By Brian Baker, Vice President, Highmark Techsystems
As we’ve discussed in previous articles, there are many roles that a creative director plays, and being the team leader is certainly one of the most important. But leading a team isn’t just about organizing/scheduling workflow or getting everyone pointing in the right direction. It’s not just about setting the tone or helping to inspire your charges. Those are certainly important, but another important aspect of leadership is how actively (and purposefully) a leader works to develop their team, both collectively and individually. In most situations, it doesn’t happen automatically. We get so busy just trying to get everything done, and so focused on the strategic intricacies of individual projects, it’s difficult to stay on course with longer-term objectives, including the continued development of our team and teammates. We have to stay intentional and deliberate, especially as it relates to guiding the development of individuals.
Mentor Your Team with their Best Interests in Mind
I know it seems like an obvious, commonsensical thing to say, but as we work to develop those we lead, this is our foremost responsibility. Of course, almost everyone will outwardly agree with this statement, but in reality, many people just don’t do it that way. In most cases, it’s a simple matter of our short-term needs taking precedence over what’s best in the long run. The fact that you need to get that proposal in your client’s hands by Monday morning should INDEED shift your focus to the immediate needs of your company. The problem is, once that proposal is sent, the next fire drill or crisis is already waiting. When we are constantly in crisis-management mode (as most of us are), it’s all too easy to let those short-term needs (or account executives with their hair on fire) trump the long-term, best interests of our teammates. Even while we are managing the constant chaos, we need to deliberately lead with the big picture in mind.
In other cases, unfortunately, it’s not due to time constraints or distractions, but insecurity. No one would ever admit to it, but I have seen many design directors and creative leaders who were simply threatened by a highly talented subordinate. We have a lot of responsibilities, but being the undisputed most creative or most talented person in the room isn’t one of them. Don’t confuse your value as a creative leader with having to be the best designer on your team. We’ve all heard the expression “If you’re the smartest person in the room, you’re in the wrong room.” If our younger teammates grow to be even more successful than we are, that’s a GOOD thing. It has been said that a true leader is someone who develops more leaders. Helping younger designers to develop their full potential (and being capable of replacing you) is part of leadership, and it makes your team (and you) better. Remember, their success is your success, and vice-versa.
Challenge Them Outside Their Comfort Zone
Developing as a designer isn’t simply getting better at designing. It’s about finding as many ways as possible to add value to an organization. Doing killer design work is valuable. Being able to present it to a client so that they fall in love with it (or at least BUY it) is even more valuable. Of course, some people seem to be more naturally suited to this than others, but that doesn’t mean it can’t be developed. I know designers who claim to hate presenting their work, but in my experience, it’s usually because they don’t really know how, and aren’t comfortable doing it. Of course, some people are natural introverts and truly have a lot more to overcome in this area, but I don’t believe that should be an excuse for limiting someone in their career and value. At a minimum, every creative person should be able to communicate their ideas effectively. Growth is often uncomfortable, but it is usually worth it. If you are a creative director, you are probably pretty good at presenting your work. In fact, it’s probably one of the main reasons you got the job. So, use your powers for good. Pass on your knowledge and experience and the techniques you’ve developed to your teammates who need to improve their presentation abilities. If not, look into sending them to presentation training courses. Investing in this area can pay huge dividends for your team and your organization.
Another way to challenge less experienced teammates is to assign them leadership roles on projects. Again, this adds value to them as well as the team. It gives you more flexibility in assigning work, and it will have a tremendous impact on a young designer’s maturity level and confidence. As your company and your creative team grow, you will have more leaders capable of helping to manage the work. It’s also nice to be able to take a vacation every once in a while.
Foster Strategic Thinking
Strategic thinkers aren’t born, they are developed. The simplest way to shift our mindset from the tactical to the strategic is this: “Begin at the End.” If we teach designers to begin their work with the end-results in mind, they automatically think differently. Instead of starting with a floorplan based on how many conference rooms and workstations someone requested, they ask questions. Different questions, like “What should the end-result be?” “How do we want to affect people?” “What do we want people to do as a result of visiting this space?” Once we know the desired end results, we work backwards from there. What type of experiences will best achieve those results? What is the story that needs to
be told? When we’ve developed those stories and experiences, it’s a lot easier to design a space and the (super cool) architecture that will support them.
Strategy isn’t Owned by Strategists
Just because there are strategic specialists in our industry or your organization, it doesn’t mean that all strategic thinking begins and ends with them. All creative professionals should learn to think and work strategically. It will radically change their work and your team’s success. Even if the “big idea” comes from a strategist, having an understanding of how to think and plan strategically will help them to do a much better job of executing it.
In the end, there are lots of good reasons to spend the time and effort to actively, purposefully, mold and develop those that we lead, into leaders themselves. I would much rather lead a team of people who are capable of replacing me than a team incapable of functioning without me. If our teammates are stronger, our team is stronger. It bears repeating; if your team wins, you win. Their success is your success.