If digital product companies had retail spaces, most would have a sign out front that something like “Now Hiring: Designer Managers.”
The numbers are irrefutable: good design is good business. Our willingness to invest in design is catching up to our readiness to invest in engineering. There is an increasing need for designers and design leaders—which presents you with a career opportunity.
“Design has been a growing industry and demand is outstripping supply,” says Facebook VP of product design Julie Zhuo. “I often talk to CEOs and startup founders and they’re always like, ‘who do you know?’ People are realizing they need great product design leaders.”
However, getting promoted is a mix of company need, support from your manager, your own readiness, and a little bit of luck.
There is no roadmap. But there are things you can do to set yourself up for the next step. So we asked Zhou, one of the most respected voices in design leadership and author of the book The Making of a Manager, published after she wrote a series of career advice essays on Medium.
We asked her what she looks for when promoting individual contributors to manager.
First, make it known you want to be a manager
“And do it early,” Zhuo says. It’s easy to wait until you feel like you have exactly the right skills in place before seeking a promotion, but you’ll receive much more guidance by letting your manager know you have leadership aspirations.
“Don’t allow organizational friction or existing workflows stop you from proposing and iterating on a good idea you believe in.”
“It’s okay if you don’t think you’re close or you recognize that it’s going to take you a while to get there. But it’s like marking a spot on the map and saying, ‘Here’s what I like to be.’ And now you and your manager can sit down and map together a path to get there.”
For example, if you and your manager decide you need to be better at running meetings, they can begin assigning you certain sections of certain meetings and giving you feedback on your performance.
“Constantly ask them for feedback and benchmark against this path.”
Network internally and externally
Another means of socializing your ambitions (all while getting some advice) is to ask other managers about their path and their role. Ask them to coffee or lunch and come armed with questions like:
- I would like to do what you do, what do you think I should work on?
- What’s hard about your job?
- What did you wish you knew as your transitioned to becoming a manager?
“Tell them, ‘please be honest and look out for opportunities or please give me feedback.’,” says Zhuo. Making sure there are people in your network who know what you’re looking helps you open up your inbox to more opportunity.
Talking to other managers in your company also gives you different perspectives on the life of a manager. “You may think getting promoted is great for your career, but in fact, you could hate the day-to-day of it. Because maybe you enjoy your craft and having focused time to work.” And when you become a manager, you usually have less time for the hands-on stuff.
There will likely be a voice in your head that will be reluctant. After all, if you vocalize your ambitions and they don’t happen, doesn’t that mean you failed? And publically?
“You may think getting promoted is great for your career, but in fact, you could hate the day-to-day of it. Because maybe you enjoy your craft and having focused time to work.”
“I’ve found that every time you can again express or give people a little bit of that vulnerability, you’re going to get a lot in return,” says Zhuo, “You’re going to get a lot more feedback, support, advice, opportunity… all of that.”
Realize that your mentors and design idols started somewhere
It can feel like all of your idols are extremely public: giving talks at conferences, sharing work online, and writing viral Medium posts about how much they have it all figured out. But that’s just how it looks. The truth is, none of those writers and speakers were born on stage.
“Some people are like, “Oh great, I want to be like [my idols and mentors] so that’s what I have to sound like,” she says. But remember, most of the people talking about design leadership have had a decade-plus of experience. They’ve lived through years and years of mistakes and missteps. Zhuo recounts one of her own in The Making of a Manager:
“I remember my first meeting with a direct report. I arrived five minutes past our scheduled time, in a rush and flustered by my lateness…I wasn’t a better designer than this guy. I wasn’t smarter or more experienced. The look on his face alone was enough to dispel me of any notion that he’d be “cool” with the fact that I was his manager…The message was clear… you have no idea what you’re doing.”
There were many missteps and victories that came between that first meeting and writing a book on leadership.
Get out of “tell me what to do” mode
One of the first signs you’re ready to advance in your career is that you’re able to advance beyond the “tell me what to do” mindset, and instead proactively identify problems and workshop solutions.
“You could be a recent grad that’s just come out of school, but when you have that trait it means you’re going places,” says Zhuo. “Have your own ideas and be excited to contribute to the conversation. Being proactive, in a lot of ways, signals a level of confidence and of being a team player.”
A good start? Don’t allow organizational friction or existing workflows stop you from proposing and iterating on a good idea you believe in.
“Have your own ideas and be excited to contribute to the conversation. Being proactive, in a lot of ways, signals a level of confidence and of being a team player.”
Be open to feedback—and aware that there’s room to improve
Zhuo says that people who are willing to recalibrate based on feedback from their colleagues tend to be on track for management. This involves constantly checking in with those that work with you and listen without a goal of “defending” yourself.
“When you do that, you just learn faster. Ego can often get in the way…but test to see if your conception of yourself and your strengths and weaknesses matches what other people think.”
For more on becoming a manager, pick up Julie Zhuo’s The Making of a Manager.