Growing into a design leader as an individual contributor

One common question we frequently hear from the RETHINK community is “How can individual contributor designers grow into leadership roles without transitioning into management? How does a product designer can keep growing and continue to expand their craft as individual contributors after they hit their growth peak?

For many product designers the traditional career growth trajectory has gone from being an individual contributor for several years, becoming a manager of a small team that focuses on a particular discipline, getting promoted to senior manager of a larger team, and keep moving along the manager path to Director, VP, and maybe even one day, chief design officer. However, that career path is not appealing for every designer. Leadership is not only about leading or assembling a team. A leader is anyone who takes responsibility for finding potential in people and processes.

In this interview you’ll hear from Si Min Lee, Senior Product Designer at Zendesk and Mentor at RETHINK Coaching Through Crisis Program about her journey to leadership as an individual contributor. She shares her learnings and top strategies on why and how she challenged herself to grow her career in another way -- by managing projects, not people.

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How did you get into product design?

I majored in Industrial Design in university, and originally had thought of product design as design only applied to manufactured products. During an internship in a design studio, I picked up Origami to fulfill some UI prototyping needs, and received a lot of guidance from kind folks in the Origami Facebook group. Many of them had product design in their titles. Out of curiosity, I looked up more information about the role and the thought of taking new features from ideation, to prototyping, to user testing, to production excited me. I started applying for product designer roles and landed a job at Zendesk.

Currently I work as a senior product designer on the agent experience team at Zendesk, shaping the way customer support agents connect with their customers. My main focus is to design an experience that gives agents the efficiency and the context required to provide the best support they can to their customers

What made you decide product design is the best path for you?

I have a huge interest in prototyping and interaction design. Seeing people connecting with my designs has always brought me joy. While I had interest in physical-digital interactions (e.g. Tactile colour-mixing tool and Playy Blocks), the industry was pretty small. Digital product design was another career option I was interested in at the time of my graduation. After taking the leap of faith, I found that I had really enjoyed myself.

Why did you decide to continue to grow as an individual contributor and not switch into management? 

Individual contributors are responsible for owning the design outputs, quality, and strategy. On the other hand, people managers have direct responsibilities for people and processes. While I’m not opposed to nor rule out management in the future, having that responsibility for somebody is not something I am currently as excited about.

I am currently more motivated by the craft itself — to be able to get to the bottom of things, to engage with real users, to come up with conceptual explorations, and to build interactions and flows.

How do you define leadership as a product designer individual contributor? 

I define an individual contributor leader as someone you look up to and want to get advice from. More often than not, I find that these individuals do not have an official leadership position, but seeing them in action inspires me to want to emulate the work that they do.  

At a personal level, I define leadership as holding yourself accountable for the experience you're shipping for your users, and as being a reliable peer to your colleagues — one who wants to make things better and be helpful. 

Leadership doesn't have to come in the form of grand gestures or huge achievements. A series of small steps in ownership and initiatives can go a long way. Here are some examples I had displayed leadership qualities in over the past year:

  • Facilitated discussions and led workshops across teams in different locations by sharing domain knowledge and broke down the work to move a project forward.
  • Demonstrated a level of thoroughness by identifying gaps around solutions and suggested ways to resolve blockers before important milestones.
  • Provided guidance to ensure that new team members (not just in the design function) are equipped with the necessary knowledge and practices to deliver their best work. 

While these seemed like nothing much to me at the time, these small initiatives accumulated over time to help build the influence I now have within my team and organization.

What are your top three strategies for growing into a leader as an individual contributor? 

1. Build domain knowledge - In order to contribute meaningfully, we need to have a deep understanding of the business, the users, and the technology we’re working with. This has allowed me to navigate constraints, volatile timelines, and to identify gaps in order to resolve them.
2. Start feeling like an owner - This has helped shift my mindset from “I’m just executing” to being more proactive in finding and using my voice to influence decisions. By taking responsibility for the experience we’re shipping, we will feel empowered to step up to solve the problem and remove the obstacles. 
3. Take small proactive steps - Exhibiting leadership traits doesn’t have to be loud nor fancy. Every small action we make that grows our ownership of the product increases our confidence to take the next step. 

How do you keep growing and continue to expand your craft as a product designer after you hit your growth peak? 

There are many aspects to a designer beyond their title and their job responsibilities. I think it’s important to distinguish what we personally define as our peak from where we are placed in our organization’s career architecture. I see my peak as a moving target as long as I continuously seek out improvements and keep an open mind.

Setting goals that we truly believe in helps us push our own boundaries. For example, one of my goals was to improve my communication and articulation skills. While I have taken steps to do that and have seen improvements over the past year, there is really no end to it. Goals don’t have to be all serious too — they can be something you like to do. Learning new tools and processes has always been enjoyable to me, so I still find myself signing up for betas for design tools.

In what ways does your design process change and adapt once you become more experienced in your craft? 

My underlying design process hasn't changed much — the same principles, fundamentals, and practices still apply; I just became faster at it. Faster in the sense that the cycles required for me to arrive at the next step of the process has shortened as my ability sharpens.

What has instead changed is my focus. Initially, it was about learning the tools and design practices. Now, it's more about planning, and using design artifacts to spark conversations, to communicate a vision and to rally a team.

What are some ways a designer can make sure garners additional responsibility and impact within the organization to continue growing? 

Building credibility is key to becoming a force of nature. Credibility and responsibilities usually come together hand in hand — when we start becoming a dependable figure, we are putting ourselves in a better position to take on more responsibilities in the future.

To me, it boils down to being consistent and patient. Credibility can be built over time when we regularly deliver designs that can evoke empathy and emotions, while solving for real business needs. It also shows when we are consistent by taking commitments and holding on to them, and when we take accountability for our decisions.




Contributors
Si Min Lee
Senior Product Designer, Zendesk
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