerable or less than confident some days, but good leaders hide it. So acting is an important skill too.”

During his talk on creativity at CreativeMornings in Vancouver in 2011, Grais said, “The enemy of objectivity is ego,” explaining that as a manager in his design studio,his job is to serve as a “conduit for creativity.” He does this by encouraging his team to share ideas, work collaboratively, and engage in peer reviews early and often without fear of judgment or failure. He focuses on the core challenge at hand and big ideas required to solve it, making himself available to any team member who wants to talk it through, discuss the strategy and how to sharpen it, brainstorm solutions, and remove barriers. The result? His team members rarely disagree with one another, are less anxious, and always know that Grais is on their side, working to make their jobs easier.

Then, according to Grais, his job is to analyze and filter ideas down based on a carefully developed series of measures to judge how on track ideas are or how ready they are to show clients. If an idea is good, but not great, he refuses to allow his team to fall in love with it. Team members must be willing to let go and move forward until they arrive at a great idea. He describes his style as “fast and loose” without much formal process, instead focusing on the generation of as many thoughts, ideas, and sketches as humanly possible. But it is he who is responsible for the success of projects, and by extension the firm itself, so when it comes to filtering those ideas and making a choice, he does so without hesitation. Never threatened by the thought of others getting accolades, Grais acknowledges and celebrates the contributions and success of his staff.

The most important lesson Grais shared was that it is only when a design team really understands an organization’s true purpose that magic happens. Inspired by “The Golden Circle” from author and leadership speaker Simon Sinek’s Start With Why TED talk, Grais believes that leaders can only inspire action when a team understands the reasons WHY it does what it does — not just WHAT or HOW it does it. This notion of ‘why’ can vary from firm to firm and even project to project; it can be about specializing in a certain area, or having certain goals to meet, or a unique challenge being solved through design, but it is when the real purpose is identified and understood that a group of designers can most effectively work as a creative team.

But why does any of this matter? While effective communication, decisiveness, delegation, accountability, etc. are important aspects of successful management no matter what business you’re in, it is the emotional component of creating and killing ideas that is unique to the design industry. And make no mistake: designers get emotional about the work they do. As a manager in a design business, one of the best things we can do for our staff is to create a comfortable, collaborative environment where designers are given the freedom to explore ideas, many of which die in pursuit of the best solution. Effective design leaders are like coaches who, without ego or arrogance, steer their team toward victory, defining what that means and what is expected of team members, and making clear that failure is expected, but performance is demanded.

Improve your people skills

Not everyone intuitively understands how to be authentic or humble, or is naturally good at communicating purpose, but we can consciously try to emulate those traits. Here are a few strategies:

  1. Don’t pretend to have all the answers;
  2. Frequently ask for your team’s help;
  3. Adopt a ‘we’ rule in your studio, where no one uses ‘I’ when discussing work — especially with clients;
  4. Say ‘thank you’ frequently and openly so the whole team sees you recognize the contribution of others;
  5. Without revealing anything inappropriate, do try to communicate, not only successes, but concerns and even failures with your team;
  6. If you say you’re going to do something — do it;
  7. Spend some personal time with each designer, ask each of them how things are going, how they think you’re doing, and if there’s anything you can do to help them;
  8. During the design and launch phase of a brand project, challenge team members to defend their concepts against the approved strategy and brand essence;
  9. If it seems a designer has become emotionally attached to an idea that has to die, remind him/her about the agreed purpose;
  10. Let go and treat your designers like the talented creative professionals you hired;
  11. If you miss something and steer anyone in the wrong direction, swallow your pride and admit that you made an error.