In the first two parts of this series we covered promotions and roles and responsibilities. The goal of this article is to help those of you contemplating a move to management, but who may be afraid to take that leap. It’s a tough decision to be sure, and it’s one that requires a lot of soul searching.
In our creative areas of expertise, we often get into the creative field because we have a passion for producing. Whether it’s writing, designing, coding, or any number of other creative outlets we want to create an end product. As a designer myself, I always loved the thought of making a product that was not only functional, but also beautiful. I loved the challenge of crafting an elegant, simple user experience that was intuitive and easy to use. And if it brought joy along the way, then I reached the pinnacle for that product. I also enjoyed the challenge of developing the front-end experience. Combining the creative with the technical was, and still is, something that forced me to think in new and innovative ways over and over. That’s the nature of an ever-changing digital field. The technology moves so quickly I always felt like I was learning something new and I loved it. So, the topic of moving into a leadership role hits close to home because I struggled mightily with the decision to move away from hands-on design and development.
There were a couple times in my career when the opportunity to lead a team presented itself. And at first, I downright denied some of those opportunities. It wasn’t because I didn’t think I could do it or that I didn’t want to do it. I avoided people management because I didn’t want to give up what I knew and was good at. It took me a couple of years to sit down and weigh out the pros and cons of taking on a management role. And once I went through that exercise, I was still unsure. How could I justify spending my time on the HR-like functions of managing a team when I could be using that time to craft a better webpage that might make my company money? Or, what if I became the team lead and the designers on staff didn’t pass my pixel-perfect expectations that I came to expect of myself?
The beauty of management is that you can forge your own path. If you want to continue producing, there are positions out there that allow for that. If you would rather coach younger creatives to flourish, there are positions for that. If you’d rather focus your efforts on innovating the next big idea and build a team around you to support you in that effort, there are roles for that, too. Management is so diverse that there is nothing to fear in terms of the level of involvement you wish to have and to what degree. This is not to say that you’ll find your dream management job easily. It is definitely an arduous process to make a role your own, but it is possible.
So, if you’re on the fence about pursuing a people leadership position, take a deep breath. After all, management isn’t for everyone, and that’s okay. Here are three things to consider asking yourself:
Who will you be as a manager?
Who would you like to emulate? In your experience, who have you seen that meant something to you? Whether it was a direct manager or someone you watched from afar who had a management style you liked. Or, maybe there was a video you watched of someone in a leadership role that resonated with you. You can also learn from the bad leaders. Remember those times you experienced or saw managers who you thought were not good at their jobs. What have you learned from those managers that you do not want to emulate? Try to craft your brand as a manager. Write it down because it will help you determine your next steps. You can revisit it as often as you need to as you learn more about yourself, about your management style and about the work you want to be doing.
What kind of team best suits you?
Think of management as a sport. In high school, you typically have your varsity and junior varsity teams. For those with a passion for coaching creative folks who are already highly skilled, further along in their careers or in management positions themselves, then you are a varsity coach. These varsity players are super talented and the player/coach relationship is built on working together to fine-tune their skills. The varsity player and coach are looking at the minutiae of their craft, thinking in terms of not only the individual, but also the team as a whole. Conversations are less about “how to be faster at Photoshop” and more around how to better utilize data from a product the player/team just produced, iterating on it to incrementally improve it and setting up more tests to make sure the team is moving in the right direction. Varsity players are getting ready for the next level. They are hoping for college scholarships (senior management or director-level roles), or maybe even preparing for the pros (VPs or Heads of Creative focused on organizational design and business strategy). Developing the next generation of creative leaders is the ultimate goal of a varsity coach.
The JV coaches are the managers who focus more on guiding creatives to become better at their crafts. In sports, a player on a JV team spends a majority of their time learning their sport and understanding proper form and technique. This understanding comes through seeing it in action and getting the reps necessary to build confidence and make proper technique become second nature. In the creative world, this manager may need to take the time to show players how to do certain tasks. There is a requirement of a little more hand holding than at the varsity level, but by no means micromanaging. Failure must be an option because failure can be a great teacher at this level without the potential consequences that can be seen at the higher levels. This is just as important a role as a varsity coach because the JV coach has the job of starting and establishing a team’s success. Usually entry- or mid-level creatives, these players focus on staying hungry for more challenges, continuous learning, and getting faster and stronger in their areas of expertise. Without the JV coach, a varsity program cannot be a serious contender. The JV team is the foundation on which the rest of the creative department is built.
The college and pro coaches are the folks developing creative executives. These coaches do not always fall within the creative function. There are plenty of exec coaches that specialize in just that: helping the highest performing leaders understand how creative can help business strategy and vice versa. These coaches are also thinking about structure, how to position talent in a way that makes sense at a macro level, and building a high performing team that can withstand the test of time. Unlike high school sports where athletes have a finite career of just 4 years before making the decision to pursue other avenues or moving on to college or the pros, the coaches at the highest levels have to think about sustaining a team for decades. There is an emphasis on developing talent at all levels, making sure recruiters know what the vision is, managing the salary cap and player relationships, all while ensuring the legacy of the team and organization is top of mind. The college and pro coach positions are typically reserved for those with a proven track record at the JV and varsity levels.
So, what team do you want to coach?
Why do you want to become a manager?
Is it simply because it is the next rung on the ladder? That’s not always a great reason. Like already mentioned, management isn’t for everyone. There are plenty of great positions out there at a senior or lead level that can sustain your career for years. There is nothing wrong with owning that senior-level individual contributor position and becoming the trusted subject matter expert.
Do you want to get into management because you think you can do it better than others? It’s not as easy as you may think. As an individual contributor, you are responsible for you. The meetings you attend or the work you do focus solely on YOUR expertise. When you take on a management position, you are now attending meetings that relate to you AND your team. You have to understand what everyone on your team is working on, the skills necessary to complete that work, and make sure their work is getting done on time and at an acceptable level. As an individual contributor, you work to impress your manager. As a manager, you have your own manager to impress, while also impressing your direct reports by carving time out for 1-on-1 meetings, advising them on career development, helping them with issues they have—in addition to your own issues—and guiding them on working together well as a team. There are also the additional HR responsibilities involved, including mid-year and annual reviews, budget constraints, and hiring and firing decisions.
If you ask yourself why and your answer is rooted in making a difference in someone else’s life and career besides your own, then you are on the right track. No matter who you want to be as a manager, or what team you want to lead, you will be impacting someone in their career. As the coach of a team, you are responsible for the performance of the overall team, but you can not forget that a team is made up of individuals. The decisions you make as a manager determine whether a player gets cut or gets playing time, who becomes captain, and who gets the MVP award. You also have to understand that no matter the level of a player’s performance, you have to be there to advocate on their behalf whether they are pursuing a Division I scholarship (looking to become the next manager or director in the organization) or just want to use you as a reference when they graduate and are looking for a job outside of sports or on another team.
Looking at my experience, I was given the opportunity early in my career to be the JV coach at an agency. I learned a lot in that role, including that the JV level is neither where I thrived nor wanted to be. When I had the opportunity to coach a varsity team for the first time years later, after much thought, I seized it and loved it ever since. So, while I struggled for years over the decision to get into management, I know for sure that it was the right move for me because I went from producing creative work to facilitating the growth of creatives in their careers. While producing beautiful work was incredibly rewarding, there is no better feeling than to see someone grow and hear from them years later that I had some small positive impact on their path. That kind of reward far outweighs any product I could have ever produced. Those moments are fueling my passion and will continue to do so.
If you are at a point in your career where you are considering management, know that you can do it. There will be failures you’ll learn from and successes to build on. If you have the right “why,” you’ll keep moving forward. And, if you ever need anything along the way, I am more than happy (heck, I love it) to help out in any way I can.
*This article was originally written for and posted on LinkedIn. Please feel free to add to the conversation there.