What to ask your future employer

There’s never been a better time to be a practitioner or a manager with user experience design skills. The opportunities presented by startup businesses, large FTSE-100 companies and consultancies like cxpartners are many and varied, and it’s a seller’s market for knowledgeable, experienced, well-rounded talent.

Who do you want to work for?
If you’re reading this, maybe you’re one of the people on the lookout for new opportunities. Here’s my advice for what to look out for when you next speak to your line manager, or perhaps a new employer when you get the chance.

It’s my contention that leaders in companies fall into three broad categories:

  1. Those who focus on optimising results with what they have today
  2. Those who thrive by understanding how to play the politics of the organisation
  3. Those who dedicate themselves to changing the way their organisation does business

Drive for results
Leaders who show they’re great at optimising results are brilliant at managing and motivating people, creating a shared focus on a single commercial goal, and driving to achieve that goal by removing barriers and obstacles in the way.

In competitive commercial environments, managers are drilled with the skills to develop this leadership style: how to be assertive and challenging without putting people’s noses out of joint; how to focus on what’s real and feasible in the short term rather than “wishy-washy” visions; how to performance manage people and teams using black-and-white KPIs.

This style of leadership certainly works. It’s been a gold standard for many organisations since the post-war industrial age. It’s what you’ll find in many sales-driven, cost-focussed organisations across the world.

Climbing the slippery corporate ladder
Leaders who are able to push their own agendas by understanding the politics of the organisation are tricky to pin down. They manage relationships proactively and jump on opportunities to impress the boss and their peers, but leave it up to others in their team and sometimes other teams to ‘do the hard yards’. People in these leaders’ teams can do great work, but it’s important not to make the leader look inferior as moves like that could become career-limiting.

There’s a well-worn concept known as the Peter Principle, formulated by Laurence J. Peter, which states that people within some organisations are promoted to just beyond their level of competence. This is for these politically- and often selfishly-motivated leaders. They thrive because they stay the course and manage their reputation well enough with the people who matter to be put into positions of leadership.

Creating the catalyst for change
The third type of leader is the one I’d like to focus on, and the one for whom I think that most people working in user experience design should look to work. The ‘change agent’ leader feels passionately that the business he or she works for needs to embed change as a core competency. This isn’t because the person is addicted to making waves or likes being disruptive. It’s because he or she firmly believes that aptitude for change and agility is what’s required in order for the business to survive and grow. They promote an attractive and robust vision of the future across the organisation and they’re able to garner support from the very top for investment and ‘air-cover‘ to help get their plans delivered.

The difference between the political leader and the change agent leader is that the change agent actually gets significant change done. And the best ones then apportion credit across the organisation where it’s due.

What works best for you?
User experience design is not just about web interfaces and apps. It’s about the organisations behind these websites and apps – and indeed other touchpoints – being able to support customers at the point of interaction. So few organisations are set up to do this well right now, and user experience designers need to be able to influence this agenda if their work is to resonate and be successful.

When talking with your current manager or a new employer, ask questions that will help you to identify where the person fits. Ask them about their greatest achievement in their career, and what they feel the next couple of years is going to look like for them. Turn the tables on the interview – it will send a message that you’re highly engaged and looking to develop winning relationships for the future.

If you get a sense that there’s a revolution coming if you work for the person, then dig further. Sometimes people don’t like the uncertainty that working for leaders like this entails. But having been there myself I can say it’s a lot of fun. While sometimes you may feel like you’re hanging on by the skin of your teeth, you will learn the most this way.


A hearty tip of the hat to Michael Lock for inspiring the ideas in this post.

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