Molding Yourself into a Leader, Part 1

Enterprise UX

Designing experiences for people at work

A column by Jonathan Walter
November 4, 2019

Many articles about UX leadership focus on what managers do or target those who have direct reports. Such articles typically cover building a UX culture, hiring the right people, developing people, and of course, selling the value of User Experience to the C-suite. While these are all valuable pursuits that are vitally important to building a user-centered culture in your company, leadership does not end with directors, managers, or even team leads. Leadership extends to individual contributors, too. In fact, depending on your company’s UX maturity level, leadership arguably begins with individual contributors—perhaps you, the UX designer.

Unfortunately, UX designers are often in short supply in large enterprise environments, in comparison to people in information technology, engineering, and marketing roles. This, in turn, perpetuates scenarios in which UX designers must be, in equal parts, practitioners, evangelists, and presenters—roles that together exceed the scope of what most UX designers expect they’ll need to do when they first embark on their career. However, being a leader also means cultivating skills that may go beyond the bounds of your craft. But what does leadership really look like for people in creative roles who don’t have any direct reports, lack easy access to the C-suite, and have not had a multi-decade tenure at their company?

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When preparing to write this column, I thought about the individuals with whom I’ve worked throughout my career—in my current role and past roles, at both small companies and large, and on collocated and globally distributed teams—who others perceived as leaders. I did not identify any single individual contributor on whom I could base this column, but several—most of whom are still individual contributors. Eventually a persona took shape, and I listed the traits and behaviors that such individuals consistently exhibit—qualities that earn them the respect of their superiors, as well as the emulation of their peers.

In this column, which is Part 1 in a multipart series, I’ll discuss the following ways in which UX designers who are individual contributors demonstrate leadership:

  • communicating with intention
  • reacting appropriately
  • adapting to change
  • enabling others
  • being open minded
  • demonstrating integrity

Communicating with Intention

“To listen well is as powerful a means of communication and influence as to talk well.”—John Marshall

Even though a UX designer possesses loads of talent, if that designer does not make the effort to communicate with clarity, others won’t be able to experience that talent adequately. Let’s consider some behaviors that I have observed in UX designers who communicate well, whether they’re presenting a design specification to stakeholders, providing feedback on peers’ design deliverables, or conversing with usability-study participants:

  • prioritizing listening—It is impossible to learn about and benefit from others’ thoughts if you’re the one doing all the talking. As UX designers, we are in the business of user enablement. A big part of enabling users—in addition to enabling our peers, which I’ll get to later—is listening to them and learning from them. Any true leader understands the value of active listening, which helps build empathy with the person doing the speaking. Empathy is a key trait for any successful UX designer. The following tips on active listening might just seem like common sense, but in our modern culture, with its heavy use of smartphones and social media, receiving someone’s undivided attention is becoming a rare treat. A leader gives others undivided attention and prioritizes listening first. You can demonstrate active listening by doing the following:
    • Maintain eye contact with the person who is speaking.
    • Ensure that your body language exudes positivity and engagement. Do not slouch, stare off into space, or make facial expressions that convey either disagreement or boredom.
    • Close your notebook computer, set down your tablet or phone, and avoid multitasking.
    • Let others speak without your interrupting them.
    • Ask clarifying questions during natural breaks in the conversation—summarizing or probing more deeply into the other person’s comments, which demonstrates that you are engaged with what the other person is saying.
  • using simple words—Using jargon, complex words, and ambiguous acronyms only heightens the communication barriers between you and others. A leader understands this and makes the effort to ensure that messages are clear and simple. I stress effort because using fewer, simpler words to convey a concept or idea isn’t easy. It requires putting intention into how others receive your words. As a UX designer, putting yourself into the shoes of others is a major part of your job. Ask yourself whether you’re doing enough to ensure that the words you choose are those that most effectively facilitate your listeners’ comprehension.
  • being articulate—A leader can convince others to see her perspective and inspire people to act without being the loudest voice in the room. Bluster and bravado seldom work because they are usually the result of fear and insecurity. But a leader who feels insecure about a challenge says so, admits any uncertainty about how to proceed, and puts these feelings into words rather than letting them come out in aggressive, destructive ways. Moreover, a leader takes sufficient time to form responses to others. As I described in my recent column, “Navigating Ambiguity,” quickly giving confident answers does not mean you’re providing accurate answers.
  • saying Yes, and—A leader knows there is no quicker way to shut down a dialogue with others than being dismissive of their ideas. Even if those ideas seem farfetched or infeasible, by first saying Yes, a leader acknowledges having heard another person’s thoughts. Then, by immediately following with and, the leader implicitly amplifies the other person’s point, while augmenting that point with thoughts or ideas of her own that could shift the discussion into more user-centered territories. Above all, a leader values relationships and understands that she alone cannot meet users’ needs. Her fellow UX designers, engineers, architects, and product managers all play key roles in building usable products. Words of affirmation are important, and responding to others with Yes, and is a simple communication tactic that helps foster stronger relationships, while giving you the necessary latitude to navigate feedback from other constituents that might not be helpful in improving the user’s experience.
  • demonstrating emotional intelligence—A leader is acutely aware of nonverbal communication, watches others’ reactions, and adapts communication approaches to meet others’ needs. Is a stakeholder nodding his head in agreement or slouching down with arms crossed? Is a fellow UX designer listening attentively or thumbing through text messages? A leader mentally notes such details, is mindful of her own body language, and adapts her own approach to re-engage others.
  • telling stories—As I described in my column, Telling a Story Through Your Portfolio Presentation,” stories can influence the opinions of others in ways that few other modes of communication can. Plus, stories are more memorable than facts alone. A leader recognizes that telling stories builds rapport and relatability and piques the interest of his or her listeners. Plus, a leader evinces interest in the stories others tell—especially stories by and about the people who use a company’s products. The goal is to understand users, be their witness, and retell their stories to stakeholders and decision makers. A leader advocates for users, wielding their stories as powerful communication tools and championing users’ enablement and satisfaction.
  • writing well—The ability to be articulate extends to the written word, whether in corporate communications or user-interface copy for users. A leader consistently writes with intention and makes whatever revisions are necessary to ensure that messages are clear, concise, and meet communication objectives. A leader cares about how others receive these messages. Plus, UX designers understand the value of putting themselves in the shoes of the people receiving their messages. When you’re writing a message, ask yourself the following questions:
    • Is my message accurate?
    • Is my message as concise as it can be?
    • Could others misinterpret my message in any way?
    • Does my message state the objective or outcome I want to achieve?
    • Is the tone of my message polite and collegial?

In enterprise environments in which User Experience is still relatively immature, it’s often necessary for UX designers to write user-interface copy as part of a design specification. Although this text might receive some finessing from copyeditors, information architects, or localization teams before the product’s final release, the copy the designer writes could very well find its way into the released product. Effective writing contributes to a good User Experience, so leaders endeavor to ensure that a product’s users receive clear, concise messaging that reflects the tone and voice of the company’s brand. Effective copywriting contributes significantly to creating a holistic user experience.

Reacting Appropriately

Casting a pebble into a pond results in a small splash. Similarly, minor issues that are cast into your path should have a negligible effect. A leader does not let small pebbles make splashes in his mind that are disproportionate to their size. Thus, he avoids demonstrating to others that minor nuisances could distract and derail him. Of course, nobody wants to work with someone who overreacts to inconsequential problems—no less emulate that person. Did someone accidentally leave you off a meeting invitation? A pebble. Did a stakeholder make the false assumption that User Experience entails only aesthetics or gold-plating? A pebble.

A leader’s mind is like water, and he reacts appropriately and proportionally to the issues that fall in his path. He acknowledges pebbles as pebbles and boulders as boulders, reserving his stronger reactions for those things that truly merit them.

Adapting to Change

Leaders understand that, in the realm of enterprise software development, changes always happen—whether those changes take the form of aggressive go-do’s from senior executives, the need to redesign software products that their company has suddenly acquired from a competitor, or major shifts in business priorities that the desires of the board of directors are driving. Change is a constant, and people with a fixed mindset struggle during times of significant change because they find it difficult to adapt to new or unexpected circumstances. Despite their natural disposition, leaders must strive to achieve a growth mindset and believe that they can grow—that their abilities and skills are neither static nor immutable.

When you let yourself believe that you have the ability to grow and give yourself permission to be imperfect during that growth process, you nurture your ability to adapt to change. Whenever a leader receives negative feedback, she neither throws up her hands in resignation nor thinks she will never be good enough. She does not sulk or make disparaging comments about others in retaliation. Even though the feedback might sting, she can view it for what it is: a growth opportunity. She then refocuses her efforts on strengthening any deficient skills or overcoming unproductive behaviors, knowing that she can get better over time.

“Many receive advice, only the wise profit from it.”—Harper Lee

Leaders strive to anticipate change, endeavoring to stay abreast of the latest trends and new paradigms in their company’s industry, as well as in the field of User Experience. They continually read books and articles, attend conferences, and participate in their local community’s meetups—whether these relate to User Experience or are industry specific. At conferences and meetups, leaders eagerly chat up peers working in adjacent domains about how they do their work. Leaders are thirsty for knowledge because they know that staying informed of current thinking and trends ultimately helps them adapt to change—and better yet, to anticipate change, which ultimately leads to better product user experiences.

Enabling Others

Leaders know they cannot achieve great things alone. Nor are they interested solely in their own personal gain. They derive pleasure from seeing others’ skills and competencies grow and endeavor to enable that growth. The field of User Experience is still growing and fairly immature within most large, enterprise environments. UX designers who are leaders must recognize that they and their peers cannot alone shift a company’s culture toward becoming more user centered. They must understand that such a shift requires enabling engineers, architects, and product managers to become supporters of User Experience. Support must precede championship.

UX designers who are leaders must endeavor to involve non-designers in design-related activities, paying close attention especially to those people who demonstrate a desire to be involved. Leaders use their emotional intelligence and, when inviting people to participate in collaborative design activities, observe their reactions, then their level of engagement during those activities, taking note of what people might be potential UX advocates, before finally taking measures that further foster their engagement.

Being Open Minded

Most people, when they face a challenge, habitually fall back on solutions that are based on their own personal experiences and opinions, then lean heavily on these in seeding their decision-making process. There is nothing inherently wrong with drawing upon your existing knowledge. However, there is a tendency to believe that the way we have always done something is the correct way, so we might insist upon such solutions at the expense of envisioning other, better possibilities.

“Those who cannot change their minds cannot change anything.”—George Bernard Shaw

Leaders know that the familiar solutions they typically draw upon are not synonymous with the best or correct solutions. They recognize and can overcome their own biases and tactfully challenge the biases of others. This helps them to arrive at the best solutions—however unorthodox those solutions might be. Leaders are always open to the possibility that there might be a better way and embrace others’ proving them wrong if someone else has a more innovative, useful approach. Leaders do not take it personally if others reject their ideas because they’re not the best ideas. Their primary interest is in doing the right and best thing for users.

Demonstrating Integrity

People who demonstrate integrity do what is right—regardless of whether others recognize them for doing right. In the realm of User Experience, this integrity extends to doing right by the people who use the products we design because, as UX designers, we must be user advocates. There are already enough people who are focusing on doing what is right for the company’s business goals, internal systems, processes, and technologies. However, in enterprise environments, there is a ponderous scarcity of people whose sole focus is on doing right by those people who use or purchase our company’s products—those who we should enable and need to satisfy. Leaders demonstrate integrity by making users their North Star.

Demonstrating integrity also extends to your day-to-day work and interactions with others. Often, this is as simple as doing what you’ve said you’re going to do and saying what you’re going to do. There is no quicker way to damage your reputation than to say one thing, then do another. Leaders understand that their peers would quickly catch on to inconsistent behaviors, making their efforts to mold themselves into leaders—no less quality teammates—all the more difficult.


Organizational constructs that apply to other, more mature functions within companies often are not applicable to UX teams. UX designers have unique career-development needs, and this reality exacerbates the challenges we face in developing our leadership skills within and outside our companies—further necessitating our becoming champions of our own career growth and development. Granted, there are other forces at play that influence the perception of a UX designer as a leader, including internal company politics and career-path limitations that are beyond our control. But there are things you can do, right now, to mold yourself into a leader. Demonstrating the traits and behaviors befitting the leadership role you ultimately want to achieve can help you to actually achieve that role.

To mold yourself into a leader, you must listen, speak, and write with intention. If you do not make the effort necessary to lower communication barriers, nobody can experience your talent or the quality of your thinking. React appropriately. Letting trivial matters bother you makes it more difficult for others—including your manager—to envision your taking on challenging projects and, thus, inhibits your growth opportunities.

Be malleable in coping with change because change will happen. You can better prepare yourself to handle change by striving to achieve a growth mindset. Since UX designers are often in scarce supply within large, enterprise environments and few people can achieve great things alone, enable your colleagues in other disciplines to champion users as well. Always be open minded, because the best solutions are often those that require you to stretch yourself, adopt new ways of thinking, see opportunities where others cannot, and consider unorthodox solutions that could be a game-changers if you look at them from a fresh perspective. Finally, demonstrate integrity. True leadership means doing the right thing, even when nobody is looking or listening.

In Part 2 of this series, I’ll present more leadership traits and behaviors that earn individual contributors the respect of senior management and the emulation of their peers. 

Director of User Experience at Rockwell Automation

Cleveland, Ohio, USA

Jonathan WalterJon has a degree in Visual Communication Design from the University of Dayton, as well as experience in Web development, interaction design, user interface design, user research, and copywriting. He spent eight years at Progressive Insurance, where his design and development skills helped shape the #1 insurance Web site in the country, Jon’s passion for user experience fueled his desire to make it his full-time profession. Jon joined Rockwell Automation in 2013, where he designs software products for some of the most challenging environments in the world. Jon became User Experience Team Lead at Rockwell in 2020, balancing design work with managing a cross-functional team of UX professionals, then became a full-time User Experience Manager in 2021. In 2022, Jon was promoted to Director of User Experience at Rockwell.  Read More

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