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I was reading an opinion piece in this week’s Sunday New York Times about the prevalence of the bullying of nurses by doctors and the detrimental impact it ultimately has on patient care. The author noted that while the offending doctors were in the minority and many of the instances were not blatantly abusive, the condescending nasty behaviors were damaging and corrosive enough to the entire industry’s culture and the self-esteem and confidence of the nurses that a number of studies of the phenomenon recommended swift and decisive action. The bottom line was that nurses who were the victims of this type of bullying were less inclined to inform or challenge the bully doctors on their errors and the bullying behavior tended to infect the entire organization with nurses picking on younger hires, residents abusing interns and on and on.

The parallels to the company/designer dynamic are hard to ignore. Actually in-house designers are in a worse position than the nurses as they’re vulnerable not only to the potential bullying by upper managers but, unlike their non-design peers, they may be victimized by their clients as well. As with the nurses, the offenses may not be blatant or practiced by a majority of clients or managers. They often show up as sarcastic quips, nasty tones, abrupt emails, unreasonable demands and lack of responsiveness to requests for support.

As subtle and seemingly acceptably benign as these behaviors may appear, along with the fact that the bully clients and managers are (hopefully) in the minority, they should absolutely not be tolerated. This issue is difficult to address, though, because designers, when they do attempt to confront this type of behavior are told that they’re not being a team player, they’re not practicing good customer service, the client could dump the in-house team in favor of an outside agency, the work still has to get done and (the ace in the hole) that they’re behaving like prima donnas. They should rest assured that they’re not.

When designers accept a job at a company, they are accepting the mandate that they perform their assigned functions to the best of their ability. What they are not signing on for is the requirement that they tolerate abuse in any of its blatant or more subtle guises. Actually, it is all designers’ responsibility to their company to challenge this type of behavior because of the overall negative impact it wreaks on the company’s efficiency and quality of work.

I’m not naïve enough to ignore the fact that nasty bosses and clients have been and are tolerated at all levels of the corporate hierarchy, but I am very clear that, just like in grade school, if bullying is not called out and confronted, it will persist and corrode, personal self esteem, corporate culture and the performance of everyone in the organization.

It is every designer’s right to be treated with respect and it is their duty to responsibly challenge abusive behavior by addressing it with the offender, their managers and their human resources department the moment it occurs.

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Too Old To Be A Designer?

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Recently on the Creative Freelancer Blog, designer, Laurel Black, wrote a post, Too Old To Be A Designer? in which she worried aloud whether, at 61, she could continue to get work as a designer. She pointed to a youth bias in the design and marketing professions and wondered why experience isn’t always valued by the people who hire designers, whether for freelance or salaried positions.

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Black is not alone in her worries; she clearly struck a nerve. Her blog post received more comments than any other post in the history of the blog (and they’re still coming)! Most were long and thoughtful, some optimistic, others plaintive. They came from across the spectrum, from designers who had recently lost their jobs, from those who’ve recently gone back to school for design and from independent or freelance designers who can’t imagine retiring but, like Laurel, worry about the “youngins” taking their place.

In the comments, there are lots of tips about how to position yourself with the competitive edge of maturity. But one question rises to the top: what can be done to educate the people who hire designers, about the value of experience? Also in the comments, Laurel reframes her main concern as follows:

I think that designers are often selected for their ability to embody how the client wishes to view him/herself, rather than for straight-up design competency. If the client wishes to feel hip, cool, cutting-edge, etc. and associates those attributes with youth, the client will justify this unconscious criteria by citing all the reasons why geezers can’t cut it in youth-oriented markets. Never mind that the bulk of buying power rests with boomers. (This whole issue is a bit ironic since the youth cult started with us and now we are reaping its results.)

So here’s my question to all of you: how do we counter these unconscious purchasing criteria when they occur? Or do we? Is it best to just shrug and figure that you aren’t going to sell everyone you pitch for a variety of reasons?

What’s your take?

The higher you go up the org. chart the more vulnerable you become to being downsized right out the company door. As unfair and shortsighted as this practice is, it is a fact of corporate life. Therefore it’s your responsibility to mitigate the risk of receiving a cost cutting pink slip by bringing strategic value to your role and showcasing that value to your managers.

It’s critical that you adopt a proactive mindset and look for opportunities to improve your team’s performance through the implementation or refinement of SOPs, staffing structures, client service practices and project management protocols. Outside of your team, you need to aggressively look for ways you can better serve your company. This could include acting as a liaison between clients and outside agencies, consulting with procurement on their dealings with outside marketing services vendors, becoming a key supporter of your company’s routing and approval process and, of course, looking for new clients to support.

Your work doesn’t stop there, though. You need to actively promote your successes to your clients, managers and the members of the C-suite through email bulletins, lunches and printed promotional materials. Case studies that identify the problem, your solution and the outcome are the most effective format to use. This is not the time to be modest.

To be frank, if you’re not committed and savvy enough to take these steps and practice them consistently, you probably shouldn’t be in the position you’re in. Certainly, if you can’t promote yourself, how can you be expected to promote your company.  Conversely, if you successfully build on the value you and your team brings to your company and powerfully articulate your successes, you end up supporting the interests of you, your team and your company in ways you could never have imagined.

A position description is one of the most critical documents an in-house designer needs in order to properly perform their jobs and advance their careers, yet many creatives don’t have one. Without a list of responsibilities, expectations and required skills, not to mention a reporting structure and work instructions, a designer working in a corporate environment has no benchmarks for success, no tangible short and long-term goals and little if any opportunity to grow creatively or professionally.

If you’re lucky enough to have a position description, review it, determine what may be missing or inaccurate given your current role and work with your manager and HR to revise it. If you don’t have one, be proactive and create one. Then meet with your manager to discuss what you’ve created and work towards its adoption as a formal documentation of your role that will be used during performance reviews and in goal setting exercises.

This tact may be confronting and uncomfortable for you, but management is most likely not inclined to take on the creation of position descriptions if they haven’t already and unless you do, you’ll have no clear sense of exactly what is expected of you and no clarity on how to advance within your company.

Make sure to include the following in your description:

  • Title
  • Whom you report into
  • Who reports into you
  • Required skills (both creative and business skills)
  • Responsibilities (what you are required to do – both creative and business functions)
  • Expectations (quality of your execution of your responsibilities – how quickly you perform your functions and at what level of expertise)
  • Role (what authority you have)

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Pay attention. If you listen hard you’ll hear the other shoe dropping. As in-house designers, we’re all aware of the outsourcing/offshoring tsunami of career-killing corporate shortsightedness and greed in action. Well there’s another less visible wave of beancounter headcount cutting going on at the expense of our profession and the companies we serve – title deflation and responsibility inflation.

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Here’s how it works. A company has an in-house department with seasoned experienced managers at its helm. These creative directors and team leads also happen to have higher salaries than their younger reports and more expensive benefits (vested 401Ks, more vacation time etc.). From the beancounters’ perspective, they might as well be wearing florescent bull’s-eyes on their backs.

The Finance pinheads, in their cost-cutting mindless budget reducing bloodlust, figure that firing them will save the company money (which it won’t when all that institutional knowledge walks right out the door taking all time and cost cutting efficiencies with them).

Now trying to fill those vacant positions with equally experienced designers and design managers would defeat the purpose because the new hires’ salaries would be as high as the professionals who were fired. So the trick is to bring in less experienced folks and drop them into a sink or swim situation (without the tools, training or experience needed to succeed – thus setting them and the remaining team up for failure).

There’s one problem, though. In the corporate world’s obsession with hierarchy, new staff can’t be brought in at the same titles and levels as their canned predecessors. A whole new level and group of positions needs to be created. HR quickly addresses the problem and advertises openings with new fancy titles that semantically and financially allows for the dumbing-down of the in-house team’s most critical asset – their leaders.

What you end up finding in the job postings section are positions with different names and markedly lower compensation than the original positions that were eliminated but with exactly the same set of responsibilities and expectations as the original positions. Who said that business execs aren’t creative?…

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By the very nature of its process, design is an entrepreneurial exercise. Unlike most other professional pursuits that primarily rely on managerial, analytical or maintenance practices, design incorporates action, improvisation and resourcefulness – all decidedly entrepreneurial behaviors. This fact sets the stage for conflict between in-house design teams and their departmental neighbors whose functions put them squarely outside of the innovative sphere.

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It could be argued that, because designers are forced to be entrepreneurial because of the process they have to engage in to do their jobs, they’re being unintentionally set up to fail when having to work within a larger innovation resistant organization. There have certainly been enough in-house teams that have either stumbled and been disbanded or been beaten into compliant submission, to support this proposition. But there are enough successful entrepreneurial in-house groups to bolster the notion that the diametrically opposed conservative and innovative mindsets can exist and succeed in the same environment.

This success requires the rare combination of a powerful creative team leader and enlightened management. Which begs the question – are you that articulate, savvy and passionate entrepreneur who is able to partner with clients, department heads and the C-suite in a way that allows your team the flexibility needed to be a true entrepreneurial enterprise? Or are you the cynical, browbeaten corporate cog who follows untested and unquestioned policy, habit and tradition, devaluing you, your team and the practice of design?

Being an entrepreneur is a choice. A choice that should be especially easy to make for us designers who have been trained and encouraged to be entrepreneurial because of the very nature of what we do every day.

3 simple tips excerpted from next week’s Collaboration DesignCast on how to cope with corporate colleagues.

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