I started working at Accurat as a data visualization designer back in 2013, when we were about ten people gathered around one big desk and most projects were all hands on deck. As the company grew and we took on more clients — and bigger ones — I took on a leadership role in the design department. And since last summer, I’ve been the proud captain of the fabulous, fearsome Team Pirati: a crew of designers and developers, all with unique expertise and experience.
As someone trained in design — a field where individuality is king — I’ve always approached team leadership with curiosity. Here are ten things I’ve learned in adjusting to the role.
“Observant” might not be the first word that springs to mind when you think of positive leadership traits. But being attentive is crucial to understanding people’s strengths and weaknesses, and this information will help you make better decisions about how to involve people in projects. For example: Some teammates may thrive in the strategic and concept phase, while others are happiest when they’re spending hours refining a UI detail. Personal aptitudes should factor into how you assign responsibilities.
To observe, though, is not always enough. It limits your knowledge to what’s visible. Someone might be very good at a certain type of task but eager to explore something new. How would you know that, unless you ask? Schedule one–on–one meetingsto get a better understanding of peoples’ long–term goals and ambitions. These chats are also an invaluable opportunity to gather honest feedback and discover potential problems before they arise.
A healthy workplace is one where people feel appreciated. When you’re working under a tight deadline, though, it can be easy to take phenomenal work for granted. That’s why it’s important to voice praise, especially when a project wraps. Always reserve a few moments to congratulate a team, and make sure to articulate exactly why an achievement is commendable. Did they work against the clock to deliver a product in record turnaround time? Did they stay calm and collected while juggling responsibilities? Make sure to also share any positive notes from outside sources — i.e. client contacts — that you may have forgotten to mention while you were hyper–focused on delivery.
I’ve borrowed this one from an article by Know Your Team (thanks for sharing, Mariano!)
It’s impossible to have total control over every project your team tackles, so you need to be able to trust your teammates enough to delegate. To build that trust, you must understand and accept that there are different ways of doing things. Plus, it’s in your (and your manager’s) best interest to foster unique talents. As precious as time is, specialized skills are even harder to come by.
The secret to effective delegation is avoiding micromanagement. Don’t try to plan out activities from start to finish. Set goals and let people find their own ways to achieve them. At first, people may ask for a little extra guidance. But over time, they’ll become more autonomous. This is how you nurture leadership within your team.
When you’re leading a project, you know the budget, expectations, constraints, strategic outcomes, etc. Keep in mind that you may be the only person on the team who has all of this information from the outset. To facilitate everyone’s best work, you should share as many details as possible, as soon as possible.
Here’s my checklist for transferring knowledge during kickoff:
The more people know about a project’s scope and purpose, the more they’ll be able to contribute on a conceptual level, rather than just fulfilling a series of tasks.
Designers are encouraged to hone a signature style to distinguish themselves in the field. Developers, on the other hand, always seem to be sharing knowledge and working collaboratively. For this reason, it can be difficult for designers like me to resist thinking: “I would have done this differently.” In managing designers and developers, I’ve learned how to temper my instincts.
It’s a team leader’s responsibility to create an environment wherein people feel comfortable expressing themselves. So, next time you’re reviewing work and someone comes up with an idea different from what you had in mind, ask yourself “Why not?” instead of “Why?”
When you manage a project, the worst things that can happen include missing a deadline, going over budget, and/or delivering a low–quality product. But the stakes are even higher when dealing with people. At some point, an obligation is fulfilled and a project ends. Your colleagues will be around for much longer.
As a leader, your behavior has an outsized effect on people — their feelings, their attitudes, and their perceptions of the company as a whole. It’s important to keep that at the forefront of your mind, especially when client–related tasks seem extra urgent. Always be respectful and supportive. In the long run, you’re contributing to a more positive work environment and better outcomes across the board.
So, what to do when you’re presented with work that’s just not up to par? What you must not do is to simply say that you don’t like it, and ask teammates to come back with something better without giving ample feedback.
It’s not just a right — it’s a duty to critique the work of your team members. It bears repeating: Your feedback will be seriously—so put it gently! If a project seems to be heading in the wrong direction, try to understand why. A good leader knows how to turn a situation that could be difficult or discouraging into an opportunity for reflection. The process of designing an alternative solution can serve to restore strength and confidence to the entire team.
A leader should always keep one eye trained on the present and the other on the future. From the moment a task is assigned, you should have a sense of how it will progress so that you can provide guidance and answer questions when they inevitably arise.
Thinking this way will likely lead you to be extra careful each time you make a decision, knowing how it could potentially impact progress. It’s tricky, sort of like maneuvering a sailboat: You can set everything up correctly, but you’ll always need to be prepared for unpredictable winds.
Years ago, when I was leaving for a long period abroad as an Erasmus student, I received a letter to wish me good luck from a friend of my mother. The letter ended with a simple statement: “Learn what you can, teach what you can.” My mother’s friend wasn’t just encouraging me to take in everything that I could — he was suggesting that I could also give something back to the places I traveled. I think this is true for just about every situation you encounter in life.
As a leader, you might think of your role as a teacher rather than a student, but in fact it’s a two–way street. At times in the past, I’ve felt it was my responsibility to have all the answers. But I’ve learned that the best results usually come from sharing possible solutions and asking for opinions. Your team is a resource: Place your faith in them, and you’ll learn something new every day.
Being a leader is a tough responsibility and it can be stressful. People rely on you for planning and technical support, reviews and suggestions, requests and complaints, and so on and so forth. Moreover, the ultimate responsibility of the client’s satisfaction lands on you.
To make decisions and give timely directions might be hard in those moments when your mind is a mess (among Pirati, we say “brased:” an Italo–English variation on “braised” or “cooked”). It happens to everyone, and you shouldn’t be afraid to ask for help. In these crisis moments, you can turn to your team to help you rearrange roles and responsibilities. Remember: You’re a leader, but you’re not alone.