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To manage or not to manage?

Doing the design leadership thing vs. staying an IC.

October 19, 2022

This year I’ve been coaching some designer friends and hearing about their struggles and career growth. Aside from “should I code?” the second-most common question is “should I move into management?”

There isn’t an easy answer, but here are some tips to help you figure it out.

Are you able to stay balanced in trying times?

When you’re a manager, dealing with tumultuous times is a core part of the job. This is because people are messy, and the world is messier still. Your team will have unexpected struggles, crises will occur, projects will get killed, orgs will reorg, coworkers will quit or have performance problems. There will always be interruptions and fires to fight, not to mention that times are tough outside of work too! You have to handle these challenges without getting bowled over.

Will you find joy in others’ successes instead of your own?

Pro tip: you shouldn’t be getting credit for your team’s great work. Your team should be getting that. Your job is to create an environment and framework where people can thrive, grow, and bring ideas that far exceed your own.

That means you’ll be evaluated based on whether other people are succeeding. This is critically different from being an IC designer, where you can directly manifest your own destiny by producing impactful work that’s delivered on time.

Can you handle rapid context switching, overcommunication, and coordination?

A huge part of your job will involve talking all day about different topics in quick succession, making sure multiple simultaneous projects are on track, sharing information, sharing that same information again with another group of people, and so on. No matter how good you are at this, you probably still won’t be that good at this.

It necessitates a consistent energy level, positivity, and a lot of empathy, because everyone on your team will have differing levels of understanding and needs for support.

Do you prefer working on granular problems, or broad collections of problems?

One fun thing about being a designer is the opportunity to get really deep on a specific project and focus on that. Maybe you’re working on a new product feature, and you have 4 weeks to explore a range of different solutions and edge cases. You can dive into all the finer points.

As a manager, you’re generally zoomed out a couple levels past that. You’re looking at resourcing and execution across a range of important projects, both current and in the near future, and figuring out how to sequence them into a logical and meaningful progression. You won’t know exactly how these problems will be solved, but you know that it’s roughly possible within the constraints you’ve determined.

You do still have to dive into the finer details periodically, but it becomes a much smaller fraction of your day-to-day.

Are you OK with being unpopular, and making tough calls?

If you’re a leader, you’ll have to make unpopular decisions sometimes, and you’re going to get criticized. Some of that criticism will be shared directly so you can make changes and improve, but even more will be happening privately. (The stuff you don’t hear about is always more concerning.)

People will routinely question your vision, your fairness, and your weaknesses. That’s because you have real authority to make decisions that affect people’s professional and personal lives. With power comes responsibility.

You can earn your team’s trust over time, you can be empathetic, and you can build a reputation for making good calls. But no matter how great you are at it, the power dynamics will still fundamentally separate you from the team that works for you. You have to build up a new support network of peer managers elsewhere.

Are you on board with the company’s processes?

One last thing. If you’re a manager, you become a company steward in a way that you weren’t before. As an IC, you can be pretty rogue about your approach to work and how you act. If you’re getting your work done, there’s a lot of wiggle room there.

But as a manager, you end up safeguarding a lot of sensitive information about planning, performance, and interpersonal relationships. You have to stay more buttoned up. And you have to follow the processes the company has in place for those matters.

This means you need to be bought in to how the company thinks about management and process generally. If you strongly disagree with the way the company operates, you’re not going to want to inflict those policies on your team, and it’s going to be a constant struggle for you.

Make sure your own principles are mostly aligned with the company before you put on the manager hat.