At some point in your design career, you’ll likely be placed in charge of other people. These might include writers, marketers, programmers, engineers, and other corporate employees.
This can be an incredibly rewarding experience that can enhance both the project you’re working on, as well as your overall career as a creative professional. Or, it can be a total nightmare, with clashing personalities and a muddling of the overall vision into an unsalvageable mess.
We’re going to look at how to handle being the boss of a team-driven design project, so that you, your team members, and your clients are all happy with the result.
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Don’t Make Them Read Your Mind
Be direct and tell your team your exact expectations. What, specifically, do you want from them? What will happen if they don’t deliver? Never, ever assume people will automatically know what to do in any circumstance if you haven’t told them, especially if they’re new hires on an unprecedented creative project.
If they do know what to do, that’s a plus, but most people won’t know half as much as you think (or hope) they will.
Working Without The Manager
Give step-by-step instructions. The key here is to automate the process of creating the work as much as you can. In the book The E-Myth by Michael Gerber, there is a significant emphasis on “assembly line style” business practices — that is, setting things up so that you, the manager or business owner, are needed as little as possible in the day-to-day activities.
This may seem counter-intuitive, but the less your team needs to rely on you for little things, the more great things you can all accomplish together.
It’s always better to assume less knowledge and be pleasantly surprised than to assume more knowledge and be screwed come crunch time. I know I sound cynical, but after working with dozens of teams over the years, this is just the simple truth of the matter.
Be Generous With The Compliments
Your team is working long, thankless hours to make the company dream a reality. They made a choice to be there, sure, but weeks or months of relentless work on a single project will wear down even the most tireless worker.
Sometimes, all it takes is a simple compliment to keep someone engaged and willing to put in just a little more effort. People like to know they’re doing a good job and that their hard work is appreciated.
If your team is kicking ass, you owe it to them to say thank you in whatever way you can. This isn’t just HR psychobabble, by the way; it can literally make the difference between a project being a success or a failure.
I can’t tell you how many teams I’ve been on that have started out strong, and devolved into squabbling, demotivated groups of people completely alienated from each other and disenfranchised from the creative process — all because the manager was a jerk.
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Defend Them & Take The Heat
If you’ve never been in charge of other people before, there’s some bad news I have to break to you: everything is your fault. You may have heard of the expression “the buck stops with you.”
What that means is that you are the final authority when it comes to all decisions, whether good or bad. You’re the judge, jury, and executioner, but your head is also on the chopping block when things go awry.
Specifically, this means that the mistakes of your team are your responsibility, not theirs. That’s why you’re the supervisor and they’re the employees. They expect you to protect them from the brunt of your client’s or boss’ wrath, and in return, you lead them to do the right thing for the company.
Filter Your People
This rule is non-negotiable, as it should be. There’s always a cost to power, and there are responsibilities that come with leading people. However, there’s a responsibility that your team has to you as well.
My personal rule is, if someone screws up more than three times, I immediately replace them with someone else. You only want winners on your team — all the losers can go goof off somewhere else.
Don’t Let People Get Away With BS
As the saying goes, you should hire slow and fire fast. If someone isn’t working out, it’s better to let them go sooner rather than later. Hanging on to a bad apple will only cause problems, not the least of which will be with other team members who are pulling their own weight. You owe it to the “A” members of your team to get rid of the “B’s,” “C’s,” and “D’s.”
The goal here is to have a team comprised of nothing but A-listers. That way, things will go much more smoothly, and you can focus on giving your team everything they need to be as successful as possible. It’s a little like cutting off the diseased parts of a plant.
The deadweight will do nothing but sit there and slowly poison the healthy leaves and flowers. You can’t afford that if you want to be the best.
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They Must Earn Their Keep
Always make sure your team members are making you or your client a profit. Never pay someone more than what they’re actually bringing in to the enterprise. Team members need to earn their keep, and if they’re not doing so, fire them.
It may sound harsh, but remember, you want “all A’s” on your team — not someone who will drag down morale and make everyone else less productive.
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If you’re working for a client or a boss, you have a responsibility to them to make their business as profitable as possible. If it’s your own business, your responsibility is to yourself and anyone who has a vested interest in your business’ success.
This will require some type of record-keeping of the profit margins and such, and if you’re not good at that kind of thing, hire someone who is.
What Do You Think?
Have you worked as a team leader before? What other insights do you have about choosing and bringing out the best of the best in the people working under you?