Leading with purpose — lessons from inspiring women in UX

Leading with purpose — lessons from inspiring women in UX

Image credit: Christina Lai

Back in November 2023, I attended the Ladies that UX (LTUX) Journeys into Leadership event. Inspired by the thoughtful, provoking questions submitted by the audience and the insightful answers from the panellists, I wanted to create a series of content dedicated to what it means to be a leader, through the intersectional lens of being a neurodivergent woman of colour.

As someone new to leadership, my natural instinct is to learn from others excelling in the field (as well as learning on the job). This article is a result of reflective practice and consolidation in writing. When I first started exploring a UX career in early 2016, I reached out to experts to interview them on their experiences and for advice on breaking into the industry. Eight years on, things have gone full circle.

From my extensive network of over 5000 professionals, I asked women UX leaders I admire for their leadership insights, with surprising results. Although there were some overlapping themes in psychological safety (perhaps in part due to women being socially conditioned to be nurturers), there were a lot of differences too. This diverse tapestry of backgrounds, cultures, experiences and cognition is valuable — leadership comes in all flavours.

From managing imposter moments, self-promotion to preventing burnout, I wanted to leverage the collective wisdom to offer support in issues that disproportionately affect women at work. As former US Secretary of State Madeline Albright famously said, “there is a special place in hell for women who don’t help other women”.

Thank you to the contributors for their generosity, honesty and vulnerability in sharing these lived experiences.

Meet the contributors

Khushmin Mistry — UX Design Lead at Kainos. As a seasoned design lead, she has guided teams towards achieving their goals through effective communication, strategic planning and a collaborative work environment. Her experience showcases her ability to inspire and empower others to reach their full potential while driving organisational success.

Steph Troeth — Head of Research at dxw. With a career in the digital industry spanning 25 years, she has led teams of different shapes and sizes, often comprising engineers, designers, researchers, product/project managers. She has led product development and strategic research programs ranging from start-ups, to corporate environments and international grassroots organisations.

Aleksandra Melnikova — Co-founder at Cosmic Velocity, a design agency specialising in inclusive digital products, services, and training. With extensive experience leading design teams at ORM, Foolproof, BIO, Radley Yeldar, Publicis Poke, and Inviqa (ex-Webcredible), she has delivered successful products and services for clients across various industries.

Sophie M — Head of Design at Dext. As a design leader with a growth mindset she enjoys building, growing and leading high-performing design teams. She is founder of the London Chapter of the global Ladies that UX group, a not-for-profit, volunteer-led group who commit time and passion in supporting others in their UX journey.

Mingxi Zhang — Director at Quantum Leap. As a lead user researcher and sometimes interim head of research, she has led research projects in different industries and contexts, and supported teams’ expansion as well as members’ growth.

Anja Maerz — Head of User Research at ZOE. With a background in cultural anthropology and over 20 years’ experience, she has led user research and service design projects as well as managed teams of user researchers. She is organiser of The Research Thing , UK’s biggest user research meetup with over 4000 members, growing the research community.

Cecilia Scolaro — Responsible Design educator and consultant. With almost 20 years’ experience in the design and digital industry, she has led small and large teams in agencies and multinational organisations. She regularly mentors people in mid-management who are trying to balance corporate pressure with the desire to do good for their team.

The questions

Part 1. The essentials

1. Have you ever felt not confident enough for something? How can we motivate ourselves and improve our self-confidence?

2. Do you have any advice on ways to go about self-promoting at work?

3. How do you get better in navigating office politics?

4. What do you do to create a psychologically safe environment for teams?

5. What strategies do you have to minimise burnout when context switching?

1. Have you ever felt not confident enough for something? How can we motivate ourselves and improve our self-confidence?

Khush: I think the nature of our work makes us question things a lot, especially ourselves. For me it’s taken decades to be get comfortable accepting that this is going to be the voice in my head, asking me if I’ve done my best — and I’m OK with it. I think It makes me more accountable for my work and my choices in life.

I now have a battle plan for things I don’t like to do, like presentations — I write notes, I practice in the bathroom mirror. I have taken tips and tricks from the people and presentations I have enjoyed and incorporated them into my own style.

I motivate myself with the saying — It’s not going to kill you! If you fuck up a presentation it’s not going to kill you — because trust me if it did, I would have died a thousand times. I give it my best and I learn from my mistakes. So what if you fail? At least you tried and if nothing else, it makes for a great dinner party story, right?

Aleks: One of my friends says, “Why bring yourself down when life will do it well for you anyway”. Every good designer I’ve ever known has moments of self-doubt, “What am I doing here?” and “Why is it so hard?”

I find successes more difficult to celebrate, so I try to document them more (“your work has created 20 new jobs for people within disability space as the hiring journeys you’ve designed accounted for interviewing with mobility and dexterity issues”) and then pull these out in moments of doubt and sadness.

For me, it’s less about personal praise or self-promotion, and more about the change I bring into the world. Documenting one’s impact and sharing the stories of it helps me remember the work I do is meaningful.

2. Do you have any advice on ways to go about self-promoting at work?

Mingxi: Personally I focus on the projects I’m working on, and also pay attention to what’s going on in the wider business to identify opportunities either for collaboration or contribution, so being more visible with work and contribution widely, which helps with promotion when the right opportunity arises.

Set the right intention for yourself, and see your own value and worth. Not in an egotistic way, but don’t diminish what you have contributed to the company.

Anja: Share success stories that demonstrate how your research has directly influenced product improvements, enhanced user experiences, or saved the company time and resources. Make a list of your research projects and show where you made impact — this list will also be good for your performance review. Continuous learning and staying updated with the latest research methodologies, tools, and trends is important. Share your learnings and insights with the broader organisation. And seek feedback from people you work with to improve.

Khush: I don’t really like to talk about myself and my achievements. But I think the way you get recognised, regardless of your personality type is if you are your true authentic self. Be passionate about the things you care about . Always give your team credit, help them see the best version of themselves . Do what you love and do it with pride.

Talk about the things you have done, no matter how small or even if you think things are not going to be useful to others. There is always going to be someone that is going to benefit from the knowledge and wisdom you have to share.

3. How do you get better in navigating office politics?

Anja: Use your user research skills. Your colleagues and managers have needs and pain points as well. Try to find out what they are and help them succeed. What I said about self-promotion at work fits in here as well.

Sophie: Build relationships around the organisation. Widen your reach to enable you to get a better overall understanding of the organisation. By building those relationships, you build trust and you will have allies if you need them when challenges or politics present themselves.

4. What do you do to create a psychologically safe environment for teams?

Cecilia: Safety and psychological wellbeing are feelings that are rooted in relationships. For people to feel safe they need to trust you, they need to know that you have their interest at heart and you have enough power to protect them and support them in their growth.

In order to really trust you, they need to know you as a person. So my first question would be: am I open, really open for feedback? Am I open to being vulnerable and honest with them? To admit my own mistakes and apologise?

If I really have their interest at heart, I will listen to them with intention, believe them and their experiences even when they contradict or differ from my own interpretation of the facts. I will invest my time and energy in improving the situation. They will know that if they do approach me it is not wasted energy, I will do something about it, even when it is not easy.

I believe accountability and justice are such important parts of safety: if something went wrong, people need to see that consequences were enforced, that sharing their experience leads to something.

As your team exists as part of a bigger environment you will also need to assess how much the environment around your team allows for a culture of trust and accountability and how much you can influence that to also be a safe space.

The bottom line is that you do need to trust your team — if you do not fully trust them, they will not trust you.

Mingxi: This is such a crucial thing for me to thrive at work, so I always aim to create it for my team as well. I believe leading by example, so being open to my team, and being vulnerable when I need to, which gives them the space and safety to open up to me so I can find ways to work with them to support them better.

Steph: My team members have told me that they know I care because I listen to them and I act on what they need — they see me noting down action points, and they see that I follow through on a promise. Through continual listening and acting on their behalf, that’s how I gain trust. We need to remind ourselves: regular re-establishment of trust is necessary so people can feel they can come to you whenever it is needed.

However, being a manager naturally presents an imbalance in power dynamics. To create a psychologically safe environment means being conscious of that power and knowing when to give, or to share that power with someone else under your care, how to make that power transparent and visible.

Sadly, many people are accustomed to leaders who may not have received leadership or management training, so often they come to a relationship with a new manager with past trauma.

Aleks: I repeatedly show people how we can work together. One thing is to leave the door open, another thing is to get rid of the door. Metaphorically speaking, I think we should be building more bridges and shared spaces, fewer management cubicles.

Anja: That’s probably a better question to ask the teams I have worked with. I try to listen without being judgmental, encourage honest feedback, and value different viewpoints. I admit my own mistakes and seek input from others. I’m always available for one-on-one chats or team discussions. I make sure that any private matters shared with me are kept confidential. It’s about creating trust and making everyone feel heard, I create a space where people feel comfortable sharing their thoughts, which promotes teamwork and new ideas in the team.

Sophie: As leaders, our jobs are to empower our teams, remove any barriers and create an environment for them to do their best work, essentially setting them up for success.

For me there are many important factors but the one that really stands out to me is transparency.

Transparency is key, it builds trust and is a unifier. It encourages teams to work smarter together. This in turn promotes a culture of giving and receiving feedback plus it means that peers are approachable with an open door policy as well as myself.

Khush: I believe my leadership style fosters a psychologically safe environment within the team because I encourage open communication and make myself approachable. I do this by:

1. Being approachable, but also willing to get my hands dirty. I believe this hands on approach sets a tone for collaboration and accessibility.

2. I actively try to gain consensus and listen to my wider team, bringing the right people in for advice, which showcases my commitment to inclusive communication. I’m clear when it comes to setting direction and basing opinions on tangible evidence which creates an atmosphere where everyone’s input is valued.

3. I am not afraid to speak up and call out things that I don’t think are right or fair. I heavily advocate for the underdog in a lot of cases — maybe because I identify with that the most.

4. I try and encourage others to be the best version of themselves. This mentorship contributes to a sense of psychological safety, where team members feel supported and valued.

5. What strategies do you have to minimise burnout when context switching?

Cecilia: Becoming a leader can be indeed very stressful, there are a lot of new tasks and responsibilities and often little guidance.

Especially when becoming middle management in a larger organisation, there are very often lots of new tasks required from higher management. It is very easy to get carried away in those and forget about the bigger picture or your own wellbeing.

Create boundaries with your superiors and leave space for your own thinking. Create boundaries with your own team that allows for your own processing.

And most importantly, remember why you are doing what you are doing, your own motivation, your own ambition and vision for your team and your practice. You may not have a definitive vision from day 1 but give it time and space. Vision will bring you clarity and clarity will avoid overwhelm.

Sophie: Context switching is difficult and something I am getting used to right now with my new role as Head of Design. Reduce the number of meetings you attend (learn to say no) and reduce the time spent in meetings. If you are booking the meetings, have a clear agenda and book in 25 minutes instead of 30 minutes or 45 minutes instead of one hour. This allows you time to breathe and gather your thoughts before heading into the next meeting.

I also find having end of day reflection or planning helps me to plan for the next day and focus time first thing in the morning enables me to be prepared for the day ahead.

I am a big fan of a walk first thing in the morning as it gives me an energy boost and it is supposed to reset circadian rhythms too. Book out slots for regular exercise, it makes such a difference with the week

Steph: A long time ago, I read about “maker days” vs “manager days”; the former being days you focus down on tasks, and the latter being days set aside for necessary meetings. I don’t have quite the luxury of having whole days without meetings, so I protect my “maker time” — time where I get things done — and group my meetings together as much as I can. I also encourage meetings to be focused with a clear agenda, even if the agenda is just a casual catch-up. Separately, I have an organised note-taking system that allows me to track what happens in each meeting — so it’s easier to follow trails of past conversations and decisions.

Aleks: Design moments of pause, rest and recharge. I love context switching but I learned to recognise when it all gets a bit much and I need a pause, a space with no work-related stimuli, a change of scene.

Mingxi: I learnt that it’s so important to carve out time and space for myself to recharge myself, like 5–10 minutes of meditation, walking in nature, or even a few minutes enjoying a cup of tea, basically to train the mind to be still whenever I can to make sure that it’s not working all the time, which is the reason for burnout.

Self-awareness is important! To be aware when I’m about to reach my limit, and make a different choice to recharge rather than forcing it.

Khush: As a leader you are only good at what you do if you look after yourself first. I liken it to putting on your own oxygen mask in the plane, before you help others.

So a big one is delegation — trust your team. Build a team culture that encourages collaboration, continuous improvement and support within the team. Regularly check in with yourself and the team.

Time management. Even if it means putting in a meeting with just yourself in your diary — do it. Utilise time-blocking to focus on tasks and communicate your availability clearly to the team.

Now this next one I’m not very good at but setting boundaries for self-care. Set clear work boundaries to maintain a healthy work-life balance and prevent burnout. I encourage my team to set very strict boundaries especially at times when I know project expectations can lead to burn out.

I love a spa, so going for a massage or spa day is just one way I try to create some me time and I think it’s important to prioritise things outside of work like exercise and hobbies. I’ve recently gotten into power lifting because if I can lift heavy things and put them down again, I can do anything!

In the next article we look at strategies for developing resilience and skills in leadership — from dealing with micromanaging behaviour, rising up the ranks in leadership without losing integrity to managing that delicate work/life balance.

Originally published on Linkedin.

Leading with purpose — lessons from inspiring women in UX was originally published in UX Collective on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.






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