A frequent organizational topic of Creative Services leaders is clarity around career paths for designers. This is a common challenge on multiple dimensions for creative leaders. In today's post-Covid work environment, the whole working package is gaining new attention, particularly when looking through the lens of employee growth and retention. Creative leaders want to pay their people more money and provide them with more opportunities, but there isn't always a business case to support those desires. The assumption is often that the larger the team, the more opportunities that exist for advancement. But typically, the percentage of options is similar, only the frequency of opportunities is higher.

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To make more money in the creative field, designers need to gain more skills, move into management, or move on. It's a harsh reality, but staff cannot expect their employers to pay them increasingly more money for performing the same role. And yes, while in the first few years of a role there is more money to be earned as expertise increases, the rates of those increases will slow as the team member reaches the top percentile of the pay range for the role. Creative leaders must communicate to their employees when they are nearing the top of a pay band so that the staff member is not caught by surprise when future pay increases are less significant than past increases. 

Creative leaders and managers should proactively discuss career aspirations with direct reports. Often employees will tell their managers they want to be promoted--regardless of whether there is a role to promote into. It is imperative for managers to understand why a team member wants opportunities to advance their career – their motivations may include other drivers than just increased compensation.

  • Do they want to make more money?
  • Do they want to have greater influence?
  • Do they want to build subject matter expertise?
  • Do they want to pursue a specific functional interest?
  • Do they wish to mentor or develop people?
  • Are they seeking a title change?
  • Are they looking for increased business responsibilities?
  • What level of autonomy is being sought?

Knowing the answers to those questions will help managers better understand the designers' goals and their ability to support staff in attaining those goals. Learning new skills is more than mastering the latest capabilities of the new Creative Cloud release of Photoshop or InDesign. It may be diversifying skills by learning new ones such as Motion Graphics or another software or skill (e.g., UX design principles). It's having new bullets versus updated bullets on a resume. 

Many companies have had to pivot their businesses as a result of the recent pandemic – leaning more heavily than ever into “digital forward” Marketing strategies. Creative teams with traditional print design resources are feeling the shift to an even more digital focus. This is an opportunity for reimagining creative careers to support the momentum and pent-up demand that is embodied in existing and emerging new digital marketing needs.  Designer’s reskilling or upskilling needs support from Creative leadership and businesses alike to protect their resources value, especially where institutional knowledge is important. The upside is creative resources will also become higher paid or marketable in many instances. 

In addition, account management and project management are opportunities for advancement that still involve creativity and require relationship and coordination skills. These are valuable and quite essential roles in most Creative organizations. With the advent of newer Project Management technologies and Agile Marketing methodologies, these roles can further develop competencies for career advancement.

Career paths may be more linear along functional lines or zig zag across functions to follow the employee’s interests and competencies. The linear approach typically has deep functional expertise, whereas the zig zag approach is broader with training and skills. Both can eventually end up with successful roles in senior management or leadership.


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A higher order advancement of creative roles can see a middle ground where talented creatives are bridging the gap between creative and the businesses, they support with more strategic thought leadership or specialist functions such as found in Growth Marketing teams. While not a conventional management role, it provides another level of leadership that can deliver high value and recognition to advance careers.
Promoting into more traditional management roles is still not highly desired in the creative field. It's extremely important that creative leaders clearly define and articulate what a creative management role entails before advancing someone into management. It's more than instructing designers and interfacing with clients. Depending on the department's needs it can include personnel development, review writing, account management, business management, business development, and R&D activities.

Lastly...this is a difficult one to tell your people. But they'll respect you for it. If at the end of the day, their aspirations and your business needs don't align, they will need to go somewhere else to fulfill those aspirations and will appreciate your support in preparing them to be ready to make the move.

Identifying career opportunities both within the creative services organization and throughout the larger organization is an important responsibility of a creative leader. A best practice is to document the opportunities available within your department and the paths to reach those roles. Documenting a career path matrix for your team will help them understand where they should focus their skills growth, but leaders must be honest with their teams about their opportunities and how to reach them: learn new skills, professional development, join management, or move on.

Once you determine the overall organizational approach to career pathing for your creative team, there is work to do to put the processes and procedures in place to realize your vision and goals. This work can seem daunting but is manageable as you break it into smaller pieces to accomplish over time. You don’t need to go it alone. An experienced Cella consultant can offer an independent point of view and help you define the organization and implementation plan that is practical, and best suits your needs and goals. 

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