So You Want to Be a UX Manager—Seriously?

By Jim Nieters

Published: April 22, 2008

“A great leader can direct a team to produce the best work of their careers and tune their teams to perform at their peak—and this is important. But it’s not more important than having great designers who can produce market-changing ideas.”

This is my first column on the management of UX. In my column, I’ll articulate what I’ve learned from my experience as a senior leader and several years in intensive senior leadership development programs.

Have you ever known a manager you felt shouldn’t manage people? Maybe you’ve worked for one. Most of us have at one point or another. On the other hand, most of us have also had great managers. What sets great managers apart from bad ones? That’s one of the questions I’ll explore in this article.

Almost weekly, I talk with a UX designer or researcher who wants to become a manager of a UX team. For some people, this is a good choice. Both they and their teams thrive. But for many, it’s honestly not the right goal, and the end result is that neither they nor their teams are happy. The book Now, Discover Your Strengths [1] suggests that we tend to be good at the things we love doing, and we love activities at which we excel. I find that we do our best work when we’re in a playground. (I’ll explore this idea more in my next column.) Isn’t life too short to pursue a path we don’t enjoy?

I believe that being a manager of people is no better or worse than being in an individual contributor role. For the most part, managers don’t produce the actual artifacts that drive results. In a fundamental way, it’s the researchers and designers who produce the great work in our industry. Don’t get me wrong: A great leader can direct a team to produce the best work of their careers and tune their teams to perform at their peak—and this is important. But it’s not more important than having great designers who can produce market-changing ideas. On a sports team, you need a great team and a great manager to win. The challenge I see is that a large number of researchers and designers want the word manager in their title—either because they feel it shows career progression or for the respect they think such a title would afford them. Taking the sports analogy further, a baseball player doesn’t want to be the team manager—he wants to play great ball. So, why isn’t it this way in the world of UX—and high tech in general?

An important question then is how we as an industry can give equal weight to great individual contributors and great managers alike, because a great company needs both. At Yahoo!, we have some truly world-class designers who make a huge impact on everything they touch. While I would be happy to see them mentor other designers, I feel it would be a waste to make them people managers. It would be like taking Michael Jordan in his heyday and turning him into a non-playing coach.

“Because we promote people into management roles who are not great leaders, we diminish the level of expertise in leadership across our industry.”

Perhaps more importantly, because we promote people into management roles who are not great leaders, we diminish the level of expertise in leadership across our industry. Many people with whom I speak believe design managers—for instance—should just be better designers and leadership characteristics aren’t important. Let’s take that issue straight on: Should a company make a UX practitioner a manager simply because she is a really great researcher or designer? When asked in this way, the typical reaction is: “Well, of course not!” And yet, I see senior leaders promoting good researchers and designers to people management roles, just because they were good at their individual contributor roles—even when they haven’t proven they have any capacity to lead effectively. The path from a particular domain such as user research or design into management is not a natural progression. The skills you gain in your role as a researcher or designer are not the skills you’ll use as a manager and leader. Of course, a good leader of a research or design organization needs to understand and be good at research or design. They must be able to provide guidance for their researchers and designers. My premise is that being a good UX practitioner is necessary, but not sufficient to someone’s becoming a good UX leader.

We, as a functional domain, need to focus on what it takes to grow our next generation of great leaders. While we must always produce great designs, we also need to value the quality of leadership itself. We need great leaders who can facilitate their teams’ working together at higher levels than anybody thought possible. Who can take an average team and make it very good. On the other hand, an average leader can take a great team and make it average. I’ve seen both happen. So, isn’t our first step defining what makes a great manager great?

Manager Competencies and Values

Just as we know the competencies and strengths that are required of great researchers and designers, we need to understand and define essential manager competencies if we are going to produce great leaders.

Recently, I worked with a management team—other than Yahoo!—to define this set of six management competencies. Successful managers are:

  • accountable—Take responsibility for results and hold themselves, peers, and direct reports accountable for achieving established goals and objectives.
  • customer focused—Clearly communicate what a team can do to achieve stakeholder or customer expectations, without over promising, and understand the cost/benefit ramifications of their recommendations to stakeholders and customers.
  • results driven—Willingly establish and apply performance measurements, set high performance standards for themselves and direct reports as necessary to achieve customer expectations, and implement significant consequences—positive and negative—for achieving or not meeting performance expectations.
  • open and effective communicators—Create an atmosphere in which high-quality information flows smoothly through an organization and to stakeholders, in a timely manner, and encourage the open expression of ideas and opinions. Creating such an atmosphere means you must wait for another person to finish his or her intended message before responding, disseminate more than the minimal amount of information people need, and respond positively when stakeholders or direct reports voice negative issues.
  • effective managers of talent—Hire individual contributors who are as smart as or smarter than they are; surround themselves with the greatest talent; strive to bring out the best in others, regardless of their current performance levels; delegate authority and responsibility to others, allowing them to use their abilities and talents effectively; give feedback, coach, and appraise employees at every opportunity possible—every week, if not every day; not just at review time; and respects and tolerates differing opinions.
  • team builders—Promote and generate cooperation and teamwork while working to achieve collective outcomes, give credit for success and recognition to the team rather than seeking credit for themselves, and encourage individuals to contribute to the organizational strategy. As Jack Welch says, they “get every mind in the game.”

These competencies embody a few key points. There is an overwhelming amount of research [2] and expert opinion [3] showing that, in addition to the six competencies I’ve listed above, great managers and leaders are:

  • respectful—Treat individuals on their teams as professionals and address them with appropriate respect. They are not out to make themselves look good, but to help their employees execute their responsibilities well, and—yes—to build employee confidence.
  • natural mentors—Are great coaches and find deep joy in helping their employees grow their careers and execute at a very high level.
  • emotionally intelligent—Are direct, yet compassionate and tactful. [4]
  • able to see the big picture—Look out not only for their teams, but for the larger organization and company.
  • decisive—Make hard choices quickly and recognize they may need to make frequent course-corrections.
  • life-long learners—Seek feedback regularly from peers, direct reports, and their managers and have a passion for improving themselves.
“It is also critical to define the necessary competencies and essential values that are specific to management within your own organization, because every environment is different.”

There are eight to ten discrete characteristics for each of these management competencies. It is also critical to define the necessary competencies and essential values that are specific to management within your own organization, because every environment is different. In addition to defining management competencies, I also recommend you define a competency model for individual contributors.

If you are a senior leader and believe that defining such competencies is useful, you might find it useful to start with these competencies. However, if you want help defining a competency model for your own organization, contact me, and I’ll put you in touch with experts who can help you. I’d love to get your feedback on the competencies and values I’ve defined here. What other professional competencies do you think managers of UX organizations need to have?

I find that the truly great managers and leaders care very much about their employees. Some of my peers have pointed out to me that this sounds rather bleeding-heart. In response, I’ve told them it’s as selfish as giving away stock options. Companies give their employees stock options, because they believe it makes employees more dedicated to the success of the company. Likewise, when I care about my employees, I work hard to help them succeed and grow. The result? My employees are more loyal and more effective. Devin Jones is one leader who embodies these characteristics, and articulates this message better than I can. Check out his blog: devinetics.com.

Organizational Challenges

“In most organizations today, if an employee wants to advance in his or her career, management is the only choice.”

The problem is that, in most organizations today, if an employee wants to advance in his or her career, management is the only choice. In such organizations, leaders make more money, garner more respect, and often make the strategic decisions that impact career opportunities—or the lack thereof—for individual contributors. So, if a highly successful engineer wants to make more money, she has to become a Manager, then a Director, even if she does not want to. In such companies, rising to the level of a Director as an individual contributor is prohibitively difficult. If this is the case in your company, either try to change that mindset or find another company! I’d love to hear from you: Does your company permit individual contributors to grow in parallel with people managers up to and beyond the Director level—say as a UX Architect or Principal Designer? I’d love to talk about what we can do as an industry to change and provide appropriate growth, compensation, and recognition for highly skilled individual contributors.

If you are a senior leader, my suggestion is this: Do not promote an individual contributor to a manager role unless he or she has the required competencies—particularly the ability to manage talent in a way that brings out their best performance and build an atmosphere of teamwork. This is easier said than done in practice though. Many senior leaders are tempted to—and do—promote great individual contributors to manager roles even though they have no strengths in leadership. They do so even though this erodes organizational effectiveness and undermines corporate culture. Truth be told, I learned this lesson the hard way. Please do me a favor: Don’t repeat this mistake—don’t promote the wrong person under any circumstances!

To illustrate one example, I know one senior leader who is highly competent, yet deliberately promoted “assholes”—as defined in the book The No Asshole Rule [5] —into management roles. Why? His top two individual contributors both threatened to leave the company if they were not promoted to manager. The result? He promoted both of them, after which all of the other top performers on the team quit. These managers did more harm than good, negatively impacting the entire organization.

We should not pursue a path because it is the only path that apparently permits us to grow. The book Now, Discover Your Strengths [1] can help you understand what competencies you possess. I had one employee awhile back—we’ll call him Roy—who is a great designer and wanted to become a manager both to gain respect and for career growth. Because I had already worked with Roy for several months, I’d noticed three key factors that together told me he should continue growing as a designer, not as a manager:

  • In my experience, Roy has the ability to solve any design problem you might throw at him, and he is very good at facilitating product teams’ accepting his designs.
  • He does a fine job of reviewing the designs of the people he mentors.
  • He does not possess any interest in or competencies for performing the tasks that help employees grow along multiple dimensions. He really did not care about managing employees at all. He just wanted to be a manager for the respect.

Roy would be a horrible manager. He simply wanted the role for the perceived credibility it would afford him. It’s important to note that he’s now happy as a principal designer. He does not want to be a manager and is happy with his choice. Even though learning this was a difficult—and, at times, painful—process, it was worth it to me: Roy is happier, my other employees are happier, and the whole organization is more productive and runs more smoothly. Everyone plays the positions at which they’re best.

“If employees want to change direction and are highly motivated to move out of their current roles and into management, we should absolutely help them.”

The problem is that most people who want to become managers do not want to hear that they should consider a different path. It’s often an emotional issue. This was the case with Roy as well. It took literally months to help Roy see, first, that he could become the equivalent of a Director, but as a designer, not as a manager. Good leaders help their employees find the right path and feel good seeing them grow—even if the employee outgrows the leader’s organization. Poor leaders don’t spend the time to help their employees grow and find their direction. Instead, they control or subtly belittle. (In a later column, I’ll talk specifically about how to coach employees to perform at their best.)

If employees want to change direction and are highly motivated to move out of their current roles and into management, we should absolutely help them. But, we need a set of criteria for evaluating whether they will be good leaders and help them as they experiment to see whether they can develop leadership skills. But such skills are not a given, any more than becoming a great researcher or designer is a given.

Looking at Precedents

The book Now, Discover Your Strengths [1] suggests that the legal system has gotten it right: When an attorney enters a firm, he is given cases that reflect his training and skill. As he progresses, he may become a partner. But as a partner, he is not required to manage people, unless he possesses people management skills. Each partner is given a task that fits with his or her inherent skills. Some will become managing partners, because that’s what they’re good at. However, the majority of partners will continue to work in their areas of expertise. They will mentor junior attorneys to increase their firm’s expertise in their areas of specialization, but they will not manage them. Management is a specialized skill. Just like any sport, some people are good at it and others are not. All of the great management and leadership books point out that we should pursue our passions. That is, if we have a passion for an area, we are probably good at it—or at least have the ability to improve rapidly in it. Take any sport or other recreational activity in which you just love engaging. If you truly love it, it’s play, and you practice it as often as you can. When you do, you improve. You become competent, and if you work at it long enough, you become highly skilled.

Is this how you feel about management? It’s no different. If you are drawn to management, because you want to help employees grow, because you want to devise strategy and enjoy what to others would be maddening administrivia, then jump in! If you feel like you can give the people who report to you credit for success rather than seeking accolades for yourself, become a manager. The book Good to Great [6] suggests this is one quality that defines the best leaders.

Why Do We Have Bad Managers?

If we have the ability to define the necessary competencies of successful managers, and there is so much valuable literature about how to be a great manager and leader, why do we continue to have managers in place who are not good coaches or have had no management training? I’d like to hear from you about that. In actuality, bad managers sometimes get lucky, and their teams do well despite them. I’ve seen many such teams. However, in every case, such success is only temporary. Bad managers eventually get found out. I’ve got some great stories. Perhaps I’ll tell some of them in upcoming columns.

Just as some bad managers succeed, the opposite is also true: Sometimes, good managers and leaders get into difficult situations and are not successful. I really appreciated it when Jared Spool pointed out on stage at CHI 2007 that he’d been let go a couple of times. (For more about Jared’s remarks, see Pabini’s review of CHI 2007 on UXmatters.) It happens to the best of us—Jared fitting that category. Such situations present opportunities for a leader to learn and grow. Negative experiences often provide valuable lessons—perhaps even more so than positive ones.

Pursue Your Passion

“Don’t become a manager because it seems to be the only open avenue to advancement. In the end, your decision is about consistently producing top results and about your career.”

Are you a manager? Do you want to be? If the answer to either of these questions is yes, ask yourself whether you embrace the competencies and attributes of great leaders. It’s okay if you don’t—really. But if you don’t, find a company that is willing to give you credit for the skills you do have and promote you as an individual contributor.

Be careful with your self-analysis: A majority of people have a hard time accurately evaluating their own skills. I recommend you try 360-degree feedback with a coach who can help you put feedback in perspective. Then, make your decision about whether you want to be a manager. Don’t become a manager because it seems to be the only open avenue to advancement. In the end, your decision is about consistently producing top results and about your career.

But just as I’d ask about any career choice, my question for anyone who wants to become a manager is “Why?” If the answer is “because being a manager and all it entails energizes me,” do it. Pursue your passion. You’ll make a positive contribution to your company, and you can help your employees be more productive and happier. What is it that you love and are good at? Whatever it is, do that!

References

[1] Buckingham, Marcus, and Donald O. Clifton. Now, Discover Your Strengths. New York: Simon & Schuster Trade, 2001.

[2] Buckingham, Marcus, and Curt Coffman. First, Break All The Rules: What The World’s Greatest Managers Do Differently. New York: Simon & Schuster Adult Publishing Group, 1999.

[3] Welch, Jack, and Suzy Welch. Winning. New York: HarperCollins, 2005.

[4] Goleman, Daniel, Richard E. Boyatzis, and Annie McKee. Primal Leadership: Realizing the Power of Emotional Intelligence. Boston: Harvard Business School Press, 2002.

[5] Sutton, Robert I. The No Asshole Rule: Building a Civilized Workplace and Surviving One That Isn’t. New York: Grand Central Publishing, 2007.

[6] Collins, Jim. Good to Great: Why Some Companies Make the Leap… and Others Don’t. New York: HarperCollins, 2001.

22 Comments

Great thoughts, Jim! This is so true. Keep writing. Rashmi

Short answer to why people want to be managers: In my experience, it is simply because the salary is higher, and a higher salary conveys respect.

Respect they don’t get when they are just the designer or just the programmer, to speak with words of a former employer of mine.

Please prove the above statement wrong. :) I have proven it wrong for myself, but I know there are a lot of people around who still think this way.

Oh! Wonderful job! Very good and helpful post. Thanks. Your blog in my RSS reader now.

Yes, great thoughts.

Your article reminds me of an interview that I went through. The interviewer sort of commented that if he had to pay X dollars to hire me, he wanted me to be more than just an individual contributor.

Some people or employment agents seem to set upper bounds to salary or other employee benefits based on job titles—for example, “I can pay at most X dollars to an interaction designer”—or over-simplified job natures—for example, “I can pay at most Y dollars to non-managerial staff who do visual design.”

Look forward to your next article. :)

You make a number of great points in your article, and I wish that more people put that kind of thought into their practice of leadership. Do you do private consulting? You’d be great at it! —Andrea

Really insightful, man. Very, very good writing, content, and philosophy. Thanks for taking the time to contribute this. I’ve currently walked into a position managing five Web site builds and feel like I need to make this decision and adapt before bad things happen or, more positively, to make good things happen! I have such a varied skill set, it’s hard to know what I’d do if I weren’t project managing with a hands-on element also.

Cheers again.

Congrats on your new column and first article, Jim.

The elephant in the living room with regard to individual contributor versus manager is the stark reality that managers get paid more than individual contributors, and managers are on a path that could lead to an executive position where the real money and prestige are, whereas top individual practitioners have to hope to achieve a principal role, which will never pay or give them the same influence that a VP enjoys. Not to mention, every company has multiple VPs, while few companies have positions like principal designer, principal researcher, and so on. The system is literally designed to funnel people’s ambitions and desire for personal growth and wealth into a management/business track.

That’s not to take anything away from your smart analysis of skills and outlining who make good managers and why. But so long as the system is designed to the detriment of individual contributors in juxtaposition with managers and executives, many square pegs are going to keep trying to squeeze into uncomfortable round holes.

My company supports both the individual contributor path and manager path. I guess I am lucky. However, even if you are a great manager, I think the challenge is how to keep your design and analytic skills sharp. I have recently heard this complaint from other managers, which surprised me, because I thought I was the only one who worried about this. This can be difficult in many organizations, because you get the label of paper pusher or people manager, and there are not many opportunities to keep up. What are some ways others do this?

This is an excellent article, Jim. It gives an interesting thought. A great leader is not necessary a great manager. Sometimes it is quite difficult to come by having a great leader with excellent management skills in an organization. So, I wonder what makes a top leader who also possess great management skills?

Great article!

There’s also another book called Unique Ability, by Dan Sullivan, that concentrates on finding out what you “love what you do”, not just “do what you love”.

From what I’ve learned, sometimes a manager is not a leader, just a manager, and it’s the leaders within the teams that are leaders, not managers.

Leaders then become coaches—not managers—which better serve the teams.

Mark makes a good comment. I agree, the challenge is that the manager title often does result in greater salary and respect. The question I would ask then—to reiterate—is how we can, as a profession, stimulate appropriate growth, compensation, and recognition for highly skilled individual contributors? Some companies do this well, but it takes effort from leadership to fight and make the case with other leaders and HR. The good thing is that we have some strong case studies where individuals do receive equal growth and respect. My recommendation: Make the case and, if the company doesn’t support it, we should then talk with our feet and move to a company where great individuals are respected.

Jim, Thanks for sharing very useful information.

I am also in the same situation where I have to take a decision: whether I have to stick with my existing creative lead position or I need to move to a managerial post.

It’s been three years that management has been pushing me to take a manager role , but somehow I can’t. My design-related skills are not allowing me to move to the next level.

My biggest fear is writing documentation work. I learned that a manager has to do more documentation work, where I may fail. I am not good at writing documents.

Do you have any suggestions?

I am 4 years old in the design field and have been thinking what should be my next career move. This is a really helpful article! Thanks a lot.

In response to Peter’s question from May 02 about how managers can keep their design skills sharp, I have a couple of insights and would appreciate hearing others. To keep my design skills sharp, I do two things—though this changes based on the organization I’m in: First, from time to time, I function as a facilitator in design sessions, asking questions and contributing design suggestions. In this role, though, a leader has to be very careful that the team feels comfortable contributing freely—and even disagreeing with the boss. It takes time to build that kind of trust, but it’s worthwhile. In fact, my next column takes this question head on! The second thing I do, based on having built this trust, is review every design my team produces via design reviews. This is possible at Yahoo!, because UX teams are kept small and nimble, and I’m able to function as a leader who both leads and designs. When I have had large teams—more than 40 contributors—I would still attend design review meetings selectively, to ask questions, and present thoughts directionally —for example, “One of our goals as an organization is to deliver delightful experiences. I’d like to hear the team’s thoughts on the delight factor for this design. Be clear—I’m not expressing an opinion, but I’d like your constructive insights.” When I manage UX managers, I’m very careful not to criticize the work of individual contributors publicly, but rather pose questions and direct the discussion. I may, for instance, ask the team to compare a design against other examples in industry. But now we’re getting into my third column….

Hi Jim,

Actually, I find your comments very interesting, and I believe what you are doing is so great that I would like to actually see it in a company or to work in a company that has a manager like you.

One of the best things you said about design review sessions is that it gives the designers an idea about his job—if he’s done a good job, he will be happy; if he hasn’t done a good job, he will be motivated to show you next time that he can do his job.

Sometimes, all we need as designers is a compliment about our work. You don’t know how much that makes us happy and more productive.

I really wish you all the best.

Thanks,

Mohammed

Hi

Your article was excellent. I have only 4 years of experience, but this guides me for future purposes.

Jim, in one of your comments, you say that some companies are very good at creating individual contributor opportunities. Yet you don’t name any of these companies—other than Yahoo… I’m not sure why you single them out. As we’re trying to make the business case within our own organizations, it would be very helpful to say “Here are some examples—Company X, Company Y, Company Z.” It’s not very effective to say “Well, other companies have these opportunities” … because the answer is always “which companies”? If you feel that there are some shining star companies, why not mention them by name?

Great points across the board. But remember, the nature and aims of business activities and thinking, and the personalities of those who gravitate toward business, are generally quite contrary to those of design and designers. In any case, it never ceases to surprise me that wise management of people, which must include emotional intelligence, is so very seldom taught in schools and businesses. Despite all the product and service innovation in the past ten or so years, unfortunately, we haven’t out-grown our industrial-age, Darwinistic ideas about business (people) management, as Dirk alludes to. Thinking of people as just another business resource is a mistake. Reframing what we’re about and how we succeed, from a hierarchical view of life (relationships) to one of peer networks, to reflect the nature of nature, will make all the difference. Yes, it is a way off yet. Democracy, too, a few thousand years to achieve scale. Yet we must evolve our thinking.

Jim,

Excellent thoughts and advice, though I think the article could have been half as long while still effective.

I found a lot of it made sense, and I’m surprised, but heartened, that so many commenters are enlightened by such common sense advice.

The main issue with your thesis is that business doesn’t work that way to achieve profitability. Look at any industry, and the progression is from individual contributor to management and leadership roles. This isn’t simply about individual designers wanting more pay or respect, but about businesses taking advantage of the learned skills of an individual by leveraging them for more strategic roles—that is, management. So in the end, although your article is well intended, it is proposing a way of conducting business ala human resources that is antithetical to maximizing profit.

A last note: You seem to equate management with leadership. The two are not the same. One is operational, while the latter is visionary. That doesn’t mean the former doesn’t possess qualities of the latter and vice versa, but the core skill sets are quite different for each. There are plenty of leaders out there with great vision who make very poor managers—Steve Jobs comes to mind.

Anyway, thanks for posting your ideas!

I love the great discussion. Just as great designers and researchers don’t necessarily make good managers, so great managers do not always make great leaders—and vice versa. The key is that, before a designer becomes a manager, he or she should show that they will grow the business, not harm it. If designers or researchers demonstrate an affinity for and knowledge of business issues—financials and other metrics—they should be allowed to move into the leadership track and increase their scope of influence. But there is the challenge: We need to define these leadership competencies, and too often, we don’t. To be strategically relevant, we need great researchers to do research, and great leaders to lead. If they can direct others to deliver stellar results, their scope of influence should increase, because that’s what the business needs. My question still stands: How can we also respect great researchers and designers for their ability deliver market-changing ideas? If we define leadership more crisply and respect design and research as unique skills, will that help us leverage people to play the positions in which they’re best, instead of thinking it’s the only way they can advance?

The root word for the verb to manage is an Italian verb that means to control a horse. Until we stop confusing leadership with exploitation, the discipline of professional management will be impaired.

Wonderful points, well made Jim. What stood out the most for me was that not all greats in whatever field they excel in can be great leaders. I have seen, many times, a great team player in the management role without those specific skills. It is not only frustrating, but a detriment to the whole team. Favorite: “If we define leadership more crisply and respect design and research as unique skills, will that help us leverage people to play the positions in which they’re best, instead of thinking it’s the only way they can advance?” I say, yes!

Excellent article!

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