NYC Design
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What a UX Leader (or Your Boss) Really Wants From You

Lately, I have spent a considerable amount of time reading, thinking and meditating on leadership. Much of this time is spent evaluating what makes a good UX lead or a good leader, period. I try to approach this from a UX perspective where I consider my team’s experience and what they want from a leader. But recently, I have begun to think about my team from a different user experience perspective — beyond what they want from me in tangible form.

My approach to leadership is one of servitude. I believe a good leader places emphasis on servitude to those whom they lead. That is undoubtedly one way of considering leadership from a UX perspective — what your team really wants and needs from you as a leader. But, what I haven’t considered until recently is one other angle — what your team believes you expect from them. Despite my approach as a leader in service to my team and considering all of the things I must do to satisfy an employee, I cannot ignore an employee’s desire to know they are a valued member of the team and are meeting the expectations of their “boss.” Put simply: This is the difference between what you want from your boss and what your boss wants from you. Both are important.

This realization came to me as a result of my recent mid-year review. I simply wanted to know if my boss was happy with my overall performance and valued my service to the organization. I wanted to know I was doing a good job and she was happy to have me on her team. That led me to consider my own team and what sorts of headaches bosses have around their employees. And, do employees really even know what expectations their leader has of them?

As employees, we all have a desire to conduct meaningful work. We all want to know we are valued and have purpose in what we are doing each day. How we often validate these elements is through our daily interactions with our direct leaders and how we perceive their perception of our performance.

So, what does a leader or “boss” really want?

Your happiness with the position

I can’t imagine any good leader who doesn’t want their direct reports to be happy with the position. This would include the projects they are assigned to and the organization as a whole. I have dealt with employees who were perpetually unhappy in the past and it can be a real drain on you. Sure, there is often mundane day-to-day work we do and I have never worked in an organization where employees don’t occasionally whine about this thing or another. But, that is different from the employee who clearly exists in a constant state of dissatisfaction. That sort of negative energy and needless drama sucks the life out of you as a lead and brings team morale down.

Leaders want those whom they lead to be happy with their positions. Note: Happiness does not equate to apathy or complacency. A certain amount of dissatisfaction with a given situation is often motivation for change. But, overall happiness with a position is what a leader wants and it creates a positive environment, brimming with energy.

Play well with others

This might be every leader’s pet peeve. There is nothing worse than dealing with team members who cannot play well with others. These types of personnel issues are truly a headache. Sometimes it is an employee who cannot seem to get along with one other person on the team. Other times, it is an employee who cannot seem to get along with anyone. They cause strife on the team and can cause your good employees to leave.

UX is a people business. In fact, I can’t imagine too many professions where you are not in some sort of people business. But, what we do in UX largely revolves around developing relationships with people and selling our services. If you cannot get along with your own team members, it will most certainly reduce a team’s efficiency. Moreover, these personnel problems usually do not have a solution a lead can effectively employ. They are usually untenable situations and, often, the result of a personality disorder. The only real solution is to remove the problem employee to minimize the damage they cause. It’s not a situation that is ever pleasant for a leader to contend with.

Proficiency and expertise

I like to give my team room to make mistakes, struggle through problems and eventually find their own solutions. I cannot be there to handle every detail of their daily work. That’s why we have teams. Thus, I expect a certain level of proficiency and expertise from each member of my team. I learned this approach years ago as a young Marine studying small unit tactics.

Small unit tactics place an emphasis on distributed decision-making where the smaller units are able to operate independently based on their assessment of a given situation in combat. It relies on a deference to expertise and results in a highly efficient fighting force. (This is why the Marines are so good at what they do.) This approach only works if you have a certain level of proficiency and expertise on your team.

A few weeks ago, my team had a presentation to give to our larger team. I was nervous and worried. I had been in non-stop meetings all week and was able to look at the screens only briefly in the evenings following the presentation. My nervousness and worry revolved around my sense of control. I felt as though I should be eying every pixel with a critical eye and providing feedback, but realized this was not possible given my schedule and the number of hours in a given day. I had to rely on small unit tactics and assume I had put together a team of experts proficient in their practice. This was their first test. And, they nailed it — truly nailed it. I couldn’t have been more pleased.

Proficiency and expertise build a sense of trust with your boss. They will know they can rely or depend on you and you will not only make yourself look good, but will also make your boss look good.

Be a problem solver

I believe good teams are capable of solving a good percentage of problems on their own. If you have a team of individuals who are proficient at what they do, they will often see solutions you won’t see. They often know how to move forward. That is not to say, some problems will not require leadership input or guidance. But, a leader does not need to hear about every tiny problem that comes up.

Your lead wants you to be a problem solver, not a problem amplifier. If you come to them with a problem every time you have a meeting with them, you will start to be seen as the employee who only identifies the problems and cannot solve them. If you come to your leader with a problem, bring a solution or request advice. If you just bring the problems with no solutions, you will only be complaining.

It is a fine line to walk between expressing a true problem and complaining. An example: Over the past year, I have complained (whined) over and over again to my director about the number of meetings I have. There is nothing she can do about this. It is just woven into the fabric of our culture. I have realized in the past month or two, I must own this problem and find my own solution instead of bringing an untenable situation to her. So, I have begun assigning my team members to cover some meetings and update me on the specifics later. We divide and conquer when we are overbooked. I also ask my director for advice when I am overbooked as to what my priority should be. (She mostly tells me to use my own judgement, but I do this to ensure we are aligned.)

Own the problem when you can, find or bring solutions to your leader and ask for advice when you can do neither.

Head it off at the pass

I spend a lot of time trying to oversee the entire “battle field” at our shop. I am largely focused on the upper logistics of my team’s portfolio — everything from process to research to design initiatives and side projects. I will often email the team in a directive fashion writing something like: “We need to have X, Y and Z done by Friday,” only to receive a response like “We already got it.” I am, indeed, a very lucky lead.

This is “heading issues off at the pass” and often involves handling something before your leader even knows about it or has the chance to tell you to do it. You develop a sense of trust in your relationship when you do this. It shows initiative and only reinforces your sense of proficiency and expertise in your ability to “get shit done.”

Tell me before some bad shit happens

One of the worst things I have dealt with as a lead is sitting in a meeting and being told about some bad shit that went down I didn’t even know about. There is nothing worse than being blindsided. It happens. But when it happens and your team knew about it beforehand, that makes it even worse.

As I note above, teams will see problems at their level, the boss doesn’t see. They will often know of the impending storm before the lead does. I have written about this before and there is a term for it — a preoccupation with failure. A good team needs to constantly be scanning the horizon for any signs of trouble. They are the canary in the mine alerting the lead to the impending storm — your forward reconnoissance.

This concept might seem to fly in the face of the concept above involving problem solving. But, it is slightly different when you approach your lead and tell them something might become a problem at some point. That is not complaining. It is simply alerting. The lead needs to ensure they don’t fall prey to seeing this person as the “boy who cried wolf.” Some people are better at spotting potential problems than others. As a lead, you must evaluate all alerts and warning signs. Some of our greatest disasters in modern society (mine collapses, 3-Mile Island) all had adequate warnings signs prior to their occurrence.

Follow the chain of command

The phrase “chain of command” comes from my experience in the Marine Corps (though I am sure it is not a phrase exclusive to that organization). Early in my career in the Marines, I was on what we called a “working party” — a work assignment usually involving manual labor such as loading supply items into a truck or hauling away trash. An officer walked by a young Marine and asked him how he was doing. The young Marine proceeded with a litany of complaints — everything from his health to how his squad leader had spoke to him earlier that day. The officer promptly found the Marine’s squad leader who later spent the better part of an hour “disciplining the young Marine.” This largely involved exercising the Marine in a sand pit until he was exhausted.

While this may seem cruel by most civilian standards, the philosophy was simple: Any issues you have should be brought to your immediate superior (except in extreme cases of abuse or other transgressions). High-ranking individuals should not be bothered with details your immediate superior can handle. This allows the Marine Corps to operate at maximum efficiency. It also keeps your immediate superior from looking as though they can not adequately care for their troops’ welfare.

Most of us live in the civilian world. And, there are times when an employee needs to go to their boss’s boss. Hopefully you work in an organization where this does not need to happen very often. Sexual harassment might be a good example. Or, maybe you just work for a bad leader who despite what you tell them, they don’t effectively manage issues needing their attention. So, there are dramatic instances in which an employee may need to “go over their leader’s head.” In most instances, however, you should go directly to your lead with immediate issues you may have and they should have an “open door policy.”

Ultimately, there is not much difference between what a UX leader would want from their team versus a leader in another profession. Sure, I could spend time discussing UX skills, techniques or processes. And, this is part of being proficient and having expertise in your profession. But, these are elements that can be taught and learned. And, it is only one small slice of the pie. It has been rare for me to see an employee let go due to a lack of proficiency or UX skills. It has been much more common for me to see employees let go who could not play well with others, were dishonest, untrustworthy or just didn’t care because they were unhappy with the position (and probably their lives).

In the end, I have thought a lot about how I can service those whom I lead. But, there is one aspect of service I had to consider and am discussing herein — what makes me happy with an employee. Employees want to know they are valued and their supervisor is happy with them. They want to know they are performing well. The seven concepts in this article are foundational to ensuring you and your leader have a fruitful and happy relationship.

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