UX Leadership, Part 1: The Nature of Great Leaders

Leadership Matters

Leading UX transformation

December 8, 2014

This column is the second in our series that highlights our insights on what it would take for companies to go from producing dreary, overly complex user experiences to producing truly great user experiences that differentiate their products from those of competitors in their marketplace. In our first column, we stated that producing great, highly differentiated user experiences should be the goal of every UX leader. But in many companies, UX leaders face challenges that force them to approach leading User Experience in a less than optimal way. If, as a UX leader, you find yourself stuck in a situation where you and your team cannot do great work—that is, you are unable to produce user experiences that solve people’s problems, inspire, and delight—you’re working for the wrong organization and should find a better job. In that column, we also discussed how to position User Experience for optimal impact.

Champion Advertisement
Continue Reading…

Great leadership is essential to producing great user experiences, so in this two-part series, we’ll look at what it takes to be a great UX leader. In Part 1, we’ll discuss the need for great leaders in User Experience, describe some qualities that are characteristic of all great leaders, and consider some unique factors that make a UX leader great. Although UX leaders share many leadership traits with other disciplines—including business, product management, and engineering—leading UX research, strategy, and design requires particular strengths as a leader.

In Part 2 of this series, we’ll discuss what great leaders do that enables them to be successful in leading their UX teams and their entire organization to greatness.

User Experience Must Cultivate Great Leaders

Among UX professionals, there is a constant hue and cry over frustration about our not being able to

  • get our company to take design strategy seriously
  • influence the CEO and get his mindshare
  • have the business impact that we would hope to have
  • get a seat at the boardroom table

Overcoming all of these challenges takes great UX leadership. We must lead organizational transformation. UX leaders must be much more than good designers. As UX leaders, we must learn the art of leadership to increase our scope of influence. If we’re going to change the way a company thinks about design and User Experience, we must be comfortable interacting with our organization’s most senior leaders, communicate with them effectively, and influence them to embrace User Experience and design-thinking across the entire organization.

If you aspire to leading User Experience, you must

  • cultivate your leadership skills
  • have a deep understanding of all UX disciplines, as well other disciplines with whom UX professionals primarily interact—especially product management and engineering
  • understand the language of business and be able to communicate effectively in a business context

Leadership Is a Learned Skill

Leadership requires specific skills that one must learn over time through practice. Nobody is born a great leader. Leadership is a cultivated ability. While certain people have more innate ability and affinity for leadership than others, all great leaders have developed their leadership skills in the crucible of real-world challenges. It’s like playing a sport or music: athletes and musicians must practice a great deal—typically, almost daily over many years—to become good enough to play professionally.

The best leaders know that they must constantly learn. They must internalize essential leadership skills and understand which of their behaviors consistently get the best results from their teams. And it’s not just those of us in leadership roles who must improve our leadership skills. Every UX professional must learn to be an effective leader—especially as we scale User Experience throughout our organizations.

It’s a fallacy that, if you make a great individual contributor a manager, he or she will be a great manager. The reality is that leadership requires skills that are very different from those of an individual contributor. New managers must learn, cultivate, and practice their leadership skills. Just as becoming a great designer or researcher requires practicing one’s profession over many years in the workplace, solving real-world problems, becoming a great leader requires applying your learnings about leadership in the real world. This is the only way to grow your leadership skills.

The UX industry is in need of truly great leaders. We can no longer expect to make it to the boardroom, transform our companies, and differentiate on design without doing the work of learning everything possible about effective leadership. We need to cultivate great leaders.

Great Leaders Strive for Constant Growth

Becoming a great leader requires continuous learning and growth. Openness to learning means that we must first acknowledge our faults and weaknesses and work to amend them. We all have faults. As Jim Collins points out in his book Good to Great, the best companies, teams, and individuals first confront the brutal facts about their shortcomings, then set out to resolve them. Without acknowledging our weaknesses, we can’t grow.

Too many leaders are defensive about their approach to leadership. They fear that people will judge them based on their leadership style and feel that they must hide any shortcomings. Fortunately, this is the farthest thing from the truth. Great leaders are willing to take risks and be vulnerable. All of us can grow and become better leaders. The best leaders in the world may make leadership look natural, but they’ve had years of practice to make it appear that way. The best leaders evaluate their own behaviors, successes, and failures, so they can improve themselves through practice. You may not be a great leader right now, but you can work on becoming great.

Since UX design is fundamentally a creative, problem-solving process, producing outstanding user experiences requires leaders to set up environments and teams that help creative people to stay on the path to excellence. The best leaders know that they must strive to be aware of and remove any subtle obstacles that would obstruct creativity. As Ed Catmull says in his book Creativity Inc., “The best leaders acknowledge and make room for what they do not know. Not just because humility is a virtue, but because until a leader adopts that mindset, the most striking breakthroughs cannot occur.”

Later, in this two-part series on UX leadership, we’ll talk about how great leaders enable their teams to become better at what they do, facilitate their teams’ success, and exhibit behaviors that make their teams want to follow them. We’re not saying all of this because we’re soft. Nor do we espouse these ideas just because they reflect our unique perspective. You’ll find these ideas in the best leadership books on the market. At the end of Part 2, we’ll include a list of the books that we think are the most helpful in the development leadership skills.

We’re saying all of this because getting a team excited and inspired, enabling them to succeed, and helping them to get better at what they do creates a high-performing team. The best leaders get the best results. The best leaders can enable a good team to deliver world-class results. On the other hand, a bad leader can cause a world-class team to deliver mediocre results.

Look at Why You Want to Be a Leader

The first thing leaders or aspiring leaders should ask themselves is why they want to be a leader. As Jim pointed out in his column, “So You Want to Be a UX Manager—Seriously?” the path from working in a particular specialty such as user research or design to management is not a natural progression for everyone. Most of the skills that you develop in your role as a UX researcher or designer are not the skills that you’ll use as a manager or leader. Of course, some skills are transferable—especially if you’ve been functioning in the role of an informal leader in your organization, though without a management title. As we said earlier, you must practice to hone the specific skills that you need to be a great leader.

The difficulty is that some UX professionals who have no natural affinity for leadership think that the only way to earn more money and respect is to grow into the management ranks. Unfortunately, this is true in many companies and is something that we need to remedy. If you don’t really want to be a leader, but you think that’s the only way to grow, please don’t go down that path. Instead, move to a company that offers paths to growth in parallel with management. We say this not just for your team’s benefit, but for your own. If a management role isn’t right for you, you’ll hate the role, the people who work for you will likely become frustrated with you, and you won’t be able to transform your organization from average to excellent—and you’ll hate being average.

On the other hand, if you are drawn to leadership because you have a deep affinity for the role, truly aspire to helping people and organizations become the best that they can be, and love the thought of being responsible for every aspect of strategy, for holding the bar high on quality, and for everyone in your organization—or even the organization itself—please become a leader.

Assess Your Fitness for Leadership

If you believe that you’re the right person to lead, your first step is to honestly and objectively evaluate your skills, weaknesses, values, and goals. If these align with leadership, take the plunge. If they do not, be absolutely the best researcher or designer you can be. Do what you love, and make the world a better place through your work.

To evaluate your fitness to be a manager and leader, follow these three steps:

  1. Refer to the section “Manager Competencies and Values” in Jim’s column “So You Want to Be a UX Manager—Seriously?” and assess your own strengths and weaknesses in the areas of competency that leadership requires.
  2. Commission an independent expert to gather 360-degree feedback about your leadership skills. They’ll gather insights from your peers, managers, and direct reports—or people you’ve led on projects. Assess their feedback, then either decide that becoming a leader is not worth the effort or take the feedback to heart and change your behavior to remove any obstacles to your becoming a leader. All leaders should seek 360-degree feedback on at least a yearly basis.
  3. Practice leadership and focus on improving your skills. We get good at what we love. And, we love what we get good at. If you are already working in a leadership role, but do not love your work, go back to being an individual contributor. It’s great to be an awesome designer or researcher. Do what you love!

Specific leadership skills are learned, just as design and research skills are learned. Sure, some designers or researchers or managers are better than others, but no one becomes great at their job without training and experience. Achieving greatness requires making a concerted effort to improve. If you are or want to be a UX leader, you must consistently request feedback and work to improve yourself. Your team needs you to be the best leader possible.

Some Myths About Leadership

Some might think that the loudest, most assertive individuals make the best leaders, but this could not be further from the truth. As Jim Collins says in his book Good to Great, great leaders are not necessarily those with the biggest personalities. Rather, great leaders have a powerful vision on which they are absolutely unwilling to compromise. In actuality, big personalities tend to perform worse as leaders, and when they leave companies, their former organizations are often unable to sustain whatever growth they helped to stimulate.

A great leader might have charisma, but their charisma is not what makes them great. Few leadership books suggest that charisma is a positive and important trait for leadership. Over time, great leaders learn how to inspire, and some confuse this ability with charisma. However, having charisma is not, in itself, necessary to producing the greatest results sustainably.

Qualities of Great Leaders

Great leaders know that accomplishing great things takes a team. Great leadership is about developing a high-performance team. Great leaders know when to step in and when to get out of the way. When teams perform at their best, you barely see their leaders. The leader should not generally be the most important person in the room. Great leaders hire the best and inspire them to do their best work, so their teams execute autonomously. Take the best sports teams, for example: When teams are performing well, their managers just let them play and keep everybody pumped up. When they’re not, the manager steps in—no drama—and replaces them. Leadership isn’t easy. It takes a lot of work to get a team into the right mindset. Get leadership is about getting results.

At the same time, a great leader is the emotional heart of the team. The leader rewards great performance, encourages people who are usually great performers when they’re down, and helps their team members to grow. Leaders have authentic relationships with the people on their team. A strong emotional bond and a high degree of commitment exists between a leader and his or her best team members. As a leader, you must have a burning need to help your team to get better—even if it’s at your own expense. Leadership often takes self-sacrifice and is emphatically not about self-aggrandizement.

Great leadership takes audacity, even courage. It also requires that people trust you. So, while great leaders must be politically astute, they are apolitical themselves and work for the greater good, not for self-advantage. If you disagree with this characterization of great leadership, you should get out of leadership.

Great Leaders Are People Others Willingly Follow

James Kouzes and Barry Posner’s classic book The Leadership Challenge—which is based on decades of research—provides a list of the most important characteristics of leaders people willingly follow:

  • honest—For leaders to successfully model the way, or lead by example, their team must believe that they are honest and trustworthy.
  • forward-looking—Great leaders are visionaries. They know where they’re going and inspire belief in their vision.
  • competent—Demonstrating their competence is essential to leaders’ earning the confidence of their team.
  • inspiring—Great leaders inspire their team to execute their vision and give their team members the confidence to take on ever greater responsibilities.

All of these characteristics contribute to a leader’s credibility. According to Kouzes and Posner, “Credibility is the foundation of leadership.” We’ll talk about how leaders establish a strong vision, demonstrate competence, and inspire their teams in Part 2 of this series.

Great Leaders Are Apolitical, But Politically Astute

While we hate politics, they’re part of the reality of working in the business world, so being politically astute is an important survival skill in the typical corporation. You need to be able to protect yourself and your team from people who have agendas that are antithetical to creating great user experiences.

People—especially people in leadership—tend to gravitate toward other people they perceive to be the best. Often, they look for people they hope would be of the most benefit to them. They may listen for one-sentence sound bites that make them believe you either have it or you don’t—or to determine whether you’re aligned with their agenda. They may rely on other leaders’ opinions about whether you’re worth their time. They may look for people who have personality traits similar to their own. In the end, based on these not very rational considerations, you may find that you’re either in or out.

To survive in a political environment, you must learn how to build coalitions and get people to support you. Embrace collaboration as a means of achieving true alignment and building natural coalitions. Win over supporters by delivering great results. You must always produce such stellar results that nobody—absolutely nobody—would ever venture to take you on politically.

Achieving all of this requires great leadership ability, but it also takes great courage on your part. You must be able to stand toe-to-toe with someone who may have delivered billions more revenue than you have over your career and persuade them to support your vision. If your team consistently delivers designs that impress stakeholders inside your company, they’ll speak well of and promote you and your team, ensuring that, eventually, you’ll have the opportunity to gain visibility at the highest level within your organization.

Develop Broad and Deep Knowledge

To be an effective UX leader, you must have a deep understanding of all UX disciplines. You cannot lead what you don’t understand. It’s astonishing that some companies place so little value on User Experience that they mistakenly believe that any leader can lead User Experience—despite their having no more than superficial knowledge about user experience and no UX research or design skills or experience. As a consequence, we see many UX professionals or entire UX teams reporting into Product Management or Engineering. This is a key cause of the failure of UX teams. While leadership skills are essential, alone they are insufficient. UX teams that lack high-level leaders who have a deep understanding of user experience have less impact on their organizations.

It is also essential that you develop your knowledge of the other disciplines with whom UX professionals primarily work—especially product management and engineering. To be able to speak their language, deliver tangible value to them, and develop processes that take their needs into account, you need to understand their needs and goals and be familiar with the way they work. Plus, many product management and development skills are useful skills for UX professionals to have—including UX leaders. The need to understand software development is becoming increasingly important in organizations where front-end developers report to UX leaders.

To develop knowledge and skills that are both so broad and so deep, you must be a perpetual learner. This is especially true in regard to keeping up with the latest UX methods. User Experience is a rapidly evolving profession. UX leaders who are no longer doing hands-on works must have the humility to constantly learn from the members of their team.

Learn to Understand and Speak the Language of Business

For UX leaders, one aspect of growing our leadership skills is the need to learn to be less pedantic about how to do design right and, instead, talk more about the value of User Experience to the business. The executives to whom you report pay your and your team’s salaries and provide the resources that your team needs to do their best work. They expect you to deliver a return on their investment. They don’t hire UX professionals just because they want to make the world a better place. The best executives want to transform the world, but they don’t want to do that at the expense of revenues and profits. Remember, their jobs and yours depend on the growth of the company and the value of its stock.

Could you walk into the boardroom and contribute materially to a conversation about how to hit and exceed financial targets for Asia or Europe? As UX leaders, we need to be able to stand toe-to-toe with business executives and speak their language. If we can show the links between user experience and profits in a simple and compelling way, we’ll gain credibility with the executives we want to influence.

Learning to speak the language of business is not something that you can accomplish overnight. Do you need to get an MBA? Maybe. But earning an MBA doesn’t mean automatic entry into the elite club of executive leadership. Jim has benefited from involvement in senior leadership development programs within the organizations for which he’s worked. These provided exposure to senior executives, who shared their deepest insights about what it takes to be an executive in a large organization. Pabini has taken a completely different route to gaining business acumen—by reading extensively to prepare herself to lead within the context a startup, then working directly with more experienced executives in startups. While your path to learning business may differ, it’s important that you embark on that journey now.


Being a UX great leader who others want to follow and who can transform an organization to deliver successful results—transformative user experiences that improve business outcomes—requires the leadership skills that all leaders must have and more.

As we said earlier, UX leaders must learn as much as possible about leadership if we expect User Experience to play a role in the boardroom and our goal is transforming our companies to differentiate on design. In any sphere of work, becoming a successful leader and influencing other leaders requires practice. UX leadership is no exception. Great UX leaders are effective evangelists for User Experience at all levels within their organization. They know how to inspire researchers and designers to produce their best work. They know when to step in, when to get out of the way, and how to get results.

In this column, which is Part 1 of a two-part series on UX leadership, we’ve provided the background information that you need to judge whether you’re ready to be a leader or assess whether you’re a great UX leader. In Part 2, “UX Leadership: What Great UX Leaders Must Do,” we’ll discuss the behaviors that are characteristic of great UX leaders. If you aspire to being a great UX leader, here are some things that you must do:

  • Hire the best UX researchers and designers.
  • Establish a strong vision for User Experience and foster shared vision.
  • Enroll others in your cause—both stakeholders and members of the UX team—and inspire emotional engagement and action.
  • Envision compelling outcomes, but let your team decide how to achieve them.
  • Embrace the rapid exploration and adoption of new ideas and approaches and learning from failures.
  • Model the way.
  • Build trust.
  • Recognize and reward informal leaders on your team.
  • Enable your team to do their best work and reward the right behaviors.
  • Support your team members’ career growth and provide opportunities for them to take on greater responsibility and autonomy.
  • Provide ongoing and timely feedback to your team.
  • Produce great results. 

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

Principal Consultant at Strategic UX

Founder, Publisher, and Editor in Chief of UXmatters

Silicon Valley, California, USA

Pabini Gabriel-PetitWith more than 20 years working in User Experience at companies such as Google, Cisco, WebEx, Apple, and many startups, Pabini now provides UX strategy and design consulting services through her Silicon Valley company, Strategic UX. Her past UX leadership roles include Head of UX for Sales & Marketing IT at Intel, Senior Director of UX and Design at Apttus, Principal UX Architect at BMC Software, VP of User Experience at scanR, and Manager of User Experience at WebEx. Pabini has led UX strategy, design, and user research for Web, mobile, and desktop applications for consumers, small businesses, and enterprises, in diverse product domains. Working collaboratively with business executives, multidisciplinary product teams, and UX teams, she has envisioned and realized holistic UX design solutions for innovative, award-winning products that delighted users, achieved success in the marketplace, and delivered business value. As a UX leader, she has facilitated conceptual modeling and ideation sessions; written user stories; prioritized product and usability requirements; established corporate design frameworks, standards, and guidelines; and integrated lean UX activities into agile development processes. Pabini is a strategic thinker, and the diversity of her experience enables her to synthesize innovative solutions for challenging strategy and design problems. She is passionate about creating great user experiences that meet users’ needs and get business results. A thought leader in the UX community, Pabini was a Founding Director of the Interaction Design Association (IxDA).  Read More

Other Columns by Jim Nieters

Other Columns by Pabini Gabriel-Petit

Other Articles on UX Leadership

New on UXmatters