Insights on Management

What’s Next For In-House Leaders?



The tradition of the pre-event dinner with featured speakers

As is my tradition before an InSource event, I like to take the featured speakers out to dinner the evening before as a way of thanking them for their time and insights. I try to find a higher-end restaurant where we can enjoy a great meal (not just a good one) and an ambiance that would support great conversation. Such is the case the night before our Seattle event, back in March when I broke bread with Hafiz Huda (creative director at, Erik Davidson (director, brand and design at Vulcan Inc.), and Kevin Mau (brand and creative strategist at Boeing) over seafood and cocktails down by the wharf.

Career phases of a creative professional: Apprenticing, Mastering, and Master

The four of us sat down at the table and started talking about everything from work, family, and naturally design and managing people. The conversation was lively, funny, thoughtful, and engaging, as you would expect from a group of people who are passionate about what we do. But the dinner conversation also left me thinking even more deeply about the career path of a designer than I had before. During the course of the conversation, we each talked about our careers, where we started, and how we got to where we are, which included musings on getting into—whether by choice or not – the management of creative teams. And then we started discussing the fact that we are each at a certain age and experience level and may perhaps be ready for something…else. No, “something else” wasn’t right, we agreed; it was more about “What’s next?”

Exploring the fourth leg of the creative career journey: Post-Mastery

As the discussion of our careers and experiences continued, we began formulating a metaphor for the phases of a creative career that naturally follow ancient paths of many trades: Apprenticing, Mastering, and Master. Apprenticing is when you’re just starting out, learning as much as you can from a Master at the craft (like the department creative director) to get better at what you do. Mastering is when where you’re approaching 10,000 hours of practicing your craft and on your way to become a Master yourself. Master, then, is when you’ve now got apprentices of your own to coach and grow (this is when you’re managing people). Trust me when I say that it’s taking all I have to refrain from Star Wars and Jedi references right now!

What’s next for the creative leader in the Post-Mastery phase?

But what comes after managing people (being a Master) took up the bulk of our dinner conversation. What’s next for design leaders when they’ve reached that sought-after pinnacle of creative leadership—Director of Creative Services—and held it for a number of years? When you’re ready to move on to a new challenge, is it simply getting a new job and doing the same thing for another company? At this point of being a Master, is it just simply “rinse-and-repeat” for the rest of our careers? Or is there a fourth leg of the career journey? We pondered that and decided perhaps it’s simply the “Post-Mastery” phase.

Considering it takes 10,000 hours (that’s almost five years if you work at it every single day) to become a Master, then for those of us at this for 20+ years, Post-Mastery comes after a long successful career … but we’re ready to move on. Not retirement, mind you, but maybe not managing others anymore, either. You may also have reached a point in your life where the reasons for working (I discussed the reasons creative people choose to work for a living: stability, money, advancement, and passion in a previous article) have changed too.

Finding new ways to influence creativity and share expertise

So, what’s next for the creative leader? What is the Post-Mastery phase of our craft comprised of? Well, my standing answer is, of course—it depends. Maybe for you, it is yet more advancement up the corporate ladder to super-executive-chief-creative-grand-poo-bah. Or maybe it’s not leading people at all, yet still finding a way to influence creativity in the company you work for. Or maybe it’s time to hang out your shingle and start your own agency (or be a freelancer if you don’t want employees). It really depends on what you want to do with the mastery and experience you’ve earned over the years. How do you want to influence others with your talent and expertise?

Influence without management.

Up to this point, I have discussed the traditional path of a creative career that we learn in design school. This path is of first being an apprentice to a master to learn your craft, mastering your skills on your own, and finally becoming a master in your own right, which often includes taking on apprentices of your own (typically in the form of staff, but you could do so by teaching a class too).

But it is what comes after managing people (being a Master) that has occupied my thoughts for a few years now. I always thought that being the boss was the golden ring. That having a team to manage, coach, and mentor was the pinnacle, or end goal, of a career. But having managed several teams, I’ve realized that that is not necessarily true. Yes, managing people does come with perks, such as better compensation and even training. But in terms of the career path, that role is really about training the next generation of Masters. You’re a coach, not a boss, and you are guiding the team for great work and the next big “win”.

What’s next? Influencing others, not managing them.

As a manager, you need to split your time between managing and doing creative work. I can tell you from experience that managing is hard work. Really hard, time-consuming work. And to do it right, you need to give up a lot of the doing creative work in lieu of managing the process of how the work gets done and ensuring a high level of quality. It’s not just “move it up, move it over, and change the color” of art direction. It’s performance reviews, budget allocation, air traffic control, meetings…lots of meetings.

But at some point, you can choose to pass the torch of management to someone else (perhaps even your own apprentice). remember, no one is suggesting this means hanging up your coat and hat or throwing in the towel. What I’m talking about is taking back the reins and doing creative work of some kind. Now it’s time to lead without managing.

Consider a path where you’re taking all of your experience and expertise and using them in the most influential ways possible without necessarily managing a team. You get to do what you really do well, which is to be creative. You get to influence others (people, businesses, clients) through your creativity and passion for your craft, using all of the expertise and knowledge accumulated over the course of your career.

What’s Next for Creative Leaders
In my role as President of InSource, I have had the opportunity to speak with several in-house creative leaders about the “what’s next” question. While there is a lot more to still be discovered, here are some of the big ideas I’ve learned so far from the experiences of in-house leaders who have found their own version of what’s next.

Hang out your shingle.
For many in-house (and agency) creative leaders, the next step is going out on their own as a consultant or starting your own agency. You’re ready to give up the stability of a paycheck and benefits for the exhilaration of serving your own clients and working on a diverse variety of projects.

Teaching full-time.
What better way to influence others than by doing it full-time as a college professor? When you teach full-time you often are required to perform some kind of work that maintains your status as an industry expert. This includes limited client work, writing, speaking, etc.

Change your corporate role.
For some in-house leaders staying in-house is preferred, and in fact, the loyalty and desire to influence the brand are still very high. Those of us who have seen the corporate role and pay range sheets know that high-level individual contributor positions can earn as much as department leaders. So instead of leaving, maybe there is a way to influence from within. Consider becoming an individual contributor again, performing at a very high level as a creative strategist or similar role.

One industry leader I know even switched departments altogether to Human Resources of all places. Vanessa Dewey was recently profiled by InSource, where she described how she has shifted her career within Mattel:

“Until recently, I was an art director for Packaging and Branding. I’ve transitioned into a new role. where I inspire, educate, connect, and celebrate creativity at Mattel. Overall, I’m supporting a creations company that instills the wonder of childhood. One project that I’m working on right now is a podcast based on the idea that everyone at Mattel can be creative. Ultimately, I want to connect with these inspiring peers and to celebrate them.”

Vanessa’s story is a great example of someone who has found a way to utilize her passion, experience, and expertise in a way that continues to be valuable for Mattel. She’s done that within the company she’s been working at for a number of years already as well.

So when it comes to creative leadership, your “what’s next” is really limited only by your own imagination. Take some time to develop your own ideas of what that might look like, and start planning for the day when you’re ready to take that big leap.

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