From Mercenary to Manager

Graduating from Freelancer to a Creative Professional

Anytime we begin a creative project at Neutral Design Studio, we are often faced with a myriad of questions.

In creative professions having creative talent makes you a mercenary. Knowing the right questions to ask makes you a creative professional.

The mercenary is capable of creating anything. With their client or boss over their shoulder they can work wonders. Everyone loves working with talented mercenaries because they know how to create and build quickly, without asking questions. Mercenaries are necessary and valuable to any organization. Don’t you forget that.

However, if you are reading this, then it’s because you now must transition from a mercenary to a manager. As you begin your journey, keep these ideas close to your heart and never stop learning.

Your goal is to be paid for the quality of your work not the time you dedicate to it. Building business models, branding, and design research are just a few examples of the types of work that is highly strategic and paid based on quality. In order to reach this level you must understand the potential factors that will lead to your demise so you can avoid them.

At this level of uncertainty there are too many factors to focus on in one article, so we will look at three of the more fundamental aspects to being a successful creative professional.

Know Yourself

As designers we often know ourselves better than many other professionals know themselves. We know our favorite fonts, ads, design blogs, you name it. Ask a creative professional about their work and you’re asking for your ear to be talked off. In other words, we are highly aware of our creative vision or aesthetic and want everyone to know more about it and us. We can paint a highly illustrative picture of our technical skill set. While we have a strong grasp of our technical skillset we still lack the ability to estimate what our emotional capabilities are.

How do you deal with others? How do you deal with conflict?

The way you are able to anticipate and deal with failure can have a lasting impact on your potential as a leader or manager. Being able to understand and deal with those emotions is what matters. As a manager, how you deal with failure will directly impact those around you. If you are someone that overreacts under the tiniest amount of conflict then your peers will undoubtedly notice this. To find out what type of person you are then ask yourself some of the questions below.

Some specific examples:

  • Does your personal life strongly effect your work performance?
  • When you are criticized, do you often go on the defensive instead of listening?
  • Can your coworkers easily recall the last time you had a bad day?

If you can answer in the affirmative for several of these questions then it is time to do some self-reflecting. As a manager you have to take more responsibility for your actions. If you are a mercenary you are responsible for the work you produce, but as a manager you are also responsible for other people.

When you are responsible for others, then it is no longer just about you. Your boss, your clients, your customers, everyone else becomes your priority. At this level everyone becomes less sympathetic, but conversely you need to become more so. You need to become keenly attuned to your bosses’, your clients’, and your coworkers’ needs and desires.

Know Your Boss

No matter who you are you will have a boss. Even Mark Zuckerberg has a board of directors and investors he reports to. An important part of being a boss is knowing how to deal with your bosses.

Your boss may take on many forms. They could be a senior partner, mentor, or some young manager. Regardless of who your boss is, there are two things you must know about them for you to maintain a good relationship: their desires and their weaknesses.

The desires of your boss matter more than anything else. Do they want to make money? Are they trying to spend as little time as possible working? Do they seek power and want to control everything that comes their way? Knowing the kind of boss you have allows for you to better understand their workflow.

One of the reasons you need to know about your boss’s desires is that it allows you creative freedom. We love autonomy and the ability to work on projects or test ideas with little to no oversight. In order to work in this kind of environment and get paid for it then we need to have the support of the people that are paying us.

Ideally we work in an environment that is free of office politics and bureaucracy. Realistically we deal with both of these issues and then some. Fortunately it is not necessary to have the support of the masses to build anything substantive, you only need one benefactor. This benefactor nearly always turns out to be your boss. They may be the one that supports you financially or politically and/or have decision-making power over you. Have the support of these few people and you can do anything you’ve ever imagined.

Knowing the weaknesses of your boss does not to imply some Machiavellian notion that you can stage a coup against them. It is important to know your bosses’ weakness because inevitably it will become your weakness. Do they constantly micromanage? Are they creating a hostile environment for your coworkers? Will they overlook important but tiny details? Knowing their weakness is critical because it is your job to show competency in that area. Of course this doesn’t mean that your boss gets a free pass. Give them shit for their mistake privately, but externally everything should always appear in control.

Know Your Client

One of the most important parts of being a manager is working with the client. Anyone that works in a client-facing industry knows that the industry is notorious for trash-talking about their clients when the lights are off. I’m sure you’ve said your fair share of four-letter words when the client isn’t around because they are such an easy scapegoat. However, don’t fall into this trap. It is destructive to yourself and your work environment. There is no better way to create a hostile environment than by creating a target for everyone to shoot at.

When you begin a working relationship with your next client try to learn more about them and understand how and why they work. Do they have a boss they are reporting to? Is it more important to complete the project quickly or thoroughly? What does the worst case scenario look like? Build a relationship by asking the right questions so you can build a strong foundation of understanding.

Bear in mind that you can just as easily ruin a relationship by asking the wrong questions. Here are a few questions to avoid during your first encounter.

Don’t Ask

What is your budget?

I never ask the budget of a project before I know the scope of a project. Finding out how much money there is before you know how much work is required makes you look greedy. It is important to ask this question but not during the first point of contact.

When are you free?

Coordinating and communication are often the most frustrating part of dealing with busy clients. Simply ask for the client’s personal phone number and email. They will either give you that information or give you the contact information of their second in command.

How fast do you want this done?

Never give the client the ability to choose the timeline of a project. It is your responsibility to be educated about the time and energy it takes to complete your work. By asking the client this question you are essentially handing them your power of project management. There will be rare cases that a client will pay a premium for speed, but other than that, work off of your own timeline and try not to negotiate.

Instead Ask

What is your preferred method and time of communication?

What is your timeline for the project?

Time and Emotion

The human element is the hardest to manage when time is the most important asset. In creative businesses there are hardly any costs except time. To be a successful creative manager means knowing how to manage that time and work with others in a way that doesn’t detract from the quality of your work.

As a creative manager or mercenary then you will eventually learn to navigate this emotional mine field or stay in your comfort zone. While you continue your journey you will choose to either grow personally or become comfortable with where you are.

Keep learning and stay uncomfortable.

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