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Advancing to the Next Level in Your Career

Enterprise UX

Designing experiences for people at work

A column by Jonathan Walter
May 3, 2021

As a UX design professional in an enterprise environment, you’ve probably struggled at some point to understand what it would take to advance to the next level in your career—especially if the function of User Experience at your company is immature, which, sadly, is common. Many companies still lack clear criteria that would enable any employee—much less a UX designer—to have productive, evidence-based conversations with their manager about receiving a promotion or earning greater levels of responsibility.

Even if your company has provided a formal template or rubric to help UX designers understand and track their potential career growth relative to their current level, such artifacts would only partially inform a manager’s decision about an employee’s suitability for advancement. As I’ve learned over the course of my 20-year career as both an individual contributor and a manager, there are many factors that contribute to a manager’s decision-making process.

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In this column, I’ll discuss some of the factors that contribute to a manager’s decisions regarding employees’ advancement, which I’ve organized into two categories:

  1. Foundational actions and behaviors
  2. Supporting criteria and considerations

Foundational Actions and Behaviors

Every company is different and has its own employee-succession construct—in addition to a code of conduct or a set of core values on which all employees should model their behaviors. However, there are foundational actions and behaviors that any employee desiring advancement at any company should consistently demonstrate, which are as follows:

  • fostering a positive culture
  • applying core competencies

Fostering a Positive Culture

“Culture eats strategy for breakfast.”—Peter Drucker

A positive culture is infectious and, at its foundation, lie constructive, respectful behaviors and actions. The impact of a positive culture is immeasurable. Unfortunately, the same holds true for a negative culture, in which employees engage in undermining behaviors and actions. A negative culture can topple a team—or even an entire organization. A positive culture can elevate the whole team.

Even if you have the most impressive design chops or talent befitting your specific UX function, that doesn’t necessarily mean you’re ready for advancement. Employees who are ready to advance have consistently shown that they embody their company’s core values through their behaviors and actions, which in turn contribute to a strong culture. Consider the following examples:

  • Employees have actively helped others. They might have assisted with the onboarding of new employees or found learning opportunities for others to grow their skills and career, including both individuals within and outside their functional team.
  • Employees have fostered an inclusive culture. This doesn’t mean attending every team-building activity or Happy Hour—not everyone is comfortable in such social settings, even when virtual. Such employees have demonstrated their support of others who are unlike them—through their attitude, communication style, and willingness to listen.
  • Employees have exuded positivity. They have refrained from engaging in behaviors that create negative undercurrents on their team.
  • Employees have projected a growth mindset. They have permitted themselves and others around them to be imperfect in their growth journey. They’ve taken chances and stretched themselves, and they haven’t quit on a goal or initiative because it became challenging. Through their actions, they’ve shown they understand that they would eventually succeed and grow, becoming the professional they need to be to achieve that success—even if they had to ask for help, which is another important skill.

Applying Core Competencies

As with fostering a positive culture, there are core competencies that employees who are ready to advance should apply to their position, regardless of their level or function. Consider the following as table stakes:

  • exceptional time management—Consistently showing up late to meetings or failing to manage your time effectively negatively impacts an employee’s career growth. Employees who are ready to advance have been punctual, reliable, and respectful to everyone with whom they’ve worked.
  • excellent communication skills—Your peers, teams, and stakeholders experience your communication skills—or the lack thereof—first and foremost. Your hard skills are immaterial if you don’t communicate consistently and with intention. Employees who are ready to advance have continuously kept others who are dependent on their work apprised of their progress, including sharing information about any blockers that have arisen. They’ve also leveraged their communication skills to articulate their design and research decisions and rationales effectively.
  • solid organizational skills—Employees who are ready for advancement have demonstrated predictability, timeliness, and quality through their ability to self-organize, which in turn, has favored their assisting others’ ability to organize, including their product team. Furthermore, they have dependably paid attention to the administrative details, accurately tracking their hours if necessary, submitting expenses according to instructions, and carrying out all related tasks and duties. As I described in my column, “Molding Yourself into a Leader, Part 3,” dependability favors consistency, which fosters predictability. Employees’ inability to organize their administrative tasks could indicate deficiencies that would carry over into their project work.

Supporting Criteria and Considerations

The whole of an employee’s performance is greater than the sum of its parts. I’ve never encountered a magical formula that can determine that an employee who has demonstrated X number of specific behaviors, actions, or qualities should automatically receive a promotion or an increase in responsibility or visibility. However, there are criteria and considerations that contribute to employees’ readiness for advancement, which include the following:

  • performance and experience relative to an employee’s current level
  • performance feedback
  • project work
  • leadership behaviors
  • industry knowledge
  • craft skills
  • soft skills

Performance and Experience Relative to an Employee’s Current Level

The amount of time employees have spent at their current level is an important factor. Employees need adequate time within a level before they can grow out of it effectively. Some things managers often consider include the following:

  • Is an employee already performing at a level above what you should expect of employees at his or her current level? What conclusions could your draw after reviewing the description of the position at the level above that employee’s current level? In what specific ways is that person already performing at the next level?
  • If you were to advance an employee to the next level, would that person be prepared to accept the responsibility and authority appropriate to that level and perform accordingly? Most organizations are pay-for-performance organizations, not pay-for-potential organizations, so there should be a demonstrable indication that an employee can replicate commensurate performance at the higher level. The best way for an employee to demonstrate this is to already be doing it. A promotion or an increase in responsibility or authority recognizes the level of performance that has preceded it.
  • How has the employee rated his or her own performance and why? Has the employee enumerated achievements in performance-review documents or deliverables—whether relating to a project or a team—that were compelling, and evidence based?
  • What were the employee’s final ratings after meeting with the manager and discussing end-of-year performance? Did the employee consistently achieve positive ratings on their goals, following through on key results and deliverables that the manager established or modified at the year’s outset?

Performance Feedback

Performance feedback is a powerful tool for objectively discerning an individual’s performance and growth, as well as impact on a business and the relationships the employee cultivated along the way. Consider the following questions that a manager might want to ask:

  • Has there been consistent feedback that demonstrates an employee’s positive impact on all of his or her projects and initiatives?
  • What words have peers assigned to the employee’s actions, behaviors, and qualities?
  • Has the employee achieved objectives constructively, forging positive relationships? A true measure of success isn’t just whether an employee has achieved a goal or objective, but the manner and tact with which he or she achieved it—the how.

Project Work

The types of project work in which an employee engages also contribute to readiness to advance. Consider the following factors:

  • complexity and scope of project work—Consider the quantity or significance of the projects and initiatives the employee has supported and their business impact.
  • successful outcomes of the employee’s projects—Project work demonstrates adherence to UX design principles and guidelines, relies on conducting up-front research and validation testing, and aligns with enterprise-wide toolkits and design libraries. Furthermore, there is demonstrable evidence indicating that product teams have implemented solutions that were based on an employee’s guidance and deliverables.

Leadership Behaviors

Other factors to consider include employees’ increased leadership skills, autonomy, and responsibility, relative to their current level and the level above them. Leadership can mean different things to different people. However, activities that demonstrate leadership include the following:

  • leading collaborative workshops with teams
  • confidently presenting deliverables and results to senior leadership
  • accepting and even proposing system-wide deliverables and initiatives of increasing visibility and impact—and being accountable for those deliverables and initiatives
  • evangelizing the function of User Experience within the company through their presentations, articles, and speaking engagements
  • leading or participating in company-wide initiatives and programs
  • collaborating with cross-functional teams that support a positive culture and an inclusive working environment

Note—The higher the level, the higher the expectations for these types of actions and behaviors, as well as their frequency.

Industry Knowledge

It’s important that managers see discernible growth in an employee’s breadth and depth of knowledge of their company’s domain. Some things to consider include the following:

  • An employee has absorbed domain knowledge, then transferred this knowledge to others, whether through organizing meetings, leading show-and-tell sessions, or engaging in one-on-one coaching.
  • An employee has presented on domain-focused topics, whether internally or externally.
  • Others solicit the employee’s expertise. The employee has become a subject-matter expert in a particular domain or area of knowledge and peers seek the employee’s guidance and support in growing their own knowledge.

Craft Skills

There should be discernible growth in an employee’s core skillset or function. Some activities and considerations might include the following:

  • An employee has absorbed craft knowledge, then transferred this knowledge to others in respect to their specific craft or function, whether through informal coaching or constructive critique.
  • The quality of the employee’s deliverables has met the needs of project teams and stakeholders.
  • The employee is able to use these skills independently to achieve positive outcomes. Relative to the employee’s current level, he or she is able to work autonomously while keeping teammates engaged with the project work.
  • The employee has demonstrated a hunger for continuous learning and personal development by attending conferences and training workshops and learning independently, with the goal of becoming the best at what he or she does.
  • The employee has become a subject-matter expert in a function or skill and peers seek that employee’s guidance and support in growing their own knowledge.

Soft Skills

Finally, employees who have positioned themselves for advancement have demonstrated they can influence others through their soft skills—or, as some argue, core skills. Consider the following types of behaviors and actions as examples:

  • These employees have shown that they can defend their decisions and deliverables tactfully, while continually building a culture of mutual respect, trust, and honesty.
  • They don’t shrink from conflict, but forge constructive relationships, showing they can succeed even when working with personalities that may differ from their own. As I described in my column, “Choosing Your Battles, Part 1,” responding tactfully to caustic feedback from others requires empathy—a trait that UX professionals must often draw upon in relating to the people who use their products, but also with their colleagues. Yes, at times, it is important to hold one’s ground. But it’s just as important to demonstrate empathy for teammates, who are under their own pressures and must often meet challenging deadlines, too.
  • Such employees are aware of the emotions of others. They continually demonstrate emotional intelligence, adapt their communication style to diverse audiences, and show that they’re able to influence others through their words, behaviors, and actions. Questions to consider include the following:
    • Has an employee convinced a product manager to make a change to a product requirement that supports a better user experience?
    • Has the employee gained the trust and confidence of product teams and other stakeholders, ensuring that they do not make major product decisions without that employee’s input?

Conclusion

There’s no magical formula by which you can advance to the next level in your career. Companies differ in their level of UX maturity, which impacts how quickly UX designers can ascend the corporate ladder. However, certain behaviors, actions, and qualities serve any employee well—regardless of where they work or where they reside within the company’s organizational chart.

You must demonstrate certain foundational behaviors such as projecting a growth mindset or positively impacting your colleagues. One employee can have a resoundingly positive impact on an entire team’s culture. This is the type of person in which companies want to invest. Consistently apply core competencies such as being punctual and well organized. Pointing out such skills might seem obvious, but they’re reliable indicators of your ability to engage product teams and even customers in a respectful, considerate manner. Finally, take the types of actions and demonstrate the kinds of behaviors that show you’re positioning yourself for advancement. Show that you’re ready for the next step in your career. 

User Experience Team Lead 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, 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. In 2020, Jon became User Experience Team Lead at Rockwell, where he balances design work with managing a cross-functional team of UX professionals.  Read More

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