Team Leader by Design: An interview with Mark McGuinness

I serendipitously stumbled upon Mark McGuinness last year and realized he was probably the most important “find” I’d ever made. Mark is a business coach and trainer specializing in work with creative professionals. He helps organizations get the best out of creative workers by addressing their motivations and working conditions. He is also the author of two popular blogs about creativity and business: Lateral Action and Wishful Thinking.

Mark’s unique professional background—he’s been a poet, academic, entrepreneur, coach, author and thought leader—and his passion for the creative and business worlds have enabled him to distill and articulate the problems that creatives working in organizations face, as well as the unique opportunities to which they have access.

From your perspective, as a design management consultant, trainer and coach, what do you see as the biggest gaps in design team leads’ skills and aptitudes?

In terms of the skills gap, one of the biggest challenges faced by those moving from designer to team leader is the fact that design management and people management are different disciplines, and they require different skills.

When you’re working on a design project yourself, you can exert a high degree of control over the work, but when you’re a leader, your job is to facilitate other people’s creativity. So there’s the challenge of letting go a little and allowing others to come up with solutions that may be different than the ones you would have chosen. The flip side is that, as a manager, you’re responsible for delivering results on-brief, so there will be times when you need to exert influence and get people to change their work without puncturing their enthusiasm. That’s not easy!

In terms of the nuts and bolts, leaders need to master communication skills such as active listening, asking the right questions and delivering feedback in a way that strikes a fine balance between control and creative freedom.

How have you been focusing your efforts to support your clients?

In order to seize the opportunity I described earlier, design leaders must achieve two complementary goals. The first is raising performance and developing skills within the team. The second is communicating the team’s ideas and the value of their work to external stakeholders.

I help managers reach the first goal by assisting them in becoming better coaches. Because they’re the biggest influence on their team members, managers are perfectly placed to coach their team on a daily basis—clarifying goals, stimulating thinking and giving feedback. I “coach the coach,” helping managers improve their own performance on the job.

In regard to the second goal, I’m finding a growing demand for presentation skills training for creatives. Internal stakeholders and external clients increasingly want to see designers present their own ideas. This can be a challenge for creative types used to spending their days glued to their computers!

The good news is that designers can play to their strengths by taking a creative approach to presentation design and delivery. This not only makes presenting more enjoyable for the designers, it also offers a refreshing change for audiences that have grown accustomed to “death by PowerPoint.” When a designer stands up and wows an audience with a creative and thought-provoking presentation supported by beautiful slides, it reinforces the message that design is a powerful business communication tool. It also demonstrates that you’re in the presence of an expert in the discipline.

What do you see as in-house leads’ biggest external challenges?

I’d say very high up the list is communicating the value of design to non-specialist stakeholders—people in other departments, partner organizations and clients. To do this, you need to have a deep understanding of the business problems your design team solves and you need to be able to articulate them in terms that all stakeholders can understand. Another aspect of this challenge is helping your team develop resilience in the face of poorly worded briefs and feedback from stakeholders.

Evolving from order-taker to strategic partner has always been a challenge for in-house teams. Would you offer up some insights into this challenge?

The price of becoming a strategic partner is that you can’t be precious about design and creativity—you have to get your hands dirty and engage with commercial realities. To rise to this challenge you’ll need to step outside your comfort zone, see things from different perspectives and begin to understand the language and culture of business.

In practical terms, this means learning as much as possible about your organization—its structure, strategic goals and business model(s)—as well as the wider industry context.

Secondly, it’s about developing your communication skills so that you can interface effectively with collaborators from many different backgrounds. Aim to become what David Armano calls a T-shaped creative—someone with both in-depth specialist knowledge (the long, vertical stroke of the T) and an understanding of the roles and disciplines with which you intersect (the horizontal stroke).

Another challenge—it seems like there are all sorts of challenges here—is maintaining a culture within an in-house team that encourages creativity and collaboration in a corporate environment that may be at odds with that intent.

Challenges aren’t far to seek! In fact, there are two basic interlocking challenges here. One is establishing a close-knit team bond, where you support each other. The other is making sure the team is open and engaged with other stakeholders.

In terms of bonding, you can make a virtue of necessity—seeing the team as an “oasis” of design thinking within a corporate environment can have a positive effect on morale. But beware of creating too much of an “us and them” culture!

It’s essential to foster a strong culture of encouragement and feedback within the team. Peer respect is hugely motivating for designers, so you can harness this by making it clear to members of the team that they are responsible for collectively raising the bar, not doing great work in isolation at others’ expense.

Sharpen up your own feedback skills and make sure everyone on the team knows how to deliver feedback effectively. Make it clear that destructive criticism will not be tolerated. An important but often-overlooked skill is the art of receiving feedback effectively. Help your team deal with poorly worded or even aggressive feedback from outside by teaching them to ask questions in order to clarify criteria and find out what external stakeholders really want. This not only helps team members develop thicker skins, it also elicits higher quality feedback, giving designers a better chance of reaching a solution everyone is happy with.

Another big benefit of engaging with external stakeholders in this way is building stronger relationships with them. When a designer doesn’t just wilt in the face of feedback but stands their ground, asks questions, listens carefully and responds with new ideas, they earn respect.

About the Author:

Andy Epstein started his career as a freelance designer and illustrator with clients as varied as Bacardi, Canon, Bantam Books and Merck. Jumping into the world of in-house in 1992, Andy created and grew in-house design teams for Commonwealth Toy and Gund. He later restructured and expanded the hundred-person creative team at Bristol-Myers-Squibb and consulted at Johnson & Johnson. After a three year stint at Designer Greetings leading an in-house design team responsible for the company’s product lines and Point Of Sales materials, Andy moved back into pharma heading up a 65+ managed services team at Merck.

Andy has written and spoken extensively on in-house issues and published “The Corporate Creative”, a book on in-house design, in partnership with F&W Publications in the spring of 2010. He is a co-founder of InSource, an association dedicated to providing support to in-house designers and design team managers. Most recently he was head of INitiative, the AIGA program dedicated to in-house outreach and support where he expanded on his efforts to empower in-house teams and raise their stature in the design and business communities.