Articles · · 4 min read

5 things Design VPs are paid to do differently than a Director or Manager

The biggest development issue in design leadership today is that many Design VPs* still think and act like Managers/Directors. Here's what's expected of you.

To my design leader friends, there’s a conversation we need to have. I’m going to do my best to start it in a meaningful, supportive way.

IMO, the biggest development issue in design leadership today is that many Design VPs* still think and act like Managers/Directors.

IMO, this issue is preventing our industry from living up to our potential, is having a profound effect on the development of the next generation of design leaders, and continues to perpetuate the myth that we are powerless.

Your teams, customers, & you deserve better.

My thoughts are based on my own experiences having this role 4Xs in my career, not doing it very well for the first 2.5Xs, observing others in our industry for over 20 years, and LOTS of conversations with peers who have had very different or similar experiences than I.

This is my hot take and you should absolutely listen a lot more people than me. I expect some friends and peers will disagree with me. That's ok and good.

*In this post, “VP” refers to the person who is responsible for building, scaling, and developing an org of design & getting paid to make that happen. VP may not be the actual job title.

VPs are paid to do 5 things differently than a Director or Manager

When the senior most designer in the role does not make the transition from Directing or Managing to being the executive leader, there are three big consequences I’ve seen and continue to see.

1. As the VP, you are paid to make the plan for design at the company.

Managers & Directors are paid to execute someone else’s plan with varying degrees of support. They are brilliant tacticians & operators. IMO, they are the most critical role for successful teams. But you're the VP.

This plan is the strategy for design org as a functional unit. It's the vision, the priorities, the measures, & steps to take that inform the org model design, recruiting, hiring, development, advocacy, culture, operations, communications… all of it! And yes! Design Orgs need a plan!

Your team is craving this from you & they are looking to you to have one. Your team also knows when there is no plan or they have no visibility into the plan. When everyone is looking for a plan & looking at you, you're the VP.

2. As the VP, you are paid to both support & challenge the existing business model/strategy.

You are accountable for sorting out how the functional unit of Design aims to create, deliver, & capture value differently or better than other functional units at the company.

A VP needs to know when the work is supporting existing business goals or targeting new ones. While there are lots of resources out there on how design creates & delivers value, capturing value is how companies & business leaders know whether the goals are being reached. Knowing how design captures value for the company, customers, colleagues, & our collective society is how to show there's more to value than cash.

VPs earn trust & gain influence at the highest levels when they know how design supports & challenges the current state.

3. As the VP, you are paid to demonstrate, not state, the effectiveness of the plan.

VPs are accountable for the result of the plan, not how much effort or activity is being done. This is why it's important to measure. VPs have to track & monitor how the plan is going. There's no escaping this one. You can't point the finger to anyone else here. VPs have to get comfortable with spreadsheets, math, & knowing the difference between business relevance & statistical significance.

You are definitely not in Figma anymore.

4. As the VP, you are paid to have a clear, concise definition of great design for the company.

"It depends" will not work in the long run. VPs can use that phrase for about the first 3-6 months on the job, but after that, there's an expectation they are expected to meet. VPs are hired to have a clear definition of what design is for the company.

A clear definition has explicit principles, concepts, or ideas that are applicable to a defined set of customers or situations & are specific to the company's strategy & focus.

5. As the VP, you are paid to know how the rest of the business works & what other functions are responsible for.

The VP job is a whole hell of a lot of everything you might have avoided your entire career. Maybe you don’t really want that to be true, but it is. You'll need to learn new acronyms like Opex & Capex. You'll need to be familiar with P&L statements. Besides Product and Engineering peers, you'll be sitting down w/ Finance, Legal, Procurement, Security, Sales, Support, HR, & so many other peers too.

If you're not prepared to deal with your own shit, you will not like being a VP!

The VP job is definitely not for everyone. The VP job is where all your own insecurities will show up. As the Design VP, you're on the hook and will take on personal risk like you've never been before? That’s the gig and we need more VPs understanding that doing the job well requires this.

If everything above scares you, be a rad Director or Manager! Be the best damn tactician ever! There is no shame in that decision & you are not letting anyone down. In fact, you are honoring yourself & that's an act of bravery.

Selfishly, I want to live in a world where Design VPs are challenging organizations & other leaders to be better. I know this stuff is hard & without any type of model or example, it’s even harder. I want to live in a place where leaders aren't having to learn this stuff on their own.

3 things you must know to “VP” well and keep your soul

  1. Invite others to do this work with you 
    While you’re responsible for getting those things done, you should not do it on your own. If there’s a greater myth to perpetuate, it’s that the single, solitary genius will safe us all.
  2. Accept every plan will change 
    Every strategy, plan, design, decision, etc. will change. There is no done.
  3. Make a plan you believe in!
    The plan will go sideways in some way. It always goes sideways. When shit goes sideways, you might as well be fighting for something you believe in. Agreeing to a plan you don’t believe in is a fast track to regret and resentment.

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