How to level up your career as a senior product designer or design manager

In this interview Julie Stanescu, Founder at RETHINK talks with Madhavi Jagdish Pear Therapeutics Design Director, Mentor in our Coaching Through Crisis program about how senior product designers could be more intentional about building unique skills and traits for effective professional growth towards design leadership.

They also discuss how design professionals can be better equipped in navigating difficult professional situations and learn how to be more assertive

_ _ _

Can you tell us a bit about your background and the type of work you’re doing these days?

I graduated from CCA with a degree in Graphic Design, and quickly found myself designing websites and apps in the early days of the internet. After a few stints at startups in travel and e-commerce, I landed in healthcare, specifically designing the world’s first prescription digital apps.

At Pear Therapeutics I lead the UX team consisting of Product Designers, Service Designers and UX Researchers. We build apps to treat serious diseases like Addiction, Schizophrenia and Insomnia by combining clinical best practices with behavior change techniques to lead to the best outcomes for our patients. 

When evaluating your career growth how do you decide which is the right place for you to thrive?

You might think you already know your areas of strength and improvement, but it always helps to validate your understanding with a trusted mentor or coach. You might find things that surprise you and help you grow in unexpected ways. 

I love starting from the basics: understanding your values and overall life goals and how your career fits within those. Then doing an inventory of your current situation: your role, your skills. Where do the gaps lie? Do you need to raise the ceiling on a skill you already have, or raise the floor and learn a new skill? 

Purpose has also been a huge guiding principle in my career. Simply put: my purpose is to help others succeed. Whether that’s as a manager helping my team succeed or as a designer helping users succeed. When you define your purpose from your values you can identify teams and roles that align with it. And the work of deliberate practice to get to your career goals will seem a lot easier. 

What are your top 3 best practices for how to be better equipped in navigating difficult professional situations and learn how to be more assertive? 

The first thing to do is to understand the perspectives of everyone involved. Having a lot of conversations - sometimes it might feel like too many - is an important first step to gain context from different people’s experiences and see things from their perspective.

Once you have this context, find a balanced approach if possible. People are much more receptive if they feel heard and can see that their priorities are being considered alongside everyone else’s. 

Thirdly, find data to back up your approach. Coming into a difficult situation with data to support your point of view will make others more receptive to your suggestions. This data can be qualitative: if there is a disagreement on what feature to build, going out and talking to a few customers will bring clarity to the conversation. 

I personally don’t find the need to be too assertive in tough situations if I’m armed with these three things: context, perspective and data. 

How could senior level product designers prioritize what to learn or what skills to build in order to grow in their career? 

For senior designers, there are many paths forward but the two most obvious ones are growing as an Individual Contributor or into Management.

The first step is to ask your manager if there is a career ladder for your function. If one doesn’t exist, you can refer to this excellent framework by my former coach Cap Watkins, Chief Experience Officer at Primary. This is a generic framework and might not fit exactly with your company so please adapt as appropriate to your unique circumstance. 

Once you’ve understood the parameters for advancement to the next level, start performing at the level you want to grow into. Understand your manager’s goals and help them achieve them. For Individual Contributors, that might mean more strategy and education or mentorship of junior designers. For Management: ask to manage a junior designer or intern, with measurable goals and frequent check-ins for feedback from your sponsor/manager. 

I cannot stress enough the importance of a sponsor or champion. Build a strong, trusting relationship with this person, and touch base with them frequently to talk about your goals and how you can help them achieve theirs. Here’s an excellent TED talk about sponsorship especially relevant to underrepresented minorities.

What skills should a senior level designer be developing to help them increase their impact inside or outside of their company?

I think the three most important skills for senior designers to have an impact are:

Learning and curiosity

Don’t just learn how to be a better designer, learn about the business, the industry. Learn about management, HR, recruiting and strategy.

Cross functional collaboration or “get out of your cubicle”

Start to socialize (over Zoom, of course) with people in different functions. Sales, HR, business development. How can you help your colleagues in these functions? What can you learn from them?

Write, speak, help the community

You might think the topic of your blog post isn’t original, but your perspective on it is. You have your own unique experiences, share them. 

The Product Design Team at Pear Therapeutics

How can product designers support business needs while continuing to grow their career in the direction they want?

Speaking from personal experience, I needed to first learn the basics of business through courses and books. A great foundational course is “Design for Business Impact” by DesignerFund. 

I then needed to understand our business model through conversations with colleagues in order to figure out where UX could have the most impact, and what decisions would lead to the highest ROI. 

This allowed me to grow skills in areas that have the highest impact for the business and also align with my goals. If you find yourself being pulled in a direction that doesn’t align with your goals, look for a project within the company that does and get the project lead to sponsor or champion you. 

Be clear about your goals. Communicate them regularly to your manager so they can be your ally in finding the right opportunities for you to grow.

If your manager is not giving you the support or coaching you’d need to grow in your career, how do you tell her/him how you’d like to be supported or coached in a way that is constructive?

Start by understanding your manager’s goals. If these are not easily available, ask your manager how you can help in your next 1:1. As a manager, I really appreciate when one of my reports asks me how they can help, I value their collaboration. And it prompts me to ask them about their goals and how I can help.

If that doesn’t work, have a detailed plan for your growth, and share it with your manager. Talk about what specific areas you want to be coached on, give them as much information about yourself as helpful to make the relationship constructive. Give them time to process and then follow up.

How can a product design professionals grow their strategic thinking? 

Defining “strategic” is the first step. This can look different at different companies and at different stages. At a growth stage company, innovation and creativity are important. How can you align your work to the top goals of the company? At a more mature company, maybe it’s efficiency. Forming close and collaborative relationships with those responsible for the company’s goals and priorities will help you be more strategic.

Also having a pulse on the broader design ecosystem, learning about new and innovative things happening (especially in a Covid-19 world), and bringing these learnings back to the team and the company can help you be more strategic. 


People who support Leadership Circle

Deepest thanks to the following people who graciously offered feedback
and support while beta testing Leadership Circle.

Leslie Yang

Director, Product Design

Jeff Smith

Senior Design Manager

Julie Zhuo


Aniruddha Kadam

Product Design Manager

Jen Kozenski-Devins

Head of Google
Accessibility UX

Jian Wei

Design Manager

Courtney Kaplan

Leadership Coach

Cammy Lin

Product Design Manager

Sun Dai

Senior Product Designer

Liana Dumitru

Design Manager

Mike Dick

Madhavi Jagdish
Principal Product Designer Salesforce
Text Link
This is some text inside of a div block.
Text Link
This is some text inside of a div block.
Text Link
This is some text inside of a div block.