Developing leadership — lessons from inspiring women in UX

Developing leadership — lessons from inspiring women in UX

‘Developing leadership’ article contributors. Clockwise from top left: Cecilia S, Aleks M, Anja M, Khush M, Steph T, Mingxi Z. Image by Christina L.

What separates a good leader or manager from a bad one? How do you rise up the ranks whilst staying true to yourself?

In the first article ‘Leading with purpose’ we explored foundational aspects of leadership. In the second part we look at the thornier challenges around growing as a leader — from addressing problematic behaviours, maintaining work-life balance to developing future visions for teams in times of change.

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.

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 that are in mid-management who are trying to balance corporate pressure with the desire to do good for their team.

The questions

Developing leadership

1. How do you handle a micromanaging manager?

2. How do you get high up in leadership without becoming an asshole?

3. What’s the toughest decision you’ve had to make?

4. Did you ever have to choose between accelerating your career and starting a family, prioritising personal life or relationships?

5. How do you see the landscape of design teams changing in the next few years?

1. How do you handle a micromanaging manager?

Khush: With micromanagers in the past what I’ve noticed is that the micromanagement comes from two places, unable let go or relinquish control and the fact that they didn’t want to stop being a practitioner.

With one of my managers — whom I was more successful with, I told him that I work better on my designs in isolation and that we should put design reviews in for a pre-agreed time. It helped, but I think until the manager comes to some type of self-realisation you are snookered!

Mingxi: This can be a tricky one.

The key here is to find your own ground and centre, and assess the situation in terms of the consequences of speaking up for yourself, and see if you can accept whatever the consequences, then do whatever you feel right to do for yourself.

Remember to process whatever emotions rising up inside you before any action, like anger, like fear, like resentment, let them all out before you decide on the actions.

It will help you to be strong and find your own truth if you decide that having an open and vulnerable conversation with the manager is the right thing to do.

2. How do you get high up in leadership without becoming an asshole?

Steph: My recommendation is to cultivate an understanding of how decisions are made in your organisation; is it top-down? Does it require consensus between a few select people, or is it more inclusive? Does the leadership structure allow you to achieve results and create impact?

Once you know where the levers are in your organisation, you can decide if it allows you to achieve what you want to do — whether for your own personal goals, or a vision for the team you have been entrusted with.

It can be very difficult to shift an organisation’s culture if the leadership behaves a certain way. If an organisation requires you to exhibit self-centeredness to become a leader, it’s probably not a place that values individuals — or brings out the best in its staff.

Cecilia: For me it is all about being clear with myself. For me getting high up is not as important as not becoming an asshole. No career advancement has ever been worth my principles and my truth.

In addition, people often over-state the role that their genius had to do with them becoming leaders.

Getting high up in organisations is the result of many factors completely out of our skills and control, that can be summarised in ‘being the convenient person, with the convenient set of skills and the convenient network of relationships, at the convenient time and place.’

A leader is not superior to anybody else, they may have specific skills or the ambition or luck and/or privilege to be considered for that role. But that never gives a leader the licence to consider themselves better than others.

Mingxi: One’s intention to be in leadership is really important, it’s not about power, it’s not about authority, to me it’s about inspiring, influence and impact.

When you are clear about that, it’s easier to see the human behind any work, and to bring more humanity into the working context. At the end of the day, nothing will be accomplished without people behind it.

Aleks: By doing good work, helping others do good work, and refusing to get drawn into politics. There’s a chance to strip back hierarchy in the teams and build on the values of trust, transparency and collaboration. Also, by proactively calling out asshole behaviour and showing that there’s another way to handle people and situations.

Again, a lot of that behaviour stems from insecurity, and you can work with people to tackle insecurity with kindness and open dialogue.

Khush: This is a tough one, especially for women I think . Balancing assertiveness with empathy becomes a delicate art. So, thinking back on my leadership journey, there are a few things I’ve observed and had to come to terms with.

1. Authenticity is your power: don’t try to be something you are not. Leadership flourishes when rooted in sincerity — there’s no need to impress others.

2. Impact speaks louder than volume: You don’t have to be the loudest person in the room to be influential. Be a force through your ideas, actions, and the respect you earn. Learn to embrace the power of silence — it’s okay to pause before you speak, in fact, I would encourage and use it strategically. Allow your thoughts to marinate, and when you speak, let your words carry weight and purpose.

3. Trust your instincts: follow your gut. Intuition is a powerful leadership tool. Trusting your instincts not only guides decision-making but also fosters confidence within your team.

4. Tailor your message to your audience: know your audience. Effective communication is about understanding who you’re speaking to. Tailor your message to resonate with the unique needs and perspectives of your team or stakeholders.

5. Kindness over likability: It’s important to be kind, but you can’t always be liked as a woman in leadership — tough decisions and assertiveness are part of the role. Focus on earning respect over seeking constant approval.

3. What’s the toughest decision you’ve had to make? How did you approach this?

Anja: I did have to let people go due to the financial situation the company was in. I prefer to deliver good news, but sometimes it’s my role to deliver bad news as well. The people team took part in the conversation, but as the user researcher’s direct manager, I took the lead on the conversation and explained that this had nothing to do with their performance. I answered as many questions as I could and told them that I was also there for them if they had any questions later.

It’s a tough situation on an emotional level as well and I want to be there for people in a situation like that. After the conversation, I wrote a LinkedIn recommendation for them as I knew they would need one, and scheduled follow-up chats to support them in finding a new role.

Khush: The toughest decision I’ve had to make was whether or not to stay in my job. The role was very prestigious and certainly looked “hot” on my CV and I was being paid really well. Also my team was lovely and we were working really well together even though geographically we were miles apart from one another, across 3 different timezones. But the company culture was TOXIC and the toxicity came from the top management — so it was going to be a very difficult thing to change. The company was also going through a merger/being taken over and I think the C-suite execs were scared. But this fear manifested itself in toxic behaviour which lead to many members of staff going on sick leave with mental health issues.

What I learnt in that role, was that there is no value on your mental health. No job is worth more than your peace of mind.

Where possible I would keep my team informed of the changes that were taking place. I didn’t approach the care of my mental health very well though — I was burnt out and exhausted. Sunday would come about and I was like an anxious child hesitant to go to school on Monday because I didn’t know what the bullies had in store for me.

In under a year I quit my job and took a few months to get myself back in to a place where I felt safe and confident in my abilities. More importantly I was able to spend time reflecting on what had gone wrong and what I need to do in order to safeguard myself in the future.

4. Did you ever have to choose between accelerating your career and starting a family, prioritising personal life or relationships? How did you navigate this?

Mingxi: I’m actually in the middle of this journey trying to figure out the most important things for me in life to balance them. It’s not easy, and a lot of inner work, and hard questions to ask myself, and at the same time to be patient about what answers are coming to me.

I believe in looking inward and deeply into myself, and to find my own truth, which will help me in the long run rather than short term gain.

Aleks: I’m the worst person to ask this, as I have practically no separation between work and home.

My design partner is now my life partner and my daughter has been dragged to UX conferences since the age of 3, so now she can facilitate user research, design apps and take good conference pictures, at the age of 8. My dog is called Doughnut (because of the circular economy model and the work I do in the sustainability space).

I love what I do and I believe in following one’s passion. It’s incredibly hard, but also incredibly rewarding. I don’t believe in a 50/50 balance, it all sways and blends for me.

5. How do you see the landscape of design teams changing in the next few years?

Mingxi: I see the industry evolving all the time like anything else in life, and more collaboration will happen for sure, which I see as a key to many projects regardless of the job titles. Team efforts, being open and building trust in teams are still the key elements, meaning that all the technologies can be utilised, everyone in the team contributes to whatever they are working on and being appreciated.

Khush: I think the landscape of design has and will always have to keep changing with the ever evolving technological landscape that we live in today. It’s going to be influenced by a myriad of factors including advancements in tech, evolving design methodologies, and changing organisational structures. The integration of generative AI (GenAI) is only the start. Design teams may increasingly integrate GenAI tools into their workflows. These tools can assist in ideation, prototyping, and even generating design variations based on specified criteria.

The role of designers might shift towards overseeing and guiding AI-generated outputs, focusing more on the strategic aspects of design, creativity, and ensuring alignment with user needs. As AI tools become more sophisticated, some routine and repetitive tasks may be automated, leading to leaner design teams. This could enable designers to focus on high-level creative thinking, problem-solving, and strategic decision-making.

However, the need for human intuition, empathy, and contextual understanding in design is likely to persist, ensuring that even lean teams have a strong human element.

How I see things changing is that we will also have increased collaboration with cross functional teams. Design teams may collaborate more with developers, data scientists and BA’s to create holistic and user centric solutions that align more to business goals. Designers might need to enhance their communication and collaboration skills to work effectively with professionals from diverse background.

Design research will continue to be a vital component of the design process, but there may be an increased emphasis on leveraging data analytics and user insights derived from AI tools. Design researchers might find themselves analysing larger datasets and extracting meaningful patterns, allowing for more informed decision-making in the design process.

Thank you to all the contributors for their sage words of advice, which have shaped my views on leadership (and I hope yours too). In the final article, I will reflect on my own leadership journey so far from the perspective of an intersectional neurodivergent woman of colour, and the questions I’m still working out about myself. I will share the challenges I’ve encountered, what I’ve learned and inspiration along the way.

This article was originally published on Linkedin.

Developing leadership — 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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