Rachael Sweeten

UX Leadership: The Next Level

Blog Post created by Rachael Sweeten on Dec 5, 2019

Innovations in technology are changing our world faster than futurists can line up to predict what is next in business or education trends. Anyone who is old enough to remember standing in line to register for a college course or life before Google knows that there is no going back, and we don't want to. Nostalgia for what is lost has little value until it contributes to what is next.

"Talent hits a target no one else can hit; Genius hits a target no one else can see." Arthur Schopenhauer

Examining trends in Leadership and Organizational Communication reveals familiar, deceptively simple issues with severe impact. Organizational growing pains are utterly predictable and unavoidable, yet they stand as a somewhat positive marker of success. Growth is good, right? Unfortunately, growth is also laden with missed opportunities and unaddressed issues that grow as companies grow, with deep roots and scaling repercussions.

Solutions may be counter-intuitive to leaders because the same skills and vision needed to create successful companies can become the precise limiting factors for stable growth. Most companies and innovations would not exist without a leader's skills and attitudes, yet these same entrepreneurial skills often require being consciously set aside in order for organizations to move to the next level. Case in point is one of my favorite user experience UX heroes--and cautionary tale--Steve Jobs. 

Playing to Your Strengths versus Tackling Your Growth Edges

Long before documentaries, books, and feature films charted Jobs' amazing comeback and world-changing innovations, he was also a scary Silicon Valley poster-boy for purging hugely-successful companies of their founders in order to reach the next level. His maniacally-long work hours cut down legions of talented employees through burnout. Since stability and balance were not his virtues, he did not value it in the people around him. Converting the public to his elegant taste seemingly led rise to a belief that the rest of his decisions were infallible as well. Which, of course, they were not.

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One takeaway is: Whatever skillset leaders use to create their companies will tend to be over-used. Eventually, those same overused skills will aggravate the lingering weaknesses. Organizational needs may change and mature. The temptation is for leaders to just add more of what worked before. After all, it works! Until it doesn't.

For contrast, consider Starbucks' Howard Schultz who is generally lauded as a visionary leader. He was gracious enough to acknowledge a tough phase for his company when they had reached a peak of success and were risking a crash due to losing touch with customer feedback. (Check out fascinating interviews with Schultz and other thought leaders.) In a nutshell: An entrepreneurial founder tends to keep momentum by ignoring distractions from naysayers and charging ahead with a vision, inspiring people to join along the way. When that same company is a success, leaders do not readily change gears. 

Addressing the Little Things

Starbucks grew fast, outrunning feedback from customers and low-level employees while essentially labeling any unpleasant news as coming from complainers and their "negativity." Then the business was blindsided by the realities of shop closures as organized protests smeared the company image. Starbucks' growth and global reputation teetered until they reconsidered their strategies and the limiting attitudes toward feedback and complaints that were now embedded throughout the company.

Not surprisingly, a leader's attitudes become the organization's attitudes for better or worse. If the boss does not value customer complaints, no one else is motivated to accept feedback either. Starbucks re-blossomed when top brass gathered people with varying skill sets to manage communications and invited input from every employee. Now, each Starbucks Barista is considered the top advertiser and the top investment for retaining customer loyalty. 

Making room for complementary skills--not complimentary--is the mark of a mature leader. (See the book: The Top Ten Mistakes Leaders Make.) Leaders get successful by paying their dues, often fighting distractions to their vision and supplying the bulk of effort to successfully create a new product or innovate at the foundational level. Continued growth beyond a launch can be treacherous territory unless conscious effort is expended to stabilize and solidify innovation.

This ideal of stable growth is the product of cooperation from teams who duplicate the passion, but not the methods or personality of the original leader. Bold leaders set themselves apart when they cultivate differences, including skills and viewpoints they lack. Fine-tuning and addressing the little things like user complaints, employee ideas, and unpleasant feedback stabilizes organizations through the dangers of fast growth. Sometimes these small adjustments move beyond stabilizing and open the flood-gates for exponential growth, therefore, valuing interaction and openness is the next level of growth leadership. 

Outcomes