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BlogAwkward Silences
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October 14, 2020

To Manage or Not to Manage? Leveling Up Your UX Research Career with Amber Davis, UXR Director at Audible

How to decide if management is the right next step, set yourself up for success, and who can help you get there.

Carrie Boyd

It's time to take the next step in your research career, but is management right for you? Erin & JH chatted with Amber Davis, UXR Director at Audible, about her journey as a research manager, how to evaluate what you really want from your career, and who to talk to when you're ready to level up.

Highlights

[5:03] Even if you think you don't have management experience to look back on, research is full of management and leadership.

[8:17] Being a manager gives you many more opportunities to contribute at the strategic level.

[12:00] Straying too far from day-to-day operations can make being a manager really tough, especially when you're managing researchers.

[20:12] As a manager, being a coach is more important than telling people what to do.

[23:12] You have to really connect with your direct reports and learn how to show up for them. Amber takes 10 minutes before every 1:1 to ensure she's grounded and there for that meeting.

[34:21] Even though it's important to build good connections with your direct reports, make sure you keep enough distance socially so you can stay professional.

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Transcript

Erin: [00:00:00] Hello everybody. And welcome back to awkward silences today. We're here with Amber Davis. She's the UX research director at audible. And today we're going to talk about something. I know a lot of UX researchers are probably thinking about, which is, Should you be a manager, do you want to get on the manager track?

Erin: [00:00:51] What does that look like? How are you going to do it?  So thanks so much for joining us Amber.

Amber: [00:00:55] Yeah, of course. It's great to be here.

Erin: [00:00:57] Got JH here too.

JH: [00:00:59] Yeah. To manage or not to manage that's the question, right? It should be good. Right?

Erin: [00:01:03] absolutely.  Um, all right, well, thanks for joining us again and first things first. So when you're finding yourself in a UX research role, after a period of time, you might start to ask yourself the logical question of where do I want to take this thing?

Do I want to. dig into specialize in particular areas of UX research, or do I want to perhaps be in management? And what's a good way to think about how to answer that question. 

Amber: [00:01:34] So I think first and foremost, a self reflection, like the fact that you're asking yourself is this the right move for me? Is. Totally the right first step. But in terms of answering that question, I think it's a matter of looking back at your career to date and, trying to figure out like what.

Brings you passion, like where do you draw your energy? And so what I've done in my career, I have purchased in a couple of ways. so my career counselor from graduate school gave me this extra exercise called the seven stories, exercise, where you actually supposed to write down instances in your life, where you did something that you were really proud of and that you loved, right?

And then you look at all those stories and you try to draw out the common themes. And if some of the common themes aligned with them, the skills that you need to exercise to being a manager. I think that, it's probably fair to say, yeah, maybe being a manager, is that right? I think for me, the other way I've approached it too, is like a journaling exercise and I'll be honest, I'm not a person who tends to journal, but I think really tapping into, what you've done in the past and what you hope to do and really trying to.

Drop the emotions around it will really help you figure out, is this something that's going to make me happy? Or is this something that is ultimately going to be frustrating? and so that's how I've done it. Like in the past to decide is this the right next step for me? Or maybe I should, step back and become a staff UX researcher and continue on that path of being a experienced, IC.

JH: [00:03:00] How did you think about the path or I guess this is, I'm not sure how to quite phrase this, but I feel like there's sometimes an implicit assumption that people make that. Like going down the management path is the only way to continue advancing in certain careers. Like I know with engineering, usually they have, paths for people who are just like really, strong engineers are going to be great ICS in terms of, a fellow or a scientist or something right.

Where they just become the expert on some part of a code base or whatever it may be. Is there like that equivalent of, expertise and ownership and user research, or do people feel like there's this trap of if I want to keep moving up and having more influence, I have to be a manager.

Amber: [00:03:32] Honestly, I think it depends. I think right now in the year 2020, there are more and more opportunities to. Choose the path, To become a staff UX researcher. Who's a seasoned senior individual contributor or to choose the manager path. but that's just really only thinking about if I want to stay in a UX research capacity, what are those paths are other paths that you can take in tech?

That don't necessarily mean you're managing researchers are doing research, There are people who, pivot to becoming a product manager. There are people, who pivot to doing more of a strategic role. But I think now just from what I've seen on the job market, like there are more and more organizations that are offering.

Those different paths, but some small organizations are just not there yet. So if that is, if you want to choose between those paths, I think it's really important, to find those organizations like Twitter or Facebook or Google who have those paths available for researchers at this moment in time.

Erin: [00:04:30] You mentioned something I thought was interesting, which is, especially if you're considering being a first time, man. Yeah. Or to look back at some of the things that you've done in the past and been proud of. And I think maybe someone, considering being a manager for the first time might think, what can experience can I draw from, I've never done this before.

I don't know if I'd be a good manager, but what you're saying is there are opportunities to lead, And to manage without having had that sort of title or explicit experience.

Amber: [00:05:03] exactly. Exactly. Yeah. As researchers, if you think about the role that ICU researchers play on a product team, you're influencing and leading and managing all the time and your day to day work. When you work with designers, when you work with engineers, when you work with your stakeholders Right. As researchers we often enable other people to get to know the users and to adapt the user centered mindset and their work. And this requires a fair amount of influencing people to make sure they're choosing the right questions, framing your findings in a way that will. Speak to stakeholders and helping them perhaps frame the story that they tell to the C suite.

These are all ways in which you might be leading, or if you are just looking at it in a more traditional way. If you've worked with interns, if you've worked with contractors, if you've managed vendors, that's all management, You're managing your project. if you're managing an intern's career row, those are all examples of how you may have shown up as a manager and not even realized it.

JH: [00:06:02] Seven stories. Exercise. Do you remember some of the themes that across your stories, by chance that connected and resonated with you?

Amber: [00:06:08] Yeah, so it was it's that's actually funny. So the themes that kind of came out where, I really enjoy connecting with people, right? I'm not the type of person who likes to, sit behind a computer. And chess like code or analyze data all day without interacting with other people. So that was one theme that emerged.

another theme that emerged from that seven story exercise was, I really enjoy helping people think about, what to do next in their career. giving them advice, helping them reflect. and so those are two of the themes that are coming back to me as I think about it.

But. in thinking about his management. For me, I was, the answer was yes. But the other answer that I got that I didn't expect was his research. For me. And I think that kind of speaks to the fact that, you know, if you are a good manager and if you are a good coach, not just someone who's very directive, but someone who's an actual.

coach not just telling and selling, but asking and helping people reflect. Those are some of the same skills that you use when you do one on one interviews with your users, right? Like you ask questions, you're comfortable with silence. You've let them reflect, you know, maybe he wait the requisite 20 or 30 seconds for them to get around to the point that they're trying to make or the insight that they might have.

You do the same thing as a manager that you may find yourself doing in your interviews.

Erin: [00:07:27] Yeah. And so lots of different skills can relate to lots of different kinds of jobs. And I went, that's a problem with self-reflections. You're like, Oh gosh, am I should even be working at this company or, doing this being in this field, but it's not this black or white thing. Of, on the ICS over here and managers over here and managers all look like this and individual contributors all look like this.

So what are some of the things that you think about when you think about the different qualities that might. Make someone a better fit one way or the other. And of course, people could go back and forth over their careers too. But how do you think of the pros and cons of being a manager versus being an individual contributor, particularly as you've progressed in your career?

Amber: [00:08:15] I think as a manager, you're afforded more opportunities to influence at a strategic level, whether that's how, your organization thinks of UX research, and the different maybe tools and processes that your team adopts in doing their work. That's the definite pro I think. And I think, a goal that many individual contributors are excited to tackle at the same time though.

in being a manager, one thing that you do have to realize is that you're stepping away from the day to day exciting research. at least in most cases, you're no longer going to be in the trenches, talking to users and being so connected to what's going on there and said, you're going to really try to enable other people to do their work.

And they will, your direct reports, your researchers, to do an excellent job to come out with exciting findings and to present those to leadership. And it may feel like you're taking a back seat, but I think, with respect to. Are the kind of biggest, the qualities, that you need in order to be a good manager, you need to be comfortable with that.

And you need to be okay with not doing the work, but helping others do the work and, giving them the tools and resources and support that they need in order to be successful. So if you've ever found yourself, Mentoring someone at work or, doing an informational interview with someone in the field.

And it's something that you really enjoyed being a manager might be a really good path for you to consider

JH: [00:09:45] Think about it for yourself to like, you know, evaluate that in a pretty, like accurate way or as you stepped into managing, did it turn out to be pretty different than what you expected? I'm just thinking my own experience, like having been a product manager for a while, and then getting the chance to start managing people.

there was a lot of it that like was really cool and exciting in ways I wouldn't have been able to forecast or expect. And it surprised me. I was wondering if if you were able to actually kind of like forecast it pretty well, or if some of that stuff was, you learned it once you were in that position.

Amber: [00:10:11] the first time I was a manager. I was pretty surprised by what the day to day actually looked like. and this was several years ago. I didn't realize that, I wouldn't be. Doing as much of the day to day exciting work, I'd be doing a lot of budgets and planning timelines and creating Gantt charts.

So that was a bit of a surprise for me. And I did learn a lesson from that, which was really interesting is to like, do the research to make sure you have a sense of what to expect by talking to people in your organization, Who are leaders or managers by talking with other people in the field, because being a manager at company A doesn't necessarily look the same as  being a manager at company B.

So I really think it's important to do that work, to do that research, to do that self reflection, to figure out like, is this the right fit? And then yeah. what should I expect? What would it look like to be a manager in this

Erin: [00:11:04] I do think that's one of the hardest things about being a manager. Not only if you're doing some sort of skill that you're any good at. Yeah. And you enjoy it. You basically get paid more to stop doing it, which can be challenging if you like that work. Obviously it's not for nothing. And there's benefits to moving into a more strategic role.

But to me, one of the. staying connected to the day to day. Right. Really, really important to still have your finger on the pulse of what's actually happening on the grounds of what your customers actually think and feel and care about.

If even if you're not talking to them every day, is that something you have experienced as well as a manager?

Amber: [00:11:51] Yeah, I think it's so in order to manage researchers, you need to know what's happening in your org with your users, with your product. If you find yourself straying too. Far from that, then it can be hard to be an effective manager. I don't think it's something that I've experienced. so far in my career, I was actually thinking about, my last role as a manager where I actually was.

I was really lucky because I was working in an agile shop. And so what that meant was I got to play an IC role and a manager role, which for me, was perfect at the time. So it was really easy for me to keep my finger on the pulse of what's going on with our customers while also showing up, as a manager and getting the opportunity to flexing and grow those skills.

JH: [00:12:38] Yeah, I had a similar experience and it was a really great way to go about it in terms of, getting to still do some of the day to day work that I loved and knew I was good at. So I had an anchor so to speak and then get to get into this new experience where I was managing somebody for the first time.

Do you, are there ways that people can try to create those conditions? Cause I think it's a really nice way to step into it, but it's obviously a fortunate set of circumstances to find yourself in that position.

Amber: [00:13:00] Yeah, I think if you are in a place where you've decided like, Hey, this is something I want to experiment with. I want to try out being a manager and then have those conversations. Have those conversations with your manager, have those conversations with maybe you have a sponsor or a mentor in your org.

That's exactly what I did. So in my last role, when I was at McKinsey, I, started as an individual contributor and I'd been there for a couple of years and I came to the point where I was like, I wanna, try my hand at being a manager again. and I want to see where that takes me.

And so I went. To my manager and I asked her, I just, I asked her, I said, Hey, this is something I'm really interested in. I'd love to be a manager here. What would that look like? And what do I need to do to make that a reality? And within six months I was managing other individual contributor researchers and it was great.

And I think, one of the reasons I was able to be successful in that regard is because before I even asked the question of my manager, I was already doing the work. I was already, influencing people in the organization. I was coaching designers. I was coaching other researchers. I was managing informally and I was, I took a course.

I took a course in design leadership, even though I wasn't a design leader in my work. So that when I had that conversation with my manager, I was able to say what do I need to do to make this a reality? And also. I could show her like, this is what I've done today and she could, she, and I could talk about some of those successes and talk about maybe some of those areas for growth that I still needed to tackle before stepping into that role.

Erin: [00:14:27] So when you had this conversation with your manager, where did she lay out concrete steps for you? Or did you come up with a plan together? Was it one, two, three, four, and then six months later you're in this role or was it more of a general, these are the kinds of things you want.

How did that progress?

Amber: [00:14:49] I feel like it was more of a general.

wasn't like, Hey, in six months, you'll get this six months went by and then she's Oh, Hey, here's this management opportunity for you? And I was like, incredibly excited. But, no, we did have a conversation and, about what that might look like and what I would need to continue doing.

Right and excelling at, in my current role in order to show up, ready to take on a management position. But the other thing that I did, which is really interesting is, I knew that the organization was going to grow. I knew that they'd be hiring more designers and researchers and that we didn't have.

Enough managers. So I knew that opportunity was going to come. And so I tried to position myself by taking those courses by reading those books, I love Harvard business review. I read their articles all the time and, following influential design leaders on Twitter to set myself up to go to my manager and say, Hey, this is something I'd like to do.

This is how I've done it in the past. What would it look like here and what needs to happen? There was a bit of a conversation about Hey, keep doing this stuff, but it wasn't a clear path, which I think is often the case. When you find yourself, stepping into these roles.

 Erin: [00:16:37] Yeah. And just go to your manager and say, Hey, tell me what I need to do that. Cause that's sort of a re a passive thing. And it sounds like it was a really good conversation to have, to not hide, your desire to do that. But ultimately you've done a lot of homework on your own. You're already acting, in lots of ways, as someone who might want to move more into a management role would act and then taking all of these extra steps.

So I think that's a really. Probably translatable pattern for a lot of folks too. On the one hand, don't make it a secret. Don't make people guess, you know where you want to go. But on the other hand, don't wait for someone to tell you exactly what you need to do either.

Amber: [00:17:16] Yeah, exactly. Otherwise, if they don't know it's something you want, then how are they going to do. Try to create those opportunities for you to step into a management role. I think it's really important, not just if you're deciding whether or not to be a manager, if you're an IC and you want to stay on IC or you want to move more into content strategy or quantitative work, having those conversations with your manager really helps set you up for success.

JH: [00:17:39] It's helpful too, because if your manager has a different like path in mind for like where your career might develop, by sharing the thing that is interesting to you, it's probably gonna get them to divulge, maybe what they had in their head as a, as an, as the next set of opportunities.

And then you can see like where that's aligned or misaligned. And like now you're actually, It's like it's out in the open and it can be discussed and you can navigate through it versus maybe the manager having, an idea in their back pocket. That's different than what's in your back pocket.

And then, you're going to face some frustrations down the line.

Amber: [00:18:06] Yeah. Yeah, I think. I think being in the right place at the right time and knowing what opportunities are available within the org are really helpful because you may find yourself, Hey, I think you were alluding to this. You may have a conversation with your manager and they just say, no, now's not the right time or those opportunities aren't available right.

There might be other great opportunities for you. To continue growing as a user researcher, maybe moving more into product or strategy, or maybe it means looking at roles in other organizations where you're able to take on those roles. But I think having those honest conversations and knowing what's what might be next for yourself and in what care about, are key to making sure you have a fulfilling career as a user researcher in the tech industry.

JH: [00:18:44] We were covering it a little bit. I think it's easy for people to imagine some of the downsides of changing and moving into management. Of like you just do less of some of the work you currently love or are great at. and I think some of the upsides of it are like the obvious ones that come to mind around, being a little more strategic, having influence on budgets or, it's more influence in general, but like an aspect of that I think is really positive or, an aspect of managing that I really liked was the coaching side of it.

And I think that's something that maybe doesn't come up a lot in people's minds. I was curious, is that something that you've seen on the user research side, like people also enjoying and finding like to be, a fun part of the move into management.

Amber: [00:19:18] definitely. And I think it's even more true, right now at this moment. Cause when I started managing. Oh, gosh, I guess this was maybe a decade ago. there was this mentality that you were supposed to scope the project, manage the project, create the timelines, assign the work streams, make sure all the work gets done.

And in some of the organizations I've worked in more recently, there's this desire to be more agile and to practice what they call, servant leadership, which. Entails a lot of coaching, which is what you were talking about. And I think coaching is really interesting. Cause it's less around, this is how you should do it.

This is how you should run this project. This is who you should be talking to. And more around asking people questions and helping them reflect, which is what we do as researchers. and I think it's really. Powerful to, be sitting in a one-on-one with one of your direct reports. Maybe this is, and this has happened to me when I was working with more junior researchers and to be having a conversation and, having that back and forth, and asking the questions and then seeing that person and just go, Oh, I get it now.

that's a really powerful feeling, which for me, yeah. Is trust as fulfilling as Landing on a great insight from research that I've done with users right there, they're different, but I think they're just fulfilling in different ways.

Erin: [00:20:45] And for me, it's more fun. It's just more fun to, and I prefer the word. I know we're talking about management and it's you go in, but leadership, right? Like you're leading a team and I it's just. One of my favorite questions to ask is, you have someone on your team and they say, what should I do about this?

And you just kick it back and say, what do you think you should do? And, sometimes they don't know and you have a conversation, but often. That is going to end up in a good place. And, as a leader, you don't want to be a crutch that people depend on, right. 

uh, empowering your team to feel like they can  do work themselves and make good decisions. 

uh, very, very into that.

JH: [00:21:26] at Vistaprint. I was in this management development program they had, and one of the exercises we had to do his homework was in an upcoming, a conversation with one of your direct reports and they come to you with something is only ask questions. Like you're not allowed to give them advice and, pick a right time where that's appropriate.

And the skeptic in me was like, this is stupid. Like, all right, they're going to see what I'm up to. And it's going to be like, it's so obvious. And then we, I did it and it worked. I was like, Holy shit. that was like a pretty good back and forth. And they got like a really good outcome.

and one of the things like you can't probably take it to that extreme every time, but it was just like this forced exercise. And it was like, Whoa, that was a really cool experience. And I, it was hard for me to believe it or, have faith and until I did it firsthand, 

Amber: [00:22:00] yeah, exactly. if you are able to coach your team so that they are able to do the work themselves, rather than going to you. Massey, what should I do here? It's turning it around. Hey, I have, this problem is working with someone. And they mentioned they had, a problem. There was some issue with the team.

And so they weren't able to. execute, for their stakeholders. And so I, ask them, what's getting in the way here. I am, I'm not involved in the day to day of the work that this person does, he's the person that is in the best position to know. And so by asking those questions, you're enabling people to.

Start driving that work themselves when you're on vacation, you're not that micromanager, you're empowering them. And I think not only does it let you actually take vacation, but it helps your team feel empowered to do that work. And I honestly think in organizations that, may lean more towards that oriented towards that style of management.

It really probably helps a lot with retention. Cause if people feel ownership over their work and they feel proud, they're probably going to be more productive and deliver better outcomes and, be more excited to keep working there.

Erin: [00:23:04] Yeah, absolutely. what, what surprised you about management with your 10 years of experience?

Amber: [00:23:12] What's surprised me. Yeah. Actually, one thing I found surprising is. You really, you have to show up and when you show up, you have to. So like for example, one on ones and getting to know your direct reports are key. It's not as simple as saying Oh, Hey do this. And Hey, do that. Like you have to get to know them.

You have to get into those emotional trenches. Sometimes there will be things that come up and in order to be there and show up for your direct reports in that way, what you have to do is, Every time. I had a one on one with my direct reports. I blocked out 10 minutes before. So I would look at my notes, see what we talked about the week before, get myself in an emotional state disconnect from whatever I was just working on, whatever crazy call I may have just gotten off of and really prepare myself to have that conversation and show up.

And when I was in those one-on-ones. It was really important for me to turn off my Slack, turn off my email and not multitask. Like we are, maybe in person after COVID of course, or on a zoom call and we are making eye contact. I'm reading your body language. there's so much about management.

That goes beyond chest, breaking down the work and getting the work done. It's a lot about kind of this emotional connection and navigating the org and getting to know your people and understanding what their goals are and where they might be struggling. And, having those candid conversations and showing up for them,

Erin: [00:24:36] Yeah, I think that's a great one to just really be present there for your team. Not unlike I, a research session, You're obviously not gonna get that much from it. If you're not really paying attention to your participant, but really. And I love the 10 minute tip as well of it's hard to be present when you're just flying from meeting to meeting and from task to task.

But if you can context switch ahead of time and get in that zone. it's good. Use better use of time for everybody.

Amber: [00:25:04] Yeah, definitely.

JH: [00:25:05] we've been talking about like management and leadership and kind of a general sense. I'm curious. Are there any aspects of it that are like nuanced or specific to managing in a user research context, is managing user researchers different than managing other people in some meaningful ways?

Amber: [00:25:22] okay. This might not be the popular response, but. not really. 

JH: [00:25:25] Yes, no. Yeah.

Amber: [00:25:26] yeah. Yeah. Cause like I'm thinking back to LA the management courses that I took. So I've taken management courses that, were obviously probably specific to design leadership. I've taken management courses that were, more generic and more focused on management consulting and they were all really valuable.

In terms of understanding and learning the skills that I needed to do the job. I guess what I would say is a little bit different about, user researchers is I think you just have to really be. Thoughtful about trying to carve out opportunities for your people to grow and Excel. And I feel like if I were, let's say a designer instead of a researcher, there might be more opportunities.

Then there are, if you're user researcher. So I would say that, I guess the thing that's. Different and unique about being a manager of researchers is there aren't as many opportunities within the org to grow, That's changing, There are more and more researchers getting hired, but by and large, you really, we have to be thoughtful, and work closely with your team to figure out like, What are the organization's needs?

Where are we going? And what are the opportunities for research to have an impact and how can individual contributor researchers continue to grow and flex their skillset in order to have that impact and then have it meet in the middle. If you think about kind of three circles laughing, the overlapping circles, really small compared to like maybe being a design leader or an engineer, and all those opportunities for growth that you may have for your direct reports.

Erin: [00:26:54] Yeah. having not led a team of researchers and I, Anytime you're leading a team, you're leading individuals. So it's not let's paint every kind of research, the same brush. Cause they're all the same ranks. People are individuals. but having researched researchers a decent amount the last three years, people come from all sorts of different backgrounds, right?

So we're talking about, a group of people that are interested in people, high empathy, Interesting academic backgrounds from anthropology to architecture, to psychology, to HCI and on. and I don't know, I think of it design leadership roles. you hear Oh, you're dealing with sensitive souls, And you need to really be careful with your feedback, cause highly sensitive, empathetic people. Do you find any traits like that are common with researchers that are a little bit. Different in terms of what their pains are. Like. For instance, we were talking with, Vivian Castillo in a previous episode about the need to recharge and bring self care to your life when you're spending all this time sort of being empathetic with other people.

And obviously everyone needs, need some time for self care, but maybe something like that, being a unique thing to the work UX researchers do. Or another thing that maybe comes to mind is, and again, this is true with other professions, of course, as well, but UX research, not necessarily being totally understood in the organization in terms of what the researchers do and what kind of problems can they help to solve and potentially researchers being overtaxed in terms of their time and how to spend it.

but of course that's all organization to organization. but curious if you've found any trends.

Amber: [00:28:37] so the last place I worked at McKinsey, we were really into the, NBTI, which is a very popular, personality test. And I remember being in a meeting and we were all talking about our personality profiles and a surprising amount of us were, starting with an I, that's stands for introverts and I guess it shouldn't be a surprise, but.

as a researcher, we do tend to be very reflective, very introspective. And I think those types of qualities show up, and a lot of researchers. And then, if you are that type of introvert, and I'll say I'm an introvert showing up as a leader, I think can be, maybe the traditional advice doesn't apply for you.

But I think there are. I read this great article from boxes and arrows a couple of months ago about how to show up as a design leader, as an introvert. And they had, great pieces of advice on, see it as a strength, not a weakness. And I think whether you are an introvert, that's an IC or an introvert, that's a research manager.

just recognizing, where you draw your strength and where, what might stop your energy is. Can be really important and figuring out how you show up at work as a contributor, as a colleague and that sort of thing. So it's not quite the same is like emotional labor and getting taking care of yourself.

But I think it's more around, like there might be a lot of introvert personalities who are researchers and, being able to influence and lead looks a little bit different.

Erin: [00:30:06] Yeah, absolutely.

JH: [00:30:07] You mentioned a few times, courses and things you've read and ways you've learned and, Immerse yourself in like management, is that stuff you've all sought out on your own? Was any of that stuff like sponsored in certain roles are like, how do people go about doing that work and finding those types of courses and stuff like that?

Amber: [00:30:24] So a lot of organizations, including, many of the organizations that I've worked at have professional development budgets that you can spend on conferences or courses. And so for me, it was a Google search, right? Design, leadership management training, and talking to the other people in the field to figure out, what courses they've taken that worked really well for them.

so yeah, I was. Lucky. I was able to take courses with Cooper. and NNG, and we also had some internal management, trainings in wa as well, which were really helpful because I think, sometimes people are like, I'm not a natural manager. It's definitely something that can be learned.

if you've done that self reflection and it's something that you want, you can do the work and do the Googling and attend the courses and get yourself in a place where you're able to really shine.

Erin: [00:31:10] So beyond taking courses and being reflective, any tips on finding your management style, because there really are so many different qualities we've talked about that might make you want to go down that path, whether it be wanting a larger role in strategy. Whether it be having a natural knack for coaching and working with teams, both your peers, and then the teams that you're leading.

but because there's so many different qualities that could go into being a great manager, probably not everybody has all of them. And of course there are different styles of good leaders. So how do you find a style that works for you? And that works for the organization you're working in.

Amber: [00:31:51] I think the style that works for you is probably going to be one that aligns pretty closely with your natural personality, right? There are certain things that you probably need to change, in certain situations. But I think with respect to being able to maintain it and to avoid burnout, being yourself.

Is important. If you're a warm and if you're a warm person, then be a warm person. If you're very by the books, then you can be by the books and there might be situations where you need to flex around the margins. But what I've always found really helpful is I think back to past jobs that I've had and past managers and I've thought, what did I really like about that person's management style and what maybe I thought.

Wasn't my favorite. And then think of about, what would work well for me and this organization where I am right now and what would be a good fit for my personality and then try it out. it's if you think that to product development, right? We all work in tech. the easiest thing to do is test and learn experiment, figure out what works for you, pivot as necessary, but anything there's not a one size fits all management style.

In general or for a specific person, you're gonna end up having to change your management style depending on the person that you're managing and on the situation that you find yourself in, and even the org that you might be working for at the time.

Erin: [00:33:07] Yeah, I think that's a good point, right? You might find your style, which is very much akin to being yourself, And you're going to manage different kinds of people and that style might not match perfectly with everyone who ends up on your team. What are your tips for remaining true to yourself and playing to your strengths, but also being a manager that can work with lots of different personalities and needs.

Amber: [00:33:32] I would say at first you have to get to know your direct reports know who they are as people. and yeah. get to know their personality, their communication style, what they do really well, where they might struggle. And then think about that for yourself too. It's not, you're not talking to someone in a vacuum, so it's a dialogue, And you need to figure out like, what's the best way for the two of you to collaborate. And it may even involve having a conversation with your direct report and asking, that. How do you prefer receiving feedback or, what's the best way for us to communicate on what's going on with your projects?

Do you prefer to meet biweekly? do you prefer to do informal coffee chats or lunches? and asking those types of questions I think will really help a lot.

Erin: [00:34:15] great. what should managers not to.

Amber: [00:34:21] I talked a little bit about the importance of building relationships with, your direct report. so hadn't gets the flip side of that is to, Not get to know the people that you're managing, right? if you don't know them, it's hard to effectively coach them and lead them. and so getting to know them in the work context, getting to know them personally, if that's appropriate, can be really helpful.

Because, it's all about building relationships. When you build relationships, even as an IC with your product manager or the designers, you get to know them, you get to know their way of working. They get to know you start to trust each other. You have to build that same sort of trust and relationship with your direct reports, because otherwise, if something happens and maybe there's like a misstep or a mistake, or maybe there's, A project or a stretch project that they want to take on.

If they don't trust you and they don't feel like they know you and that you have their back, and you're thinking about, building their career and helping the organization and all driving towards a shared outcome, it can be really hard to show up and the way that you need to show up as a manager,

JH: [00:35:31] Yeah. I think the relationship piece is so huge and I think you hit it for all the right reasons in terms of just like having that benefit of the doubt when there are miscommunications or missteps is such a nice foundation to come back to. It feels though there's a little bit of a risk there in terms of maintaining some boundaries or some, professionalism so that if you do need to deliver more difficult feedback or maybe, somebody doesn't get the promotion they were hoping for or whatever it may be.

That, it doesn't get weird in the sense of Hey, I thought we were friends. Any advice for like, how to find that kind of line, where you do have a real connection with people, but also are maintaining the right sort of a relationship in terms of the hierarchy there.

Amber: [00:36:06] yeah, that's a really hard balance to strike. Cause if you're not getting to know the people that you work with, you won't have the relationship. So I've, Social activities. that's a good example, right? going out for drinks, having lunch, talking about what's going on outside of work and family stuff, I think can be really helpful if it's appropriate, Going to your direct reports and saying, Oh, I find this so frustrating.

And I really wish this would change. I think that's a step too far in terms of professionalism. Cause they see, you see you as more of a, a colleague to vent to, and not as, a leader who is, steering the ship and is really thinking about how they can, they and their team can deliver for the ORC.

So There's a balance and I've definitely had friends who also work in tech who started managing people that they used to be friends with. And I can not, I don't think that's ever really happened to me, but I can not imagine how challenging that is. It's as it fundamentally changes the relationship, you can't show up in the same way as you did before.

Erin: [00:37:09] That's really hard. I've done that before.

JH: [00:37:11] Yeah, it doesn't seem like it can go. It seems super hard.

Erin: [00:37:14] It's not bad, but I'm sorry. It could be bad, but, definitely a challenge for sure. one more question I had for you, Amber. I know you'd mentioned that sort of ironically or counterintuitively, perhaps, stepping into a management role can actually teach you more about being an individual contributor, curious, how you've seen that play out.

Amber: [00:37:37] Yeah. Yeah. when I was working in, at McKinsey as an individual contributor, as an a researcher, we were all working on different aspects of products. And so when I would have. my relationship with my direct reports I'd hear about what they were working on. And then when I was reflecting on our conversations later, it would spark insights for me in terms of doing my own work.

So one person in particular that kind of stands out, really did a lot with, was project management and establishing best practices with the team. And, that helped me think a little bit differently about how I was approaching my own work. as a researcher, I'm another. I guess side benefit.

I think that kind of comes out of it is sometimes if you're working with a more junior researcher and you're helping them understand, this is how structure a research plan, and this is how you articulate testable research questions. It helps you do that better as a researcher, right?

Cause it really, so I live in New York and I volunteer at this nonprofit sometimes and I teach people how to ride a bike. I actually didn't know the mechanics of teaching people how to ride a bike until I started teaching, but it made me a better biker. cause I am better able to connect the mechanics and the individual kind of step by step of building a research plan, building a relationship with your team, helping them be more effective.

When I hear other people talk about the step by step, the steps, the individual steps that they take to do that, it helps me break it down. Like I process in my own mind. And then. Improve at little points and be better overall as an individual contributor.

Erin: [00:39:13] No. If I say it's the last question I'm lying. So it really my last question, which is, just a general question. I always love to hear what people say. What's your favorite thing? About UX research.

Amber: [00:39:26] Oh, my favorite thing about UX research. Oh, it's those moments when you're having, when you're doing qualitative research and you're like, Oh, I never thought that my, our users or customers or prospects would have that need, or this is why they do things the way they do, or they have the surprising work around it's that moment of, I thought I do.

I thought I knew everything that was going on. I thought I knew everything about our users and it's just surprised there's this insight that you didn't even think of. That totally turned everything you thought on its head. I love those moments of surprise.

JH: [00:40:04] Kind of it's like a good reinforcement mechanism that, Oh yeah. We should keep talking to people.

Amber: [00:40:08] Yeah, definitely.


Carrie Boyd

Content Creator

Carrie Boyd is a Content Creator at User Interviews. She loves writing, traveling, and learning new things. You can typically find her hunched over her computer with a cup of coffee the size of her face.

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