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June 2017 – Cory Lebson
If you had asked me early on in my UX career where I was headed professionally, I likely would have told you that I aspired towards leadership. That is, leadership that occurred in the workplace and involved the management of both projects and people.
Fifteen years ago, I moved towards this goal by managing projects—mainly user research efforts that included myself as a primary practitioner plus other staff who supported the research efforts. And I enjoyed it.
But that wasn’t enough, I thought. The natural career progression meant that I should take on more staff management responsibilities. And I eventually got a new job where I still had some practitioner responsibilities but simultaneously was managing a small team of people—both staff and subcontractors —across projects and really inclusive of their full relationship with the company.
At first, I was excited—this is what I had aspired to, and eventually, I assumed that I would progress to more management and less time as a practitioner. That just seemed to me to be the way a career should move.
But I was no longer as happy. I enjoyed leading projects for sure, and small teams on a per-project basis, but by 2008, I had realized that my ultimate aspirations weren’t necessarily in line with what I enjoyed most about my UX work: practicing UX. In fact, one reason that I redirected towards being a UX freelancer was that it let me continue with the project work while no longer feeling like the natural progression had to be towards more inclusive management.
Since then, I’ve also discovered that UX leadership means so much more than what I had originally thought it meant. And I’ve come to see UX leadership more inclusively than I would have ever imagined.
This more inclusive definition formed the basis for a chapter (about UX leadership) in The UX Careers Handbook. In short, that chapter defines four critical types of leadership: workplace leadership, UX organizational leadership, mentorship and thought leadership.
1. Workplace leadership
Workplace leadership is how many people—both employers and practitioners—often think about leadership. These leaders manage projects or products or staff or some combination of the three. Workplace leadership is also inclusive of managing business operations.
2. UX organizational leadership
A second kind of leadership involves helping others in their UX careers beyond the workplace through volunteer leadership of UX meetups and professional organizations. These organizations could be preexisting and rotate through leaders in a specified or ad-hoc fashion as leaders’ time and interest shift. Regardless of organization, a volunteer’s leadership role often involves organizing (typically local) UX events and speakers, along with everything that involves.
A third kind of leadership is to help others in their careers more directly through mentorship. This mentorship could occur in the workplace, helping others on company time to grow specific skills towards whatever their UX aspiration may be, or the mentorship could occur outside of the workplace. I know of several meetups that have organized mentorship matchmaker services that connect mentors— those who want to “give back” and help less experienced practitioners to grow in their careers—with practitioners who are looking for guidance that they may not be finding at their place of employment.
4. Thought leadership
Finally, thought leadership is a way to lead others through ideas that can be expressed verbally or in written form. Thought leadership can take the form of a personal blog, or producing content for a UX publication, or perhaps speaking in-person locally and beyond.
My leadership path
In 2009, within a few months of going off on my own as a freelancer, I accepted the challenge of leadership in the local chapter of UXPA DC, and by 2010 I was the UXPA DC president. With support from a phenomenal board of others who volunteered their time, I found a lot of value in building an organization that provided a UX community to so many others. Later, I joined the UXPA International board and was eventually the president of UXPA international. Collectively with a wonderful board, I was able to continue this voluntary organizational leadership to support UX professionals all over the world.
Meanwhile, I’ve also found opportunities to be a mentor, both on the clock as freelance “gigs” when hired by companies, and occasionally by letting others sit in on user research activities when circumstances permitted.
My leadership success
I continue to enjoy my UX work, and I relish all the opportunities for UX leadership that go way beyond what my younger self would have considered as such. These additional forms of leadership have also given me far more exposure in the UX world than I ever would have had if the only type of leadership I was involved in was sourced exclusively from the workplace. And this in turn has fed back into my freelancing work, where I can almost exclusively operate on a referral basis—where my work comes from people who know me or have gotten a recommendation for me and my research work.
Be a leader
I’d encourage you to be a leader too, in whatever way makes sense for you. Consider leadership at your workplace, however you’re most comfortable and in whatever ways will add value to the business. Be a volunteer—whether supporting an organization that already exists or whether starting something local from scratch. Find ways to mentor, on or off the clock. And know that you most certainly have something valuable to say, so find your voice—whether written or spoken—and put some content out there.
Do this, and you’ll be a leader—you can help your workplace, you can help UX professionals, and you can enhance your own career trajectory and UX brand as you do it!
For more UX career advice, go to UXswitch.com/thinking.
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Cory Lebson (@corylebson) is author of The UX Careers Handbook (CRC Press, 2016), and a LinkedIn Learning instructor for three courses: Planning a Career in User Experience, Freelancing and Consulting in User Experience and Strategies for Successful UX Freelancers
He has been a user experience consultant for over 20 years and is the Principal and Owner of Lebsontech LLC. Lebsontech is focused on user research and evaluation, user experience strategy, UX training, and mentoring.
Cory also speaks frequently on topics related to UX career development, user experience, user research, information architecture, and accessibility. He has been featured on the radio and in addition to his recent book, has published a number of articles in a variety of professional publications.
Cory has an MBA in marketing and technology management, as well as an MA in sociology and a BS in psychology. Cory is a past president of the User Experience Professionals Association (UXPA) International and is also a past president of the UXPA DC Chapter.
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