After you’ve done your homework, how do you know you’re starting to operate as a more senior IC?
You own and solve the hardest problems
I think a lot of people assume this means new products, but it doesn’t. Hard problems are problems the company is facing that are affecting our audiences, business or internal tools.
You thrive in ambiguity
We talk a lot about thriving in ambiguity with interview candidates. This becomes even more important as you level up, especially how you help teams through it. It’s important to be able to help others find their way in uncertain situations.
You consistently offer good judgment
Applying good judgment applies to both design and business strategy, and it also means educating people on your decision-making process. People need you to provide more holistic recommendations and thinking, and to walk them through those ideas.
You help teams simplify and stay on goal
You get teams to focus on the meat of the problem they’re trying to solve. This is 90% of what design leaders do.
You wrangle cross-functional players to get things done
You connect people, rally troops, prioritize and focus on helping the team move forward, all while producing high-quality work.
You’re a strong voice of escalation
You speak out when things are going awry or when your team isn’t building something in the best interests of our audiences. This tactic requires strong relationships with top leadership, which is why it’s best to continuously nurture these relationships. To be effective, people need to trust you when you offer feedback/ideas/solutions. In regard to building relationships, I often hear people say “I had a meeting with that person. It must all be good now.” But once isn’t enough—just like you wouldn’t water your garden once and expect it to thrive, you shouldn’t expect your relationships to thrive without care either.
You represent the highest standards
You go beyond creating standards. You enforce them and educate partners about why they matter. This is a core distinction between IC leaders and managers—IC leaders are intimately involved in product work and can (and should) influence and drive quality day-to-day, while also ensuring cross-functional partners understand why this is necessary and what to expect.
You influence the roadmap
You attend to relationships with key leaders and influence where your product or service is going. To influence this trajectory, it’s important to speak up often and make yourself visible. Position yourself as a lead and knowledge-keeper at all-hands meetings, publish internal notes, and share strategies and points-of-views. Sometimes you may feel like you don’t have the “right” to do this (whether it’s because of your tenure or discipline), but this is where you have to “just do it.” Make yourself influential and you will be.
You influence team structure
Quality can’t be achieved if teams aren’t running efficiently or collaborating effectively. You might think this is something for project managers and engineers to figure out, but it’s key to how you’ll ultimately influence product quality and output. Design leaders push back on team structure that’s causing ineffective design practice, and represent their discipline to show how that work gets done. Again, this is not only a manager’s job. You can certainly partner with your manager here, but it’s also something that you can confidently drive and escalate.
You help others grow in their career
You’ve been in the shoes of your more junior colleagues, so you’ll often have ideas on how to guide them. In meetings, you’re open to helping them work through problems. You may also volunteer to lead panels or give talks on how more junior contributors can improve.
You facilitate the best collaborative thinking
You know how to get people to generate ideas, synthesize them, and articulate them so that they are actionable. And you create space to make this happen.
You pull people together to solve problems for the company
As a junior or mid-level IC, you’re often solving micro-level problems for which you, yourself (or your small team), are responsible. But as you grow, you become attuned to more macro-level problems whose solutions require multidisciplinary thinking. And sometimes, you might be one of the few, if not only, people who know who else needs to be “in the room.”
Those last two imperatives get at helping teams motivate and produce great results. Some people may think that being an IC leader is about soley identifying a problem and solving it solo. But it’s not. It’s about solving together for the benefit of the company, the product, and our audiences.