Many organizations are hiring their first-ever design leaders. There are likely more VPs and executives leading design teams than ever before. The more I chat with design leaders across the industry, the more a specific question comes up: what is the difference between a VP of Design and a VP of “anything else”.
It’s difficult to differentiate a role vs. all other roles in the industry so I am going to focus this article a little bit more on explaining some of the key differences between the role of a VP of Design in comparison to roles they need to interact with frequently. Namely, the difference of a VP of Design to a VP of Product Management, Engineering, and Product Marketing.
It’s also important to note that there are a lot of similarities between these roles. All of them are business execution roles that focus on the way a leader can set strategy and drive customer and business outcomes. All of them require leadership on the people level in building, recruiting, empowering, and motivating teams of leaders and people. The focus on differences here is a way of understanding the challenges a design leader faces in this org instead of simply outlining that the role of a VP of Design is just different.
With that in mind, here are the four key differences I see:
- Clarity of the role: this is the most challenging part of the role. Most organizations are not entirely clear on the role they’d like a VP of Design to play. Sometimes, they’re not even clear on the role design itself plays in the organization. This ends up shaping the first few months (and sometimes years) of a design leader’s job if not addressed immediately.
- Depth of ownership: there is generally a single design leader at this level and many PM and Engineering leaders. You’re likely a peer to so many people who spend all of their days in their areas focusing on expanding the depth of their knowledge in a single area.
- Stakeholder management: with so many peers at this level, especially in engineering and PM, the time you spend on stakeholder management is likely much higher than any of your peers. This difference here could also be quite an advantage if seen as an opportunity.
- The operational work required to get things running: design teams are scaling at an unprecedented level and the role of a design organization is changing. Most design leaders that I talk to spend hours every week solidifying the operations of their team as their team matures. This is not something most VPs of Engineering and PM worry about as the same frequency.
Let’s unpack each one at more depth.
Clarity of the role
Many companies are realizing the value design can bring to their organization. Many others are just jumping on the bandwagon. Either way, although these organizations realize a value design can bring, they’re not always clear how design can bring that value. So many companies hiring their first VP of Design aren’t always clear on what to expect from the role.
There are generally clear expectations within a specific organization from the roles of a VP of Engineering, a VP of Product Management, or a VP of Product Marketing. Those expectations often change from one organization to the other, but they’re generally understood within the borders of a specific organization.
That’s not entirely true for the role of a VP of Design. The effect this has comes in two ways:
- The number of hours of advocacy that it takes to prove the value of design to the rest of the organization. This becomes a core part of the role without a clear and expected return on investment.
- The moving goalpost of expectations that design leaders feel in their role as the organization’s design maturity grows.
Different isn’t always bad. Although it’s difficult to continue to play the role of an advocate for your role and team, it teaches you a lot of skills that are essential to being a leader in an organization. From the ability to market the work your team is doing to getting a lot more crisp on the value you can offer in every situation. Learning how to advocate is an essential skill and the lack of clarity this role has pushes design leaders to get better at this.
It also opens a door for design leaders to shape and mature their role in ways that don't necessarily exist for others.
This is not to say it’s not a challenge. It’s a big one.
Depth of ownership
There is generally a single design leader in an organization. Although they build a team of design directors/managers that lead different verticals, they’re the only true peer to the other VPs of Engineering and PM around them. This creates an odd structure where each non-design leader has the time and responsibility to have a deep understanding of a specific vertical or area while a design leader has a surface level understanding of the overall end to end experience.
This has a ton of impact on the way a design leader gets involved in planning, scoping, and understanding a specific area. This also has a huge impact on how they spend their time covering the multiple different verticals they don’t necessarily have the same depth of knowledge as their colleagues.
There is an opportunity here too. The knowledge a design leader ends up building up over time in every single area of the business gives them a huge advantage in connecting the dots in ways no other leader can. Although it’s tough at times, especially when depth of knowledge is required, it's a huge advantage in other instances. Owning and overseeing the end to end experience across the portfolio is a huge opportunity that comes out of this structure.
The number of peers and the structure of an organization has an impact on the way you build relationships too. Having many peers means stakeholder management is a key tenant of the role.
This is not entirely different for other leaders, who also need to build relationships with their peers. However, the depth of that relationship is quite different.
The relationship between two VPs of Product Management is likely that of peers working together. The relationship between a VP of Design and those two other VPs is likely that of peers and stakeholders. Every other product management and engineering leader in the org is a stakeholder. This is one of the top areas in which design leaders and designers face a challenge that is very underestimated and not entirely understood by the organization.
The time it takes to manage stakeholders for designers and design leaders is almost always higher than that of engineers and engineering leaders or PM and PM leaders.
This is sometimes due to lack of funding or resourcing but it is also due to the structure and ways in which design operates and the role design plays in building end to end experiences that cross many verticals.
There is opportunity here too! It’s the opportunity to be a voice of the organization having a deeper view into stakeholders than any other leader. This depth of knowledge of the organization itself and depth of relationships across the org, even outside of products and technology groups like marketing, sales, and the fields, gives a design leader a unique position to connect stakeholders together in ways that provides them with a lot of organizational credibility.
The operational work required to get things running
Every leader at every level is worried about building operational teams and organizations that are able to execute. Operational excellence is key to any leader’s job.
However, this goes a bit beyond the basics for a design leader. Especially for a first time design leader.
Generally, organizations are scaling design in ways that have never happened before. This means that a big part of the role of a design leader is building the first blocks of operational excellence for a team. You’re not only improving the way the organization operates, you’re likely defining the way an organization operates.
This could mean many things: advocating for the role of design ops, resetting expectations on what design should or shouldn’t do, managing stakeholder expectations of designers that have long worked with them, etc.
This could also include defining things that other leaders don’t really need to worry about. A typical example of that is a career ladder. Engineering and PM career ladders are generally defined in an organization, design career ladders are generally not. Design career ladders might not go “up” as far as they need to, especially for individual contributor roles. Design doesn’t always have the necessary tools, software, and operational elements required to do the job. From basics like including design in annual planning to more complex elements like having the necessary research tools to conduct user research. All of that falls on design leaders to define almost from scratch.
Like many of the challenges highlighted here, there is an opportunity as well. You’re defining the operational excellence of a function for the first time. That’s an opportunity many engineering and product management leaders would love to have. You also likely are the single design leader in an org. This is a lot of flexibility in owning your destiny and helping your team grow and mature. It’s a challenge, of course. It’s also an opportunity.
Being a design leader is an exciting role. It’s a ton of work, facing a lot of challenges, defining a lot of firsts. That’s where opportunities come from.
However, the four key differences above are not always understood, especially by leaders managing design leaders for the first time. Getting a deeper understanding of these challenges and opportunities and being clear on setting expectations of the role and the team are critical to being able to operationalize design and making a design team effective.
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