Transitioning from content design to UX leadership

Shannon Leahy
Shannon Leahy
May 9, 2024

Slowly, but surely, more stories are emerging of content designers taking up the mantle of UX leadership — as managers, directors, vice presidents, and even some heads of design. 

I love to see it! And I want to see even more of it now and in the future. 

If you’re a content practitioner curious about UX leadership, hi there. Hello. You’re in the right place. We’ll explore how to tell if UX leadership is right for you and unpack the skills you’ll build or strengthen in support of that goal. 

Before we continue, I want to acknowledge two points. First, I use phrases like “UX leadership” and “design leadership” interchangeably with “UX management.” For this post, I’m describing the path to managing people on a multidisciplinary UX or product design team. That is not to say management is the only way to demonstrate leadership. To quote Michael Metts, anyone can be a leader. And while I’m not specifically addressing career paths for individual contributors (ICs) in this piece, I do find there is a lot of overlap between the skills of the senior-most people managers and ICs.

Second, making the transition to UX management might not be possible for you right now. Given today’s highly competitive job market, your immediate career strategy might be “survive and get by.” I see you and invite you to bookmark this now and come back when you’re ready (or not, that’s okay, too). #VirtualHugs

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Content superpowers that map to UX leadership

If you’ve decided that UX leadership lines up with your values and goals (heck yeah!), you’re probably wondering, “What transferable skills do I already have? What skills do I need to grow in?”

Let’s start with the skills you already have. Content designers make some of the best damn UX managers around, and it’s because they (you!) have heightened skills in areas like:

  • Asking questions and creating shared context: Content designers ask really good questions to gain clarity about our work. We ask questions about the people who use our products and services — about their life experiences, assumptions, mindsets, and motivations — and use the answers to shape what we write and how we write. We also ask similar questions about the people we work with, and use the answers to shape how we work together. 
  • Strategic thinking: Content designers think many steps ahead — often across timelines, communication channels, physical and digital spaces, backend systems, data sources, and more. Not only do they examine the task at hand, but they also zoom out to consider what happened before and what happens next. This skillset works at a meta level as a UX manager: you’re adept at working across multiple projects, and can anticipate and solve problems long before anyone asks you to. 
  • Systems thinking: Content designers are some of the best dot-connectors I’ve encountered. They make connections between product areas or design teams (like onboarding and customer support); between job functions (like legal and design); and, of course, between customer needs and business needs.
  • Community- and coalition-building: Content folks are fiercely talented at bringing people together in service of a shared purpose or goal. So many people (myself included) have founded meetups or other events to support community needs. UX managers are similarly responsible for creating shared purpose and uniting people from different parts of the business.
  • Writing and storytelling: Wielding the power of words and stories is a boon — not only for designing flows and crafting copy, but also for influencing execs and stakeholders across the company.
  • Prioritization: Content designers know what it’s like to be stretched across too many projects. As a result, they get a lot of practice planning their work and their time so they can narrow their focus and contribute to high-impact projects — perfect for UX managers who help their teams prioritize, prioritize, prioritize.

Critical skills to cultivate as a UX leader

Growing into a UX management role also means branching out beyond your core content competencies. You’ll start or continue to invest in complementary design skills, like service design, research, and operations. This isn’t a matter of “leaving behind” or “forgetting” your roots as a content practitioner; you’re bolstering your content expertise with more ways of thinking about and approaching work.

Business skills

Learning how the company makes money and saves money, and how your work shapes and supports that, is critical. If your workplace offers any kind of “intro to business strategy” or “product college” classes, sign up for those, stat.

If your company doesn’t offer resources like that, find someone on the design team who “speaks business” well and take notes on how they describe their work and how it supports business goals. Observe the kind of feedback they get, and give, during stakeholder reviews; ditto for the kinds of questions they ask. Study how they internalize the business side of things. If they’re up for it, request a mentorship with them.

Finance skills

This is one of the biggest a-ha moments I’ve had as a UX leader: you need to become well acquainted with your finance team. Finance helps determine and manage budgets for staffing — which impacts when you can hire, how many roles you can hire for, and the levels and salaries for those roles.

In some teams, the product or business teams you work with are the ones who give you money for design headcount. That means you’d work directly with your product leaders to assess headcount needs. In other teams, design roles are funded from a centralized design org budget, so you’d ultimately make your case to design leadership.

Similar to running discovery for a design project, you’ll want to dig in and learn how budget and headcount decisions are made at your company:

  • When does budget planning kick off? 
  • What are the steps in the process?
  • When are budgets finalized?
  • Who else do you need to work with?
  • Are headcount requests bundled from multiple teams, or are they presented separately?
  • Who is the final decision-maker?

As you progress as a UX leader, you’ll also start to manage other aspects of a team budget, such as raises, stock grants, travel budgets, and team training budgets.

In short: you’re gonna talk about money, in different ways, with different people — including your direct reports. Money is emotional and interwoven into every aspect of our lives. (No pressure, right?!) It might sometimes get hard or uncomfortable, but acknowledging that now can make the topic a little more neutral, and a little easier to learn about.

Relationship skills

Keep cultivating those cross-functional relationships with product management, tech, legal, marketing, brand, localization, and other partner teams. Find out what challenges they’re going through; stay attuned to what they’re excited about. This context will continue to pay dividends as you lead bigger, more complex teams and projects. You’ll find common ground to rally around, and you’ll be able to anticipate potential pushback and prepare strategies to compromise.

Another biggie about relationships: learn what the power dynamics are like. In her talk at Clarity Conference 2023, “The Business Model Is The Grid,” Erika Hall describes organizations as “intersecting relationships based on conversations.” Companies are made up of people talking to each other, all of whom bring different levels of status, influence, and privilege to the conversations they’re having.

Let’s say a team or company is hierarchical; they place a premium on someone’s level in an organization. Now that you know that, you can work with that information. That product director only talks to other directors? Okay, then: send in your design director to present on your behalf.

To quote some wisdom Jane Ruffino shared with me, managing stakeholder relationships means you sometimes “lend your privilege” to others, or need to borrow some yourself. Enlisting the help of others doesn’t mean you’re bad at your job. It means you read the room and know how to respond. 

People management skills

Moving into UX leadership involves a lot of new administrative skills, like how to coach a report through building a skill, or how to hold an effective performance management check-in conversation.

These types of skills are tricky to develop, because you can’t do most of them, legally, until you are a manager of people. Here are some strategies I used to get a jumpstart on people management before moving into that role: 

  • Mentoring others: I became a mentor before becoming a manager to practice skills like guiding people to potential solutions (instead of telling them what to do) and introducing them to other people or resources when I couldn’t answer a question for them. Mentoring was also a way to experience guiding researchers, design strategists, and UX/UI designers, not just content designers.
  • Being mentored: Before becoming a manager, I sought out UX managers I admired to check my assumptions about the management path. I’d ask questions like “What surprised you about becoming a UX manager?” and “What’s something you wish you knew sooner?” As I navigated actually being a manager, my questions shifted to topics like “How do performance calibrations work, really?” or “How can I better approach delegation?” — the nitty-gritty of my new day-to-day. 
  • Taking stretch roles: When I started as an IC content designer, I was a supporting team member on projects; my design lead drove activities like design crits and managed timelines. To help me prepare for becoming a UX manager, I worked with my design lead to identify projects where I could assume the lead role. Even though I didn’t directly manage anyone, I practiced key skills like giving people direction on their work and holding them accountable for meeting project milestones.
  • Self-reflection: As part of mentoring conversations, my own performance reviews, and leadership coaching, I’ve done a lot of reflection about how I want to show up as a UX leader. Before getting into management, I’d think back on relationships with past managers, and note the behaviors and skills I wanted to emulate, as well as the things I didn’t want to repeat. This helped me articulate my initial set of leadership principles. As a manager, I use feedback from my direct reports, peers, coaches, and management chain to help keep me honest about where I’m upholding my principles and where I need to grow.  

Getting the right support

Growing in your career is a team sport. After you’ve set your sights on transitioning to UX leadership, it’s time to enlist the help and support of others. This means calling to action a mix of people like:

  • Mentors, allies, and sponsors 
  • Your manager and your skip-level manager 
  • The design leads you work with  
  • Your design leadership team 
  • Peers and partners in other job families (product, tech, marketing, brand, legal, and so on)

As you activate your squad, use your time with them to:

  • Ask questions about what UX leadership means at your company. Different organizations have different interpretations and expectations, so find out what reality you’d be operating in.
  • Take on stretch opportunities to practice or deepen skills. For instance, if facilitation is already your jam, branch out from running activities with your immediate design team to running activities for partner teams. Lead a workshop with product and legal about how to adapt tone for different situations, or run an error message clinic with engineering. Tap into your talents and find ways to share them with more people.
  • Share how stretch opportunities are going (aka share your wins!). First, it’s helpful to share progress updates with mentors so they can see how you’re applying their advice. Second, it helps you practice your storytelling skills and demonstrate how you’re acting like a UX leader even without an official title. Third, it gives your allies and sponsors evidence they can share on your behalf — for example, they might email your design leadership team to give you a shout-out, or they can chime in with an anecdote during performance calibrations.
  • Capture evidence of your successes. These stories can later be used for talent development and performance management conversations. I like to keep a running “smile file” in Google Docs, where I keep notes on project milestones and results, as well as screenshots of kudos I receive from people.

If your current team or workplace isn’t supportive, start researching places where content folks have moved into UX management roles. Set up coffee chats with folks who have made this career move; ask for intros to the UX leaders who helped them get there. This can help you gauge different teams’ cultures, the types of work they do, and what kinds of opportunities might be available now or in the future, inside or outside your current employer.

Take UX leadership by the reins

You have what it takes to be a phenomenal UX manager. Content design equips you with an excellent foundation, and you can build on that foundation by enlisting the support of mentors, sponsors, and others in your network.

I’m in your court now, too. Want to chat more? Feel free to grab time with me!

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Shannon Leahy

Shannon has worked at the intersection of words, strategy, design, and people for more than 15 years. Shannon calls Richmond, Virginia home, and organizes meetups for local and global content and UX communities. When she’s not exclaiming about error messages, you can find her snuggling up for movie night with her family and two dogs. Shannon’s favorite neutral is leopard print. Her superpower is asking questions…lots of questions.

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