How to transition from individual contributor to design manager

How do you transition from product designer individual contributor to design manager? How do you try it out before you make the transition? As a new manager, how do you coach your team without getting in their way?

Meet Rhett Luciani a Melbourne based Product Design Manager currently working at Zendesk and leading a team of five product designers. He is also a mentor at RETHINK, Coaching Through Crisis Program coaching product designers to level up in their career.

Here, Rhett shares his experience on how to have a smooth transition from an individual contributor role to design management and what are some strategies and best practices on being a great first-time design manager.

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How did you decide if management was the right path for you?

As designers, we all know that warm fuzzy feeling we get when a piece of design work just ‘clicks’, and I get that same feeling from working with people to solve problems. Whether it be a successful workshop with a scrum team, or just jamming on the whiteboard with another designer, I’ve always enjoyed the process of working with my team matters just as much as our output. This gave me a hint pretty early on in my career that a path into management could be a good move for me. I have a wide breadth of experience, having worked in branding, web design and front end development, before transitioning into Product Design. This is where I truly feel at home, and where I plan to stay.

Luckily, I was fortunate enough to be a part of a rapidly growing team, in a company that was very supportive of changes in career path. At Zendesk, our career architecture enables Senior Product Designers to get a feel for management before committing to either the Manager or individual contributor tracks. This is a great way for people to dip their toes in the water, and see if management is for them, before fully committing to a change in career path. I took up this opportunity, tried management out for 12 months and relished the new challenge, which confirmed for me that management was the right direction for my career.

What are your tactics for how to make it easier for folks to decide if management is right for them?

If you’re lucky enough to be able to trial management without formally switching role, go for it! There is no better way to discover if people management is for you than trying it out. Even if you decide against it, the people skills you learn will give you valuable experience in any career path.

Mentoring opportunities are the perfect way to get a feel for your suitability for management. Help to up skill the more junior designers on your team, or look for external mentoring programs. Any way in which you can help shape the future of another designer is a valuable input into your ability to effectively manage designers.

Management involves a slight shift in mindset. You will still have a big impact on design quality and product direction, but you’ll be doing so indirectly. Want the glory of a big product release? Management probably isn’t for you. But the ability to ensure your team is performing to its maximum potential is just as important as pushing the pixels. Get used to playing a supporting role and let your team have the limelight. 

What are the top qualities that make a manager great?

Selflessness is the primary ideal that I aspire to as a manager. My job is to put other people first, and shield them from the things that might result in unhappiness or stress. The best managers are the people that truly understand this. 

What are some best practices on how to decide the size of the team they want to manage as a first time manager? 

You won’t always get the choice on the size of your team, though if you do, there are pros and cons for managing both small and large teams. If you’re new to a management role, I would definitely recommend starting with a small team if possible.

New managers will often be transitioning from an individual contributor role, and may need to balance design work with their management responsibilities. This can be incredibly difficult if managing a large team (it’s also difficult with a small team!) so I would certainly start small and grow into a larger team as your people management skills increase. Being a ‘hybrid’ manager isn’t easy. You will have a lot on your plate, and generally feel like you’re doing half as well as you could if you were dedicating 100% of your time to either management or on-tools design. Be warned!

Managing small teams also enables you to  dedicate more time to each of your designers and really help unlock their full potential. The larger your team, the more you will be spread thin, meaning you’ll need to be more efficient and intentional with the time you spend with them - something that benefits from more management experience.

Once into the role what are your strategies to coach your team without getting in their way? 

1. The simplest answer to this: get out of the way

Sometimes you don’t need to spell things out. Trust your team to take on more responsibility and take them outside their comfort zone. In my own career this is always when I’ve learnt the most. A nudge in the right direction might be all that's required. Designers are problem solvers by nature, and if you solve a problem for them, you’ve denied them of a learning opportunity.

2. Don’t talk around a problem. Got some critical feedback? Give it!

Don’t waste time by mincing words. Just ensure you do it in a candid, assertive manner, with the best interests of the receiving person in mind. If you have taken the time to build a strong bond with your team member, it will be received as intended - genuine advice, provided to help them excel as a designer.

3. Let mistakes happen (within reason)

Mistakes are generally regarded as a bad thing, and they can be. But mistakes are also an opportunity to learn. Rather than micro-manage the finest details, trust your team. And if they make a mistake? Trust that they’ll fix it.

How do you set up effective processes in your first days as a manager to build on a better collaboration with your team? 

One of the primary things I would be looking to establish with my team in the first 90 days is confidence. Confidence that I can make their job easier, and their work better.

Getting to know the individuals who report to you is a given, but look beyond this to key people in their cross-functional teams. I have regular 1-1 catch-ups with Product Managers, Engineering Managers, Team Leads and Engineers who work closely with my reports. The frequency varies depending on needs, but at a minimum they are monthly, but more typically I schedule them weekly or bi-weekly. The influence this gains allows me to fix potential issues before they become a problem, letting my team get on with the job.

What leads people to do great work? 

In my experience this has always boiled down to one thing, strong relationships. If your team members have a mutual respect and understanding for what motivates each other, it’s rare that this doesn’t show in the work. Sometimes this is easier said than done, and that is where you can really make a difference as a manager - resolving these relationship problems is a great example of how effective management can make a big impact on design quality. Couple all of this with honest empathy for the people consuming your work, and you have a recipe for success.


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

Rhett Luciani
Design Manager, Zendesk
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