Articles · · 6 min read

The biggest development issue I see in design leadership today.

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

This post was originally published on on February 9, 2022

In my opinion, the biggest development issue in design leadership today is that many Design VPs* still think and act like Managers and Directors. 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, and you deserve better.

My thoughts are based on my own experiences having a VP design role 4 times in my career, not doing it very well for the first 2.5 times  and 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 to a lot more people than me. I expect some friends and peers will disagree with me. That's okay and definitely welcomed.

*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.

What happens when a VP thinks and acts like 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.

It prevents us from living up to our potential

It’s a gut punch to have to “prove” values other than money matters. It’s beyond frustrating when teams fighting for equity, accessibility, sustainability, and the collective good have to “prove it” to be heard.

We need VPs who can present strong business cases and plan to better live up to our potential. Why? Businesses thrive when they create more value for customers than their competitors. Whether working for a for-profit or a non-profit company, the job of senior executives is to keep the company thriving.

While we see companies changing course when they’re responding to a crisis or when public policy changes, we need VPs who can present strong business cases to live up to our potential. When a VP can’t do this, the potential impact from the design organization is limited. It is limited to what other leaders believe is a competitive advantage while design is left out of the discussion.

It continues to perpetuate the myth that we are powerless.

“I thought that when I became a VP, my leadership and peers would treat me differently.” – Anonymous VP friend

I’ve met so many design leaders who have shared sentiments like this with me over the years. They are upset because their day-to-day experiences of being at the table are not matching up with what they expected. And damn, that’s a mind fuck!

As individuals, we can absolutely feel powerless. If you’re a VP and feel powerless, those feelings are valid and true. But, I have a question–is feeling powerless as an individual the same thing as “design has no power”?

When a VP uses their voice and actions to perpetuate the idea that design has no power, one thing is certain: designers will continue to feel powerless.

It has profound effects on the future development of the next generation of leaders.

As the VP, you are modeling behaviors and actions for the next generation of leaders. The pandemic has exposed this reality in a way few other events have in recent history: when a VP models an entirely new way to lead, the next generation of VPs will learn how to do it even better. 

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

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

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. From my perspective, they are the most critical role for successful teams. But remember you're the VP.

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

Your team is craving this from you and 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 and they’re looking at you because you're the VP.

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

You are accountable for sorting out how the functional unit of design aims to create, deliver, and 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 and delivers value, capturing value is how companies and business leaders know whether the goals are being reached. Knowing how design captures value for the company, customers, colleagues, and our collective society is how to show there's more to value than cash.

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

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 and monitor how the plan is going. There's no escaping this one. You can't point the finger at anyone else here. VPs have to get comfortable with spreadsheets, math, and knowing the difference between business relevance and statistical significance.

You are definitely not in Figma anymore.

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.

As the VP, you are paid to know how the rest of the business works and what other functional leaders are responsible for executing.

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 and CAPEX. You'll need to be familiar with P&L statements. Besides Product and Engineering peers, you'll be sitting down with Finance, Legal, Procurement, Security, Sales, Support, HR, and so many other departments too.

The VP job is where all your own insecurities will show up

If you're not prepared to deal with your own shit, you will not like being a VP! It’s as simple as that.

The VP job is definitely not for everyone. As the Design VP, you're on the hook and will take on personal risk like you've never have before. That’s the gig. We need more VPs understanding that doing the job well requires a pivot.

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

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

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 save us all.

Accept every plan will change

Every strategy, plan, design, decision, etc. will change. There is no done.

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.

You fought hard for the opportunity to make a plan you believe in. Honor yourself!

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