This past fall we hosted a CreativeExecs Roundtable Series entitled "How To Move From Order Taker To Strategic Partner" which resulted in a lively and engaging conversation among the creative leaders in attendance. Across each roundtable meeting, several questions came up repeatedly. This blog is dedicated to discussing the first of those questions--additional questions will be addressed in my blogs across the coming months.

Question #1:
What is the major "issue" we may encounter
in the transition toward becoming a strategic partner?


Answer #1:
Fear. There may be others, but none is so important
as anticipating, recognizing and managing fear.

Change scares people, and being scared usually manifests as fight or flight. For most employees it's fight and that's understandable; people are trying to protect their jobs before they even know if their job is in danger. This affects both parties--your team and your clients. There will likely be a mix of responses from your team and you'll need to adjust your approach to help them get on board with your initiative.

The Excited Bunch

Some will "get it" and are excited. These will probably be the people who have worked outside in a variety of companies or perhaps external agencies before joining your team. For this audience, all you do is open up the doors and let their ideas in. Empower them to share ideas, to be a role model, to take action by reaching out to your clients. Be sure they're ready to reach out in a professional manner, or you'll have a bull in a china shop situation that can backfire and hinder cross departmental partnership.

The Worried Group

Some will worry because they don't understand what you're asking of them. These may be the junior-level designers who want to impress you and succeed. They're unsure of themselves anyway and this abstract request makes them uneasy. This group needs a boost of energy and tons of examples. Partner them with a person from the "get it" group, and let them fly with close supervision. Let them know that failing is the way to succeed, make it safe for them to go for it.

The Complacent Gang

Some will wonder why anything has to change. "It was fine!" they say. These are likely the people who have grown up at your company and haven't changed what they've done for the past 20 years. This is the hardest group to bring along because they're weighted down by inertia and lack of interest in this or most efforts to evolve. With this group, you need to consider the value each person brings to the department and company, and then make some hard decisions. Maybe she's right for the company and should be in a role that doesn't require strategic thinking. Maybe he needs to move on. Each department has a mix of strategic and tactical opportunities. This group usually ends up in the tactical roles and is happy about it. Even so, it's important to be sure you haven't enabled a bad apple to spoil the bunch. Even if they don't want to be strategic, they need to support it.

Now let's look at the fear on the part of your clients.

The Cheerleaders

Some will "get it" and be excited. They're true partners who understand collaboration, collegiality and creativity. Empower them to partner with your team members who also "get it." Ask to sit together (permanently or for a meeting), brainstorm, and communicate regularly. Look for opportunities for them to act as your Ambassador to help other clients feel more comfortable with the change in your role.

The Threatened Clients

Some will be certain you want their job. They will run from your partnership and try to squash it because they don't see it as partnership. This is the most delicate of all the areas you have to tackle. With your team, you can force it to some degree because they report to you and their job is on the line. With this group, there is little recourse if they don't buy into you being a strategic partner unless you have incredible support from above. And even then, it takes grace and patience to help a horse actually drink the water the boss has led her to.

The Disbelievers

Unfortunately some clients have likely pigeonholed your team as executers--tier 3 contributors--and have not experienced partnership in the form of collaboration and even leadership from your team. For these clients you need to find opportunities to chip away at that misperception by taking on small projects that addresses their disbelief and by sharing examples of projects you've done for others. Also, ask your Ambassadors to give a you reference or testimonial.

Your Ambassador client is the key to success. Having a client state how wonderfully helpful it was to have your partnership is received as a testimonial rather than a demand. A testimonial is soft, a gentle tug towards partnership. You just need to be ready to receive them with grace and compassion for how scary this new type of relationship might feel for them.

Fear can manifest in so many ways--anger, blame, tears and more. The more you prepare and care for people though words and action, the better the transition will go.