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Leading Design 2021: Key Takeaways

26 March, 2021

Written by Shain McAlindon


I had the opportunity of attending the Leading Design Conference 2021, organised by the wonderful people at Clearleft.

Leading Design, now in its fifth year, is an event for people leading design teams, overseeing design direction, or instilling a culture of design within organisations. It is a suitable place for aspiring leaders too.

This year was a first for me, a conference that was entirely online! Kudos to Clearleft though, they went big, with a whole list of programmed activities for design leaders looking to grow the impact they can have on their company, product, and team.

The conference itself ran from the 2nd to the 4th of March, but the festival continued with selected dates throughout the month, with masterclasses on the 9th, 16th, 23rd and 30th.

Personal development is so important in any career. In the ever-changing landscape of technology and product though, it is a necessity. A good conference is usually the cornerstone of my yearly development plan. I have always enjoyed listening to and learning from others who have both shared and differing experiences.

Luckily for me, JustGiving and Blackbaud are also big on personal development and are always keen to support where possible. It is one of the many reasons that I love working here.

There is always a high calibre of speaker at any ClearLeft conference, and this year was no different. The line-up was diverse, with speakers from some of the best-known brands in the industry.

It is often said that the best way to learn is to teach, so I have documented my five key takeaways from the event in the hope that it may inspire people on their own personal development journeys.

Key takeaways

#1 Model behaviour

Bottom line, your team will reflect your behaviour.

Guidelines, playbooks, ways of working and HR (Human Resource) guided sessions on work life balance; all good tools for a leader. But what if you are not doing the things that you set out for your team? Hold a mirror up to yourself, this is your team’s vision.

  • Want your team to stop answering emails at the weekend? stop answering them yourself.
  • Want cross team collaboration? model that relationship with relevant partners.
  • Want an autonomous working style? work on how much you need from your boss, when you ask for clarification and when you pave the way.

It sounds basic, but this resonated with me because it is something that is so often overlooked. For anyone who is a parent, it is highly relatable and reminds me very much of this well-known Simon Sinek passage:

"Leadership is not about being in charge, it is about taking care of those in your charge. And when we take care of our people, our people will take care of us."

Simon Sinek

#2 Transparency

“We identified a number of leadership teams that are embracing new ways of working and leading. For example, many of them are increasing transparency, demonstrating authenticity, and emphasizing collaboration and empathy.”

The New Leadership Playbook for the Digital Age

These are skills where designers excel. The key to being a great design leader is not to follow in the footsteps of business leaders before us, but to promote and improve skills that we already have, transparency, empathy, and collaboration.

Leading with transparency, vulnerability, clarity, and candour prevents assumptions driven thinking. When we show our teams the direction we want to go, everyone can help to get there.

It is important to be authentic to create human connections, to show your team you trust them enough to share their concerns. In doing so, your team is more likely to seek you out when they have problems, rather than confiding in other peers. A happy team is one that shares its problems.

It is a balance to not overwhelm by being too transparent, but not being too closed that the team is not connected. Aim to be transparent enough to be authentic, but not too transparent that you create anxiety.

#3 Lead yourself

How can you lead a team if you do not first lead yourself?

Too often, the focus of leadership conferences is about leading and managing your team, its par for the course. However, a big theme throughout a lot of the speakers this year, was leading and looking after yourself. It was a very welcomed change in a world that is starting to better recognise the importance of self-care.

Ask yourself, how often do you work on:

  • Self-awareness,
  • Self-regulation,
  • Intent,
  • Empathy,
  • Social skills; etc?

We owe it to our teams to be the best possible version of ourselves and this does not happen on its own. Like any development, it takes time and effort, and most importantly, honesty.

I could have wrapped this into "#1 Model behaviour", but the fact that this was mentioned by most speakers, meant it had to be its own takeaway. Show your team your eagerness for self-development, if they can model that, you are all on the path to improvement together.

#4 Research never stops

Research is just for design, right? Wrong.

There are certain traits we learn as designers that we can use to our advantage when we progress to managers. Research is one of those, and the most powerful.

  • Do you have a meeting with the GMs? Find out what appeals to them, then centre your presentation around that.
  • How do people like to be communicated with? Not all are created equal, we need to be aware of how and when to communicate with our partners, we can only do this by observing and testing.
  • One of the biggest points on this subject: ditch the jargon!

We have talked design language for so long, we expect that everyone understands what we mean and that they should be equally excited by it as we are. That is simply not the case, and it never will be. It is our jobs as design leaders to research the business equivalents and communicate those up:

  • "Fail fast" could become "learn fast",
  • "UX research" or "reducing risk"?
  • "Design ops" means we are making "team efficiencies",
  • "Design inconsistencies" could be interpreted as "design debt",
  • "Dark patterns" would hit harder as "exposure to bad press"; etc.

I would love for an ultra-smart conclusion to this, but I only have a repeat of the takeaway: research never stops, so never stop researching.

#5 Senior staff

“Do you want to become a manager, or do you want to excel in your craft?”

Peter Merholz

People management is often seen as the "next logical step" for those at a senior, or principal, individual contributor level. However, people management is not designing, it is an entirely different craft, so some thought should be given to that next step in your career. Jane Austin shared the following for deciding on your next path:

  • Heart - what do you love?
  • Tree - where do you want to grow?
  • Star - how do you like to be rewarded?

Luckily for those wanting more influence, but still working as a designer, management is not the only path to leadership. Do you want to be a people manager or a people influencer? Perhaps you want both? What became clear is that America is leading the way in catering for those individual contributors who want to excel in strategy and leadership. Senior staff positions are becoming more common place in the US, helping with strategy, sitting across cross functional teams, and creating onboarding or career ladders etc.

One thing is for certain, as design leaders, it is important that we shape better individual contributor tracks, to prevent our companies from losing the top design talent!

That is a wrap

Thank you for taking the time to read my takeaways from Leading Design 2021. I hope there was some information there that you can use to further enhance yourself or your teams.

If you have anything you would like to talk about further, look me up on LinkedIn, I am always keen to talk design, or leadership, with likeminded people.