Assuming Leadership In Your Design Agency

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Jeremy Girard was born with six toes on each foot. The extra toes were removed before he was a year old, robbing him of any super-powers and ending his … More about Jeremy ↬

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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.

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 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.

Further Reading on SmashingMag:

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).

Redesigning Leadership

To learn more about leadership, I highly recommend reading John Maeda’s book and visiting his blog.

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 the amazing advances in CSS3 or Responsive Web Design and forget that your team members are more than Web professionals  —  they are people with lives outside of the office and interests that have nothing to do with HTML.

Take someone out to lunch and leave the office behind. Don’t schedule the lunch like you would any other meeting, make it a surprise and delight someone who wasn’t expecting to go out that day. While you are out, be sure to say “thank you” for your team’s hard work. You’ll be amazed at what some good food, a real conversation outside of the office, and a genuine “thank you” will do for your team’s morale. Give it a shot for yourself  —  take your team out for lunch today and see what happens.


Sometimes even a creative side project is enough to spark the interest of your team. Try inviting everybody to a chalk board to engage creative thinking and make it clear that everybody’s opinion matters. Image credit.

If There’s Going to be a Meeting, Everyone Participates

Regularly scheduled meetings can help keep a team in sync, but meetings for the sake of meeting can be wearisome. When I first took over the responsibility of running meetings for our department, I tried a number of configurations. I tried different days of the week and different times of the day. I tried to do a number of short meetings throughout the week versus only one longer one at week’s end. I mixed it up as I tried to find the right formula, but my meetings still seemed to be lacking something. Then I figured out what was wrong. It was me.

By “leading” the meeting, I realized I can come to dominate the conversation, turning it into more of a lecture than an actual exchange of ideas. That was what needed to change.

It doesn’t matter if you do short meetings each day or a single longer meeting at the end of the week, what matters is that everyone gets engaged in the conversation. If your meetings are suffering the same way mine were, try mixing it up and ask someone to present a project they are currently working on, or a site they recently saw that blew them away, or ask them to summarize a great article they recent read. Get everyone to participate and you will clearly see the energy level of your meetings instantly start to rise.

Be Selective With Projects

As a team leader, you will often be one of the first ones in front of a new client and a new project. You will be part of all that initial excitement and exchange of ideas. This is a very exciting time in a project and it is not unusual to get out of a kickoff meeting and want to do all the work yourself. Unfortunately, that is no longer your role.

One of the biggest challenges in the transition from designer to director is the reality that your job is to often assign work to others that you really wish you could assign to yourself. As a director, will have less time to design and develop websites, because more of your time is required to help others more effectively design and develop websites.

That being said, you need to strike a balance. From time to time, you should assign a project to yourself, but be selective. Knowing you can’t personally design every new project or develop every new site gives you the chance to pick and choose which projects go to which team member, yourself included. Just remember not to keep ALL the great jobs for yourself  —  the team will definitely notice that!

Grow Your Bookshelf

Web professional are lifelong learners. The always changing nature of our industry forces us to constantly be learning if we want to keep our skills current. The change to a leadership role does not eliminate this need, it simply adds to the type of learning you must do.

In addition to books on HTML, CSS or design principals, your bookshelf should grow to contain titles on managing others or running a business. Recently, I’ve added the excellent titles from A Book Apart to my bookshelf. These titles are written by the likes of Ethan Marcotte, Dan Cederholm and Jeremy Keith  —  authors whom I’ve read for years via their blogs as well as books. I have also recently added some titles that are not related to Web design to my shelf, including Rework by Jason Fried and David Heinemeier Hasson, Delivering Happiness by Tony Hsieh, and Redesigning Leadership by John Maeda, from which a quote appears earlier in his article.

Your role as a director is a duel role. You need to manage and lead, but you also need to be current and relevant in your Web design skillset. This should be reflected in the learning you are doing. Next time you look for Web design books, also add a few titles to your cart that have little or nothing to do with manipulating pixels and more to do with managing people.


Perhaps going to a local library and taking a closer look at the leader management section there will also help you stumble on that book  —  the one your colleagues recommended to you in the good old days. Image credit.

Listen and Decide

A big part of being a team leader is making decisions. A big part of making decisions is realizing that, no matter how hard you may try, you will never please everyone.

As the team leader, you will need to listen to different points of view, but you will also have to be the one to decide which ones point in the right direction and which ones do not. In the end, you need to be the one that makes the right choice for the project, the team, or the company as a whole.

You should encourage others to share their opinions with you, from the CEO to the intern that started last week. Listen to what they have to say with an open mind and be willing to have your own opinions changed, but once you have considered everyone’s opinion, including your own, you need to decide the path to take. In the end, others may not agree with your opinion, but they will be more likely to support you in the decision you made if you truly took the time to consider all options before you made your choice.

The I in Team

Throughout this article, I have referenced the move from team member to team leader, but the reality is that even though you may be leading the team, you are still a part of it, not apart from it. Remember to use the word “us” often and show those under your supervision that you are with them.

I think a quote from E.M. Kelly says it well and gives me an appropriate way to end this article:

The difference between a boss and a leader: a boss says “Go!”  —  a leader says “Let’s go!”

Are you ready to assume leadership? Excellent  —  let’s go!

(il) (vf)