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Assuming Leadership In Your Design Agency

There comes a point in the career of many web designers where the logical progression in that career is to take on a leadership position. A logical step or not, when a designer “assumes” this type of a position, there is often another “assumption” happening at the same  —  that wizard-like proficiency with HTML and CSS, coupled with a number of years in the industry, equips someone to take on a leadership role. This is, of course, not always the case.


Over the past few years, I have gone through this transition myself, moving from a fresh graduate of a UIUX design diploma course to a Web designer to a Creative Director to my current role as the Director of Web Development. During this transition, I turned to the blogs and other resources that I had found helpful in my career to that point, looking for tips and lessons that would help me in my new role. I quickly realized was that while there are countless articles to help you become that aforementioned HTML and CSS wizard, there are precious few that deal with the move from designer to director.


In this article, I will share some of the lessons I have learned over these past few years. These are not earth-shattering truths and many of these lessons are common sense, but these are the lessons that helped me along the way, and that I found myself needing to be reminded of most often, as I moved from team member to team leader.


Leading by Leading

Typically, someone who has risen from a Web designer to a director has done so because they excel in the technical aspects of the job (design, HTML, CSS, etc.) and also at solving problems. Because they are skilled problem solvers, it is easy for a director to want to solve the problems for those they are supervising, rather than leading them to solve the issues for themselves. The concept of “leading by doing” isn’t always the best solution, however. I think John Maeda, the President of the Rhode Island School of Design, says it best in his book, Redesigning Leadership:

Leading by doing ceases to be leading when there is more doing than leading.

For someone who is used to rolling up their sleeves and getting their hands dirty to solve a problem (or as dirty as HTML and CSS can really get your hands), this lesson of leading others to solve problems for themselves is one you will likely need to be reminded of often (I know I was).


How do you start letting go and allowing others to solve problems for themselves? Simple  —  you trust them and give them a shot. The solution they find with may not be the one you would have come up with, and you may need to direct them through a few extra rounds to get to the solution you would like, but the result is that you will help them get to that solution eventually!


This learning will pay off the next time they have to solve a similar issue, because by leading others to find solutions for themselves whenever possible, and really trusting them along the way, you will make your whole team stronger and free yourself up to do the other important work that is part of your new role as a director.




No Room for Negativity

If you have risen to a leadership position in an organization, it’s very likely you have commiserated and complained with the rest of the team on a number of occasions about everything from client feedback to project deadlines or budgets to general workplace frustrations. That has to stop.


Your team will take their cues from you. If you are frustrated and complaining, they will be frustrated and complaining. If, however, you take a bad situation and make the best of it and keep a positive attitude, that will go a long way to keeping the overall morale of your team positive as well. When the complaints do come, don’t ignore them, address them head on and diffuse the situation.


Now, this isn’t to say that you won’t get frustrated at times. Uncle Ben may have told Peter that “with great power comes great responsibility”, but he failed to add that with great responsibility also comes great headaches. You will get frustrated and need to blow off some steam from time to time, but you will find that by being the voice of reason and keeping calm, your own frustrations will often be diffused in the process. If you do need to vent, remember to never do it in front of your team. Their mood will mirror your own, so stay positive.


Buy Someone a Sandwich

Positive reinforcement is important to any team. This reinforcement can come in many forms, from financial rewards to additional benefits or time off, etc. One of the most effective ways that I have found to show someone their hard work is appreciated is also one of the simplest, however. Buy them some lunch.


Besides being affordable in even the most challenging economy, taking team members to lunch gets them out of the office for a bit and it allows you to interact with them on a real level. It’s easy to get caught up in th