Building a team

Picture 13

The penultimate set of Q&As that Bill Beachy asked me to contribute for his forthcoming book, Drawn to Business.

These questions are mainly related to building a team and employing designers. Sign-up here to receive updates on Drawn To Business prior to its publication. There will be lots of other designers contributing, so it should be a great resource for anyone who is thinking of striking out alone or building a team.

Do you have any words of advice on hiring employees?
I’ve employed several designers on a full-time basis over the last 10 years – and I’ve never regretted a hire. I would always check out their references, make sure you actually like them and want to spend seven hours a day with them. I would talk at length about design in the interview, set them a project to do as part of the interview process, and invite them into your studio for two days’ trial when it’s down to the last couple of candidates. After that, schedule regular appraisals and give them all the support they need.

How do you know when you need to hire a new employee?
I think when the use of freelancers becomes financially questionable – or if a new client commits to a more regular stream of work, then it’s good to have someone embedded more permanently.

Do you have any good stories or advice that relates to employees or hiring?
I had a mentor for a few years. He’d been at the top of the design business for two decades, having founded a great design company that had well over 200 employees, won countless awards and had offices in four countries. His agency never dropped out of the top ten agencies in the Design Week Top 100. He once said to me, “You’ll never get any major headaches from your clients that can’t be fixed – the real problems will be with the people you employ.” At the time I thought this sounded a bit off. I was new to employing people and everything was going well. Even though I’ve never experienced major problems with anyone I employed, I could see what he was getting at after a year or two. Employing people is a big responsibility. You have to invest in them and make sure they’re developing. But at the end of the day, to most of them it’s just a job. I found this hard to understand at first. No one will be as committed to the company’s success as you, the owner. Your employees will work hard, do great work and be a joy to spend time with. But it can be hard not to take it personally when things inevitably go wrong from time to time. You need to be open and honest with your team, you need to lay down clear boundaries and expectations, and then you need to get out of the way and let them get on with it – knowing they’ve got your support when they need it. It’s tough – much harder than managing a client relationship, but it’s so very rewarding too. I get a big kick out of seeing my designers do something better than I could have done it. But at times you have to have difficult conversations – and that never gets any easier.

What’s your management style/philosophy?
I’m very laid back on the whole. I’ve become better at setting really clear expectations for the team, and I’ve learnt to then back off and leave them to it, although I’m there if they need me. As a team we have Monday morning status meetings, which take an hour or so. We run through the week’s projects, check the status on each project and divvy up tasks. I encourage the team to take an interest in each other’s work – we often pass jobs backwards and forwards depending on the tasks. It’s easy to do that as a small team.

Do you have any bonus/incentive programs? How do those work?
We have a saying: “No input, no output.” That means we make sure we invest in ourselves as creative individuals. This manifests in our studio as having approximately 3-7 hours a week to dedicate to personal projects or career development. There’s no set day of the week when we use this recharge time – the designers decide when best to use it depending on their workload. It can be taken as a whole day, two half days, four quarters days, etc. It can be used at home, in the park, at a museum, in a café or in the studio. We only have one rule, and that is that the recharge time is spent recharging the creative batteries – and that it isn’t used for freelance work. I believe that giving our team this time away from their desk is so important to the development of creativity. The team member feels trusted, they do better work and the clients get a sharp creative mind on their projects. On top of that we offer paid leave between Christmas and New Year that is additional to the 25 days’ holiday the team gets. Annual bonuses are performance-based. 5% of the yearly profits are put into a pot and divided equally between everyone. We aim to run a progressive and democratic studio, where the emphasis is investing in the welfare of the team.

Do you have any stories or words of wisdom on management?
You simply cannot avoid it if you’re going to go beyond being a one-man band. I would say it’s by far the most nerve-wracking thing to do, taking on your first employee. It gets easier. And it’s by far the most rewarding thing to do, too. Seeing great work produced by someone you picked from dozens of CVs, and hearing how happy a client is to work with that person is one of the biggest kicks in the business for me. People like feedback – they like to know when they’re doing good work and they like to be recognised for it. A bottle of wine, an unexpected day off or a team lunch every now and then can really bond a team together, and it is a great way to say ‘thanks for the hard work’. And it feels good to do those things. Gives you a reminder about why some of the, inevitable, challenging times are worth it.

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