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

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:

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

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!