Leadership can be intimidating, especially if you have just started your career. It is perfectly normal to feel uncomfortable or unsure when you realize it is expected of you. In fact, little nervousness or stress can be a good thing: it ensures we stay aware of our own performance and prepare better for the situations we feel nervous for. But if nervousness and persistent insecurity becomes a blocker for taking leadership roles, it’s time to try and work on getting rid of those feelings.
As a young designer, just starting my career, I felt nervous about speaking up in meetings or hesitated asking clarifying questions. I didn’t want to be seen as arrogant. Still today, after having worked as a the lead designer for years, I sometimes catch myself feeling nervous. But with time, I have become comfortable with leading the design process — even in situations where I don’t have all the answers.
If you have feelings of inadequacy, I recommend you start working on getting rid of it because they can hinder moving forward on your career. The good news is that you don’t have to jump to the top with one giant leap. Instead you can start by taking baby steps that feel less intimidating and quickly become like a second nature. After taking many enough baby steps, you soon realize you’re running the show.
Six easy baby steps that helped me become the lead designer
1. Start paying attention.
And I mean, pay attention beyond your own desk. Design projects exist in a context, and to be taken seriously you need to understand this context. Who all are working on the project? Who are the internal/external stakeholders? What connections and ties does the project have to other projects? What is the meaning of this project to the company? What kind of long term strategy is there for the success of this project? Leaders see the big picture and can make decisions with long term goals in mind. While you’re not expected to make this kind of decisions yet, it is good to start seeing the context.
2. Ask questions
This is always my “go to” when I am nervous about a big upcoming design review, etc. As a designer, you already know that design reviews are critical and you need to solicit feedback either from your clients, peers, or design manager/director. But what if the feedback is something to the effect “this is utter horsesh*it.” That’s not helpful to you and frankly it’s rude. A good leadership move is to lead the person to add more detail because you need useful feedback not incoherent rant. You could say something like “could you tell more what it is you don’t like about it?” Don’t start defending your design decisions before you get more specific feedback. This tactic also shows you as a calm person who is interested in learning more about what is not working rather than getting triggered by an insult.
3. Justify your designs through research
Your design decisions should always be based on your audience’s/user’s validated needs. But sometimes we designers forget to emphasize that when we present our work. When you can argument that you have designed something that you tested (or know based on previous research) and that it resonates with the audience, you come out as an expert. After you gain some confidence in acting as an advocate for the audience/user, you can start reminding others in the room that feedback should not be based on any one individual’s personal preference (e.g. “I don’t like yellow”) unless they directly represent the audience.
4. Save all design exploration and sketches
There will be time when all the designs you chose to present miss the mark. Discussion will follow on what should be done differently, what needs to be explored more. It can be helpful in those moments, if you can quickly pull out our sketches and exploration to show you have tried other options. It is not unusual that design review will turn into a co-design session. Any work you’ve produced will serve as a starting point and your thinking may come through clearer when all your sketches are on the table. Often times, I have an appendix section on my presentation decks where I add all or most of the sketches I’ve produced for the projects. We may never look at them, but any time I’ve had to pull those it has greatly helped the situation.
5. Behave professionally in meetings
Show up on time, or a little early. Prepare beforehand by going through the meeting agenda, so you’ll know what the topic will be. Bring something you can take notes with (laptop, pen & paper, etc.). Keep your phone silent, and don’t play with it or even glance at it unless you absolutely have to. Learn a quick intro so if you are asked to introduce yourself to a new client or co-workers/stakeholders you can confidently tell few of the following things: your name, role, what you’re currently working on, who do you report to, your business organization, etc.
6. Dress professionally — especially if you are presenting to an audience
And I don’t mean you need to necessarily wear a suit and a tie. But be mindful of how you dress. If your team is presenting to a CEO of a large corporation, then wear more business like attire than if you’re having a design review with peers. Know that how you dress affects how you feel. Whenever I need to feel more confident, I dress up a bit. And how you dress affects how people see you. It is a good thing to have a personal and unique style, so never feel like you have to completely change who you are. Just make sure you’re clothes are not dirty, wrinkled, or too revealing.