We were fortunate to be one of the main sponsors for Leading Design – a three day conference that brought together an incredibly diverse group of individuals with a common denominator; they all operate at a Leadership level for tech companies ranging from VC Investment companies, all the way through to global giants such as Facebook, Spotify, and Google.

The talks that really resonated with me were from Cap Watkins, Ben Terrett, and Samantha Soma – while all the talks were excellent, these three left me full of ideas to take back to my desk as manager of the Design and Creative team at Futureheads.

Fear is okay

Cap Watkins, VP of the amazing Buzzfeed walked us through a very honest week in the life of a VP and shared fifteen fearful thoughts that he documented he felt over a week.

  • Am I doing a good job?
  • Am I doing what I said I would do?
  • Are people on my team happy?
  • What if someone quits?
  • What would we do until we hire someone?
  • How could I make more time?
  • How would that affect the team?
  • What if we hire the wrong person?
  • What would we do until we hire someone?
  • What am I forgetting?
  • Did I choose the right meeting to go to?
  • Am I evaluating people fairly?
  • Am I even being helpful?
  • Do I even matter?
  • Am I doing a good job?

It was really refreshing to see not only Cap share this, but the nods of agreement from the room. It’s a common misconception among managers that these doubts don’t exist, or that they represent a weakness. But for Cap, this fear is actually a good thing. He used the example of Etsy, where everyone in the entire business has the ability to deploy to the website at will with the push of a button. He argues that if you aren’t a little bit afraid, you shouldn’t do it, as you won’t notice if something is wrong. Being totally confident is more dangerous than being a little bit afraid. “The Fear” is actually a positive thing – it keeps you focused and on your toes and prevents complacency. We should embrace it.

Managing a team doesn’t have to be complex

Ben Terrett, Group Design Director at Co-op talked through some of the lessons he’s learnt about managing teams and ensuring work gets done.

Traditional management is a waterfall process that is top-down, with the manager overseeing everything that goes out of the door. But this ambition for control means that inevitably, you’ll become a bottleneck for your team. The solution is to work at being open and agile, devolving power as far down as you can. You need to trust your team, “more than you are comfortable with” – which was a phrase that really stuck with me.

He aligns his teams so as to empower them to self-manage to a common set of standards that allow teams to move together to make decisions and take responsibility. Here are some of the techniques and tips Ben suggested that I think could be really valuable.

  • Frame conversations with your team around three key questions that give you visibility. What are they working on? Is that work any good? Are they happy?
  • Share your personal objectives with your team – you can’t manage a team in the dark
  • Don’t try to manage more than 6 people, delegate.
  • Start meetings with AOB – that’s the stuff people want to talk about.
  • Be open, optimise for delivery and act like a distributed network
  • Be proactive, management doesn’t just happen. You need to schedule in time for management, for people development and strategy. He suggested 1/2 day a week.

Hire once, grow twice

Samantha Soma from GE Digital gave a great presentation on developing and nurturing talented people into leaders. I was interested to hear that over 80% of personal development happens on the job. It’s a common misconception that it is something people do outside of their day-to-day role. Leaders, therefore, have an important role to play in helping their teams to develop as individuals.

Here are some of her top tips for helping your teams develop:

  • Find challenging job assignments.
  • Give people stretch opportunities before they’re ready for them.
  • Cheerlead and push. Make good work visible and hold under par work accountable.
  • Provide candid assessment and feedback on a regular basis.

Although it was an event for design leaders, there were lots of things that I learnt and can implement as a manager in a different context. The challenges for leaders are for the most part universal, and I see huge learning opportunities for leaders from all walks of life.

Leading Design also gave me some great insight into the challenges that the clients and candidates I work with are dealing with, and how my team and I can best support them.

I’d be very interested to hear comments, challenges, or advice from anyone who is in a leadership role. Get in touch with me at toby@wearefutureheads.co.uk.


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