Design Leadership and Peanut Butter & Jelly


A mentor once sketched out their ideal qualities for a design leader. 

I read through the three categories of specialization, fully digested them, and then quickly recoiled-realizing I'd fail if I had to meet the criteria. I was only one of the three things on the board. I was great with people but I wasn't remarkably strong in product vision or in refining design skills and design processes.

Was my future as a manager unattainable? Did I have it all wrong?

I pocketed my disappointment and focused on my work. A few months later, something emerged that I hadn't previously noticed.

I work really well with a Laura Mikulay, a designer on my team. We're a unique pair because we work on the CRM, an extremely complicated product that integrates with everything at HubSpot.

She's super detail oriented, focused, and strategic. Tiny design problems keep her awake at night. Nothing gets past her. She'd rather be strategizing, designing and getting things done than dealing with conflict and miscommunication between colleagues and teams. She'll tell you exactly who is working on any given feature at any given time (we have a large team). It's remarkable.

I'm different. I can't keep track of every detail. I'm more passionate about designing teams and communication methods than interfaces. I love learning about people's unique qualities so I can get everyone to grow and work well together. I have a hard time remembering everything that's going on in the product-what's behind what gate, who's working on what, and when things are due.

Laura is the peanut butter to my jelly. Where I'm lacking, she totally rocks.

Laura delegates projects to me when they're with other teams, vaguely defined, or a little random. She partners with me to define high level priorities and to move things forward with the right stakeholders. She also leans on me when we're blocked by conflict between teams or a misunderstanding around goals and strategy.

I lean on Laura when I can't remember the details and I'm worried I'll drop the ball. I send designs her way to make sure requirements are being met and larger product and design strategy remains consistent. I also rely on her when I need to know who to talk to to unblock us to clarify the direction of a cross functional project.

As Laura and I continued to crush it on the CRM team, it dawned on me that this is what design leadership could look like.

It requires a Yin and a Yang-one detail oriented, driven person with insanely deep product and design knowledge and one person who's dialed into relationships within and around the team to improve the way people grow and work together. One person to drive product development and another person to streamline the way we work- unblocking the team if there's friction.

Maybe Design leaders shouldn't be individuals who do it all. Maybe they should be unified duos that together, give Product teams everything they need.