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Photo courtesy of Lance Cpl. Tiffany Edwards

UX Leadership — Marine Corps Style

The title of this article isn’t meant to suggest you should don that Smokey Bear hat and parade around the office as a Marine Corps Drill Instructor doing your best impression of R. Lee Ermey. I wouldn’t advocate that (though in some positions I’ve held, I have comically considered it). No, this article is meant to draw a parallel and transfer some of the tried and true principles outlined by The United States Marine Corps to UX leadership.

Recently, I’ve moved back into a UX Lead position at Walgreen’s as we have built out our teams and reorganized our team structure. It’s not the first time I have been in a leadership position. Over the course of my career, I’ve held numerous positions with varying flavors of leadership duties attached to them. But in the past few months, I’ve really taken pause to reflect on what it means to be a leader and what a UX Lead is truly responsible for.

In reflecting solely on leadership, I continually return to my service as a United States Marine. Nowhere in my career or life was leadership more important than as a Marine. I was responsible for the lives of others. Leading a team or platoon into a situation where death may be imminent requires the strongest of leadership traits. And though we don’t face that same situation in UX, the leadership principles I developed as a U.S. Marine still stick with me and are what I have returned to time and again as I reflected on leadership over the past few months.

The United States Marine Corps has a formal list of leadership principles. They also have an entire manual devoted to the topic — mandatory reading for leaders. The leadership principles are foundational characteristics of a leadership position. Most of these characteristics or principles can be distilled and transferred to civilian life. These principles and their applicability are what I will focus on in this article. They were ingrained in me over the six years I actively served. And, they have followed me the rest of my life.

Leadership is servitude to those whom you lead. (You are not special.)

A leader isn’t a person who sits in high-level meetings and returns to fire off orders left and right to their team. I’ve worked with leaders like this. They return from their day-long board meetings bearing the 10 commandments, a veil over their glowing face like Moses returning from the mountain. And while leadership does involve setting a vision in line with organizational goals (see below), it is mostly about serving your team, addressing their needs and being there for them.

In The Marine Corps, this involves looking out for the welfare of your troops and leading by example. You will not succeed without your team succeeding. Your troops eat first. They get water and supplies first. And when there is a dirty job or a shit mission to accomplish, you had damn well better be in the trenches with the troops working along side them. That builds respect. Too many times, I see leaders with a self-serving attitude. They believe they should get the corner office or the desk with the window view or some special treatment while their team stares on in envy. Leadership isn’t about making yourself feel special. It’s about making your team feel special.

As I explain to my teams, I am not a manager coming by your computer to make sure you are working and toiling away each day. That’s management, not leadership. My job as a lead is to work with you and through you. This can only be achieved via servitude to my team — meaning leadership cannot involve your ego. Leave your ego at the door when you come into work. The only purpose your ego can serve is if it is directed towards accomplishing a shared vision (i.e. the mission), your team’s welfare and not yourself or your own interests.

Deference to expertise.

In the Marine Corps, they often told us they didn’t want robots. They wanted people who could think and make decisions. That gave me the freedom to disagree with a leader and offer a better option or solution. Granted, you had to do this very respectfully in the Marines, but good leaders would listen and they would respect you for using your brain instead of mindlessly following orders.

I was talking with one of my team members the other day and she was describing a situation where she felt a project was on the wrong path. She described herself as “the canary in the mine” — a reference to coal miners using canaries to warn workers when oxygen levels reach a critical level in a mine. I listened and complimented her on pointing out something I didn’t see on my level or even know about.

The organizational theorist, Karl Weick, discusses this phenomena in his book, Managing the Unexpected: Assuring High Performance in an Age of Complexity. The phraseology he uses for this is “a preoccupation with failure.” Weick’s research in this book focuses on High Reliability Organizations (HROs). An example of an HRO would be the flight deck of a US Navy air carrier or a fire department or a nuclear reactor plant. These organizations exhibit high complexity where accidents and mistakes are of a much higher probability.

A preoccupation with failure simply means an organization is especially attuned to instances and circumstances that may lead to a catastrophic failure or error. These instances could be nothing — simply anomalies. But research has indicated ignoring these circumstances is a key component and precursor to many catastrophes in HROs. Post-mortem studies of mines collapsing or of nuclear meltdowns unequivocally reveal the signs were present for the impending disaster, but were ignored. Exercising the principle of a preoccupation with failure dictates an anomaly is to be always considered as a potential precursor to disaster or major error.

You don’t have to work in a nuclear power plant or an HRO to exercise a preoccupation with failure. You do, however, have to have the right leadership and what Weick refers to as a deference to expertise. This means, as a leader, you defer to the expertise of your team. It is as if you are the captain or colonel on a battlefield and are receiving intelligence from a forward operating lieutenant. The lieutenant knows the situation on the battlefront better than you because he is there with firsthand knowledge of the situation. In such instances, you must defer to his expertise.

On my team, I work with researchers, visual designers and UX designers. I consider each of them experts in what they do. If we are working through a research problem, I might have an opinion as to what our methodology should be and I may voice this opinion. But at the end of the day, I consider my researchers as experts and defer to their expertise on our direction. I do the same with all other members on my team.

Deferring to the expertise on your team has an added benefit. I have written before about meaning in work — specifically referring to Dan Pink’s book, Drive. In Drive, Pink discusses the elements that make work meaningful for us and motivate us. One of those elements is purpose. Purpose simply refers to feeling that what you do matters or makes a difference on some level. Listening to your team and deferring to their expertise, gives them a sense they are making a difference and not just following orders or punching the clock each day.

I see a lot of people post this quote from Steve Jobs: “It doesn’t make sense to hire smart people and tell them what to do; we hire smart people so they can tell us what to do.” If you really believe this is true and aren’t just posting another Jobs’ quote to get a few “likes,” start listening to your team and deferring to their expertise.

Create experts

You can’t defer to expertise if you have no experts on your team. If you are a UX Lead and haven’t discussed career options or paths with the individual members of your team, you are not only failing them — you are failing yourself. It is your duty to be concerned with their career aspirations. And if they don’t have any, you should help them find some.

What I am referring to here should not be replaced with the typical bullshit annual review required by most organizations’ HR departments. They must teach a series of courses on annual reviews in business programs because I am still confounded as to why organizations rely on these shoddy forms of measurement. I won’t say they have absolutely no use. But I don’t think they should be used in place of good mentoring.

The Marines create highly competent experts through a ton of structured training, but also informal and every day training as well. There is a saying in the Marines: Every Marine is a rifleman. That simply means a Marine working in a supply tent, far from enemy lines, may need to pick up a rifle at some point and defend his or her position. But there is deeper meaning in this statement. It is really referring to the essential idea that we are modular in nature. That is, if your leader is shot in combat, you need to be prepared to take his place if you are the next senior man in line. That means you must be able to perform the duties assigned to his position. I spent time as both a platoon commander (a lieutenant’s position) and a platoon sergeant (a staff sergeant’s position) in the absence of leadership in my unit (I was a lowly, grunt, corporal).

As a leader, you should be training and mentoring your team to, one day, assume your position whether it is within your current organization or another organization. That involves creating experts and developing your team’s proficiency.

Forget Roles — Work as a Team

Along with the idea of creating experts on your team, there is a also the idea of eliminating role distinctions and building a flatter hierarchy. Jared Spool discussed this in an article, Building a Cohesive Design Team. This idea ties in nicely with my point above where “every Marine is a rifleman” and your team should be able to assume multiple roles. Of course, everyone will have their specific areas of responsibility. But is there any reason your research team or your visual designers should not be involved in the overall design process? Likewise, shouldn’t the designers play a role in both research and visual design? This extends to your product and engineering teams. If you want an organization to grow in its design maturity or design thinking, you have to begin to see the whole team as inter and intra-functioning elements working towards the same goal or mission.

I try to ensure I involve business analysts, researchers, product owners, engineers and visual designers into all early stages of the design process. This can be a challenge because I also believe there is the concept of having “too many voices in the room” and inhibiting the ability to make decisions. However, with a little experience and orchestration, you can push a design forward while still providing maximum input from your team. Additionally, the more your team knows about other team members’ roles and how to perform them, the more competent you will all be — like a highly functioning and tuned machine.

Know yourself and seek self improvement.

This is the first leadership principle of The Marine Corps. The second is to be technically and tactically proficient. So, know yourself and know your shit.

Knowing yourself involves introspection. Know what you are good at and what you aren’t so good at. This might take some reflection, but you should know yourself well enough through honest reflection to identify areas where you need improvement and areas where you are strong. If you aren’t strong in a certain area, cut the bullshit, quit trying to hide it and tell your team. Find out if one of your team members is good in this area and rely on them if possible.

One of the agendas our team here at Walgreen’s has taken up recently (at the suggestion of an outside consulting agency) has been the ideas surrounding Radical Candor. One of the central tenants of Radical Candor is to seek and give honest feedback to and from team members. While I don’t subscribe to every point outlined in this framework, I think there are important takeaways. There is clear value in exposing yourself to how other people see you. My contention with the framework lies in the natural political order of organizations. Seek feedback from those who you directly supervise, but take it with a grain of salt. People aren’t likely to be completely honest in their feedback when it relates to a person who might be signing their annual reviews. Seek feedback from your peers. They will likely give you a more honest opinion. The idea is to begin cutting through your own bias and develop a 360-degree view of yourself through honest feedback. In short, your shit does stink. Live it and know it.

Improving yourself and working on your own skills means you are not the exception on your team, nor are you special. Just as a leader is responsible for developing and mentoring their team to become experts, so too are they responsible for developing themselves. This means you must know yourself and how others see you.

Concentrate on your strengths. Your weaknesses, while not to be ignored, are probably the product of your personality, character and genetics. It is better to spend the bulk of your time on those leadership traits you feel you can make improvements on rather than spinning your wheels on those you cannot (see below).

Shit doesn’t roll downhill

Early in my career as a Marine, I had to gotten into some trouble for something that turned out not to be my fault. It wasn’t anything serious, but still warranted a meeting with my platoon sergeant to discuss the matter. In that meeting, the sergeant told me something I will never forget: “Your platoon sergeant (or leader) is an umbrella and shit doesn’t roll downhill.” His idea was a good leader shields his or her team from unnecessary shit rolling downhill. They don’t pass the buck. And, they sometimes take responsibility for something that went wrong even when it was not directly a result of their actions.

As a UX Lead, you are the captain of a ship. You are responsible for whatever happens on that ship. You are responsible for the actions of the soldiers and sailors on your ship. If a member of your team makes a costly error, it becomes your error as well. There is, of course, a limit to this and some team members will sometimes have to be disciplined. But in my experience, it is rare. A failure on a team is often as much, if not more, my responsibility than that of my team or that particular member.

The Marine Corps Leadership Principle for this is to “seek responsibility and take responsibility for your actions.” This includes the actions of your team. You have to build a culture on your team where members aren’t afraid to take risks or make mistakes. You cannot build that kind of culture if you don’t shield them and protect them. If, instead, you come down on them hard for every mistake they make or every time something doesn’t go as planned, you will build a culture where your team always plays it safe and rarely risks anything new for fear of retribution or making a mistake.

Avoid Analysis Paralysis — Make a Decision

We had been working tirelessly on a new design for patient registration that wasn’t working. It wasn’t solving the problem the user would have in registering a new patient into the electronic health record. It was convoluted with multiple steps on each screen and no clear direction for the user. The problem was we weren’t considering the problem. We were also clutching mercilessly to a design that wasn’t working. What we were all avoiding was making a decision to scrap the design and move forward with a new pattern. We weren’t going to make our deadline if we continued on the path we were on. We needed to strip the requirements into clear steps that solved problems and work through a new series of screens. We made that decision, but made it too late. Had we made the decision sooner, we would have had ample time to work through all of the problems we later encountered.

On a battlefield, a good leader cannot afford to be indecisive. Indecision can lead to unit paralysis where the team is no longer moving towards an objective to fulfill the mission, but rather becomes pinned down by enemy fire or outflanked while stationary. And though the office bears little resemblance to a battlefield, there are still objectives to obtain and a mission to fulfill. And indecision can plague even the best of teams I have worked with.

You have probably heard the saying: It’s better to make a bad decision than to make no decision at all. I don’t always agree with this and it takes a little experience to know when to versus not to make a decision. There are certainly times where a leader will have the luxury of time to think through a given problem or design. However, there are also times when a clear decision has to be made. The best decisions are not made by leaders, but by the entire team. The leader is the one who must initiate the decision-making process. That’s when you sit at the table and say: “Listen, we have to make a decision on this issue, team.” If the team can’t make a decision, then you make one for the whole team and take responsibility if it is the wrong decision.

Always ensure you and your team are working towards the objective. Don’t let a lack of decision (or the fear of making the wrong decision) paralyze you.

Work with Your Team’s Strengths — Not on Their Weaknesses

A man is walking in the woods when he comes upon a fork in the path. A new path bears to the left tangled with underbrush and blocked by fallen trees. It has clearly not been traveled on in years and a sign near the entrance reads, “Danger Ahead — Turn Back Now.” Another path bears to the right that is clearly kept and well-trodden. For as far as the eye can see, there is nothing blocking the path and a sign at the entrance reads, “Travel Accommodations — 3 Miles.” Which path do you take?

It always amazes me, but people will often choose the path on the left — the difficult path — when handling people issues in leadership. Think of the two paths as a team member’s personality or character. The tangled path represents the person’s weaknesses while the clear path represents their strengths. Working on a person’s strengths — like traveling on a cleared path — will allow you to get further faster. Concentrating on their weaknesses is not only a harder path to travel, but is also likely to have you negatively reinforcing the person’s behavior through harping on what they aren’t good at.

We are all human. We have good parts of our character and flaws as well. A theory I have long held about humans is: If you take away the bad parts or flaws in a person’s character, you will inevitably reduce or remove the good parts as well. This isn’t to say we don’t work on weaknesses — either our own or those whom we lead. Just don’t spend as much time on weaknesses. Focus the majority of your efforts on strengths and positive reinforcement.

This principle also works in relation to strong versus weak people on your team. I used to have a Captain who would say: “You’ll spend 80 percent of your time on the 20 percent of your troops who are poor performers.” This, I generally found to be true. To be clear: I am not advocating we should not mentor or help those team members who may need it more. You should help them and mentor them. But, you should ensure you are not doing this at the expense of the strong people on your team. Too many times I have watched leaders spend countless hours on a single team member who struggles in a position while the team members who are not having trouble are left to their own devices.

Clearly Communicate the Objective

For the Marines, this involves ensuring the mission is clearly understood and communicated to your troops. Additionally, you must provide appropriate feedback as to the imminent success or failure of a mission. That is, your troops must know if their current performance is effective in accomplishing a given objective. Finally, keep your team informed. Give them routine status reports.

This doesn’t change if you move from the battlefield to the office. As a UX Lead, your job is to provide a vision. The vision must be stated at multiple levels — the vision for a feature, a product and UX within the organization. This means you can’t get bogged down in the day-to-day activities of your team. You can be involved. But, not too involved.

The UX Lead should largely be concentrating on strategy and tactics and routinely communicating this back to the team. Set the vision, ensure your team interprets the vision correctly and adapt as needed for individual designs. Coordinate between stakeholders and your team to ensure the strategy is still aligned. Additionally, you must provide appropriate feedback on performance. People want to know their efforts count and that they are performing well — that they are accomplishing the mission.

One other note on strategy and tactics: You can’t develop a strategy for a battle if you are attempting to analyze every single skirmish. UX leadership involves holistically understanding a product or system. And if you are doing this well, you can’t manage every feature or detail in that system. Why would you want to? If you are creating experts and deferring to expertise (see above), your troops will carry out the organizational vision and they will do it well. Just don’t forget to let them know how well they did.

In short, communication is key and as a UX Lead, your job is largely as a liaison. If your managing the micro, something is being missed in managing the macro.

Don’t Set Your Team Up for Failure

The Marine Corps Leadership Principle for this is to deploy your command in accordance with its capabilities. That means don’t send a squad of Marines into an enemy position held by an entire company (a squad is 13 men while a company is a 172+ men). It also means you should ensure your Marines have the tools, equipment and intel to get the job done. In short, don’t set them up for failure.

This same principle applies to your UX team.

  • Do they have the tools, appropriate skills (expertise) and ground intelligence (clear communication of the vision and objective) to complete the mission?
  • Are they being brought in at the right time? Jared Spool discusses this in an article concerning the UX strategy playbook. In his article he talks about having the ability to say “no” as a team lead when UX has not been brought in early enough to be successful.
  • Additionally, you’ll want to ensure your team has the appropriate level of research to solve the design problems and create the best product possible within the time allotted.
  • Are the right people involved? There are so many designs I have worked on where the right people were not in the room or at the table early in the process. When brought in later, they pointed out major flaws in the design forcing us to go back and rethink our strategy (this is usually when a key engineer was left out of early planning sessions).
  • Is there enough time to accomplish everything above? UX doesn’t happen in a single cycle. There is the problem to understand, research to conduct, intel to gather and schedules to align. All of this is iterative and involves planning around each stage. Most projects will force you to crunch some of these phases. But, not having enough time for all of the phases is sure to result in a failed user experience.

I could go on and on with this list, but you get the idea. Your team must have the appropriate resources to successfully accomplish the objective. Don’t send them on a suicide mission. Those missions destroy morale. Become preoccupied with failure (see above) and learn how recognize a train wreck in waiting when you see it and clear those obstacles for your team or stop the train.

Approach Leadership from a UX Perspective

This isn’t directly a Marine Corps Leadership Principle, but it is sprinkled throughout the philosophy of The Marine Corps leadership teachings. A central tenant of Marine Corps leadership is you never give an order you wouldn’t be willing to follow yourself. Never ask your team to do something you wouldn’t do. And don’t treat them in a way you would not want to be treated.

It has been 27 years since I first enlisted. I spent a little more six years with The Corps and encountered my fair share of sadistic bastards along the way. It was a different time period and the Marine Corps was going through a transition after a dark post-Viet Nam phase left all military branches rethinking their values. The Marines were systematically cleaning up their act — a slow process where there was still a lot of “Old Corps” Marine thinking in the ranks. An example from my own service is what we called “The Gauntlet.” This was a tradition (we would call it hazing or battery today) where when you were promoted, you would walk through two lines of Marines standing to your left and right — usually 8–12 Marines on each side of you. These were Marines of equal or greater rank. Each man would hit you once on each shoulder (because that is where your new rank or chevrons are placed on a dress uniform) as you walked through the gauntlet. Some of the Marines — and I kid you not — would place rolls of pennies or quarters in their hands to harden the blows. There was an exception to this “tradition.” If you were promoted to Corporal, you earned a blood stripe in the Marines. That is the red stripe along each leg you see Marines wearing in their dress blues. In such instances, you would be hit on each shoulder and kneed on the side of each thigh. When I was promoted to corporal, I couldn’t walk right or raise my arms easily for a week as I remember it.

Things have changed since then. Technically, this behavior was prohibited when I was enlisted, but people would look the other way. I wouldn’t, however, be surprised to find out these traditions are still active in some parts of The Marine Corps.

When I finally became a leader in my own respect, I remembered the harsh treatment I received. I remembered that experience and refused to pass it along. Some of my fellow Devil Dogs saw this as a weakness. I saw it as strength in the face of adversity by doing what was right and honorable. And, I saw it as being a part of changing the cycle by improving the experience of those who would follow me.

You weren’t always a UX Lead and neither was I. Most of us probably don’t have to think too far back to remember a time when we couldn’t find our asshole with a funnel and a compass or have designed our way out of a wet paper bag. Just look back at something you designed only five years ago if you need to remember your roots. It’s humbling.

Spend some time reflecting. Think back on the leaders you had. What did the good ones do that made you like them? Emulate those principles. What did the bad ones do to make you loath coming into work? Avoid those approaches in your leadership style.

Ultimately, this is pretty simple principle for UX Leads. You are a UX Lead. Your team comprises your users. Find their pain points. Address them through well designed leadership.

There are hundreds of good leadership books out there that will walk you through a structured set of concepts to help you develop great leadership traits and skills. There are even more seminars and courses on the topics. But, you can’t go wrong following what The United States Marine Corps has outlined and refined so many times.

Still today, I read some of these leadership books and enjoy the topic immensely. But, I always return to what was coded into my DNA those many years ago. And, I am thankful I had some of the best training and leadership and training on leadership our country could possibly offer. In such respects, my service has been paid back many times over.

Semper Fi — Always Faithful.

Healthcare User Experience Designer in the Greater Chicago area

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