Experienced Designers: Choose Your Next Manager

Jared Spool

October 10th, 2011

The other day, I was sitting with a very talented designer who was debating what her next job should be. She was looking at several different opportunities, each sounding pretty good. When she asked my opinion on how she should decide, I asked her what the opportunities would be.

She’s been a designer for a long while now, having worked on some impressive projects and developed real skills. As she described the different projects, I could tell, however, that something was missing: how would she grow?

Don’t get me wrong. Each project was pretty neat and jam-packed full of cool challenges that every talented designer would want to sink their teeth into.

I suggested she direct her search in a different direction. I told her to focus on who her next manager should be.

In my job, I get to meet a lot of great designers, some of whom are working on projects that, to an outsider, might be considered dull: accounting applications, chemical analysis equipment, and even tax forms. Yet, they love their work, not because of the subject matter of the project, but because they have a great manager that makes every day fun and challenging (in the good way).

I’ve also met designers who are working on some of today’s sexiest design problems — working with the latest technologies on cutting edge, high visibility, society-changing designs. And they’re miserable because they have a manager that makes each day hard and frustrating.

When you have a great manager, the project barely matters. And when you have a crappy manager, the project barely matters.

The advice I’m giving to senior, more experienced folks is not to think about their next project as much as they think about their next manager. What traits should that manager have? How do they support their team? When things get rough, how do they deliver guidance? Do they regularly give out praise? Do they take a deep interest in the work and in their employee’s future?

I recommend folks interview the entire team and learn what it’s like to work for that manager. What happens when the going gets tough? What examples are there of team members growing, learning, and getting encouragement? Do team members talk about how the manager exhibits the desired traits?

My good friend, Amy Jackson, who works as a talent agent for wünderkind UX designers, suggests you take it a step further and ask the hiring manager for his or her references. Amy says to tell them you want to make the right decision and you need to check them out. Her thinking is that if the hiring manager isn’t secure enough give out sound references, they may be sending a signal. I think there’s something to that.

Great managers are what make a job great. Are you thinking about what you’d like to see in your next manager?

6 Responses to “Experienced Designers: Choose Your Next Manager”

  1. Gary Barber Says:

    Jared nice idea, but how do you get to know the prospective manager, a few interviews and the like don’t present their management style. I know in my environment asking a prospective for references will usually get a “Next” response.

    You are assuming good UX people are rare as chicken sexers maybe…

  2. Steve Cumbia Says:

    So, from a Designer point of view, what makes a great manager?

  3. Luisa Says:

    I have to agree with Gary here. To ask your interviewer for their references will guarantee a swift end to the meeting. I ask rather pertinent questions with regards to managerial style, company values and support mechanism and in my experience, you will never get a proper understanding until you start the job.

    Personally, I look for a manager who will give me the flexibility to do my work but also support me when I need it. I don’t necessarily need a manager who knows UX methodology in detail (in fact I prefer it) but I do look for one who knows how to deal with a problem, respect the work I do and will be proactive in solving issues.

  4. Jared Spool Says:

    Steve, it’s not a generic “great manager” that I’m talking about. I’m talking about what each designer wants from their next manager.

    Some will want a chance to grow, by getting new assignments with each project. Others will want to get a chance to perfect their craft, by having a chance to practice similar work repeatedly.

    Some will want to get more hands-on mentorship and critique, while others will want more autonomy and self-directed work.

    Some will want to be more shielded from the outside world, whereas others will want more chances to interact with people in other groups and teams.

    It’s part of the candidates responsibility to think about what they want to get from their manager.

    Hope that helps.

  5. Steph Beath Says:

    Gary and Luisa – come to NZ where experienced designers really are as rare as hens teeth :) we’re drowning in work this side of the planet! I have been able to choose my manager as a result although for me my colleagues are just as (if not more) important than my manager for getting what I want out of a role. Nicely said Jared – environment is as important as the work itself.

  6. Caronne Carruthers-Taylor Says:

    Thanks Jared. I totally agree that a great manager is one of the keys to happiness at work, along with great colleagues. Those managers are as rare as hen’s teeth! We spend so much of our time at work, so let’s be happy! This resonated with me :

    “What traits should that manager have? How do they support their team? When things get rough, how do they deliver guidance? Do they regularly give out praise? Do they take a deep interest in the work and in their employee’s future? “

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