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Wearing the Number One Headband
Issue 167: What to expect as the Head of a department
Afro Samurai is an anime series set in a futuristic, samurai-inspired world. The concept of the “Number One Headband” is central to the story. It’s a legendary and highly coveted headband that signifies the most skilled warrior in the world. Anyone who possesses it is considered the ultimate target for challengers seeking to claim the title and power associated with it. Afro, the protagonist, seeks revenge against the current Number One for personal reasons, which sets the stage for intense battles and a quest for this iconic headband.
Wearing the Number One Headband in Afro Samurai is what it feels like to be a “Head of” any department. It’s a rare role to have, coveted by many. Being in the role is a result of what you’d done as a designer and now in the position to run all things.
The "Head of" title is confusing and ambiguous. It takes different meanings depending on the company stage, organizational structure, and other defining factors of the company and sector you work in. For example, a Head of Design at a startup could be one human being running the practice whereas at later stage companies it could be a Senior Vice President level. Like the Tech Lead, the “Head of” role comprises of a set of responsibilities. The “Head of” is the department leader until a new one is needed—if it does.
As the Head of Engineering, your role is the leader of the department. It operates less like a head coach of an NFL team but that of the General Manager; responsible for personnel, hiring, budget, and how the organization runs. When companies grow, the role of the Head of Engineering remains the same. What changes are the requirements and needs of someone in that role based on the company goals.
The need is the most variable part of anyone wearing the Number One Headband because it changes over time. In startups, it changes quickly and can be very dynamic. As you get higher up in career levels (such as principal or manager roles), you’ll hear the term “business need” when describing factors in your progression. At the surface level, this sounds like a cop-out but resonates with clear rationale.
If you’re the Head of Support at a Series A startup, there’s a high likelihood the startup doesn’t need a senior director yet. You might be managing people who joined support from the community and there’s a good thing going for the next year or two. However, if the company grows to need support across multiple timezones, and builds out a Service-Level Agreement (SLA) for their B2B motion, the company might require a Head of Support who has the experience building this capability and team. This typically results in the original Head of Support getting layered or a change happening.
For me, being the head of a department is a role you don’t take lightly. In any management role, you are responsible for the livelihood of your team. There is a sense of duty you assume now being the face of your company’s department.
Duty 1: You represent the company and your org
The Head of Product may not be an executive but needs to act like one. When wearing the Number One Headband, there is no, “My views are mine and do not reflect that of my employer.” Nobody gives a shit and will take how you conduct yourself personally as who you represent professionally. This does not mean you need to be a company person and be always on regarding work. Recognize that your employer representation cannot be de-coupled.
Duty 2: Be the invoker of change
When you wear the Number One Headband, you are no longer only the bringer and recognizer of problems, you solve them. A lot of problems you’re responsible for solving were not yours in the first place! Anyone in a “Head of” role is responsible for contributing to company outcomes, not only that of their department. You’re The Wolf from Pulp Fiction…you solve problems. Other people created this epic mess, but you are entrusted to fix it, because lord knows at a startup you are going to be fixing a lot of other people’s problems. Be The Wolf.
Duty 3: Have a growth mindset
When you wear the Number One Headband, you don’t need to be infallible. The reason you’re in the role isn’t because you’re perfect and never wrong. It’s important to have a growth mindset because your team and cross-functional partners need to see you be open to feedback. People are more receptive to your critique if they know you can take it.
Duty 4: Navigate with confidence
Confidence and optimism go a long way for a team to achieve results. Imagine if the captain of the ship you’re on says, “Abandon ship!” as they see a storm hitting. You also don’t want the “Head of” any department complaining or pushing negativity. When you’re the captain, people will look at your actions as the expected outcome. Optimism does not mean the absence of skepticism. Having a captain who is always optimistic doesn’t mean the ship will never crash. The point is bringing a sense of calm and order can help your team navigate through adverse times. They are going to get out of this situation, and it’s because of you leading them.
Helena Seo, VP and Head of Design at DoorDash wrote a wonderful piece on her personal narrative as a Head of Design. Though this is Seo’s perspective, many leaders can resonate with this feeling, and I’ll build on it with my perspectives.
People want your job, and they think they can do it better than you
This is the biggest thing you'll face when wearing the Number One Headband; everyone will go after you internally and/or externally. Don't blame them. It's a coveted role and people have career aspirations of their own. This is the incentive for you to be at your best and have a growth mindset. If you don't grow, you won't last long.
Nobody is there to tell you to do your job
Though some companies have multiple Heads of Design as peers, most companies only have one. It can be lonely and there are things you can’t talk to your manager or other cross-functional peers about. When I was in my first Head of Design role at One Medical, I met with other contemporaries such as Stacy La, Christina Beart, Alissa Briggs, and Noah Levin to get perspective. Having an external view helps you get a different perspective than your manager or being in the confines of the company.
Wearing the Number One Headband is not an easy responsibility. Being the Head of Design takes a physical and mental toll on you. Despite that, being the head of a department sparks a lot of joy in the chaos. You see people in your org grow over time, win, and eventually take on the mantle. As the saying goes, there is no success without a successor. There is no greater joy for me to see on LinkedIn when former team members become “Heads of” a company or get promoted.
The hard work pays off when people on your team thrive, what once was broken is now fixed, and a life-lasting impact you can be proud of. Despite the challenges and what it demands from you, it's one of the most fulfilling roles for people.
The need, the duty, the burden, and the joy sound like villains from Metal Gear Solid: Snake Eater, but it’s also what you face wearing the Number One Headband. You don’t have to become the head of a department to find fulfillment in your work and career. You might be happier not ever becoming one! However, if dawning the Number One Headband and being the Head of (insert department) is something you want, be prepared for the challenges ahead and stay on top of your game. Be ready.
Collection of what I read and related to this week's post
Quality software deserves your hard‑earned cash → Great post by the CEO of Obsidian