Who are you looking at?

Developing clear roles and responsibilities at creative studios

Who’s responsible for this?

At its simplest, responsibilities are about knowing who does what. It’s important that everyone at your studio has clearly defined roles and responsibilities. If you asked people who work for you to write down everything they’re responsible for, do you think they could do it? Better yet, do you think you could clearly articulate what everyone on your team is responsible for? Hell, it might even be tough to define what you personally are responsible for. Ambiguity around responsibility wastes time, makes people question their value to the studio, and causes your process to stall out. So let’s sort through it.

Create a simple chart outlining the big picture of who on your team is responsible for what. If there are only two of you, you will probably have two pretty long lists (someone has to take out the trash and wash the coffee cups, and that someone is probably you). Only be as granular as it is necessary for people to clearly understand what they’re responsible for. When you hire someone (more on hiring in chapter 14) make sure you have an understanding of which responsibilities are going to be migrating over to your new hire’s list. If everyone is clear about what work falls under their aegis, you’re showing people how they fit into the studio and what they can do to contribute to its overall success.

Build towards specialization: “We’ve done a pretty good job of realizing when we need a person to take a role over. The first person I ever hired was an admin person who could take over invoicing and scheduling with clients. Probably the most important person we have is our font technician who takes what we build and turns them into actual fonts. This was originally part of my role but Mark is so much better at it than I could ever hope to be. You need to recognize when it’s the right time to bring someone else in.” –Christian Schwartz, Commercial Type

When you have a team, even a tiny one, there will always be more to do than time to do it. Same goes for life in general. This is why you want to make sure that your high-value employees are doing high-value activities and that everyone in your studio is prioritizing their highest value activities. Let’s break that down.

1. High-value activities for high-value employees: This means that your most experienced and most capable team members should be working on the things that they’re uniquely qualified to be doing. They should be doing the work that anyone less experienced than them would have trouble doing well. For example, say you have someone running business development for your studio. They’re currently the lowest person on the totem pole who can confidently handle new business calls with potential big clients — no small task. This is their highest value activity. This means that they should almost always prioritize this work over anything else that comes up in the studio. Maybe they schedule a 30–60-minute slot in the afternoon to handle the day’s busy work that always seems to appear out of nowhere.

2. Start from the top of the list: On a more granular level, which is the most important aspect of business development: writing and reviewing proposals or having calls and meetings with potential clients? It’s the latter — calls and meetings with potential clients. Why? Proposals can be drafted and revised and delivered when they’re ready. Real-time communication requires full attention, careful listening, and reading between the lines. If you had to teach a junior employee to build proposals or discuss project needs with a client, which would be quicker and easier to teach? Which is a lower risk environment to learn? Right, proposals. So, if this business development person is on their own, they can prioritize the calls and meetings with clients and block off some time later to build proposals. If they have junior employees who can help them out, they would be well served to teach the junior employee how to build proposals with senior input on specific project needs. That way the more experienced (hopefully better paid) employee is prioritizing the work they’re best suited to doing while gradually taking a simpler, lower value, component of the process and offloading it to someone junior for whom it’s a higher value activity and a skill building learning experience.

Enough is enough: “Asking a junior designer to manage and guide clients in addition to creating outstanding work is just too much to ask.” –Jeff Perky, Perky Bros.

When you’re running a small studio, it’s inevitable that people will wear multiple hats. If people take on multiple roles, acknowledge it. Try to limit the roles that fall into an ambiguous “We sort of handle that together whenever we need to” territory. It’s always fine to discuss these things with other people in the studio. It’s even OK to include them in the decision making. Just make sure you know who’s responsible and who has final say. Ambiguity about responsibility always leads to things falling between the cracks. So, if you’re the creative director and also in charge of finance, that’s OK. Write it down on your responsibilities chart. This will become key to your growth plan.

Put criticism in its place: “Christian is really good at doing roman typefaces and I’m really good at doing italics. We may have had a slight argument once but I don’t even remember what it was about. It’s important to take criticism seriously but not personally. We’re all just trying to get the work to where it needs to be.” –Paul Barnes, Commercial Type
He tried to hide again

Grow people’s responsibilities by looking at yours and other key employees’ activities and then pass responsibilities on starting at the bottom of the list. As in the business development example just outlined, it’s important to see this as growing the skills of a junior studio member, not offloading shit work from a senior employee’s desk. There is value in all of the work at a studio. To a lot of people, just being in the creative environment is valuable. Help junior people see the value in their contributions.

Build core skills: “These people aren’t going to be working with me forever (although I wish they would). I’m under no illusions. Maybe they want to be a creative director or start their own place, but managing projects and selling work is something you’re going to need to be good at.” –Jeff Perky, Perky Bros.

In order to pass down responsibility, it becomes important to understand how you’re spending your time. A useful approach is to catalog your time in 30-minute increments. There are multiple ways to do this including time tracking apps, simple spreadsheets, or even a notepad. From there, examine what makes the most sense to pass down and who makes the most sense to take on the new responsibility. Some of these responsibilities should be covered in detail in your process documents (discussed in chapter four). Train people and set them up to succeed. Schedule check-ins until everything is done to your satisfaction, checking in less frequently as the work you’re reviewing becomes better.

Studio portrait circa 2010

If you feel like you can’t grow the responsibilities of the people on your team there’s one of two problems: either you’re doing a bad job of clearly explaining what you’re looking for and actually letting others take the responsibility off your shoulders, or you aren’t hiring the right people. Either way, this is your fault. Sorry. Someone had to tell you.

Recruitment and process are both the responsibilities of company leaders. Either develop a stepwise plan to train employees on new skills or find employees who have the skills and motivation. The most common issue I see is leaders telling people they want something done but not actually handing over the responsibility. People need to feel like they fully own something to take responsibility for it. As a leader, you have the responsibility to figure out when to check in and work toward checking in less frequently (or, even better, not at all). Micromanaging is a hard habit to break but it’s absolutely essential. I know you want it done a particular way. If you can’t clearly articulate that to someone else, you’ve got a problem. All this does is create a bottleneck where all work needs to get through you to get in front of clients. People won’t do their best work because they know you’ll take it over at some point and make it the way you want it. Don’t become a limiting factor to your studio’s growth.

Giving someone an assignment has three distinct components:

1. Get the ask right: Clearly state what you’re asking for. Pay attention to the language you’re using. Are you clearly explaining what you’re asking for? The majority of times I’m reviewing work that I’m not happy with, I realize that I could have more clearly articulated what I was asking for. The point isn’t to sound like a cool, easygoing boss/friend. The point is to make sure that both participants in the conversation know exactly what’s being asked for. People aren’t mind readers. Use examples, be direct, don’t mince words. Make sure you create an environment where it’s OK for them to ask questions if they’re unsure about something.

2. Define an endpoint: When would you like to check in on progress? If this is the first time you’re giving someone this type of task, set a shorter-term check-in, say, end of day. As you solidify your process and your assignments become routine, you should be checking in less frequently with the confidence that the person you assigned the task to knows what they’re doing and knows how to deal with issues should they arise. Pay close attention to when you set your check-ins. If they work well, use the same structure for new employees. If the work isn’t up to standard, speak with the person, ask questions to understand if there was a miscommunication, and set a closer goal for next time.

3. Calendar a time for review: “Check in when you’re ready” sounds confident and casual when you say it but it’s ambiguous and counterproductive. Give people a specific time to check in on progress and commit it to the calendar. I generally have the person doing the work send me an invite for a five or 15 minute check-in at the agreed upon milestone and time. Agree on the time together to make sure it works for both of you and that your employee is given enough time to do the work. Putting the check-in on the calendar provides some extra accountability.

If you put in the work to clarify roles and responsibilities you will save yourself and your studio a lot of time. People will know what they’re on the hook for and where everyone else fits in. A weak link at any point in this chain will make your car run like a Jaguar from the 80s, which is to say, unreliably. Honing roles and responsibilities will give your studiomates purpose, clear expectations and clearer deadlines. This allows you to operate more efficiently. What you do with the added time and headspace you gain is up to you. Take on more projects. Work on skill development. Rebuild a horribly unreliable Jaguar from the 80s. You choose.

Who are you looking at?” is a sneak peek at chapter seven of Run Studio Run, my book about the business side of running small creative studios. Get your copy and help support the first edition here.

It was working a minute ago