Insights on Management

In-House Business Startup Journal


Editors note: Starting a new job as a creative leader comes with unique challenges. Upon starting one such job, I posted a monthly journal on the InSource website with insights into my experiences of starting a new job, matriculating into the new corporate structure, and reorganizing my department. We have collected each monthly post into this single collection below.

The New Guy In Town

I’ve had the privilege of starting a new job 11 times in my career, including the part-time after-hours teaching gigs. As such, I have seen a pretty wide gamut of orientation and onboarding programs. Some have been great, and others have been terrible.

I’ve also seen the lack of any orientation and onboarding. I think it’s pretty telling about an organization when your first few days on the job don’t have any formal structure around getting you up to speed on who’s who and what’s what.

When running a business of any kind, remember that you, as a manager, have just three resources at your disposal – Money, People, and Information. When someone starts a new job, they need one of those three things more than the others: information. Who are the people that report to you, who are your stakeholders, what’s your budget, what are the company policies? How do I get in touch with company tech support? What tools do you need to use, the process for engaging the team, what work takes priority, etc.

As a start-up organization, however, these things may still need to be created. So it will be your job to figure it all out on behalf of other people. Just don’t do anything in an ad-hoc way. Keep organized and be methodical in assessing the situation so that you can put all the pieces together and get the ship on course.

Talking Less and Listening More

My first few days on the job typically include meeting new people, including colleagues, clients, leaders, and direct reports. Along with the usual and customary “welcome aboard” hand-shaking, I’m also asked about my background and experience.

Over the next few days, as I meet more people and get comfortable with the ones I’ve already met, I also start learning more about how things are currently operating or how things used to be. I probably don’t have to tell you that people in any office setting love to talk about the good old days, especially when they were not all that good.

Anyone who knows me knows that I’m a talker. However, an important part of managing and leading is active listening. And that’s what I’m doing more of during my first 10 to 20 days on the job than any other time. It’s not just the formal meetings with my boss, their boss, clients, stakeholders, or department colleagues that give me the knowledge I’m going to work with, but all of the impromptu gatherings, office drop-bys, first week-on-the-job lunches, and hallway-meetings that really inform me about what I need to do.

I learned more about what is or isn’t working or needs to be implemented from these short conversations than almost any other time on the job. I use these opportunities to ask questions and really listen to the answers my co-workers give me about how my team can best serve them.

All May Not Be What It Seems

After a few weeks on the job, I have heard more airing of dirty laundry than I would have expected. But, this is actually par for the course at any new job, as people begin to get comfortable with me being on the scene as a colleague rather than as a boss or organizational leader.

People are telling me more about the deficits of talent, skill, or availability of the creative team than any strengths or examples of good work. I often hear about the faults of the previous manager who held my position or his boss, who seemed utterly unsupportive of design and brand.

It’s human nature, I guess, to interject into conversations the behind-the-scenes challenges that preceded my arrival. And it does help to build a bit of context around the story of your department before you become part of it. But all the negativity makes me wonder if I’ve made the right career move or if any of this can even be fixed.

So, instead of getting mired in how things were, I focus on the task at hand – the reason I’ve been hired into this position – which is to make things better.

Good leaders are usually well aware of the situation that exists in the organization, and they recognize that someone needs to come in and fix it. And if you ever get as lucky as I am right now, you get the support you need to set the ship on the right course.

Assessment and planning at less than warp speed

The first task I undertake when starting a new creative services leadership job is to assess the situation. After about a month, I typically have a good understanding of what’s going on. I can start putting together my big plan for the department.

While I want to be careful not to over-generalize, I can still pretty much categorize any current state of affairs into one of three scenarios:

  • The current creative services process and infrastructure are working but need to be fine-tuned to best serve our clients.
  • The current creative services process and infrastructure need to be fixed and need top-to-bottom retooling.
  • There is no discernable creative services process and infrastructure, and one needs to be established.

Each of these scenarios provides its own unique challenge. Any plan I put together will absolutely require buy-in from my boss, my team, and our clients to be successful. But if there is one thing I’ve learned over the years, you can’t change too much, too fast. Sure, people say they want change, and leaders have even recognized change is needed. But things have been working a certain way – good, bad, or otherwise – since before I came onto the scene.

Change can become disruptive, destructive, and counter-productive if handled in a cavalier manner.

While my gut tells me we need to flip a switch on Monday and have things work in a new way, my experience – and observations of human behavior – tell me that change really needs to be incremental, or I’m at risk of clients getting things done the way they used to, undermining the new process and potentially compromising the company’s strategic plans.

Sometimes, when developing a change implementation plan, dialing it down from 11 to 6 is a good thing.

Planning the Rollout

After a couple of months of planning, the time has come to institute the plans I have been developing since I started. I’ve built some key relationships, assessed a few situations, identified needs, designed processes, and (I hope) built some trust. Now, all I need to do is stop talking about the “big plan” and start getting it going.

Having done this a few times, I know there are a few ways to roll out new processes and SOP’s. I have learned from experience there is a definite wrong way to do it, and that is to flip the switch. As soon as you introduce even the slightest change factor to how people work, you throw them into a period of turbulence that will take time to normalize (Google Tuckman’s Group Development Model).

Change can be a tricky thing to manage, and it’s really a matter of giving people time to absorb changes in routine and process slowly. In the case of an in-house business, there are three groups of people who need to learn and embrace your changes: Your boss(es), your clients, and your staff.

Change is good, or so I have been told. But too much change, too fast, can be disastrous. So what’s an impulsive, go-with-my-gut-kind-of-guy to do? Slow down and take a phased approach. Embrace the idea of soft-launching the new processes to test them and make revisions before the big rollout.

No One Will Come To Your Party Unless You Invite Them

Like any business that is launching new products or services, all of the planning and development we have put into the new creative services department will have been for naught if we don’t announce the launch of new processes to our clients. Here is one such memo I delivered to just our more extensive department.

Good morning everyone,

Since March, we have been analyzing Creative Service’s existing processes, capabilities, and needs along with those of our clients – both within and outside of the [department].

There have been a number of behind-the-scenes improvements to how we collectively work to produce creative deliverables. While we hope that some of these behind-the-scenes changes are already noticeable to everyone, today we have an exciting announcement that we think everyone will appreciate.

Beginning today, there is a new centralized point of contact for all creative services requests (E.G., graphic design, photography, video production, and brand identity review). Simply send an email to our department by typing “Creative Services” in the “To…” field of your email, and it will go to our department’s general mailbox.

From there, someone will review your request, ask for more information as needed, and assign a creative professional to assist you. You will receive an email with our project reference number, and who your assigned creative services contact will be. When initiating a new creative project of any kind, please feel free to use the attached Creative Services Request Sheet. Additionally, if you are requesting video production assistance you may find the attached Video Production Project Sheet useful in planning your production timing and script.

While neither tool is mandatory to use, they will allow us to more effectively, and efficiently, get the project opened and into our production queue. Plus, you may just find them helpful in collecting, and communicating to us, the details of your project prior to requesting creative consultation and assistance.

If you have any questions or comments, please do not hesitate to call me, or drop by my office.

Andy Brenits,

Leader, Creative Services

What’s important about this message is not so much all of the behind-the-scenes process development we have undertaken that will make the new creative services team more effective and creative, but the fact that it addresses just the two most common pain points clients complained about when I began my analysis and planning work;

  1. They don’t know how to get someone in creative services to help them.
  2. They don’t know what information to provide when asking for creative consultation.

Providing solutions to these two challenges can be such a big paradigm shift for clients to embrace that we really only call this our soft launch. The big changes are still to come… in the BIG launch a couple of months down the road.

Sell The Work, Not The Process

Any in-house creative services leader knows that process is essential. From how clients initiate new projects to how the team gets work done. It’s a fundamental way to manage workflow, effectiveness, productivity, and frankly…order. If we have done our jobs well, things run smoothly for the most part. Clients are happy, designers are engaged and creative, and things are good.

Often, a creative manager finds that processes need to be improved – or created in the first place – to get things running in an optimal state. But developing the new process is only half the battle. You have to sell it to other leaders to get buy-in and educate colleagues and clients on how things now work. The education of clients can sometimes be painful for those less willing to embrace change, so it can take months of hard work to keep the train from derailing off the tracks you have set.

There will come a point in time, however, when the hard sell of the process needs to give way to the soft sell by proving that the process you put in place works better than how things used to be. You’ll be able to prove the new processes work when you can demonstrate the results. I’m talking, of course, about showing off the creative work of your team.

We all desire for our in-house teams to be seen as the go-to creative resources and creative experts within the company. The best way to do that isn’t showing how the work gets done, but rather the work itself. Creative leaders must find the right opportunities to show how their teams are solving creative problems and contributing to the corporate strategy.

Show off a recent piece of high-quality work in your leadership meeting. Participate in another department’s staff meeting and bring samples of completed projects. Build a portfolio website or capabilities brochure and drive traffic to the site. These are a few things you can do to show off the value of your team.

Admitting Mistakes

“Steve Jobs would never have done that,” I thought to myself as I read the open apology by Tim Cook regarding the new Maps app in iOS6. As I said those words, I realized that I don’t think Tim Cook was wrong to do it, though. While not the approach that Jobs would have taken, Cook did something few leaders are bold enough to do…admit when they make a mistake.

As a business leader, I realize all too much how earning the respect of my peers, co-workers, and clients is. However, too few leaders also realize the importance of earning the respect of their own teams. There are of course, many ways to do this, which include recognition, reward, and standing up for your team (aka backing them up). I also think showing that you’re a mere mortal, fallible, and occasionally make bad decisions is just as important.

In my effort to be a transparent leader, I’ll share an example of how I admitted a recent mistake.

After months of research, demonstrations, and RFP’s I decided to purchase a workflow management system (something we desperately needed). All of the demos with the sales reps made this particular piece of software look like it was the perfect solution. I touted to my boss and my team how this product was the best one based on cost, usability, features, etc. But once it was implemented, it was virtually unusable by my team.

For the first two weeks, I repeated, “You’re just not used to it yet; give it a chance.” For the second two weeks, I found myself saying, “Let’s add that to the list and see if their developer can create a workaround.” On the fifth week of complaints, after trying to use the product myself the way they had been (using the simplest of features – time sheets), I called one of the other companies I looked at and fast-tracked purchase and implementation of their (better) product. The announcement that we would be switching to this other product brought smiles to everyone’s faces.

Here is where I went wrong and what I admitted to:

  • I thought about my budget first. Spending $1,600 was better than spending $4,000. You know what, you get what you pay for.
  • I went with a product that seemed easy to use but wasn’t. I should have asked for a free month to play with the system.
  • I didn’t listen to my team, even though they were the ones using it most often.

The last one is important because when I reviewed my notes on my search for the workflow tool, they mentioned having used the tool we ended up switching to or at least having heard of it. Likewise, when I polled my industry colleagues, no one seemed to have heard of the product I chose, or they outright told me they disqualified it from their list of choices for various reasons.

So, after just a month of use, I offered up a mea culpa to my boss and my team. And you know what, I came out looking much better for it as a manager and a leader.

Performance Reviews

Well, it’s that time of year again for many corporate creatives… the year-end performance review cycle has begun again. Unlike many of my colleagues on the outside, I need to follow a prescribed process whereby I self-evaluate my performance against several goals (SMART ones) for both the business and my professional development.

As if providing an evaluation to my boss about my work wasn’t hard enough, I’ll also need to review the evaluations my staff wrote about themselves. And if I’m very lucky, no one has any delusions of grandeur about their accomplishments (or lack thereof), including me.

Unfortunately, as a manager, there does come a time when you need to deliver some not-so-good news to an employee about their performance. But if you’ve done your job as a manager, it should not come as a surprise when you do. While formal performance reviews – often coupled with ratings from “needs improvement” to “exceeds expectations” – are conducted twice per year, you should still be having regular conversations with your staff about how they are doing, whether it’s to offer praise for a job well done or counseling for an issue of some kind.

You can’t be afraid to give those negative reviews, though. To be blunt, it’s how you justify the termination of someone who isn’t pulling their weight. Or, in the case of a headcount reduction, the poor performers are shown the door before a solid one is.

On the upside, a good performance review is just as gratifying to give as it is to receive. When you’ve been having regular conversations with your staff, you can catch minor mishaps before they become significant performance issues. In that case, you’re likely to have mostly positive reviews to give.

Goal Setting

How many of us set New Year’s resolutions around December 31st, only to forget them by January 3rd? Last month, I journaled about performance reviews and measuring your work for the past year. The only way to do this is to set some goals for yourself, but make sure you and your team do so in a way that they won’t be treated like New Year’s resolutions…because missed goals at review time affect your ratings and comp.

Here is something I share with my team every year…

How to write SMART goals of your own

Writing SMART goals will ensure a higher degree of success at achieving your goals then non-SMART goals. SMART goals meet the following criteria:

    • Specific – clear, unambiguous language
    • Measurable – ability to measure progress and achievement
    • Attainable – within the control of the individual or the team
    • Realistic – take into account the individual’s present skills and capacity
    • Time-bound – within a defined period of time

As you write your goals, ensure that they are SMART and easily defined by what it is, why it is important, how the goal is going to be accomplished, and when they will be accomplished by. Having these components clearly identified will assist in recognizing progress and measurement toward the successful completion of the goal.

For example, a good – but not SMART – goal would be: To lose weight

A SMART version of this goal looks like this: To lose 20 pounds by November 1st, I will eat healthier and exercise every day in order to fit into my old 36-inch waist jeans.

This SMART goal above is constructed using the following sample model for the structure of a SMART goal. It’s color-coded to help illustrate the structure.

To (the action you will take). by (Date/timeframe), I will (do what?) by (a measure you can track) in order to (your real goal).

To lose 20 pounds by November 1st, I will eat healthier and exercise every day in order to fit into my old 36-inch waist jeans.

Good luck!

Recognition & Reward

For many in-house employees, year-end reviews are typically followed by an announcement of merit increases (AKA raises) and incentive payouts (bonuses). As managers, we often wrestle with the balance of following the corporate guidelines for cash awards with the subjectivity of what constitutes a good job by our creative people.

However, it’s important to remember that there are more ways to reward employees for good work than yearly raises, bonuses, or even promotions.

Recognition comes in many forms, and sometimes, a simple “thank-you” for a job well done can pay big dividends in loyalty, motivation, and assurance of continued good work. The Late Robert Townsend, CEO of AVIS and author of Up the Organization called the phrase “thank you’ a “really neglected form of compensation”.

For example, I recently showed off some of the work my team produced in a management team meeting. When I shared the positive responses from my peers with my team, it was clear how much they appreciated not just the accolades…but that I even showed the work off to begin with. This cost me nothing in terms of dollars but paid off big time with my team.

If you have any budget dollars for training and development, then consider sending someone to a class. If the budget is limited, then send just one high-performing person, but have them teach what they learned to the rest of your team. This approach yields you a 3-times return if you think about it: Special recognition for the high-performer in terms of the training, a leadership development opportunity for the same person to teach others the new skills, and development for the others they teach.

Finally, if you work for a corporation with good perks, such as seats at a sports arena, then take your team out after work to a big game. Trust me, the joy on their faces will be an immediate reward for you.

Failure IS an Option

No, the subheading is not a mistake. Sometimes, you have to let things fail.

I have started and led three creative businesses in my career: 2 in-house and one agency. I have also been part of a few business re-organizations in both design practice and academia.

A creative business, whether an agency, solo practice, or in-house department, is like any other Business. We need to keep trying new things to make progress. Sometimes, it’s a new creative iteration of the brand; sometimes, it’s a process change. If you’re lucky, things work the way you planned. But sometimes they don’t. That’s a fact of life.

The key is not to let failure stop you from trying anything. You have to keep trying new things until you succeed, and then you move on to find ways to improve further or grow. So whether it’s how you manage your team – or your clients – or even how you [try to] instill organizational change within your company. Great leaders keep on trying. Never fearful of failure, always looking for ways to improve or do things differently.

Thomas Edison famously said, “I have not failed. I’ve just found 10,000 ways that won’t work.”

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