in organizations

The Challenge of Hiring Senior Design Leadership

Over the past few years, I’ve talked to a number of companies about design roles at director and executive levels. And maybe because such leadership is relatively new, I find most of them have been quite naive about such roles. Here’s how I put it in an email to a company I was engaging with (this was to lead a design team of about 25-30 folks):

Bringing on this kind of senior design role is hard, because there are a host of things to balance. You want someone who is:

  • a brilliant design visionary
  • a solid design practitioner (can role up sleeves and execute)
  • a strategic thinker (can help set direction for product/brand)
  • an inspiring leader (can keep the team engaged and hopeful)
  • a detail-oriented critic (can suggest ways to improve the team’s work)
  • a considerate manager (mindful of the professional needs of the team members)
  • a teacher of design methods and practices, and when to use them
  • a diplomat (can collaborate and communicate with product, engineering, brand marketing)
  • dogged recruiter with a nose for talent
  • an operator (working the organization and unblocking paths to success)

That’s a lot to ask for!

Of course, companies don’t want to have to choose — they want it all! But the reality is, even if someone can do all of these things, they aren’t going to, at least not with any regularity. There’s simply not enough time.

So, what most companies incline to hire in a senior design role is a Creative Director — someone who can deliver on vision, practice, and critique. Basically, a senior-er version of a great designer.

However, if what you want is someone to lead a design team, then such an approach would be a classic Peter Principle move. Because while it’s crucial that this person come from a design practice background (in order to understand the ins and outs of design work), the qualities that matter most — leader, manager, recruiter, and operator — are those that have nothing to do with design execution. Those other qualities, while definitely nice to have, are gravy, and will not be the core of this person’s role.

Something that seems to work well is to split ultimate design leadership across two roles, one more creative, the other more operational. Engineering orgs will have a CTO (super senior systems architect type) and VP of Engineering (responsible for engineering teams and their operation). Newspapers have an Editor-in-Chief and a Managing Editor. Design orgs could, and when they reach a certain size (greater than 30 or so), definitely should, have a VP of Design (the team leader I’ve described) and a Creative Director (or Chief Design Officer).

I’d love to hear of other leadership models for design that you’ve seen work well.

  1. I guess it’s the old Management vs. Leadership debate. As Peter Drucker said: “Management is doing things right; leadership is doing the right things.”

    Managers themselves seem to think that these days, the two roles should not be separated (see for example WSJ’s guide: but I too can imagine having them separated.

    Depending on the culture, one or the other would be a heavier role. I would assume that in most established product organizations, the manager role would be heavier, where in agencies/consultancies, the CCO would carry more weight.

  2. I don’t know Peter (B), I don’t think it’s as simple as Mgmt vs Leadership. There are aspects to Mgmt and Leadership needed in both a CCO/ECD/CD role and a VP of Design role (if separated). I see the VP role as managing up and across – organizational leadership and the CCO/ECD/CD role focused on delivering exceptional product(s). Depending on the size of the company, these could be 1 person, but I could also see a VP role and several CD or ECD roles (based on product verticals) at larger companies. But the CD/ECD roles would still necessitate being a people leader in addition to the design leadership. I guess what I’m describing has the VP at the top and the CCO/ECD/CD reporting into the VP – similar to the CTO & VP of Engineering examples above. Perhaps I’m also describing a product company, not a consultancy.

    Peterme, when you break it down to: leader, manager, recruiter, and operator – how are you dividing these up between the 2 roles? I see the first 3 being needed in both roles and the VP taking on the operator role as primary.

    Thanks for the post. You’ve summarized (and validated) a lot of what I’ve been experiencing during my current explorations into what’s next.

  3. Thanks Peter M, Peter B, and Kim I totally hear you. I can see relevant aspects in what each of you brings, but this is my personal take.

    I have found myself doing all of those separate things in different combinations together, but rarely all together. The problem with having two different people is the conflict that could create. You see, I like managing people and getting the most out of them. But I also like to lead creatively. I guess you just need the ability to flex both muscles occasionally or really commit to one path.

    I have just given up managing and leading a team, to focus on consulting, as the other things were making me lose my credibility with the people I had pulled together and making me feel rusty. It’s also bloody hard to build a team in this environment right now. Every interview I went to, and every opportunity I still get sent, is looking to build a team. Be they in-house, a management consultancy, a design agency, a marketing agency, or a tech startup. That’s really hard, and I got more and more sick of trying to recruit and retain the best talent.

    I miss my teams, I miss seeing other people making you more proud than you can make yourself. But I also miss solving design (or business) problems myself and using my experience for something other than growing someone else. Is that selfish?

  4. Jason, it sounds like PeterMe’s Creative Director/Chief Design Officer role would be a fit for you since it would involve flexing (and training) your design muscles, right? It would still include leading-activities, but not the management activities that seem to get you down.
    Although, having said that, I realize that that’s exactly where much of the overlap lies; creating and maintaining environments and a culture where designers can shine.

  5. I like that these dual roles provide opportunities to learn from each other, relieving the trial-by-fire that stepping a single role seems to create. I see this working like the relationship between the commanding officer & executive officer of a military vessel.

    When you talk about the role as an operator, based on one’s pedigree as a design manager, these roles could provide different efficacy when working with the c-suite versus design staff. Different as they are, I would think that both groups respond better to managers that look and sound like “one of their own”.

Comments are closed.