Insights on Design Management and owning your career path with Chetana Deorah

We hosted product design leader Chetana Deorah for an insightful Q&A on design management as part of our Lead Designer Fellowship. Here are some key highlights from the Q&A.

Insights on Design Management and owning your career path with Chetana Deorah
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A post-it note that’s been pinned on product design leader Chetana Deorah’s desk for over 3 years now says: “Manage yourself to lead better!” 🌱

We hosted Chetana for an insightful Q&A on design management with our Fellows - a session that she kicked off with an open invitation, saying “There’s nothing more powerful than asking questions: amazing questions and there are no stupid questions - ask away!”

A favourite quote that comes to mind:

The principle underlying all solutions is the question that was asked~ John Cage

Sharing here a few key highlights from our fireside chat interview given Chetana’s decades of experience as a design leader with companies such as Netflix, Scribd, and Coursera ✨

Q: “Design management probably isn’t everyone’s cup of tea - who should consider taking up a role in management? Which designers would be a great fit for the role?”

Chetana: If you’ve been working as an IC (Individual Contributor) for 4+ years and you feel like you naturally show up as a leader (i.e. take on additional responsibility, notice where the gaps are, support others on your team, organize) –– IF you see yourself as someone who is able to invest in other people’s problems and is okay with taking up challenges while delivering toward your current IC job responsibilities, you most likely have the aptitude to explore a management career track.

As a design leader, you solve for and with people, champion customer-centricity, scale systems and organizational impact in addition to your focus on product design strategy.

Q: “Chetana, I’m going to step into a new managerial role in a couple of months. Are there any particular things to keep in mind that will help me do well in my first few weeks?”

Chetana: In your first few months as a new manager (or for any role for that matter as a new hire), it’s important to put on your researcher hat; understand the gaps you were brought in to fill, and identify opportunities for your team & for the business. Listen, ask questions, and synthesize your learnings. Reflect back to your manager and team on what you have assessed. And based on that you will be able to draft your vision for leading design. And an area that is typically overlooked is identifying your own career goals as a leader and your areas for growth given the new opportunity and team.

Q: “What do founders/C-suite leaders look for in design managers’ portfolios?”

Chetana: Depending on the phase the org is in - early-stage start-up vs. mid-level (which are the only use cases where I would expect a founder and/or a C-level to be involved in the design hiring process), they are looking to a design manager’s ability to connect the potential of design to business impact.

A few of the aspects include…

  • 1 - A portfolio that demonstrates your ability to communicate design rationale effectively to business stakeholders
  • 2 - Ability to solve design problems in a player-coach mode
  • 3 - As a design manager, anecdotal example of leading your team through challenges and setting them up for success
  • 4 - Projects that demonstrate your aptitude as a manager across people, processes and products. And a glimpse into your design and leadership principles or core values.
Q: “What is the biggest value addition of a design manager on any team or within any organization?”

Chetana: A good design manager develops a vision for the team, the product, and creates ways to deliver on it. Their biggest value is to provide direction and enable individual career growth while harnessing the full potential of design as a practice.

Q: “When it comes to scoping, prioritization, and road mapping, how do I ensure that I take up projects that I can actually deliver to?”

Chetana: As a design manager, your ability to say no to unachievable goals, should be as important as your ability to negotiate for projects worth solving for.

  • 1 - Make sure design and research are collaborating with PMs on the problem statements to help inform the scope and roadmap.
  • 2 - As a design manager, be articulate about your team’s skillset, and capacity, and evangelize hiring needs in a timely way to negotiate project prioritization.
  • 3 - Design, research, and product management should ideally have a recurring and collaborative approach to defining key business opportunities, and customer needs that influence roadmap, scope, and priorities.
Q: “What are some good signs of strong leadership and management on a design team?”

Chetana: As ironic as it may sound, great leaders are those who set their teams up for success so well that the team can readily function without the constant presence of the manager! Strong leadership is one that can be invisible and yet impactful.

Q: “Chetana, I don’t see myself holding a leadership/management role, and I would like to grow significantly in my career as an IC, while also contributing to some leadership within a company’s design ecosystem. How can I do so?”

Chetana: Position yourself clearly with what you are interested in, an expert at, what you are not interested in, and your areas for growth. As a Principal or Staff Designer on a team, your responsibilities would typically include leading complex projects, driving business metrics, and scaling the design function by way of mentoring. Your initiative and commitment to helping influence the design culture and the design org’s maturity can speak volumes to your success as an individually contributing senior member of the design team.

Q: “How can I assess a company’s culture/ethos while interviewing to hold a leadership position with them?”

Chetana: Over time, I have found that this set of ‘5Ps’ as a decision-making framework has been handy and insightful while both interviewing as a candidate and as a hiring manager!

  1. People - Who will you be working with? Is the team going to cater to your career development? Will your superiors support you in terms of understanding your areas of strength & growth?
  2. Product - Is the company’s product consumer-facing or enterprise? Is it in a domain that excites you?
  3. Purpose - Do the organization and product align with your practice, beliefs, and ethics?
  4. Practice - How mature is the company’s design practice? If it isn’t, are you willing to help establish one?
  5. Profit - Are you gaining the compensation you deserve?

Recently, I’ve added a sixth P - Potential. Even if the other 5 aspects rank low in your assessment, perhaps you find so much value in the team and product that you believe in the gig, and want to help unlock that potential. Similarly, the same applies to hiring people during an interview - if you don’t observe great performance by a candidate, but you can clearly see untapped potential, go for it.

Resources suggested by Chetana ✨

  • Design Maturity Model by Invision: An industry-spanning report that can help you assess design maturity in organizations. Chetana suggests that analyzing the hierarchy of design organizations in the report can help you identify where your organization sits today, and give you clarity as to why your design leadership operates the way they do.
  • The Making of a Manager: What to Do When Everyone Looks to You, by Julie Zhuo. Chetana says that this would be a great read for primarily new or early career design managers.

We’re so glad to have had Chetana on board, and we are grateful to have learned from her wealth of experience. We eagerly look forward to hosting her again!

For more insights, follow Chetana on Twitter 🌟

Chetana’s discussion was held as part of our Lead Designer Fellowship ✨

If you’re a designer, you can join our Product Design Fellowship. The next cohort begins soon!

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