Molding Yourself into a Leader, Part 1 :: UXmatters

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. 

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