How to Succeed As a First-Time UX Manager

Management Matters

Managing UX teams

A column by Jim Nieters
July 7, 2008

In my last column, I suggested that being a manager of UX is no better—and no worse—than being a great designer or user researcher, but the roles are very different. In fact, as the book The First 90 Days [1] points out, the skills that make you successful as an individual contributor are not the same skills you need as a leader.

Still, I was glad to see that a couple of people who talked with me after reading my column are being offered the opportunity to move into management roles and have decided to take the plunge. They asked me how they could make this transition a positive experience for them, their teams, and their companies. They were asking the right questions. This column discusses what attributes can help someone become a successful first-time UX manager—though these attributes are foundational elements for all managers.

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Before we dive in, please realize that this column cries out for the need to describe the differences between management and leadership. But to keep this article from becoming a treatise, I hope you’ll bear with me as I focus narrowly on how to survive and thrive as a first-time manager. I’ll take up leadership in my next column.

Holy Cow, Now What?

Becoming a manager can feel like the best choice you’ve ever made—like you’ve finally found your home and are doing what you were always meant to do. That’s how I feel about leading UX teams now. I thrive on it. The fact is, though, I certainly did not feel that way early on in my management career. I felt well out of my depth. While I survived the experience, my team put me on notice! Most new managers thought becoming a manager would feel exhilarating and refreshing—even as they began to feel lost in a hostile third-world country without a way out. Among the first-time managers with whom I’ve spoken, only those who managed just one or two people felt their first management role was what they expected.

The irony is: The skills that probably got you into a management role can guarantee your failure once you move into that role. As a designer or user researcher, your success depended much more on your personal expertise, focused execution, and ability to individually achieve goals. As a manager, your job is not to do the work, but to bring out the best in your team. You need to set your team’s direction so they’re working on the right priorities, make sure team members work together well and play their positions, and in the end, ensure they produce market-changing designs. Trust me: Your career as an individual contributor prepared you only very little for management. You have more to learn than you think you do! (Isn’t that true for all of us, though?)

As you move higher up the management chain, you’ll do more coaching and progressively less actual design or research. While you focused on being a great designer or researcher before, now you need to learn to coach. In fact, you’ll need to increase your coaching skills as you become a more senior leader. At each step, as your management career progresses, you’ll increase your scope of influence, which means there will be less time available for you to perform individual contributor tasks. Some people never want to stop performing the actual design or research. That’s fine. You just can’t do it vicariously through your employees. That is, you can’t try to do their jobs for them, or you’ll alienate them.

I believe, to a great extent, our first management experiences stay with us forever. The goal is to make your first experience a success and build on that success. Unfortunately, for many, their first experiences are far less successful. These difficult experiences also stay with and define us—hopefully for the better, but through hardships, which leave scars, rather than success.

For the discipline of user experience to continue becoming more influential, UX leaders need to create a working environment that stimulates not just good, but great design. We need to show that design can differentiate products and create a competitive advantage. Design can prevent products from becoming commodities, by making sure they are the most useful, desirable, and socially valuable products anywhere. Is this a high bar? Absolutely! That is what great managers can do. Hopefully, this column will help you achieve such results!

Common Misconceptions

Over the years, I’ve mentored a number of individual contributors who were transitioning into management roles. At first, they felt becoming a manager was proof they had the best ideas and could now drive their own personal agendas. It may seem ironic, but this attitude is a sure path to failure. Unlike being the superstar researcher or designer, the job of a leader is not to have the best ideas. Instead, it’s the leader’s job to assemble the best team possible and facilitate the team’s finding, aligning with, and driving the best ideas to realization. Many new managers feel being the manager means they can tell their employees what to do, and they’ll just do it. If only it were that easy.

I’m going to talk about several misconceptions new managers hold and show how new managers need to behave very differently from how they expected. You may find it ironic that, in order to demonstrate you are a strong and successful leader, you must ask instead of telling and coach instead of dictating. You have to let people find their own way to success, even though it’s different from how you would do it. It may feel unnatural, but you have to let employees fail, even when you feel a desperate need to succeed.

Part of your role is to hire the best talent and leverage their skills and knowledge. In fact, the book Good to Great [2] suggests the best companies and groups always get the right talent on board first, then define their direction. If you’re going to hire the best talent, don’t you want your employees to perform at their best? Your role, then, is less about direct execution and more about getting your individual contributors to produce the best work of their careers.

Yes, You Must Build Trust

Of course, new employees have to earn the trust of their leaders by delivering great results. In the same way, as a leader, you don’t automatically have the trust of your employees. Like in any relationship, you have to build that trust. How do you build trust? Not by being the smartest person in the room. Certainly, you have to have a strong vision, and you have to show you are a strong, capable leader. But the way you do this is very different from how you demonstrated you were a kick-ass individual contributor.

Rather than telling your employees how to succeed, you need to learn to solicit their input to determine the best path and agree on it, then let them execute on it. You need to become a great facilitator. Look: Your employees want to impress you. They want opportunities to hit the ball out of the park—just like you. Most of us—whether we’re working in corporations or small firms—are looking to grow. We want our leaders to recognize our talents, promote us, and give us bigger paychecks—okay, most of us. When our bosses give us room to be successful, coach us toward greater success, recognize our great contributions, and help remove barriers, we perform better and appreciate their leadership. As a leader, you must give your employees these opportunities.

And as a leader, you also have to defend great ideas that may, at first glance, seem wacky, defend great designers who don’t sell themselves well, and in general, demonstrate managerial courage. When you advocate for your team, they’ll advocate for you. In fact, you’ll find there are many ways of building trust, and this will be a theme throughout the rest of this column.

Ask, Don’t Tell; Coach, Don’t Dictate; and Let ’em Fail

In terms of building trust, many new managers think: “I was given the power, so my job is to tell my team what to do, and they have to listen.” Again, this is a sure-fire way to lose control of your team and prevent them from aligning with goals and generating tangible value. With such a mind set, managers fall into a vicious cycle of correcting and criticizing people who are highly competent. To these employees, such managers begin to seem like totalitarian dictators. Your goal is to help generate a virtuous cycle, where the team executes well, you recognize the contributions of team members, and they continue to grow in their ability to make a positive impact.

Look, from an employee’s perspective, at taking direction from a totalitarian boss: “He hired me because I’m good at what I do, and yet he’s dictating how I do the job—and he’s wrong, darn it!” Do you think telling an expert designer how to do her job makes her feel valued and empowered? Does it make her feel as though you trust her skills? Of course, it doesn’t. So, how do we build trust? I’ll get into that.

Don’t get me wrong: You do need to offer your guidance. You were put into your role as manager because you were successful as a user researcher or designer. The point, though, is that you have to learn to facilitate and guide and make your team members feel excited about making their own contributions rather than telling them exactly what to do.

It’s sad to say that I have worked not only with new managers, but also with peers—and a boss or two—who did not understand the importance of building trust among their employees. One such peer—we’ll call him Paul—told me point blank: “I don’t care what my employees think.” How did Paul do? In my last column, I pointed out that bad managers eventually get found out. Paul certainly did. Everyone in the organization talked about him. Employees came to me daily looking for help. I encouraged my boss to define leadership competencies to measure us by—me included—and he did. Within a month, this manager “left the organization.” In one way, we were fortunate. Most poor leaders are not so blatant. Whether you are a new or an established manager, spend the time building trust. It will pay off. Seeing a team gel, execute at a high level, and weather hard times without difficulty is—for me—a joy to observe. That’s when I know I’m doing the right thing.

Get Your Entire Team in the Game

Listening to your team is essential. You hire the best designers and researchers in the world, and you need to get their minds in the game. Good to Great articulates this well. The book identified—among other things—the leadership attributes that result in the most successful companies and teams in the world. The first is to hire the most talented employees, then to define direction. Using a term from the book Winning [3] by Jack Welch, you truly need to get every mind in the game. Provide direction to your team’s discussions, provide the appropriate structure, pull in the right people at the right time, and help synthesize different ideas. You are not there to be the one who just dictates the team’s appropriate direction.

Not only do you need your team’s expertise—their minds—you also need their hearts. You need them to emotionally buy into the direction you establish. There’s nothing more difficult than trying to drive a team in a direction they do not understand and have not bought into emotionally.

Demonstrate Strength by Soliciting Input

It’s worth taking a minute to clarify one key point: I am not suggesting you become wimpy or indecisive. Quite the contrary. As suggested in the book Great Boss, Dead Boss [4]—an unfortunate title, but a great book—people intuitively follow strong, capable leaders, not those who vacillate. You have to be confident in yourself, show you can make hard decisions rapidly, and solve very real problems, enabling your team to succeed. For example, you might need to fight for increased headcount or outside consulting dollars, get UX an equal voice with other organizations, or simply drive process improvements. You need to get your team members focused on objectives and be very crisp in your expectations.

In no case, though, should confidence equate to arrogance. The most confident leaders do not need to constantly prove how much they know. The book Lions Don’t Need to Roar [5] articulates this principle well. You can show your confidence by presenting a strong, clear vision for the future and asking others for help in defining how you as a team can realize that vision. I once helped one of my teams handle a challenging time by making a statement something like this: “I am deeply proud of some of the successes this team has had over the past year. At the same time, I recently talked with some of our stakeholders, who have told us we’re not executing at the level they’ve come to expect from us. Before I make a decision about changes we will make to increase our impact, I’d like us, as a team, to be brutally honest about our challenges and work together to define possible solutions.”

Instead of deciding on a solution that very day, I recognized that the team needed discussions to evolve over several weeks. In the end, I communicated to the company that we needed to function like entrepreneurs on every project and turned the team into an internal consultancy. This UX team had to bid on jobs within our company and be competitive with external design firms such as IDEO and Frog Design. In the end, it was this organizational structure that made my team responsible for driving $2 billion in revenue. This could never have happened without the following events occurring:

  • I expressed my trust in the team’s ability to identify and solve our challenges.
  • I made sure we engaged every brain in our talks about challenges and opportunities.
  • The team synthesized the input and discussed possible directions.
  • I decided on the team’s direction, then praised the team for their courage in informing such a creative direction. Really, it’s not easy to do things differently.
  • The team understood the reasons behind the change and felt emotionally bought into an exciting new direction.

My point here: I was not passive and did not ask others to define our team’s direction. I was responsible for that. I also did not make decisions by committee. I listened and made the decisions myself, and everyone knew why I had made the decisions I did, and how they had contributed to the direction. But I made sure to include the team in the dialogue and gave credit to the team for their insights. I learned a great deal from the discussion, and working through our challenges helped us bond more strongly as a team.

Set Clear Expectations

You do have to help employees understand what you expect of them. Generally, it’s okay to express these as your expectations. But better yet, ask the entire team for help defining success. Solicit their dreams and goals. What do they want to see happen for the group? Allow them to think big. Then, help them to identify the employee characteristics—competencies, professional practices, and values—that define the ideal employee.

It is amazing how leveraging your team in defining explicit competencies and expectations helps the team normalize itself. Of course, these competencies give you specific areas in which you can appraise your employees. And you should establish a coaching plan, then coach individuals against these competencies.

Exercises in defining a team’s direction create a bond among members of the team. Leveraging the group’s insights through structured brainstorming helps the team gel. Every team has its own personality, and you need to let your team find its unique way of interacting. Once all of your team members are contributing at a high level—once they show they trust one another and give you their very best with the intent of helping the team succeed—you have a team that can endure hardship and thrive.

More importantly, when each member of your team understands and buys into the practices the team has identified, they can help one another normalize their practices. In one case, I had a team that agreed it had to stop complaining about product managers. They agreed that, any time they heard someone complaining about a PM, they would suggest the complainer go hold a stakeholder interview with the PM with whom he was having trouble. Or, if they saw unhealthy argument within the team, they would point out that our competition was external, not internal, and we needed to engage in a discovery session to work through challenges.

Stop Being the Smartest Person in the Room

One of the most difficult habits to break for great designers and researchers is being the smartest person in the room. Even if you are, asking targeted questions to facilitate a discussion and elicit understanding from your team makes team members respect you a great deal more. And in doing so, you are in a position to praise them for their good work. It becomes that virtuous cycle: You give them room, they do well, you praise them—and in the end, they see you as a good leader. Amazing!

I’ve known a number of designers and researchers who thought becoming a manager would give them the credibility they’d always wanted—to make people listen to them. They’re looking for respect. Therefore, they attempt to impart their wisdom to both individuals and the larger team. This is one principle virtually all management books agree on: The best leaders—as measured by objective performance—are truly humble, not arrogant. Jack Welch points out in Winning that, even when he was CEO of GE, the world’s largest corporation, he consciously made the effort not to appear to be the smartest person in the room. Even if he was, he let others feel as if they were. Why? He wanted them to contribute, and they would not if Jack was always there to upstage them or even just give them the answer.

The fact is: Unless you can participate in every discussion and design session, you need to coach your individual contributors to become more independent and able to solve problems more and more independently. The reality, though, is that even if your path to success has, in fact, been highly effective, your employees might find an even better way of doing things. Because I try to hire people who are much smarter than I am—and there’s always someone who’s better than you—my reports often help redefine goals and find superior ways to success. If we, as managers, try to control our employees, we not only diminish trust, we also stifle potential creativity and innovation.

Start Giving the Credit To Your Team

Even if you did come up with a great idea, give the credit to your team—especially when you’re in the trust-building phase. The ironic thing is, when you give others credit, you set them up for future success, and you receive even more respect. It takes nothing away from you, and sets you up as a leader in the eyes of others. What it shows is that you are an emotionally mature leader who values your employees and can direct a team to produce results. And it shows your team you’ll go to bat for them. It increases their loyalty, their willingness to support you—which you really do need—and their willingness to contribute in the future.

Become a Great Coach—Help Your Employees Grow

One of the best coaching experiences I’ve ever had was when I delivered a presentation to an executive. He listened, asked questions, and gave me feedback on what I did well. Then, instead of criticizing me, he said, “You did a great job. Would you be open to me coaching you in a few areas?” Once he got my agreement, he helped me immeasurably. He pointed out that senior leaders need me to get right to the point, help them understand what needs to be done, how it will benefit them, what it will cost if we do not do it, and produce an implementation plan. They also want you to present alternatives, to show you’re not unduly attached to one idea and have thought through your options. His doing this helped me deliver better presentations. More than this, it made me feel that he cared, and it built a loyalty that inspired me to double and triple my efforts. The result? He got credit for $1 billion in revenue increases for his line of business, and I got a promotion to a senior leadership role. None of this would have happened had he not suggested he trusted me through his willingness to coach me.

I think too many of us are afraid to truly coach today, and even I forget to do it often enough. But every time I have offered coaching in the spirit of promoting growth, it has helped my reports, the team, and me.

It’s important to remember though that a coach isn’t passive. The best coach really is like a counselor. The best counselors don’t just ask, “What would you do?” They also provide clear insights and recommendations. But they recognize the need for the person being counseled to internalize lessons, and that’s only possible if they truly understand the lessons themselves. Your telling someone what to do won’t help, but you can guide.

I like to set up a specific coaching plan and work toward it every month—setting up regular sessions and helping my reports grow. Many times employees grow to a point that they no longer fit in my group. That’s not only okay, that is the best result possible. I spend a lot of time helping my employees grow. Even though it takes my time and often costs money, it always helps the team and the company as a whole. As employees grow in their skills, they perform better, make a larger impact, and in fact, make you look good, too. It’s worth everyone’s efforts. By trying to hold onto employees, we stunt their growth. That is not beneficial to them, the company, your group, or to you.

As good managers grow through the ranks, they realize employees are not really their employees. They are the company’s employees, and they are their own people with their own career aspirations. Don’t keep employees in your group just because they’re good. If you agree to work with employees to set and achieve goals, they are growing and getting better at their jobs. They are also setting a good example for others to work hard and grow, which has a positive effect.

I even push my employees to grow. I find out where they want to grow, validate that, and set goals. We then add these goals to their annual performance reviews, and if they do not achieve their targets, I have a conversation with them about it. I take employee growth seriously and make employees take it seriously as well. I support their taking training courses, even if they are costly, and connect them with others who can mentor them.

Now, not only do I support my employees’ potentially growing out of my group, I explicitly facilitate that. “What?” you say. Yes. I ask them not just what the next step in their career is, but what their next step is after that. What’s their second step? My friend and a great leader, Devin Jones, taught me this. The goal is more than just to make sure they’re clear on their career aspirations, but to ensure they know I am dedicated to their success. And when it’s time, I help them find a new role that will get them to that second position they’re looking for. This isn’t altruistic. It’s selfish. By doing this, I get employees who are deeply dedicated, who will watch my back as I watch theirs, and who would jump through a ring of fire to execute well.

Spend More Time with Your Best Employees

One lesson I learned the hard way was that I needed to spend more time with my best employees and less time with my poorest performing employees. That’s hard to do. It’s human nature to focus on improving those who need it most.

John Chambers, CEO of Cisco Systems, Inc., pointed out to my leadership development class that he learned this lesson the hard way. He was a senior leader of a sales organization at one point and wanted very much for his poorest performers to improve, to start selling more. His boss pointed out that he had the wrong idea. If he worked with his poorest performers, they might, in a good month, increase performance by 10%. But if he spent more of his time making his best employees the best ever, he could increase performance by 50% or more. In fact, John pointed out, by changing his focus from the bottom performers to the top performers, he delivered even better results. I can’t remember the specifics of his story, but I took this message to heart. In the end, it’s difficult to not spend as much time with people who clearly need help. But in the end, you get better results by working with those who have the most potential.

Many People Interview for Their Boss, Not the Job

Honestly, when I consider a new job now, I interview less for the position than for my new manager. That is, I want a manager who understands the value of trust, permits me to take risks, and who is, in fact, a Level V Leader—as Jim Collins defines in Good to Great. According to this book, Level V Leaders build enduring greatness through a paradoxical blend of personal humility and professional will. They are able to “channel their ego needs away from themselves and into the larger goal of building a great company.” I am fortunate and completely unembarrassed to admit that this approach helped me successfully find my current position, working for a great boss. Truthfully, I wouldn’t have it any other way.

What New Managers Think Versus What They Really Need to Do

What you thought… What you actually need to do…

Succeed through force of will and personal effort.

Succeed by getting others to execute at a higher level than they thought possible.

Tell employees what to do.

Ask, listen, and leverage the wisdom of the group. Learn to facilitate and when to interject guidance and vision.

Exercise your authority.

Facilitate others’ coming up with answers as a team.

Be right.

Listen openly to opposing points of view and assimilate new information.

Tell employees how to work.

Let employees find their own paths to success.

Demonstrate your abilities.

Facilitate the success of others.

Take credit.

Give credit to your team.

Keep your best employees.

Help your best employees get promoted out of your group.

Great leaders start by being great managers who inspire and guide their teams to excel. They are not just superb designers or user researchers. Rather, they can direct entire teams to produce better results than they ever could have achieved alone. As UX managers, we begin by focusing internally on our teams—on making sure individuals develop great designs. But, by truly getting all the best minds in the game, can we generate market-changing ideas that help promote members of our UX community into positions such as the CEO of a large company? See, that would be inspiring to me. Then, we really would be design led. It would be inspiring to me if the UX industry became known as a leadership factory. More about leadership in my next column. Now, I’d like to hear from you about how you succeeded as a first-time UX manager. What are your stories? 


[1] Watkins, Michael. The First 90 Days. Boston: Harvard Business School Press, 2003.

[2] Collins, Jim. Good to Great: Why Some Companies Make the Leap… and Others Don’t. New York: HarperCollins, 2001.

[3] Welch, Jack, and Suzy Welch. Winning. New York: HarperCollins, 2005.

[4] Immelman, Raymond. Great Boss, Dead Boss: How to Exact the Very Best Performance from Your Company and Not Get Crucified in the Process. Gurnee, Il: Stuart Philip International, 2003.

[5] Benton, Debra A. Lions Don’t Need to Roar: Using the Leadership Power of Professional Presence to Stand Out, Fit In, and Move Ahead. New York: Warner Books, 1993.

Chief User Experience Strategist at Experience Outcomes

Los Altos, California, USA

Jim NietersA design leader for 17 years, Jim loves every minute of helping companies create competitive advantage by designing experiences that differentiate. He has worked with a range of companies—from startups to Fortune-500 companies—most recently as Senior VP of Customer Engagement at Monaker Group. He previously led User Experience at HP, Yahoo, and Cisco and has advised numerous startups. Jim chooses to work with brilliant clients, helping them unlock their unbounded potential by envisioning and designing end-to-end experiences that disrupt markets and engaging users emotionally. He often works with UX leaders to help them work through organizational challenges and ensure User Experience has the visibility it deserves and can design experiences that make the team proud. Jim also conducts design-value assessments for his clients, identifying gaps in their ability to differentiate on the experience, then helping them close those gaps and become extraordinary.  Read More

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