In the 14 years of my career, I’ve had 7 employers and equally many managers — some of whom I still think of with respect and others with less so. For example, one manager tried to damage my career by lying about my work behind my back, and outright broke the law by reading my emails. Another one, in a different company, used me as a psychological crutch running through all his reasons for each business decision with me during phone calls that sometimes lasted for hours. The same guy — also the owner of the company — sabotaged the payroll so much that in the end I lost 3 months’ worth of pay checks (my advice to all young designers: keep your eyes open when you’re considering a job at a new and unknown startup). I also had one or two managers who were great people, but had little creative direction to give or were more or less disengaged. And then, of course, there were couple that were absolute gems.
Managers are important to employees wellbeing. According to Brigette Hyacinth, the author of The Future of Leadership: Rise of Automation, Robotics and Artificial Intelligence, “A Gallup poll of more [than] 1 million employed U.S. workers concluded that the No. 1 reason people quit their jobs is a bad boss or immediate supervisor.” This means your immediate supervisor or manager has the biggest influence on whether you resign or stay. On the company level, this has major effect on employee retention (ability of an organization to retain its employees).
And any company should be concerned about employee retention: in 2016, the employee turnover cost US companies $160 billion a year. For an individual company, the cost of replacing an employee might range between tens of thousands of dollars to 1.5-2x annual salary. And the most valuable players are the quickest to leave: only about half of high performing employees are satisfied with their job and one in five intends to leave their current companies within six months (Harvard Business Review, November 18, 2014). Sometimes, there are company policies at play and managers can’t easily affect them. But many other things they could. While competitive compensation still ranks as the most valuable aspect of a workplace, things like supplemental training, flexible working location, and flexible schedule are all in top ten (Harvard Business Review, November 18, 2014). And these, among others on the list, are things a good manager might be able to arrange.
All companies want to attract top talent. While design is team work, key individuals can make an entire team thrive. The right talent challenges everyone to raise their bar. Having top talent in the team can also be motivating simply because their choice to join the team makes everyone feel a bit more worthy: we are good — someone amazing chose to be one of us. Often times, top performers have perfected their design process and they can help a team to do the same thing to their shared process. And of course, top talent will lead by example, and it can be inspiring just to watch them work. But top performers also know their value. They might leave a company very quickly if they are not happy, because they can. They will always find a new opportunity.
There is a lot of research out there on how to retain top talent, as I already referred to in the beginning. But it is not just about filling someone’s calendar with training, allowing them to work home when their kid gets sick, or letting them decide whether they want to come to the office by 8 am or by 9 am. Keeping any designer happy is about figuring out who they are, what drives them, and how you can help them thrive — both professionally and personally. Below you can find my thoughts on what would’ve made me stay in some positions I left due to not feeling supported.
Maybe the single most important thing manager can do for a designer is to care about their wellbeing. Are they working too much? Are they having to juggle too many projects? How is the work-life balance? Have your one-on-one meetings and ask how they are doing. Signal that you want them to stay home when they’re sick or when they’re kid is sick. Let them know, you are ok with a mental health day, if needed. Think: what can you do to make their life easier so your top talent can focus on work instead of the stresses of life. Remind them that family comes first and that you are aware of it.
Respect their time and input. Don’t invite your top talent to meetings that do not require their attendance. Or alternatively you can give them the autonomy to decline any meeting invitations they don’t see necessary.
Respect their expertise. Unless you have comparable background and have extensive experience in design work, don’t force poor design decisions on them with your authority. Nothing is more frustrating than having to take orders from someone who has zero understanding on what they are talking about.
Human decency and respect is undervalued. Please, treat anyone and everyone you hire with general respect, and maintain professional composure at all times. This means no yelling, no throwing things, no petty behavior, and no retaliation. (Yes, I’ve had managers who showed these behaviors, unfortunately. How did they ever get to be managers?)
3. Supplemental training
Top performers are curious life-long learners who are constantly looking to improve themselves. But it is critical that they feel this supplemental training is in service of their projects, current role, or future opportunities. Supplemental training does not serve as a benefit or perk if it is useless waste of time. Talk with your top talent, find out what they want to learn. What skills are essential to their role and would benefit them in future, as well?
Flexibility for name sake is not helpful. Trust your team, and let them decide where to work and when. Together you can come up with rules, such as certain meetings you do in person or times when everyone should be available. But if your take on flexibility is measured in one or two hours, that is hardly flexible. Flexibility goes hand in hand with wellbeing because it allows employees to take care of their health and that of their family.
No one likes a hovering manager, and your top performer the least. This doesn’t mean that as a manager you can’t check in with your team to see what they are working on or that are not accountable for you. But it does mean you drop micro managing their every move. You chose to hire a high performing top talent, now let them do their magic.
Unless your top talent is also the owner or a partner in the company, it is likely this is not a position they are planning to stay in for life. And that is ok. The job market is changing, people rarely spend their entire career in one company anymore. And it is actually advised to change jobs every three to five years these days. Don’t worry, three years is enough to transform your design team to a thriving unit with the help of highly performing designer(s). The reputation of your team will attract new top talent when one leaves.
What does this have to do with motivation? Signal your top talent that you understand the current market and you are not expecting them to stay forever. Instead, find out what their career goals are. Then make a plan together on how you, your team and company, and their new position can help them move closer to their career goals. When a top performer sees their position as a milestone on the way to where they want to be, they will put 120% effort in making their project, themselves, the team, and you successful.
Managing designers can be challenging, but it helps if you have a design background. If you worked as a designer, you were in the receiving end of design review and feedback sessions. And you have first hand experience on what the design process is like. Having design background, you’ve probably also worked with all kinds of designers and know that there are as many personalities as there are designers.
Some time ago, I was working for an amazing creative director who not only was a great people manager but had just the right combination of hands on design guidance and “throw you in the fire” attitude. She could identify her team members’ strengths and weaknesses, and knew how to push us to the right direction so we could grow and become better designers. She was also always professional and had a solid process she drove forward. After leaving that kind of supportive and inspiring leadership, I’ve found myself wondering if I’ll ever get a manager like her again.