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How to be a UX Leader with Jared Spool
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How to be a UX Leader with Jared Spool

How to be a UX Leader with Jared Spool

Kritika Oberoi
November 2, 2023

A few names come to mind when we think of leaders in the UX world. Jared Spool is one of them.

Who better to sit down with than Jared himself to talk about what it means to be a leader in your organization.

Leadership isn’t limited only to those with titles, so whether you’re a manager or not—keep reading! According to Jared, all you need is a vision (and a follower). 

Keep reading to get Jared’s take on what it takes to be a leader in your organization.

Who is a UX leader? (It’s not what you think)

Every organization has individual contributors (designers, researchers fall into this bucket) and managers (people who manage said designers and researchers).

Based on your title, you can probably easily identify which you are.

UX Designer? Individual Contributor (IC).

Research Manager? Obviously, a manager.

We’re all quite used to this hierarchy inside companies. ICs get work done, and managers (well, the good ones at least) largely enable them to get work done. All pretty simple so far.

Here’s the catch: many of us assume that Managers are the same as Leaders. They do have a hefty title, after all. 

But Jared clarifies that that’s not always the case. 

Leaders vs Managers

As Jared explains it, managers have certain defining features:

  • They have direct reports
  • They’re appointed by the organization
  • They focus on making their teams efficient

Because they’re appointed by the organization, a manager also has “role power”. They have the equivalent of a neon sign on their heads saying “I have the power to promote or fire you”. 

Each of their direct reports can see this sign and respond accordingly.

A leader doesn't need to have any of the above.
They aren’t appointed by the organization. They don’t need to be managing anyone.

To be a leader you need:

  • A compelling vision for a better future
  • Follower(s) of your vision

**complete with the sound effect**

Just kidding, the sound effect is optional.

Let’s take a simple example.

Your organization is wasting tons of time every year re-designing and re-building components that already exist.

One of the designers on the team spots this pattern.

They envision a future where duplicate work is removed—we design and code reusable components one time, and use it across the product (aka a design system). 

✔️Design hours saved

✔️Engineering hours saved

✔️Better, more cohesive experience for users

✔️Heavenly choir goes off on cue

To make this vision a reality, the designer still has to do a bunch of work—sell the vision to fellow designers, engineers, product managers. Create alignment on what the standard design system should look like. Make sure the design system gets resources put behind it.

But at the end of this journey, they’re able to create meaningful change.

You may have noticed, said designer doesn’t have to have a specific title. They may be a UX Designer, or they may be a Design Manager. But they definitely were a leader. 

A leader sees a problem, envisions a better future, and successfully evangelizes this future within the organization to create change.

What you need to be a leader

#1: Are you passionate about a change?

Frustrated people become leaders.

Wait. I may need to rephrase that.

According to Jared, a leader is someone who is frustrated with the status quo and sets out to change it.

They may not have set out to lead—they’re just really passionate about changing something that they clearly see is wrong.

Not because someone asked them to. Not because it’s their OKR. But because they don’t like how things are.

A leader doesn’t just gripe and moan about how things aren’t great today. They imagine a better potential future off in the distance. A way that the world (or the organization) could be so. much. better.

Maybe they see a future where we’re not re-designing components over and over and over and over. And over again. 

#2: Do you have a follower(s)?

Seeing a problem and envisioning a future is great. But as we know from any great mythological tale (and Jared’s input)—you’re only a leader once you have a follower.
Otherwise you’re just the guy dancing by himself.

 You get followers by:

  1. Having a vision that others want to get behind
  2. Communicating this vision in a way that gets others excited

Jared emphasizes that your vision needs to resonate with people in your organization. You need a follower to become a leader, and this is largely possible by having a compelling vision that excites people. 

A final note on leadership skills

Even after creating a compelling vision, the journey to executing your vision isn’t straightforward. It requires you to become aware of what’s happening across your organization and develop new skills to actively listen to your stakeholders, tell your vision story well, focus on outcomes, and more.

The bad news: these aren’t usually skills you develop as an individual contributor.

The good news: Jared says we can learn these skills, just like you learned how to develop designs or run a user interview.
He recommends Donna Lichaw’s book, The Leader’s Journey as a great resource to get started with.

Another great resource: our next article, which will cover how to get buy-in from stakeholders, complete with all the communication traps you should watch out for.

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