This past June, I stood on the brink of achieving a major professional goal. The UX apprenticeship program I’d been working so hard on was going to begin on Monday. It was Thursday. On my desk lay a curious stack of paper labeled “Manager’s Onboarding Kit.”
Of all the things I’d planned for and anticipated about the apprenticeship program, becoming a manager was something I hadn’t even considered. It’s something I’ve consciously avoided my entire career. The apprentices arrived, and I awkwardly mentioned that “technically” I was their manager. But after working with them for awhile I noticed something that changed my whole perspective.
I was working for them, and I loved it!
Granted, my situation might be unique in that my express purpose is to nurture and grow the apprentices’ nascent skills, but I learned many lessons about management that other managers can benefit from. Each of these lessons revolved around ways in which I found myself working for my team.
I cleared the path
Long ago, Samantha Bailey told me that the role of a UX manager is to shield her team from the chaos above them. I’m glad that lesson has stayed with me for so long, because I was able to put it into practice with the apprentices. I told them that their primary goal was to learn new skills and grow them. If anything got in the way of that, they should come to me and I would make whatever it was go away. I helped them clear a path to their goal through the organizational jungle.
An unexpected but happy consequence of this was that my working hard for my team inspired them to work hard for me. If you work for a consultancy or agency, you’re probably required to fill out your timesheet daily. And you probably don’t do it. The apprentices did. I told them that I relied on their time entries to track their progress and needed them to enter their time, daily, and never once did I have to have the timesheet talk with any of them.
I told it like it was
I wasn’t born in Minnesota, but I may as well have been. I am rife with Minnesota Nice. Giving people feedback beyond, “Great job! Here’s some hotdish!” makes me twitchy. But my role is to help people with promise develop that promise into talent. To do this, I needed to extend myself beyond my comfort zone and give the apprentices feedback about things they needed to work on.
It wasn’t easy for me, but it did get easier as time went on. This was because my telling it like it was led them to trust me. That trust yielded results. One apprentice in particular would make a point of implementing the feedback I gave her. One week I’d awkwardly say she should work on something, and then the next week I’d both hear feedback from mentors about how she’d done that thing and she would tell me herself. That not only helped her grow; it helped me grow too.
I increased my say/do ratio
One of my early mentors kept track of her “say/do ratio” on the whiteboard at her desk. This is a personal metric that describes how reliably a person does what they say they’re going to do. I laughed, but she was serious about it. She was exceptionally reliable. I’m fortunate that this is another early lesson I retained.
When you work for your team, you need to do a lot of things for them. I’ve not always been the most organized person, but I felt was important enough to commit to making a concentrated effort. Working for my team would be no good if I didn’t do the things they needed me to do.
Being an interaction designer, naturally I designed a process to keep track of what I said I was going to do and whether I had done it. Often, apprentices would come up to me as I was at my desk. A to-do would often come out of that conversation. I use Things to track my tasks, and I keep it open at all times. With a simple key combination I could instantly enter a new task, leaving for later the classification of the new task. During our weekly one-on-one meetings, I left a section in the Evernote note that guided each meeting for me to keep track of new things an apprentice would need me to do. Each item had a checkbox, and after the meetings I’d enter them into Things and check off the boxes in Evernote. Once the item was completed, I’d check it off in Things. Maybe this seems excessive to you, but it works for me. Find whatever works for you and do it consistently.
I constantly sought feedback
At the very beginning of the program I let my team know that I had neither managed anyone before nor run an apprenticeship program. I told them I needed them to provide feedback on both me and the program for it to be as good as it could be. Sometimes they’d provide me with feedback I wouldn’t implement, but when that happened I explained why. Sometimes the things they needed me to do for them would take awhile. Sometimes the solutions to the problems they brought up weren’t obvious.
In these situations, I communicated with them about what was happening and I sought feedback on my proposed solutions. I consciously showed them that by giving me feedback they could make things happen. As it turns out, the apprentices and I improved the program together.
My favorite example of how we built the program together is the internal project they all worked on as a team. Initially, I was dead set against apprentices working on internal projects. To me, internal projects were something to keep interns busy. I felt that internal projects would be a waste of time for apprentices. The goal of apprenticeship is to learn UX design through actual client work.
The apprentices were getting that experience, one design method at a time. They’d do stakeholder interviews on one project, then user research analysis on another. What they weren’t getting was a look at how the design process moved from one stage to another, say from research to analysis and then design. After they brought this up enough times, I swallowed my pride and suggested they work on an internal project together, from start to finish, with me as their mentor. They jumped at the chance, did a stellar job, and learned what they’d set out to learn.
I was there
The act of being physically present with your team shows that you support them. I chose to sit right in the middle of mine. Not at one end of the desks, not in an office, but right in the middle of the apprentice team. We have an open floor plan at The Nerdery, where people sit in groups of 6-8 desks rather than in individual cubicles. Being right in the middle of my team made me easier to talk to because I was only a glance away from any of them. The result was that the apprentices talked to me a lot and used the support I offered.
I ran the numbers, but I didn’t let the numbers run me
Running an apprenticeship program for four apprentices takes a lot of tracking. I have to track their time, feedback on them, and feedback they’re giving me. I also have to track how much the program is costing and whether it’s hitting its metrics. If it’s not, I have to do things to move the numbers up. Yes, this takes time. But I did these tasks early in the morning before the apprentices arrived. When they did, I could focus on them.
With management comes administration, but administration is not the essence of your job. Your job is to clear the way for your team, and administration is just another thing you’re clearing from their path. Yes, it’s something you have to do, but it should absolutely not be your focus. Your team is your focus.
Problems I faced
Even though I felt exhilarated and energized by my new role as a manager, it wasn’t all rainbows and unicorns. For example, I was still on a project as a billable designer. Balancing the work I wanted to do for my team with the work I needed to do for my client was challenging. Sometimes, I just wanted to hide so I could focus on data analysis or sketching, but I resisted. When you’re physically present, you should expect to be interrupted. What’s helpful, though, is to remember that they’re not really interruptions; they’re your job. The really tricky thing is that you can’t ever predict your team’s needs, so always expect the unexpected and have someone who can support you.
My own managers and my project team were my supports. One manager had a knack for giving me feedback without pussyfooting around. I appreciated that in her and I tried to emulate it myself. When I talked with her about becoming a manager, she let me in on a secret. She was like that with me because that’s what I responded well to. Other people needed pussyfooting to accept feedback.
When I confessed my newly positive feelings about managing to my other manager, he beamed with a knowing smile. At that moment, I knew that he’d been working for me and everyone else all along. Now when we meet, he encourages me to keep working for the apprentices and he helps me break down any organizational barriers that arise.
My project team supported me by respecting the fact that I now had two jobs. When they needed my undivided attention, they scheduled collaborative work time with me. This helped me balance my client and management responsibilities. They didn’t schedule all my unscheduled time, just some of it. This allowed me to focus on the client for a time without being out of reach. I simply told the apprentices where I’d be.
What you can take away from this
If you are determined to avoid management at all costs, like I was, here’s what I want you to take away. Managing people doesn’t have to suck. It doesn’t have the obvious allure of design, solving problems and making things, but if you approach management as if it were a design problem, it can be incredibly rewarding. Think of your team as your users and their ability to achieve their goals as their experience. Good management is the continual, real-time design of your team’s experience. When you get the opportunity to manage people, take it. Don’t run away from it.
If you are already managing people, try putting some of these lessons I’ve learned into your own management practice. It will make your work more fulfilling. If you are already working for your team, that’s wonderful! Let’s hear what you’ve learned about it!
Learn More from our Archives
Erin Malone’s So You Think You Want to be a Manager
Christina Wodtke’s Career Choices for Designers
Brenda Janish’s Leading from Within