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How Becoming a Leader Can Help Your Interior Design Career

blog for interior designers career advice career growth emerging professionals how to be a leader leadership leading interior designers personal brand Jul 07, 2023
How to Become a Leader for emerging professionals - Behind the Design Jacqueline Green

Maybe you’ve just graduated from college and have landed your first job at an interior design firm, or perhaps you’ve been in the business for a few years. Either way, you know it takes time and effort to truly get situated within the industry.

One of the keys to enjoying a successful career in interior design is distinguishing yourself from other designers. Of course, there are several different ways to do that. 

If you want to stand out to managers, colleagues, and clients alike, one of the most effective things you can do is develop your leadership skills. That said, discovering how to be a leader at work can be more complex than it seems.

What Does Leadership Look Like in the Interior Design World?

Many people have the misconception that leadership in business means having a fancy title, but that isn’t necessarily true. Some people with titles have poor leadership skills, while others who don’t have titles routinely offer leadership and critical guidance to their colleagues.

When it comes right down to it, you don’t need a title to be an effective leader.

You might believe that people are either born natural leaders or not. However, when you consciously build and sharpen your leadership skills early in your career, that effort will pay dividends later when it comes to connections, clients, and industry success.

Becoming a true leader — someone who uplifts, guides, and inspires — offers some non-tangible benefits as well. For instance, you’ll gain the satisfaction of knowing that you’re making a difference in the lives of other designers.

How exactly should you go about becoming a leader? It starts with small steps. Here are some tips on becoming a great leader in the industry.

Exemplify Professionalism

This is something you can put into practice from your first day on the job.

First impressions matter regarding leadership (and just about everything else). Imagine you’re working with two new colleagues. One is well-groomed and wears professional business attire. The other has greasy hair and shows up in a wrinkled T-shirt. Which one would you trust to collaborate with you?

Professional actions also say a lot about you. If you maintain professionalism even in stressful or heated situations, like dealing with a difficult coworker, your colleagues may begin to look at you as someone to emulate. If you can keep your cool under stress, chances are you’ll be able to learn how to be a good leader at work.

Follow Through

You may not see many major leadership opportunities if you’re an emerging designer. However, you’ll have ample chances to prove your dependability. With that in mind, make it a point to follow through each time you say you’ll do something.

Your colleagues and others will remember if you follow through on your actions. They’ll also remember if you’ve flaked on them, especially if it’s happened multiple times.

It might seem like a small thing, but a good leader is someone people can count on.

Listen More than You Speak

Some new designers graduate from school and think they know everything. Don’t be one of them. Even the best designers are constantly learning and adapting.

When you practice active listening and take the time to absorb what your colleagues are truly saying, it will be clear that you have a commitment to the field as a whole, not just to your own ego.

Treat Everyone with Respect

Ideally, most of us learn this one in childhood. But for some people, acquiring even a small amount of power makes them think they can disrespect anyone they see as “beneath” them.

Effective leaders respect everyone, from the janitor to the CEO. When you treat others accordingly, they won’t be afraid to come to you for guidance.

Focus on Helping Others

Everyone needs a little help sometimes. If you’re the kind of person who takes time out of their busy day to offer advice and support, other designers are sure to notice.

This isn’t to say that you should overextend yourself at every turn — you still need to dedicate time to your own projects and professional growth. But when your mindset is more collaborative and less individualistic, you’ll gain respect and authority.

Develop Excellent Communication and Organization Skills

If you were a client, would you want to work with a designer who was closed off and uncommunicative? Probably not. By the same token, you likely wouldn’t choose to collaborate with an interior designer who unilaterally made choices without consulting you.

You might not think of communication as a leadership skill, but effective communication is critical for anyone trying to realize their leadership potential.

Organization and communication go hand-in-hand. Juggling different clients’ projects becomes difficult without any type of schedule or organization. And if you’re constantly running through a to-do list in your head, you’ll quickly discover how draining it is. It’s far easier to set out with a plan than to implement one later. 

When you’re new to the field, it’s the perfect time to develop a system for maintaining client records (either in hard copy or electronic form) and scheduling appointments and other tasks. As a bonus, you can build leadership skills by introducing new designers to your system.

Track Industry Trends

This one might seem out of place, but it’s a way to sharpen your expertise and help your coworkers while demonstrating a genuine passion for design. When you keep track of shifts in the industry and discuss them with your colleagues, you help them succeed.

For example, some time ago, the vast majority of interior design clients were wealthy, and they needed luxury interiors. Today, even people of average income seek the guidance of design professionals. When you and your colleagues are aware of transformations like this, you’ll be better equipped to tackle various design challenges.

Handling Leadership Positions with Grace

If you’ve recently taken on a management position at a design firm and are wondering how to be a good manager, following the leadership skills listed above is a great place to start.

However, some people in management have trouble overcoming control issues. It’s possible that you’ve worked with a manager like this before — or are worried about becoming one.

If you notice yourself developing control issues, it’s vitally important to work on overcoming them. Here are a few ways to start:

  • Identify the types of thoughts causing you problems (like blaming yourself or others for outcomes they can’t control).
  • Take stock of the behaviors you tend to engage in (yelling, belittling, etc.) after wrestling with those thoughts.
  • Consider what feelings might be behind these thoughts. For example, if your home life feels out of control, you might begin to feel a need to micromanage your colleagues.
  • Set aside time at home for relaxation, hobbies, and other activities that are useful for stress management.

If you need further assistance dealing with control issues, a mental health professional can give you more personalized strategies.

Reframing your thoughts and changing your behaviors may feel extremely difficult at first. But the more you do it, the easier it gets. You may find that you feel relaxed and happier at work and that your colleagues enjoy being around you more.

Mentorship as a Part of Leadership and Professional Development

Mentorship isn’t only for designers. Whether official or unofficial, mentorship is a part of career development for people across many industries. As your interior design career begins to take shape, you might find yourself with a golden opportunity to mentor a newer colleague. 

Knowing how to be a mentor differs from knowing how to be a good manager and leader. As a mentor, you aren’t acting as an employer or manager would. Instead, you’re serving as both a role model and a teacher for an up-and-coming designer.

The process doesn’t just benefit the mentee. As the mentor, it gives you a chance to put your skills to the test and solve problems you may never have faced before.

For instance, imagine your mentee struggling to find the right palette for a small, oddly-shaped room. You might not have an answer right away, but as you and your mentee discuss the issue, you can summon your knowledge and experience to solve an unfamiliar issue.

Working as a mentor also gives you the chance to become more approachable. When it comes to winning over clients and collaborating with colleagues, approachability is key. If you have a cold, unwelcoming demeanor, most people will have a hard time talking to you, including those you’re trying to connect with.

Why Does Leadership Matter This Early in Your Career?

Understanding and developing leadership skills is all well and good, but you may wonder why it’s so important to work on them in the first few years of your career. After all, there’s a lot you need to learn for yourself in those early stages. Adding leadership to the mix might seem like too much.

However, one of your first career goals should be setting yourself up for success. When you demonstrate strong leadership potential, it can impact your career in unexpected ways. For instance:

  • If a more experienced designer sees your innate leadership qualities, they might offer to mentor you
  • If your leadership efforts have led you to help your colleagues in the past, they’ll probably return the favor
  • Colleagues and other designers might be more likely to ask you to collaborate with them
  • If you work with a firm, you’re more likely to be promoted to management or a similar leadership role
  • Clients will see that you’re confident and professional and might want to work with you again

It’s important to note that true leaders are never done growing. Leadership skills aren’t something you learn when first starting out and then put on autopilot!

Develop Leadership Skills and Connect with a Design Community

Graduating from college and setting off on your interior design journey is exciting. It can also be daunting. With no real path for further education and no guidance on building a business, it can be hard to know where to go next.

But what if you were plugged into a community of fellow designers who could offer valuable guidance, criticism, and encouragement? Behind the Design provides just that, with video tutorials, helpful blogs, and interior design courses and training designed to help you get ahead.

If you’re out of college and looking to further your career or build your own business, Behind the Design has an opportunity for you. Join our community today!

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