As startups grow and succeed, employees with no management experience are asked to become managers. Some dread the opportunity. Some relish it. But all ask: “how do I get started?” A few high performing designers and researchers – and freshly minted UX managers – at Google have asked me this recently, so here are a few of the techniques I’ve used.
It’s not about you
First things first. Write down your goals, your vision, your fantasies. Write down all of the amazing things that you hope to be as a manager and leader. If you want to be Jony Ive, write that down. If you want to be Dieter Rams, write it. When you’re done in dreamworld, take this list and file it away. You are none of these things, and you won’t be for a long time. But you should dream. You should have a vision. Write it and file it. Come back to it when you’re ready. Your first few months as a UX manager are not about you.
It’s about your team
Next, schedule one on one meetings with all of your direct reports. It’s important to allow a good chunk of time for these meetings, say 1-2 hours each. You may only need to use 15 minutes, but some team members will want to take a full day. My general structure for a first meeting is to focus on projects, asking two things for each: what’s working and what’s not. You can get to existential questions in future meetings.
I’ve found that “what’s working?” leads to lots of great discussion. It’s an opening to discover work and collaborations that your team member enjoys. Take special note of collaborations. If there are people from other disciplines that your team members enjoy working with, chances are they are open to more collaboration with UXers, including you. If your team member shares work with you, it’s important to resist your desire to critique. You will have that opportunity in future meetings.
What’s not working?
“What’s not working?” will be their chance to vent or pontificate. Let it happen. UXers are emotional people. They put their work out into the world every day, and every day that work is critiqued by people who have no background in UX and no place critiquing. You know how demoralizing and frustrating that can be. Chances are very good that at least one person on your team is ready to explode. Use this session to listen actively. It will be therapeutic for your team, and invaluable for you. Make special note of problematic co-workers – the chances are good that you will need to interact with them or their managers in the future.
Anything else I need to know?
The last thing I ask is if there’s anything else I need to know. This discussion may start quite innocently with upcoming vacations and unfulfilled requests made to previous managers. But you may also uncover some more significant issues, some that may warrant HR (if you have an HR department) or founder-level involvement.
Getting to something actionable – The Top Three
When starting out as a manager, it’s important to get runs on the board early. It shows your team that you get things done, that you’re here for them, that you listen. It builds loyalty. After your meetings – what’s working, what’s not working, and anything else – you’ll have a huge list of issues to deal with. It can be an overwhelming list. To get runs on the board, focus on three things in your first month:
- Issues with co-workers
Paperwork can appear inane – like approving a vacation, requesting a promotion review, clarifying compensation information – but can be extremely valuable to your team members. People tend to avoid dealing with higher levels of management or HR, sometimes to their detriment. Take care of these issues for them. Be careful to differentiate between what an employee can do for themselves and what you should do as a manager. If you feel like you’re being someone’s admin, push back.
Workload is almost always a problem. UXers are overworked. You should use your judgment to understand whether there is a legitimate workload issue. If you think it is, there are a few strategies you can use. First, don’t allow any more work assignments to your team member. No new projects. Second, take a look at the list of projects in their pipeline. Many UXers feel overwhelmed simply because they have lots and lots of small projects. Context switching is a time waster and productivity killer. If you see anything in their project queue that could be better handled by an engineer or PM, write to the project team and let them know that you’re moving your person off of their project. Ask to meet with them to understand how you can transition your person off of that project. Don’t leave teams in the lurch, but don’t let them take an allocation for granted. Third, make a note of the other projects in their queue. You won’t be able to fix workload in those projects in the first month. Save them for later.
You can’t expect a quick fix when one of your team members is dealing with a problematic co-worker. It will take time. But get the ball rolling now. Meet with that person and their manager. Understand the issues. Get the context. Listen, and don’t try to be a hero. Just injecting yourself into the conversation can make a difference. Many problematic people become aware that your team member has an advocate, and may back off or adjust their behavior. But others won’t.
You need to get to know your stakeholders. Here’s where you get lots of ideas for making a difference and building your influence in your company. That’ll be the subject of a future post.
In summary, when starting as a UX manager:
- Write down your personal goals and file them away for now. It’s not about you.
- Meet with your team members. Understand what’s working, what’s not, and anything else.
- Get stuff done in your first month. Clean up paperwork. Address workload. Start conversations with problematic co-workers.
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