Being OK with Low Ambition

As a design leader, what do you do when you’re managing a designer that’s doesn’t have any big aspirations? Ever ask someone what their goals are and where they’d like to be and just get crickets? Or worse, have someone say “I don’t have any goals”?


When going through this the first few times, I really wasn’t sure what to do. In my personal experience, the designers I know are typically aspirational, are good at thinking big and coming up with ideas, and are always looking to the next thing. 

Looking Inwards for Traits that Lead to Success

Reflecting on what got me into a design leadership position, I identified a few different traits:

  • I hold myself to a very high standard, sometimes to my detriment but mostly to my benefit
  • Learning is a big deal. I know how to teach myself new things and do so on a regular basis
  • Because I’m constantly exposing myself to new things, I have a broad knowledge of what’s going on in the design world. Reading books. Online learning. Following designers on Twitter. Being part of Slack communities. All of these help inform me on what is possible.
  • I regularly set big goals, break them down to smaller goals, and systematically achieve them
  • Being naturally extroverted, I haven’t had an issue speaking to groups, pitching ideas, or facilitating group activities.

What’s Good for The Goose…

The phase that immediately comes to mind is “What’s good for the goose is good for the gander” …If these specific traits got me where I am, surely I needed to also try and coach these into my team of designers, right? Putting this into practice, it turns out that this (seemingly intuitive) stance of one-size-fits-all management of design talent just doesn’t work. 

The misconception that everyone needed to be as ambitious as myself ended up bringing unhelpful tension into some of my relationships with direct reports. In digging deeper, I had folks on the team that were perfectly happy with their status as a mid-level designer. They didn’t want to be a senior. They didn’t want to learn more about management. They didn’t care much to learn new things, unless the whole team really needed to. 

What looked like a problem to me, really wasn’t a problem at all

OK – So What DID Work?

After a few months of friction, I found a few tactics that not only resolved the tension, but helped the designers grow in skills and happiness.

Find What Makes Them Excited

Before doing any more pushing, the first thing I’d recommend is digging in to find the root of what makes your designer(s) happy. 
If they like what they’re doing already, maybe they can get excited about getting faster or more efficient. Maybe there are different tools that they can use! 
If a designer gets excited about collaborative processes, you can assign projects needing more research and discovery where they can be more social and interactive. 

Expose Them to Options

Another reason some designers may come across as having low ambition is that they aren’t fully aware of the possibilities! Building a culture of everyone sharing things with the rest of the team on a regular basis – an interesting read, a new tool that’s handy – can expose 

Takeaway

Ultimately, the designer sets their own course in the world. As a leader, you should strive to put processes in place to expose folks regularly to opportunity and inspiration.

Sometimes it’s our own expectations on the people we’re managing that get in the way of helping our people grow.