From creative to leader: how to handle the transition

It’s unavoidable for most creatives: they will inevitably end up in leadership positions.

Data analysis from PayScale suggests that when creatives such as designers or copywriters advance in their careers, they usually take on a managerial role or pick a specialization. For graphic designers, their next step could be becoming a web designer or an art director. Copywriters can take on more senior writing roles or become a marketing manager.

Images from PayScale Copywriter and Graphic Designer Salary Reports

Another takeaway from PayScale’s analysis is that management skills have a positive effect on the salaries for these leadership positions, while more specific hands-on skills tend to have a negative effect. For example, project management, strategy, people management, and leadership skills tend to have a positive effect on salary, while skills in specific software or marketing techniques affect salary negatively.

Images from PayScale Copywriter, Graphic Designer, Creative Director, and Marketing Manager Salary Reports

In other words, if you want to be valuable in a leadership role, you’re going to need a completely different set of skills than you had when you were a hands-on creative.


Adjusting to a leadership role

Shifting from production work into leadership and management work can seem like a huge leap at first. There are many changes you have to get used to, from your daily tasks to how you’ll relate to the other creatives working with you. Here are some of the differences you’ll need to adjust to:

Less hands-on work

For many creatives, there’s a question at the back of their minds as they’re formally taking on leadership roles: Does this mean I’ll stop being a designer/writer/developer/creative? The more you enjoy doing the creative aspects of your work, the more reluctant you’ll be about possibly letting them go.

Cap Watkins, currently VP of Design at BuzzFeed, faced similar questions when he transitioned from designer to manager while working at Etsy. Blogging about this experience, Watkins wrote that after managing a couple of designers, his design time was dwindling. He joked with other design leads that there would come a time when they would stop designing. He wrote:

“My design time began rapidly decreasing and suddenly I could see the end on the horizon. That no-more-designing joke amongst the leads was no longer a joke and I was hit with what, for a time, became a nagging fear. Was this really what I wanted? Was I giving up design for good? What if I fell behind on the latest UX trends or front-end implementation methods?”

These fears were unfounded. As a design manager, Watkins still had to work with design problems and give feedback. Likewise, other creatives-turned-leaders might find themselves giving similar direction to the people they manage. But rather than being hands-on with the final output, you’re working more as an adviser and, in some cases, as a mentor. To do this job properly, you’ll still have to keep in touch with your creative side. Stay updated with the latest standards and breakthroughs in your field. Try doing hands-on work once in a while, even for small parts of your team’s projects or on your own personal projects.

Working with more people

Compared to doing creative work, which usually involves just answering to your direct supervisor, leadership roles require you to work with many different stakeholders. Apart from the team you lead, this includes your peers, your own manager or director, and perhaps even clients. Their different needs will make it seem like you’re being pulled in different directions. Understanding and managing these needs will be a significant part of your job.

More administrative tasks

Your schedule and energy will now have to accommodate managerial tasks that might not have much to do with your creative field. You’ll play bigger roles in meetings, conference calls, performance reviews, training, and hiring. As a leader, you’ll be running things more than just working on them.

For example, as a copywriter in a meeting, it would have been possible to focus only on your deliverables, feedback, and next actions. As a leader, you would now have to be active in understanding and expressing all the moving parts of the project — including design, development, scheduling, and client support — not just the ones under your creative expertise.

Learning business and management skills

You’ve spent years learning your creative skills, but they won’t be enough to make you an effective leader. The changes above are so dramatic that you’ll likely need to become more proactive with learning new skills just to keep up.

Additional learning can be especially useful for creatives who have been working hands-on for most of their career. In an article for the Association of Registered Graphic Designers, Laura Piche, a designer turned marketing manager, writes about being offered a managing position after 25 years of being a hands-on designer. After declining the offer three times, Piche was given the opportunity to take a marketing and business program to fill in the gaps in her knowledge.

While you don’t necessarily have to take formal courses, learning more about project management, leadership, and honing your soft skills can go a long way. Look for bookspodcasts, events, and workshops that match what you need to learn for the role you’re filling.


Your upcoming challenges

There are problems that tend to happen in the early stages of a creative stepping into a leadership role for the first time. Anticipate these problems so that you can be ready with a solution when they arrive. Here are some common issues that new leaders face:

Reacting to challenges as a creative

As you face new problems, it will be a force of habit to handle them like a creative worker rather than a leader. For example, you might be tempted to take on revisions yourself. Or, if you sense conflict among the team, you might keep your head down and focus on your tasks rather than deal with it head on.

Rather than giving knee-jerk reactions or acting on your creative’s instinct, whenever you encounter a challenge, ask yourself, “What would a good leader do in this situation? What does the team need me to do?” This will help your mindset adjust to the new responsibilities you have to shoulder.

Managing too much or too little

Part of adjusting to your new role also means finding the sweet spot between managing too much or too little. For insight, review your experiences as a creative. When were your managers helpful and when were they getting in the way? Among the managers and directors you’ve worked with in the past, who made you feel that you had enough freedom to explore while giving you a firm direction to work with as well? Perhaps they have traits or habits you can emulate.

Keep in mind that with your new role, you’ll occasionally miss doing hands-on work. When that happens, resist the urge to “hover”—micro-managing your creatives’ tasks as they’re performing them. Hovering art directors and creative directors are so commonplace that they’ve become an inside joke in the industry. Your new role requires that you give creatives the space to do their work well. This means becoming more of a leader than a manager.

Resentment from creative peers

You might also be on the receiving end of the resentment of your creative peers who feel like they’ve been passed over for promotion or that you are now acting “bossy” towards them. While it’s natural that your interpersonal dynamics will change, check your own behavior to see if you’re being unnecessarily dominant. If they’re not being disruptive to the project and it doesn’t directly affect the quality of the team’s work, try to understand their perspective as they adjust to the changes. After all, handling team conflict is likely part of your job now.

Accountability and credit

When it comes to collaborating, who exactly gets the credit when a project goes well—and who is accountable when it doesn’t? For the authorship of ideas, most professional organizations have clear standards, which is ideal for creative teams to review and follow. The AIGA, for example, states that professional designers should not claim sole credit for collaborations, and to identify their specific contributions and responsibilities in a project.

In practice, however, it’s a little trickier. Given their leadership role and their direct line to other supervisors and executives in a company, managers can easily take all the credit without taking the blame, if they wanted to. This can be avoided if, from the very beginning, the team is clear on who is responsible for what, and members are made accountable for their own contributions.


The creative leader

As a creative becoming a leader, you’re working with the best of both worlds. Your hands-on experience allows you to understand your team in a way that someone from a purely theoretical background can’t. At the same time, your new role will give you the skills and opportunities to communicate and deliver creative ideas on a larger scale. While not all creatives have to end up on a leadership track, it’s still good to know what’s in store for you in case you choose that path.

Post by Celine Roque

Celine Roque is an independent author and marketer focused on entrepreneurship, marketing, and creative work. Her writing has appeared in Gigaom and The Content Strategist.