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!
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  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  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.