This podcast features Sofia Millares, Creative Director of Product Design, and Tami Evnin, Lead Product Designer, both of Nasdaq, and their Presentation, “World’s Best Boss: Lessons Learned from a New Design Leader” from the design leadership conference Prototypes, Process & Play on August 11th, 2017.
Sofia Millares – Presentation
Sofia Millares is the Creative Director of Product Design at Nasdaq. For the past four years she has been overseeing the styling and global functionality for the entire product suite offering. Alongside her team, she is determined to expand the Nasdaq branding throughout all platforms and create new ways to position and rethink these products.
Born and raised in Mexico, Sofia always had an interest in design and moved to New York City ten years ago to pursue a BA in Design and Management with a concentration in graphic design from Parsons the New School for Design. In addition to design, she loves to travel, practice calligraphy and hang out with her three-year-old (and 100lb.) pup Lemmy.
Tami Evnin – Presentation
Tami Evnin is the Director of Portfolio Design Strategy at Nasdaq, where her team is changing the way a fintech leader builds products. She has established design best practices and helped scale the team from 3 to over 25 designers. Her most recent challenge has been learning to manage former peers while trying to not let her creative muscles atrophy. Tami earned her MFA in Design and Technology at Parsons The New School for Design, where she focused on developing social interfaces to foster interdisciplinary collaboration and product development. She is an international award winning product designer, has recently presented at a handful of international conferences, and is a proponent of the Oxford comma.
For more, keep up with Tami at tamievnin.com.
World’s Best Boss: Lessons Learned from a New Design Leader
What happens when you’re asked to step-up and lead the work of the design team or to manage your fellow designers for the first time? Most of us envision ourselves sketching ideas, designing solutions, or prototyping our days away, forever in our happy place. And we’re no different–we had no idea what to expect, beyond knowing what we saw that we thought was good or… not so good. We became new design managers and had to learn how to navigate our new responsibilities–to our boss and to our former peers–while trying to lead others to be successful as designers.
We faced a lot of challenges, and learned a lot about ourselves, our teams, and our boss. We’re going to share some tools and techniques that have helped us become better at leading our teams, and delivering to those who count on all of us. And we’re still working on becoming the best bosses in the world.
Podcast transcript below. Please note: Transcription was recorded live; there may be errors (typographical and contextual), as well as omissions or other content gaffes.
Additionally, there was microphone feedback that happened in the room from time to time, and we did our best to minimize it in the podcasts. We apologize for any disruptions to your listening experience that this may cause.
I’m Sofia Millares. I’m in charge of design at NASDAQ. I’ve been there for five years. My job is to push forward all the efforts for our projects. For any user that walks into another project, they know that it belongs to –
Hi. – portfolio design strategy. Similar to what she was saying. It’s consistency across everything that we work on. We work on a lot of things that come together in one way or a another. We found that it’s really helpful to make sure that there is a core part of the team that sees how all of these things come together and that’s what I do.
We wanted to just start by saying a little bit more about ourselves and kind of how the team came together so that you can get a little bit of context on how we became managers and leaders on our team. So Sofia and I have been part of the product design team at NASDAQ for a while. At that point we were a team of four designers. It was a brand new team for the company. While NASDAQ has been a software company up to that point, they didn’t have a really solid product development process or any design practice. So a lot of what we were doing in the beginning was establishing best practices and kind of like just trying to rise above the water and complete projects while also trying to say okay here is what things are going to look like from now on. And here is kind of our, you know, the secret sauce that we’re going to bring to this process.
So, you know, we were always working and figuring it out as a team. And then over time the team started to grow. You know, we were successful on a couple of projects that we worked on. So that gave us more work and visibility in the company. And so our team went from being 4 people to, you know, like 15 really quickly. And now we’re hovering around the 20 mark, the 20‑person mark.
Yeah. There was a lot for us tolearn along that journey.
It wasn’t this couple‑person team who could be scrappy. We had to learn how our process failed and how we could be more successful and consistent across a bigger team. And that’s basically how we got into the position that we did.
So yeah, today we just wanted to share some of the lessons that we’ve learned along the way. And we’re really new to this idea. What we wanted to do is get kind of a poll of the room.
Raise your hand if you’ve managed people? That’s a lot of you. Most of you. And raise your hand if you’ve managed people for longer than a year? Okay, cool. So, you know, you might be able to give this talk to us, actually. But we think that, you know, we hope at least that we can share some of the things that we’ve learned, you know, you can read books on management or have trainings in your company. But I think we wanted to share some of the more like softer skills that we’ve picked up along the way.
So we’ll talk about delegation. We’ll talk about, you know, we’ve heard a lot just in the last couple minutes about not having to rely on ourselves and rely on teams to do that. What that means for you as a designer. But also as a team. We’ll talk about communications of people that we manage and also communication above us or across an organization and what we’ve learned about being transparent with our teams, but also being guarded with some of our information.
We’ll talk about finding our voices as leaders. And then, you know, how we found that really helping our teams find their own voice made us the most successful. We think, again, lots of we’ve heard a lot of themes over the last two days from all the speakers that I think – and hopefully we’ll bring that together. It’s been really exciting to hear all of your insights. They guide us, as well.
Just want to let you know that – he’s going to help us a little bit as we transition into this role. It’s a whole new world as managers. One quick note, since we’ve got a number of our colleagues in the audience. We just want to assure them that none of these stories are about you.
So we tried to protect the innocent and hopefully no one will be offended. And, you know, we also don’t necessarily –
Really what happened, just like everyone else on my team, going to the computer, putting up a design, sharing my process, and how I really got to that point. Some of the decisions that I made. I really wasn’t communicating to anybody. Just me and one designer. I immediately realized that was going to change when I became a manager. Because a lot of the time it was just projects were being delivered and they didn’t look the way I wanted them to look. And so I would end up doing it myself. That wasn’t good for me or my team. Of the morale was down. Oh, Sofia is going to come in and fix it.
The first lesson I learned was how to give good directions. That was huge. So I decided to think about what I could do coming to my team. So one of the things I did is I would print out their work and I would be like all right. So this is why. I would circle it and go through it. And that was the point where, you know, I learned that different people work in different ways. Some people have certain strengths and certain weaknesses. And I needed to really learn how my team worked in order to give it the best direction, as well. Be more clear in different way to give direction. That was huge.
I’m a super visual person. And sometimes I don’t get my point across. So I needed to figure out how to get that point across. So having a – or creating a wire frame. And this is sort of what I was thinking. Get it and getting feedback from them to see if they understood what direction to go.
And then I also needed to be way more clear about the roles that pass through the project. Who was going to work – mainly my expectations. The wireframes, where they’re going to put it through so they knew at the end of the day this is why we did it.
All right. So the next kind of challenge that we faced was playing telephone. We’ve all been there where you’re in a meeting with someone. A boss above you who just kind of comes in. And you basically feel like you have to start all over and really rally the team to deliver changes in a really short amount of time.
As a manager, you all of a sudden have access to a bunch of conversations that you weren’t privy to before. And while these meetings could be more strategic, and so you’re in conversations about defining the project, defining milestones, planning for a release, things like that, you may also be – you have the access to do that. You also have access to stakeholders that you probably didn’t have before, or you haven’t had as much access to. Like development partners or business owners. So you have access, but that also means that, you know, you have a lot more information to process. You’re part of the decision making and you really understand like the insights that went into the decision and there is just way more information for you to process. And it’s super important to distill that information to your team.
So the next lesson we learned is about communication. I think what we really learned is that you should just stop and let yourself process the information. You need to be sure you understand before you can communicate with anyone else and give them clarity.
Next when you meet with your team, obviously it’s important to be clear in the direction that you give. But it’s also really important then to take this information and make sure it’s documented. Right? Somewhere you can look back on later after the first time you met and no one understood what was going on. People can –
So for us some kind of combination of Telo or Basecamp. And a quick e‑mail. That’s helpful. I know everyone is on Slack. Make sure we’re all on the same page. A little moment of “Are we all good? Are we all on the same page?” And finding the time to be available afterwards. You’re probably going to have to explain yourselves a couple of different times, different ways.
Some people were saying before learning how certain team members need to hear that information. You may have to deliver the same methods. So give yourself that time.
And then, you know, I think most importantly your responsibility is to help your team focus. So, you know, you’re the person who sets the priorities. You help people prioritize their time. This thing isn’t important. Don’t worry about it.
I think, too, for me, something that has been for me helpful is when things are taken off my plate.
I think we often think about adding on or whatever, but sometimes the most helpful thing for your teams is to make something not their problem anymore. So, you know, I think yesterday they were speaking about creating confidence by reducing uncertainty. Managing up and speaking with executives in their language. I think that also really relates when you’re managing down to your team and help them reduce that uncertainty for themselves. That can be really helpful for both.
And then the last thing is, you know, support your team when distractions come in. Especially when you’re working on a project. You can’t be on every complication. But you also have to make it clear that you should be the filter for a lot of information for your team. Making it clear to other stakeholders that you’re working with if new work comes in or a question about the last delivery comes through, that you should be the person that takes that question and then decides whether or not they’ll take it out. And taking that burden off of the team so they don’t feel that they have to digest everything. That can be helpful.
So next there was basically you have this list of projects – To me, it was really overwhelming that I was going to be that involved, you know, having to work on everything. It was said earlier, delegate or die. Yeah, not knowing when you’re like hey I just can’t do everything. And for example, I would be like Tami said, in the first few years our team went from being 6 to 7. And we were growing and then we hired people and we acquired a company and within that company there was a design team. And we went from 7 to 15 in the span of months. So in reality, I had to figure out how am I going to work with more people? My vision and my direction.
So as a team, so the lesson is basically, the first thing that we did in a sense is we created a resource. A library, starter guides. I just needed to be sure that I was creating the tools for our team to, you know, give power to go in and design without me having to be sitting like next to them and say oh, no, that’s not the right color and that’s not the right button. So that is super important. In a sense it made me just feel a lot more comfortable delegating all the work. And I knew what work was going to be expected. So yeah.
So the next thing, it was like assigning development projects to development people. Earlier I spoke about learning your team members’ strengths and what they’re really good at. Visual design or prototyping, cultivating research, and understanding the types of projects. So Tami you’re going to work on this because you’re really good at that. It may be something like you want to challenge someone and say hey, you haven’t worked on or done any research in a while.
So it was also like understanding their needs. So maybe like something that they wanted to work through. Maybe they did it. And the last one was design mentorship. Something that’s really helping smaller projects. – I would sit with them and I would mentor them. How to use it. And the – university. We basically put together classes for teams where they could learn about Photoshop or Sketch and what makes a good design. What good design looks like. Not for us, but just in general. Just sharing our skillset with the team.
I was talking with a friend recently and she said on her team wherever someone joins a team, they have to make a list of skills that they would want to improve. And that was also – she said I don’t know. Strategy, business, visual design, coding. And everybody has to do that. And so at the end, you know, like if you’re very good at coding and that’s on your list, then you go to that person and say “Hey, maybe I can mentor you.” And, you know, we can learn about coding.
Full disclosure. When you get really good at delegating, you’re going to start with the grunt work. You got to order computers for someone or write business goals for the team.
You’re not going to work on the design all the time. There’s going to be a couple of things that you’re just not going to get to do. But I think in the end you do get the opportunity to showcase other people’s work and that’s super rewarding.
Great. So the next challenge is we can’t be everywhere on every conversation. You spread a lot thinner as a manager because you probably have visibility across multiple projects and streams. It’s really important to work with your team so they can function on their own without you. And kind of imparting your knowledge. So these people don’t have to rely on you.
So empowering the team is probably one of the most important ones for us. That’s like your whole goal as a manager. Help lift other people up. So, you know, you need to create opportunities for people, for them to learn to speak about their work and stand up for the decisions they’ve made or defend their designs in front of other folks. It might actually be like scheduling a meeting that, you know, they’re giving in front of someone. Whether it’s more people on the design team or with development partners. Scheduling time for them to speak is really important. That may also be, too, that you have to spend more time with them to teach them how to give that presentation. It’s definitely, I think some of the things are thinking of the design process as something that you can extend. Helping people to set the goal and figure out the best way.
On that note, we also have to be an advocate for your people. In front of them and also not in front of them. I think it’s really important to make sure that you stand up for your team, that you, you know, point out when someone has done really good work. And make sure that, you know, everyone knows like where it came from or what the team is thinking about and why. And, you know, that’s a really important job for you to be the voice for your team.
And then something that I personally find really important is the idea of apologizing. I’m a serial apologizer. Trying to break that habit. But I’ve noticed as a manager is that people apologize a lot for, you know, you’re in a meeting and the work that you present isn’t exactly right or what we had talked about before. There’s no apology there. We need to be humble and talk through our decision‑making process and explain what we can do better the next time. But that doesn’t mean you should be sorry about it. Kind of owning their work and be confident in it is really important.
Everybody likes to be a boss, but that’s not how it’s going to work sometimes. I have to prove my leadership mainly to myself most of the time. It was hard for me to go out to people who I had been working with for a few years and now I was managing. That was a different mindset that I had to change. Sometimes I had to say the hard truth and it may not be easy or popular or fun. I had to find my voice as a manager or a leader. What kind of leader I wanted to be and how I wanted to be perceived by my teammates.
The first thing I do is I have to be prepared. I have to educate myself. I have to know about what people are working on and be able to answer any questions that they might have to be able to get a reason why they think sometimes. So if someone asks me things like “Why did you design this way in the past?” Are you trying to replicate it or use it as a pattern? I have to be able to say like I designed this because the user thinks this way. Or for example in the financial district, red is like a big color. And a lot of people don’t know that when they design something. I have to tell them not to do that. Don’t use red because the users probably don’t like red everywhere.
Also, I have to be confident. I have to go in, if I sounded confident and I knew I was confident in the decisions I was making, people would see that and say okay, I’ll go with that. That sounds great.
So my design direction has changed a lot. The way I communicate, the way I say it. Before I was very timid about it. Like well, you know, but sometimes you just have to say no, this is how you want to do that. At the same time you have to listen to what they have to say, too. If you prove that you’re confident, they’re going to see you as a leader.
The last thing, too, if you’re unsure about things, it’s okay to say I don’t know. But just say I’m going to find out for you. Go talk to your boss about it. Just say “Hey, let me check with my boss. Let me find out and get an answer for you. And I’ll get back to you.”
All right. So one of the last challenges we faced is trying to understand your team and, you know, make sure that you have a read on everyone. Like just in general. If people are struggling in a certain area or with other people on the team or on a project. And you’re responsible. Right? You’re responsible for their professional quality. It can be a lot of responsibility. So you have to make sure that you’re finding the space to have the this dialogue all the time. And a lot of it is checking in with folks to have the time to do it. But being super observant. Watching attitudes and behaviors and trying to pick up on people. Like the patterns that they have as individuals. And just always be aware of what’s going on in the group.
And then, you know, obviously you’re responsible for making sure that project goes out on time. But you’re also responsible to make sure that your people are happy and, you know, productive and like the work that they’re doing. So you have to – so Take care of your folks. Make sure everything is cool. Check in when they get to work.
One thing, always the lowest priority meeting. Anything else can come in and you can move it around. That’s not a great habit. I think that, you know, it’s super important to make those meetings a priority. But even just like having a placeholder on your calendar can be really helpful. Because if it does get scheduled over, at least you know to move it. It seems like a really simple tip, but I have found it’s really helpful to have that so you can’t move it or throw it away.
Checking in with your team, but also checking in on projects. You need time to check in with people who may not be your direct report. But having that cadence of regular check‑ins with people, even if they’re not, like you’re not their boss directly, it can be really, really helpful in making sure that everyone is successful. So setting that pattern is really important.
You have to be super transparent about what you’re doing. So we made a couple points about this. But now that you’re a boss you’re probably not doing as many things that are tangible. You may not have a design deliverable that you’re responsible for. You might be in a lot of meetings where no one really knows what they’re about. You’re just generally not available. People may not know where you are and how you’re spending your time. I think it’s really helpful to be transparent about this. You know, we were in this meeting with our business partners to discuss like the actual investment we’re going to make in this project. Or the consumer priorities for this first version. And that resulted in us kind of changing direction on a project. Just being clear about decision making that we’re a part of. It impacts all of us. It’s not just talking for talking’s sake, but you’re part of these important conversations that impact the team.
You know, make time. I kind of mentioned this before. But I think it’s really important to give opportunities to people to share their work. Especially if you’re new to the team or a project or something like that, it can be really helpful to just get other people’s ideas on it. And you as a manager need to give that time to them. Bring opportunities for them to present that work to the team. Schedule regular team meetings where there is a show and tell. People aren’t really going to do those types of things on their own probably. And it can be really helpful to present your work to your allies first before you present it maybe to like development teams or product teams. And so as managers we need to make time for people to do that.
Recognize good work. Sometimes we go through the motions and we forget to call out when someone has done an awesome job on things. This can be something as simple as a Slack message saying “She did a really great job. And her designs went over. And everyone give a thumbs up to Sofie in this chat right now.” It can be really effective for remote workers that way. Or it could be a trophy. – It kind of makes sense. But even something like that can make someone really proud of themselves. Our CEO recognizes that they were working on something. And even little things like that can be really powerful.
– we’re a lot better at our jobs than when we first started. So Tami and I sat down to figure out our presentation. And we realized as managers we’ve actually never talked about it. Like what kind of challenges we have in our work. And we found that we had very similar challenges. Very similar ways to also overcome them. And mainly we realized that we’re also very different. I think something super important is we figure out the kind of managers we want to be. I think that’s super personal. Do you want to be more direct? Do you want to be more friendly? It’s something that you can set up and it’s something that’s projected, especially when you start working with people on your team. You create this sense of oh, you already know what your boss wants.
So, yeah. That’s what we have.
That’s what we have.
There’s a good amount of time for questions.
That was a nice throw.
So, what kinds of initial –
The question was what kind of initial or ongoing support did you get from your company? Training? So we’re part of a large organization that has a lot of, you know, H.R. training and resources. I think one of the things that kind of inspired the lessons that we shared here was that Sofie and I were part of the training, it felt really corporate. It didn’t feel like tangible skills that we could take back to our people. It’s more of like the soft skill things. But yeah, there are manager trainings where they kind of talk about everything from how to talk to people, or the pace of goals that you should be setting up for your team. Learning materials. Things like that. But it wasn’t necessarily practical knowledge. I think a lot of what we learned was just on the job or, you know, things that our bosses did that we liked or didn’t like and trying to go from there.
Any other questions? Come on! It’s soft, come on!
I mean the trophy is one thing. As a team, we really try to check in. And formalizing it, I think product managers, our boss’ boss. One of our colleagues learned – in a month. And Jeremy actually sent out an e‑mail to like really every stakeholder and was very concrete about like let’s give Casey a big round of applause.
And I think we also more recently started doing a video check‑in with the team. Because we don’t always have opportunities to be together physically, even chatting with the video camera turned on is like huge. But I think we’re not at the point where that is a regular occurrence. But I think we’re kind of moving in that direction. And having those be like positive experiences. We have to tell everyone. Like make those times, those positive moments. –
You guys mentioned you learn a lot just based on what – I was wondering if you can give us a couple of examples of things you don’t like about your boss.
Yeah, we can do that on the break, Jeremy. –
You guys mentioned that your team kind of scaled very quickly due to acquisitions. I was curious if there was any kind of clash or power dynamics that happened and how you managed that?
There are some people in the room that were part of that acquisition. – I think we got really lucky actually in the acquisition that we were part of. Our teams, our skills complemented each other very well. There were definitely like people – That kind of happened. But basically what the process was to go and to kind of talk about the work that they did and get a really good understanding of their experience and the type of processes that they are used to and seeing how that fit. You know, I don’t know all of it. Like all the decision making that went into how the teams got put together, but just like meeting and talking and finding that we have a lot of common ground was really helpful.
When that happened – sharing a desk with someone. Oh, they’re starting tomorrow. We even started putting together like checklists.
A computer and a badge to get into the building. What time are they coming in. With that we started to – with people on the team about projects, efforts, and even – making sure that people feel like they’re joining our team and we’re excited about it. – The growing pains. It’s evolving. The onboarding process. But we have two designers joining us a month ago? And I think that’s been like the smoothest, best onboarding we’ve ever done.
All right. One last question and it’s from me. Not for you. Chris, what was it like for you to onboard your leader? What did you have in place?
That’s a good question, actually. So basically onboarding is a good exercise in observation. Just kind of trial and error and see where folks kind of they’re either, you know, potential and affinity. – a voice that could be direct.
I want to stop you. What did you have in place for your onboarding?
For when we were bringing on new managers? It was probably –
That’s okay. We’re out of time.
One day we were responsible for other people. We were responsible for our people first. I’m sure there were actual things that we learned. But it also –
Things that we did. But we were doing that.
Thank you both very much.
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