Human centred leadership:
Navigating uncertainty as a first time leader

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Hello there, I’m Chloe, a UX lead at RUSH. This is an account of my journey of transitioning from the forefront of creating products to becoming a leader. The recent events of COVID19 has caused many of us around the world to work remotely, and the upcoming recession will impact many businesses in the near feature. These are some lessons I have learned along the way that has helped the team grow together in our careers. 

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Two teams navigate through uncertainty 

Most of the time, when a person gets promoted into a leadership position, they are promoted based on their ability as an employee, rather than their leadership potential. When I was offered the opportunity to lead a team of designers, I quickly realised that I would have to learn and refine a whole new set of tools.

No amount of hard skills will make you better at leading the team, especially during times of uncertainty.

Build on what you already have 

Growing up, my parents have always taught me to use what I had, rather than wait for things to happen to me. So, like the good Asian kid that I am, I looked around to see skills I had that could translate to leadership. 

1. Lessons from goalkeeping 

I have been a goalkeeper for a very long time, and goalkeeping is 90% a mental game. You must keep the morale up when you are 10 goals down, and put faith that the strikers can turn the game around. The most precious lesson spending most of my weekends on a hockey pitch taught me was how to trust a team, change strategy depending on what’s happening on the pitch and keep calm when sh*t hits the fan. 

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GB Hockey goalkeeper: the best in the world IMHO

2. Lessons from teaching 

After dropping out of university the first time round, I trained and taught English as a Foreign Language before pivoting into uni again. To this day, I stand by the fact that this paved the way for me to think as a UXer, and now, as a leader. 

Start at the end. When teaching we always started with the learning outcomes, and as it turns out, the same principles apply to helping someone with their career development. Learning is outcome focused, and so is leadership asking the team where they want to be career-wise at the get go really helped us plan out the milestones to be reached to get each team member to their desired state. 

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Back in the days of teaching

3. Human centred design 

Having built my career around the human centred design process (HCD), I experimented with some tried and tested approaches to the problem at hand. The lessons below are viewed through the lens of a human centred design model and agile development. From reframing the problem to iterating incrementally and adapting to the changing needs of the team, the products that we create and the design community as a whole.

Human Centred leadership

Reframing the problem 

I am lucky enough to have been lead by some of the most inspiring people who have given me the chance to succeed, and the chance to fail, leading me to be where I am today. I had to pay it forward, to allow more junior members of the team to be given the chances I once had under great design leadership.  I realised that designing products had many parallels with leadership, but the goal is no longer creating a valuable product for the user, but designing a valuable environments for the team to succeed. Armed with that, I generated an opportunity statement: How might we create an environment that empowers the team to learn, grow and ultimately succeed, so that we can deliver the best products for our clients? 

the goal is no longer creating a valuable product for the user, but designing a valuable environments for the team to succeed.

Discovery research: Understanding the pain points

In the user research world, we normally look at influences on behaviour through 3 lenses. Personal, peer and societal. 

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This can be roughly translated to: 

  • Personal: What are each member of the team’s strengths and weaknesses, including my own? 

  • Peer: As a team, what are the gaps in our overall understanding? 

  • Societal: In the design world, within the organisation and in our professional networks, how might be best distribute the knowledge to grow together as a team?

So, as a true UXer, I designed a questionnaire and came up with some 1-2-1 questions to ask the team. 

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That generated insights for personal and team. But what about the societal lens? When I was London based, a speaker said something at a Women in Tech meetup that I will never forget: 

“Mentorship does not have to come from above”

Mentorship does not have to come from people more experienced or more senior than you. Just as insights don’t always come from your stakeholders. I sought help from my peers, my team and others in the organisation. In the UX world, I am trained to value the input front line workers, customers as well as senior stakeholders. This is all the more important when leading a team, keeping an ear open, listening and implementing the ideas of the team and seeing the effects have been most useful.  For example: during the lockdown here in New Zealand, we found that one of the designers, Sam, has an amazing knack for coming up with ideas for us to connect as a team. We have since implemented a daily “quarantine show” at the end of every day, where we have an hour on hangouts to chat about life, work, or just continue working on the line. The team added to this idea with quarantine bingo, daily design critiques and occasional hat/dress up for video chat Fridays. 

The experimentation phase - Know your users: Observe, record digest 

My journey on learning to be a leader has also been influenced by the agile mentality. A draft vision was created with the help of the team and rough milestones (Now, Next, Later) were generated.  These guiding principles are still used today, and we are on the journey to achieving the vision.  Although there have been many obstacles, politics and pivots in the last 9 months, we have moved in the right direction for all of the objectives set at the start. 

User testing: Iterate, Iterate, Iterate

As a team, we have no offical “releases”, but the mentality of fail fast is still integral to growing a team. We experiment often to find what is right. 

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Always be testing, trying and experimenting to find your “just right”

One of the experiments that has worked quite well is assigning ownership of objectives to various members of the team. Matching personal strengths and areas of development to a mini-lead role within the team.   There also have been many failed experiments: 

  • Trying to implement stricter scrum principles within the design world to match the developers we work alongside with was a dud. We found a lot of our incoming work as not

    defined well enough to do so, instead we now run a loose kanban board for discovery work.

  • Personally I learned the fine line between being too involved and being too hands-off. This was heavily iterated on, but in the process our team managed to build a culture of asking for help when stuck, and being comfortable with showing unfinished, unrefined work. 

Every team is different, and I consciously hire for diversity of thought. So as new members have joined and some have left, the dynamic of the team is forever changing. 

Empower the team

Empowerment is key to the team’s success. There is no position of leadership without the team. Together, we are stronger, better and more balanced. Study after study shows that empowered people create more impact. One of my colleagues gave me one of the best advice on this, which is the power of one to ones. 

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Ineffective one on ones are worse than not having them at all
Purposeful one to ones are the key to empowerment during COVID19

It’s common practice in many workplaces to have one on ones. At first, we talked about whatever was on each other’s minds at the time. We listened to each other and tried to help one another get to their personal career goals, team goals and solved problems that we on their mind. The worked relatively well, but in the age of COVID19 and remote working, it is all the more important to make them purposeful (which is actually an ongoing experiment at the moment).

Keeping your cool and the importance of transparency 

At the moment, change is happening everywhere. Rush has recently announced structural changes, NZ and the rest of the world are on lockdown. Everyone is on their toes about their health, the stability of jobs and the economic crisis that is to come. Freaking out never helped anyone, as a UXer we are trained to spot problems, but more importantly, we are trained to spot opportunities from the problems. Paired with the stakeholder management skills inbuilt in UX, we actually have a unique advantage in this current climate. 

When facing uncertainty, establish your principles

In unprecedented times like these, sticking your core principles as a leader will help the team come out of the fog. 

I am by no means a seasoned leader, but before lockdown, I was fortunate enough to have a solid foundation when we were colocated. A personal relationship with the team for me as an introvert has worked wonders in my leadership style.  Establishing trust with the team requires active listening, retrospective thinking, and an understanding of the team members’ personal motivations. It is a blessing in disguise that I am a UXer, which means these traits have been developed throughout my career. 

Trust in competency 

I trust my team for the competent professionals that they are. There is a rigorous recruitment process, and the rest of the team takes part in choosing who gets to join. I have learned to pick from the stack of CVs those who are resilient, curious to always learn and slightly intimidate me with their talent. The team challenge me and help me grow, taking the back seat in a leadership position means that you will not necessarily have the most up to date knowledge on specialist tools, or have the full context of ever changing backlog priorities, team dynamics or even UI patterns. Everyone on the team is an expert in their own domain, with the help of some coaching, or an injection of a new point of view, your team should collectively be better than you at everything.  In a team under uncertainty, it is all the more important to provide transparency, good ideas can come from everywhere, and I have learned that more heads are always better than one when it comes to coming up with viable solutions to the pain points the team is feeling. 

I have learned to pick from the stack of CVs those who are resilient, curious to always learn and slightly intimidate me with their talent.

The importance of clarity 

Just blind trust will not drive the team forward if they don’t know where they are going. A rowing team is a key example. In a team of nine, there are 8 rowers and 1 coxswain. The role of the coxs is very similar with that of a leader; to steer, navigate and motivate the team. The etymology of the word coxswain literally translates to “boat servant”. Providing clarity and direction, lining up the ducks so the team can shoot effectively. 

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Trust in competency and clarity of direction is key to progress

Being clear of direction is key, but I have learned that being clear of expectations, as well as what support is available can help those who are struggling or with poor performance.  Everyone has a different version of clarity, so it is important to check and change tack when it’s not working for a particular team member.  For example:  It is very easy as a designer to get sucked into the business world, and when empowered to take charge of the design, many agency side designers try to please the clients to a point where the user experience is compromised. Leading the team out of this trap was a matter of providing clarity, reminding the team and stakeholders alike that our job is to listen, understand and advocate for the user. 

Problems and opportunities are two sides of the same coin

Sometimes things just don’t turn out the way you want it to, that’s just life. Proclaiming that it’s not fair is what children do, because like Santa Clause and the Easter Bunny, fairness is a fallacy. It’s not all doom and gloom though, because it’s possible to take a problem, and turn it into an opportunity. Many startups fail because they don’t solve a problem, we are makers of software, we are hired to solve problems and create opportunities. Being a cynical Brit, and a UXer who has heard her fair share of ridiculous ideas, it’s easy for me to spot problems, well, in most places. Only in the past few months have I recognised what “How might we” statements are. They are not problem statements, but opportunity statements. 

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Nathaniel Hansen on Twitter: " - “How Might ...

For every problem, if you look deep enough and experiment enough you will see opportunity and this is the positive attitude required to navigate though uncertain waters.  

Keeping culture alive in remote work 

They say that culture is key to retaining millennial talent, and being a millennial myself I would agree with that statement wholeheartedly #cultureisking. In a remote environment, how do we recreate our culture when we are distributed? Culture is a team effort, it is created by the unique dynamics of the team. Which is why this question must be answered by the team itself. Here are some of the cool things we do to try and keep the culture alive: 

  • The quarantine show: where we just have the last hour of each day to talk about anything work or life related. It has really helped all of us to feel closer as a team.

  • Lockdown bingo: a list of things we predicted will happen on the first day of lockdown. 

  • Friday hat day: where we just wear funny hats to meetings. 

  • JackboxTV: because we are designers, and Pictionary is a thing that you can play online.

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Friday hat day

The perils of imposter syndrome as a leader 

Imposter syndrome is real, and it haunts a lot of us. It’s something that was way worse when I started, but careful management of it has helped keep it at bay most of the time. Imposter syndrome to me is a feeling like I am not the right person for this job, and the fear of things going pear shaped because I am the inadequate leader of the pack. It rears its head in waves of random panic, mostly before a big meeting or on Sunday night before I go to work.  Finding out when and where Understanding your enemy has been proven useful for me. Most of the time imposter syndrome lurks in the shadows, but there are some times when it emerges from the depth of my own insecurity. Knowing when it happens most of the time helps me to detach from the fear and identify it for what it is. 

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Imposter syndrome is my monster under the bed
Trust your team and peers

No one is always right about everything. If 99% of people think A is correct, and you think B is correct, you may be wrong. This thinking helped me massively with imposter syndrome. A good UXer doesn’t only rely on gut, but the combination of qualitative user feedback and data. Even if my gut is telling me that I am a fraud, if the team results are achieved over time (the data) and my peers/team are saying that I’m doing a good job (qualitative feedback) it may indicated that I am doing a good job objectively speaking and my gut is wrong. 

The bottom line

Together, we are stronger

To lead a team, you have to feel part of it, and so does everyone on the team. Trusting the team for their competence, providing clarity on where we are going,  and empowering the team to achieve the collective goals have worked for me personally. We have learned to rely on each other and celebrate our diversity of thought and expertise. 

Listen, experiment, and listen again

Different things work for different people, it is all the more important to listen to the needs, and provide support when required. Try out different techniques as a team, ask for feedback early and pivot and adapt as needed. Every team is different, so it’s worth investing some time into personal relationships and understand the motivations and different points of view. Just because you have been assigned to lead a team, does not mean you need to have all the answers, but it does mean that it is your responsibility to make sure they’re found. 

Navigate fine line between laissez faire leadership and micromanagement 

One of my biggest lessons so far; micromanagement is my pet hate. I tried so hard not to be a micromanager at the start, I swung to the other side of the spectrum. This created a strange environment which didn’t help the team succeed at all. I found that good 1-2-1 meetings were best in understanding the personal dimension of each team member, which in turn, helped me guide the team, and direct the team to each other for help.  Here are some some powerful questions that I have found useful 

  • How is your workload/what are you working on this sprint?

  • What decision are you having trouble with making at the moment?

  • If you had a magic wand to solve change something right now, what would it be?  

  • What motivates you start working at the moment? 

Encourage challenge and don’t take it personally

Challenging each other is a powerful tool to grow and learn, it is also very important in helping us see blindspots. The right amount of challenge however, is key. Create an environment to allow challenge, but not to a point where it is not constructive and personal. Getting it just right will depend on the personalities at play. The Myers Briggs test, as recommended by an amazing designer on the team, is actually quite useful as a heuristic to understand each other. 

Closing Notes

At the end of the day, I have learned that there is no sure fire recipe to lead a team, but rather a set of principles that that resonate for both the leader and everyone involved. Personally, I found that trust in competency, providing clarity, relentless reflection, and the courage to fail fast has been the most successful in my flavour of human centred leadership. 

Chloé Fong
Chloé Fong
UX Lead

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