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Molding Yourself into a Leader, Part 2

Enterprise UX

Designing experiences for people at work

A column by Jonathan Walter
December 2, 2019

In Part 1 of this multipart series, I communicated that leadership does not end with directors, managers, and team leads. It extends to individual contributors, too—especially when UX-design resources are a scarce commodity within an enterprise. I also explained that, in many cases—depending on a company’s UX maturity—leadership in the field of User Experience begins with UX designers.

Then, I described the following behaviors that I have observed in individual contributors who have earned the respect of their superiors and emulation by their peers:

  • communicating with intention
  • reacting appropriately
  • adapting to change
  • enabling others
  • being open minded
  • demonstrating integrity
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Now, in Part 2 of my series, I’ll present additional behaviors that individual contributors who others perceive as leaders consistently exhibit, as follows:

  • projecting vision
  • championing craft
  • exuding positivity

Projecting Vision

In a UX Mastery article by Luke Chambers, “The Essential Qualities of a UX Leader,” psychologist and usability expert David Travis states, “The one characteristic that I’ve seen in great UX leaders is vision: the ability to describe a future state for the product and to have the soft skills to motivate the team behind this shared vision.”

As I explained in Part 1, a leader is able to set aside her predispositions and typical solutions to imagine better ways of doing things. This requires embracing and evangelizing innovative ideas from others. Sometimes you need to show people what they want—even if they haven’t articulated what that might be. Or perhaps, even though stakeholders have stated that they want something, they have only done so indirectly. Often, stakeholders’ descriptions of the capabilities they think would be innovative or beneficial to users are not clearly formed, or ideas are scattered across several disparate conversations, meetings, interactions, or documents. However, these ideas may have conjured up distinct images in your mind, which stakeholders have not yet made the leap to envisioning. Do not ignore these mental-movie clips and still frames. A leader recognizes such images for what they are: visions.

Visions are difficult to come by, and the individual who seizes upon such opportunities puts herself in a position to show others what is possible. This helps establish her as a leader. There are already enough people in enterprise environments who are focusing on feasibility, cost, and delivery. Envisioning better possibilities requires giving oneself permission to think differently, outside the rigid bounds of the status quo. Even if a vision is flawed or unrealistic, the following positive outcomes usually result when you project your vision to others:

  • fostering tangibility
  • building consensus
  • inspiring others

Fostering Tangibility

Casting a vision helps to disambiguate abstract concepts. For example, a senior executive might have issued a go-do on the basis of a promise to a customer, including a punch list of permanent features or capabilities that he suddenly wants your team to deliver as part of a product. Or, perhaps your company’s strategy for the fiscal year is to be the first to go to market with a set of innovative capabilities that are new to your industry. But what is the look and feel of these capabilities? More importantly, how should users experience them?

I’ve been in countless meetings in which stakeholders who have divergent thoughts talk over and around each other to determine how users should experience a new feature or capability, as Figure 1 depicts. However, such conversations are often tedious journeys into the abstract, in which the tentacles of feasibility and implementation inevitably strangle any potential for putting the users’ experience first. While divergent thinking can be beneficial in the proper context, in the absence of proper leadership, it can sometimes derail meetings and conversations. Such scenarios benefit from communicating through pictures rather than using words. A leader understands this and redirects the attention of others to a whiteboard drawing, wireframe, or even a high-fidelity mockup that she’s taken it upon herself to create. We’ve all heard the saying “A picture is worth a thousand words.” Making abstract concepts concrete—even when doing so might feel premature—is often the most productive thing a leader can do.

Figure 1—A lack of vision makes discussions unproductive
A lack of vision makes discussions unproductive

Building Consensus

The most important outcome of a leader’s projecting a vision is that this results in an artifact on which everyone can focus their energy and attention. This, in turn, helps foster convergent thinking, as Figure 2 illustrates. When you deprioritize words in favor of communicating visually, you can reduce the likelihood that stakeholders or other meeting participants might hijack discussions. A visual artifact forces people to focus on a common stimulus. Even though every person is unique, so might perceive the same artifact differently, presenting something visual on which to base further discussions and activities is still one of the most effective ways to facilitate finding common ground. Consensus is not far off once people can point to the same artifact and constructively apply their comments to it.

Figure 2—Visual artifacts foster convergent thinking and consensus
A visual artifact fosters convergent thoughts and leads to consensus

Inspiring Others

“Opportunity is missed by most people because it is dressed in overalls and looks like work.”—Thomas Edison

By pushing the boundaries of what you think is possible, you can stretch other peoples’ ways of thinking, too—regardless of whether they acknowledge this. They’ll allow the seeds of creativity to germinate within themselves. Before you know it, you’ll have generated a groundswell of interest and excitement. Although your vision might not immediately provoke action—even the heartiest ideas can take time to develop—demonstrating leadership by showing others what could be possible inspires them.

Leaders understand that projecting a vision usually entails work that exceeds both the bounds of their typical deliverables, as well as the expectations of others. However, instead of seeing extra work as inconvenience, leaders see opportunity—often where others do not. Therefore, leaders are willing to put in the work to cultivate their vision. They understand that anything worth doing is usually difficult and requires the investment of time and energy.

Championing Craft

Your soft skills are what truly set you apart from others who have similar educations, experiences, and hard skills. They are what your peers experience the most directly. However, I would be remiss if I didn’t spend some time discussing craft—because craft does matter for the UX designer who wants to become a leader. Leaders lead by example and that extends to the quality of tangible design deliverables. If the quality of a UX designer’s deliverables is not at a level that others would want to emulate or that inspires respect, that designer would have more difficulty being perceived as a leader. The following are some behaviors that I’ve observed in others who demonstrate leadership through their craft.

  • applying what they learn—As I described in Part 1, leaders are thirsty for knowledge and, to stay abreast of modern trends and thinking, they make an effort to attend conferences and meetups—whether industry specific or UX focused—in addition to reading articles and books. However, learning is one thing; applying what you’ve learned is something else entirely. Leaders understand this and don’t seek credit simply for attending a conference or completing a class. Leaders internalize their learnings, bringing them back to their workplace and finding appropriate ways of incorporating those learnings in their work. Even if leaders cannot immediately apply their knowledge, they’ll socialize their knowledge and, in doing so, contextualize it with intention. This is a far more difficult skill to master than simply regurgitating information you’ve heard somewhere, which isn’t helpful to anyone.
  • producing high-quality deliverables—Individual contributors who are leaders do good work. For a UX designer, this includes doing the following:
    • ensuring that user feedback and research influence the directions of UX design deliverables rather than personal biases or pet solutions
    • employing best practices for localization and accessibility to ensure that users of all physical and cognitive abilities can use the products he designs
    • creating designs that typify critical usability heuristics—for example, the following attributes that Everett McKay describes in his book Intuitive Design: Eight Steps to an Intuitive UI:
      • discoverability
      • forgiveness
      • comprehensibility
      • predictability
      • efficiency
      • responsive feedback
      • explorability
      • affordance
    • providing mockups, specifications, wireframes, and other UX design deliverables that are tidy, well organized, and specify an amount of detail that is appropriate to the objectives the designer intends these deliverables to achieve—whether early consensus building or a final design for implementation by the development team
  • expertly wielding their tools—Leaders’ thirst for knowledge extends to the tools they use in delivering their work. Even though leaders understand that technology and tools are simply a means to an end and have finite shelf lives, they recognize the crucial role that tools play in delivering user experiences that are efficient, effective, and satisfying for the people who use them. Leaders manufacture time to adapt their own knowledge to new tools and applications for their trade—whether this involves learning new design software or improving proficiency with an existing tool. Leaders always look for ways to use their tools more efficiently, knowing that developing high proficiency affords more time for focusing on what matters most: designing high-quality user experiences.

Moreover, leaders’ proficiency with their tools results in more opportunities for enabling others. Leaders seize opportunities to teach their peers tips and tricks so their teams can get the most out of the tools whose use they share in common. In the same UX Mastery article I mentioned earlier, Corey Lebson, author of The UX Careers Handbook, says, “A UX practitioner who doesn’t lead a team can also be a workplace leader by mentoring others and helping them to improve their skills.” Helping others to hone their skills with common tools and applications is a simple, but effective way of demonstrating leadership.

Exuding Positivity

People seldom emulate others who have negative attitudes. While being positive might seem like common sense, exuding positivity on a consistent basis is easier said than done. For example, you might have arrived at work after an argument with your spouse or a family member, just have endured a hellish commute, or be suffering from bone-deep exhaustion or battling an illness. We’re all human, and everyone with whom you work has his or her own stressors—many of which might be worse than those you’re experiencing. Carrying stress often feels like you’re hauling around an unwieldy bag of bricks. No matter whether the places in which you carry your stress are physical, virtual, or a combination of the two, stress can result in your behaving negatively toward others.

Exhibiting negative behavior is all too easy. You might be curt with your teammates, succumb to the temptation of engaging in workplace gossip, or speak negatively about your personal or professional circumstances. It is difficult to project positivity in spite of your own stress and the bad behavior of others, which can be extremely contagious. True leaders are able to rise above such provocations. Even when they’re not feeling positive inside, leaders still try to project positivity for the greater good of their peers and the work environment they share. Leaders understand that doing so exemplifies their own professionalism. Others, including their manager, take notice of their ability to maintain a positive demeanor in spite of any negativity swirling around them. Here are some behaviors I’ve observed in people whose positive attitude garners the respect of others:

  • They do not engage in office gossip. If one teammate is spreading rumors about another—even if the rumors appear to be true—leaders choose not to participate in discussing them. They either politely redirect conversations to more constructive topics or choose to leave these discussions altogether. It can be difficult to resist gossip—if for no other reason than that it provides opportunities to be supportive of teammates and, thus, deepening your relationships with them. Plus, we humans are a curious lot. Most of us enjoy being among the select few who know a salacious secret or the source of a juicy rumor. But leaders are willing to sacrifice opportunities for provocative knowledge-transfer and the relationships that result from them—all in the interest of fostering a more positive work environment.
  • They do not complain incessantly about personal or professional matters. As with avoiding gossip, leaders do not complain incessantly and either redirect or avoid other people who engage in such behaviors. Leaders maintain boundaries. They understand that it can sometimes be okay to vent their frustrations or listen to the frustrations of others. This can be highly productive in the right context—perhaps in the privacy of their manager’s office or within a forum where candid feedback is expected and encouraged. However, leaders also understand that complainers often air their grievances publicly and with little regard for context or appropriateness. This has a way of sapping everyone’s energy, creating negative undercurrents that can sweep entire teams into territories that are unproductive at best and destructive at worst. As with gossip, leaders choose the more difficult path of resisting such behaviors themselves and avoid unproductive gripe sessions with others. As with rejecting gossip, leaders are willing to resist forging opportunities and relationships in fire and anger, even if that means they might lose workplace friends in the process.
  • They genuinely care about others. Most of us spend more time with our workplace peers than with our own families and friends. Spending copious amounts of time with anyone—whether in person or remotely—can lead to your becoming frustrated with that person and their becoming frustrated with you. Leaders recognize this reality and fortify their work relationships by getting to know their peers, superiors, and constituents. Building rapport with your colleagues leads to your caring about them as human beings, not just coworkers. Demonstrating that you care for others does not have to be difficult. You can manifest caring through small, simple gestures such as remembering the names of your coworkers’ children, inquiring about a recent trip—and actively listening to the person’s response—and empathizing with a peer about a difficult illness. While avoiding complaining and gossip are valued behaviors, it is also critical to know when to pull your head out of your work and demonstrate empathy for others. Leaders put people before process. When you demonstrate that you care, you not only model a positive work environment to others, you deepen your relationships and support your network of people at work—a win-win.
  • They model work / life balance. Working yourself to the point of exhaustion on a consistent basis negatively affects your ability to foster a positive work environment. We’ve all worked with people who never seem to leave the office or are always online, making it appear that they are available at the drop of a hat. In many modern workplaces, people subscribe to the false belief that working more hours means greater productivity. However, as I described in my column, “Juggling Multiple Product Teams,” more hours do not necessarily translate to more productivity. In fact, it could mean diminished productivity—especially if a worker’s time on the clock exceeds 50 hours per week. Leaders do not succumb to unwarranted pressures to look busy or seem more productive for the sake of hollow appearances or in the hope of advancing their career. While they invest in their relationships with their coworkers, they also invest in their family, friends, and a healthy lifestyle. While certain projects might occasionally necessitate their putting in long hours to make a challenging deadline or help solve a serious customer problem, they know overwork should not be the norm. Leaders do not allow it to become the norm and model their commitment to a positive and healthy lifestyle to others. Leaders understand that they cannot be productive if they don’t look after their own physical, mental, and emotional well-being, in addition to providing care for their family and loved ones.
  • They make time for fun. Part of caring about your teammates and investing in your relationships at work means spending quality time with our colleagues. Spending enjoyable, fun time with your coworkers outside the office or your typical work hours demonstrates your commitment to others. Leaders make time for levity and leisure with their colleagues, fully understanding that this benefits everyone and lets them cultivate positive relationships. Whenever colleagues leave the familiar confines of the office—whether physical or virtual—they broaden the world they share with one another, facilitating the serendipitous discovery of common hobbies and interests. Soon, teammates are no longer proxies at work. They’ve become people who like to have fun, smile, and enjoy life—just like you.

Conclusion

Leaders are willing to put in the effort necessary to project a vision—even if doing so feels premature—because, in large enterprise environments, there is a scarcity of people who allow themselves to visualize the possibilities that exist beyond comfortable solutions or rigid processes. While superior soft skills set leaders apart from others who have similar educational backgrounds, experiences, and skillsets, championing craft is still necessary for a UX designer who wants to demonstrate leadership. Leaders lead by example, and this extends to the tangible deliverables they create. Finally, leaders exude positivity that others will emulate. Negativity is contagious, but so is positivity. Leaders know that having a positive attitude is contagious, and their good behaviors offset others’ negative behaviors such as gossip and incessant complaints.

In Part 3—the final part in this series—I’ll share more behaviors that I’ve observed in individual contributors who have garnered the respect of senior leadership, as well as the emulation of their peers. 

User Experience Architect at Rockwell Automation

Cleveland, Ohio, USA

Jonathan WalterJon has a degree in Visual 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, progressive.com. Jon’s passion for user experience fueled his desire to make it his full-time profession. In 2013, Jon joined Rockwell Automation, where he designs software products for some of the most challenging environments in the world. He is UX lead for a revolutionary analytics appliance for users on the factory floor. In addition to his Fortune-500 experience, Jon has contributed his skills to a real-estate startup. Jon rounds out his time by writing and reading anything he can get his hands on.  Read More

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