Effective nurturing of designers and researchers is not only crucial for their career development but also essential for building a high-impact design organization.
☕ Nurturing designer and researcher careers
A key responsibility for any leader managing designers and researchers is to help them grow, get better over time, and have a higher impact. This helps the overall design org to increase its impact and ultimately leads to better products and a rising business value.
However, most design leaders were never trained on how to nurture others.
There is a lot of great material on the interweb for designers and researchers on how to take their growth into their own hands. Designers working alone or in low-maturity organizations are expected to self-improve. Leaders have earned their hard-fought experience on their own, and know mostly what worked for them, which might be not what would work for others.
I also keep hearing from managers that they had too many bad experiences with unfit managers in the past, so they plan to do better by doing the opposite of what they’ve seen. While this idea has a good intention (avoid mistakes seen in the past), it doesn’t have a positive vision of what good looks like.
Nurturing designers covers a wide range of activities, defining the career ladder, managing performance, giving continuous feedback, regular 1-on-1s, and career development are all part of it. There are both long-term, like career development discussions, and short-term activities, like helping the person with what they need at the moment. 1-on-1s are typically the place for the weekly iteration on both long-term and short-term improvement.
Whatever help a person needs, besides some trivial and basic feedback, progress will need an established and positive relationship. Part of it is the negative experiences many designers had in the past with bad managers, but a more important reason is the need to understand where a person is at the moment, and where they want to go. This is where coaching tools help.
A coaching tool I tend to use a lot is GROW. When using it with a designer, we first establish the Goal, describe the current Reality, review the Options, and finally settle on a Way forward. This helps in both for long-term plans (like career development), and for short-term issues (like how to solve a specific collaboration problem).
The advantage of GROW and coaching more generally is that the starting point is a person’s intent, and the leader helps in shaping that intent and finding a path by asking questions. If a leader is more directly telling what to do, the person might be less connected to the goal and is not taught how to care about their growth, which all leads to stalled growth.
Sometimes more directness is needed simply because the person is more junior. But even then, there needs to be a good balance. How a leader helps an employee depends on the person, and also the person’s level, more juniors need more telling compared to more senior people.
Besides direct coaching, nurturing will also change as designers and researchers progress in their careers:
- Juniors need more help in their craft, to develop a consistent methodology and arrive in the profession. Practices like pair design, working in an apprentice model, and general mentoring are the most helpful at this level. As long-term career goals might be too far off, it’s better to focus on smaller steps.
- Mid-levels having a good knowledge of their craft should be looking to find their voice and confidence, developing their articulating on both problems and solutions and coming into their own as a member of their product team. Practices like design critique, and getting bigger and more complex tasks support this, as more and more coaching.
- Seniors would grow their influence in more personalized and specific ways, which also means more and more of their growth would be driven by themselves, with leaders fully stepping into a coaching role. With taking things into their own hands, individual practices get less important compared to developing partnerships and driving projects and initiatives.
Beyond the designers’ and researchers’ goals, leaders also need to think about the broader organization’s needs. This is where shaping the individuals’ plans and connecting goals from multiple people together helps to reinforce the overall team vision and strategy.
🚲 Questions to consider
- Where are people in their career journey?
- What are people’s plans, and needs?
- What help do they need? What can you provide, and what will need others to be provided?
- How can be people’s plans done within the context of their current work? What other things should they be doing?
- What does the whole team need to succeed?
- How can people’s needs and plans tie into the broader team needs?
- How can different goals and plans get connected?
🥤 To recap
- It is important for leaders to nurture designers and researchers so that they can grow, improve, and have a greater impact.
- Multiple practices enable nurturing designers and researchers, such as defining career ladders, managing performance, giving continuous feedback, holding regular 1-on-1s, and providing career development opportunities.
- Coaching tools, such as GROW, can help establish a positive relationship and help designers and researchers identify their goals, understand their current reality, explore their options, and develop a way forward.
- The level of directness required from a leader will vary depending on the experience level of the designer or researcher. Juniors may need more telling, while more senior designers and researchers may benefit more from a coaching approach.
- Beyond the individual’s goals, leaders also need to consider the broader organization’s needs and align the individual’s plans with the team’s vision and strategy.
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🍪 Things to snack on
The Liftoff! book by Chris Avore and Russ Unger has the chapter “Developing Designers” that has some great tips about all the activities of nurturing people (such as performance reviews and career maps, including growing other managers and yourself), and some more specific guidance around coaching people.
When nurturing designers, it’s useful to understand where each of them is in their career journey, something that is less measured by years or even job titles, and more defined by behaviors and current challenges. The Designer’s Growth Model by Dennis Hambeukers is a good framework for this, differentiating between five phases, all with their common behaviors and crises driving growth. The five phases are Producers, Architects, Connectors, Scientists, and Visionaries.
While we expect in the industry for people to constantly grow and move out of their comfort zone, I wasn’t sure what that exactly means until I learned about The Learning Zone Model. The comfort zone is easy enough to understand - the place where everyday routines are performed. Moving out of it we arrive at the Learning Zone where growth happens, new skills are learned and existing skills are improved with more challenging tasks. But the challenge can be too big, that’s when we get to the Panic Zone, where the challenge is too big and no learning happens. Thinking with this model helps with setting up people for their best place to learn, keeping them in a growth flow.
While juniors should be mostly focused on mastering craft, mentoring should still focus on a broader set of skills. Uxcel has a nice, but a bit prescriptive guide on this at Mentorship 101: how to mentor new UX designers for success. When starting a mentor program, the goals - so what skills the mentees and the mentors should be getting better at - should be set. This includes setting up the mentors for success and giving them tools.
Michael Hawley’s Coaching Experience Designers is a good introduction to coaching relationships. Since it’s less about providing help from a seniority perspective (which is more like mentoring), having a collaborative relationship is key. There are a few tactics to use: don’t give answers, instead ask questions, think big picture and prioritization, understand values and motivations, and balance support with constructive criticism.