It may sound like a creative leader’s dream scenario: You’re being invited to strategy sessions because your organization’s leaders really value what you and your team can provide. You’ve figured out a process that more or less balances quality and speed, and have leveraged that process to prove your team’s value. Your internal clients are even actually using creative briefs more often than not. (Hallelujah!)
You may feel like you’ve arrived, but as Master Obi-Wan wisely observed to a young Luke Skywalker in A New Hope: “You’ve taken your first step into a larger world.”
Wait, what does your hard-earned seat at the table have to do with Star Wars, exactly?
Not unlike Luke’s romanticized dreams of escaping Tatooine to fight the good fight, you have a unique opportunity to add value at a higher level. However, you may find that navigating this new universe is a lot more complicated than you first thought, and you now have more priorities to balance than ever. It’s not just about what your team can do, it’s about how they fit in with all the other objectives of the company. There are many more lessons to be learned – and in many ways, Old Ben can guide you through them.
#1. “In my experience, there’s no such thing as luck.”
You may get lucky every now and again by providing design-relevant insights that also align with company goals, but you can’t be a true partner until you really know your business, your customers, and your business’ goals.
If your corporate mission is too lofty to understand how you fit in just yet, start with the goals of your department or even just your manager. If you have access to board of directors or shareholder reports, read them. It’s important to find out how your bosses talk to their bosses, so you can figure out how to give them the information that supports their goals. Do your homework, learn the vocabulary and the trade, and make sure what your team does is aligned to specific business goals to create lasting value.
#2. “Many of the truths we cling to depend greatly on our own point of view.”
Learn different perspectives by sitting down one-on-one with other team leads. Find out how they look at things and you will naturally find new ways to insert value. Do this once a quarter if you can, or at least twice a year, and treat it like a user interview. What are their pain points? Where are processes causing friction for them? How can your team help them achieve their business goals?
You’ll find out more about what’s coming down the pipe from these meetings than any group planning session, and it’s a great way to get someone from your team invited to ideation sessions before the project work gets started. Learn other teams’ processes so you can figure out when to interject and how best to communicate with them. If you work with your Sales team often, find out how their incentive system is set up and what they are measured on. If you understand where they’re coming from, suddenly those weird last-minute requests don’t seem quite so off the wall, and even start to become – dare I say it – predictable.
#3. “Who’s the more foolish? The fool or the fool who follows it?”
So you’ve gotten company leaders to recognize the value and importance of design. Keep doing that, but now that you have access, bring back what you’ve learned at the management table and have ideation sessions with your team of how you can add value to upcoming projects. Don’t get stuck doing the same projects over and over again: figure out what you can templatize. Odds are you’ve been able to do some of this just by observing what sorts of repeat requests your team gets. But now that you have the long view, you can see where you can interject templates and design systems where nobody had ever really thought to use them before.
#4. “If you strike me down, I shall become more powerful than you can possibly imagine.”
Protect your people, but make sure you’re allowing them space to grow. Help your team learn the language and jargon that others are using and use it themselves. Don’t just be a translator or interpreter – they need to be able to stand on their own when they start being invited to the ideation meetings you’ve helped get them into. You can provide context now that you’re in alllllll the meetings, but don’t fall into the trap of letting that mean you have to do all the thinking for your team too.
One of the biggest mistakes I’ve made as a creative manager was feeling like I needed to keep my team in a protective bubble. They appreciated it at first, but over time since everything had to go through a gatekeeper, it really stifled the team’s capacity for the creativity that comes out of collaboration. If you feel like you just can’t go on vacation because of what might “get through” while you’re away, look really hard at what you are doing to cause that. Once you train your team as apprentices, there’s nothing like sitting back and watching your Padawan deftly take down the objections of higher-ups by arguing their business case.
#5. “You must do what you feel is right, of course.”
Yes, your team should have numerical goals, which if possible should directly relate to the business goals you now know inside and out. (If not, see #1.) But at times you’ll find that having a philosophical guidance system can also help to prioritize decisions. In this league, your decisions are no longer just about resources and time management, but also what makes the most strategic sense on numerous levels. And even then, it’s important to still be flexible and aware of context.
On some projects, you do what you can for the user, but at the end of the day the project exists to serve specific business aims – that doesn’t necessarily make it an invalid effort. At times, the team has to come first, particularly if burnout is a real issue at your organization, or there’s no other way of getting growth resources for your team. And finally, don’t forget to put yourself on the list somewhere. You may be last, but you’re still on the list. This was another hard lesson for me: take the time to make sure you’re up to date on your skills and expertise – you’re doing yourself, your team, your organization, and your customers a disservice if not.
So yes, celebrate that you finally have a seat at the table. But recognize that what got you there may not necessarily keep you there. When you can expand your view enough to take advantage of the fact that your team now includes the entire organization (at least to some extent), brilliant opportunities await. Don’t be afraid to take the leap. The force will be with you… always.
Kim Conder has more than 10 years’ experience leading strategic in-house design teams. She specializes in optimizing the creative process and maximizing the business potential behind memorable brand experiences, and may or may not have idolized Princess Leia as a kid.