I believe that being a manager of people is no better or worse than being in an individual contributor role. For the most part, managers don’t produce the actual artifacts that drive results. In a fundamental way, it’s the researchers and designers who produce the great work in our industry. Don’t get me wrong: A great leader can direct a team to produce the best work of their careers and tune their teams to perform at their peak—and this is important. But it’s not more important than having great designers who can produce market-changing ideas. On a sports team, you need a great team and a great manager to win. The challenge I see is that a large number of researchers and designers want the word manager in their title—either because they feel it shows career progression or for the respect they think such a title would afford them. Taking the sports analogy further, a baseball player doesn’t want to be the team manager—he wants to play great ball. So, why isn’t it this way in the world of UX—and high tech in general?
An important question then is how we as an industry can give equal weight to great individual contributors and great managers alike, because a great company needs both. At Yahoo!, we have some truly world-class designers who make a huge impact on everything they touch. While I would be happy to see them mentor other designers, I feel it would be a waste to make them people managers. It would be like taking Michael Jordan in his heyday and turning him into a non-playing coach.
Perhaps more importantly, because we promote people into management roles who are not great leaders, we diminish the level of expertise in leadership across our industry. Many people with whom I speak believe design managers—for instance—should just be better designers and leadership characteristics aren’t important. Let’s take that issue straight on: Should a company make a UX practitioner a manager simply because she is a really great researcher or designer? When asked in this way, the typical reaction is: “Well, of course not!” And yet, I see senior leaders promoting good researchers and designers to people management roles, just because they were good at their individual contributor roles—even when they haven’t proven they have any capacity to lead effectively. The path from a particular domain such as user research or design into management is not a natural progression. The skills you gain in your role as a researcher or designer are not the skills you’ll use as a manager and leader. Of course, a good leader of a research or design organization needs to understand and be good at research or design. They must be able to provide guidance for their researchers and designers. My premise is that being a good UX practitioner is necessary, but not sufficient to someone’s becoming a good UX leader.
We, as a functional domain, need to focus on what it takes to grow our next generation of great leaders. While we must always produce great designs, we also need to value the quality of leadership itself. We need great leaders who can facilitate their teams’ working together at higher levels than anybody thought possible. Who can take an average team and make it very good. On the other hand, an average leader can take a great team and make it average. I’ve seen both happen. So, isn’t our first step defining what makes a great manager great?
Manager Competencies and Values
Just as we know the competencies and strengths that are required of great researchers and designers, we need to understand and define essential manager competencies if we are going to produce great leaders.
Recently, I worked with a management team—other than Yahoo!—to define this set of six management competencies. Successful managers are:
- accountable—Take responsibility for results and hold themselves, peers, and direct reports accountable for achieving established goals and objectives.
- customer focused—Clearly communicate what a team can do to achieve stakeholder or customer expectations, without over promising, and understand the cost/benefit ramifications of their recommendations to stakeholders and customers.
- results driven—Willingly establish and apply performance measurements, set high performance standards for themselves and direct reports as necessary to achieve customer expectations, and implement significant consequences—positive and negative—for achieving or not meeting performance expectations.
- open and effective communicators—Create an atmosphere in which high-quality information flows smoothly through an organization and to stakeholders, in a timely manner, and encourage the open expression of ideas and opinions. Creating such an atmosphere means you must wait for another person to finish his or her intended message before responding, disseminate more than the minimal amount of information people need, and respond positively when stakeholders or direct reports voice negative issues.
- effective managers of talent—Hire individual contributors who are as smart as or smarter than they are; surround themselves with the greatest talent; strive to bring out the best in others, regardless of their current performance levels; delegate authority and responsibility to others, allowing them to use their abilities and talents effectively; give feedback, coach, and appraise employees at every opportunity possible—every week, if not every day; not just at review time; and respects and tolerates differing opinions.
- team builders—Promote and generate cooperation and teamwork while working to achieve collective outcomes, give credit for success and recognition to the team rather than seeking credit for themselves, and encourage individuals to contribute to the organizational strategy. As Jack Welch says, they “get every mind in the game.”
These competencies embody a few key points. There is an overwhelming amount of research  and expert opinion  showing that, in addition to the six competencies I’ve listed above, great managers and leaders are:
- respectful—Treat individuals on their teams as professionals and address them with appropriate respect. They are not out to make themselves look good, but to help their employees execute their responsibilities well, and—yes—to build employee confidence.
- natural mentors—Are great coaches and find deep joy in helping their employees grow their careers and execute at a very high level.
- emotionally intelligent—Are direct, yet compassionate and tactful. 
- able to see the big picture—Look out not only for their teams, but for the larger organization and company.
- decisive—Make hard choices quickly and recognize they may need to make frequent course-corrections.
- life-long learners—Seek feedback regularly from peers, direct reports, and their managers and have a passion for improving themselves.
There are eight to ten discrete characteristics for each of these management competencies. It is also critical to define the necessary competencies and essential values that are specific to management within your own organization, because every environment is different. In addition to defining management competencies, I also recommend you define a competency model for individual contributors.
If you are a senior leader and believe that defining such competencies is useful, you might find it useful to start with these competencies. However, if you want help defining a competency model for your own organization, contact me, and I’ll put you in touch with experts who can help you. I’d love to get your feedback on the competencies and values I’ve defined here. What other professional competencies do you think managers of UX organizations need to have?
I find that the truly great managers and leaders care very much about their employees. Some of my peers have pointed out to me that this sounds rather bleeding-heart. In response, I’ve told them it’s as selfish as giving away stock options. Companies give their employees stock options, because they believe it makes employees more dedicated to the success of the company. Likewise, when I care about my employees, I work hard to help them succeed and grow. The result? My employees are more loyal and more effective. Devin Jones is one leader who embodies these characteristics, and articulates this message better than I can. Check out his blog: devinetics.com.