Lionel Carreon had a job many creatives dream of as a copywriter at San Francisco-based advertising agency Goodby, Silverstein & Partners. But when the firm suggested that he find another job, Carreon found himself at a career crossroads.
After some soul-searching, Carreon decided to use the situation as an opportunity to switch gears professionally. The reason? “I was let go because I wasn’t a rock star,” he explains. “The best places are meritocracies, and if you can do it, you’re rewarded. If you can’t, someone else will take your spot.”
Rather than continue on a career path that wasn’t tailored to his strengths, Carreon found a new calling working as a creative recruiter for San Francisco-based AKQA, which recently was named digital agency of the year by Adweek. A key takeaway from the experience for Carreon was to do what you’re really good at, which in his case is identifying talent.
This lesson is timeless but especially apropos during periods of economic uncertainty. When budgets tighten, the most valuable people often take up the spots in a company’s “lifeboat,” while those who aren’t as vital may be left behind.
Following are five tips that can help you do so.
1. Put your skills to the test
So what is it that makes you indispensable to your employer or team? What can you do really well that few others within your firm do as well? If you’re having a hard time coming up with ideas, it’s time to revamp your skill set. Identify abilities that are in strong demand, both within your company and in general. For example, if you’re someone with traditional design skills, consider adding in-demand digital talents.
Also, master processes or activities that are instrumental to your organization—particularly those that make your manager’s job easier. “Creative directors protect people who they have a hard time envisioning doing their job without,” Carreon says.
Don’t wait until your career hits the skids to diversify your skill set and increase your marketability. The best time to take action is when you’re in a good place professionally. If you’re angling to hone your CSS skills, for instance, your firm may subsidize training—a far more desirable option than funding it yourself.
2. Be Ms. (or Mr.) Congeniality
Hard skills aren’t the only ones that can earn staff members a spot in the lifeboat. When budgets constrict, spirits sag. If your presence lifts the collective mood, your manager has one more reason to keep you. All firms prize people who can mentor new team members, talk a client off the ledge and build consensus on projects. In fact, these “softer” traits often are more highly regarded than specific how-to abilities because managers feel they can more easily teach someone a process or software program than fine-tune their people skills.
The ability to work well with others may play an even more significant role if you work in-house, according to Glenn John Arnowitz, director of creative services at Wyeth, a global pharmaceutical company based in Madison, NJ. “Because of the broad range of departments within a corporation, there are more opportunities to build lasting relationships that can strengthen the department, so it’s important to have good communication skills,” he says.
One relatively painless way to enhance your communication abilities is to observe those who excel in this area. Notice how they craft their messages or deliver tough news. If your role models seem open to it, you might ask them to mentor you. In addition, many firms offer training courses that can help you improve your people skills.
3. Place some feathers in your cap
Communicating well with others boosts your career prospects, and so does spreading the word about your accomplishments. Many creatives feel reluctant to highlight their achievements because it feels like bragging, but those who are most adept at building visibility do so without coming across as egomaniacs. Here are a couple of ideas that can help you draw attention to your triumphs:
Issue reports. Even if they aren’t requested, let your manager know that you’d like to send weekly status updates. This provides a vehicle for keeping your supervisor informed of your contributions.
Thank the team. Call attention to successes by sending an e-mail recognizing those who helped with a group effort, and copy relevant managers.
Pass it along. Receive a gushing e-mail from a client? Be sure to forward it to your manager, taking care to position it in context: Try “Wow—this really worked well; we should do this more often,” not, “I’m on fire! Score another victory for me!”
4. Bend and flex
Don’t save these moves for the gym; instead, make them your work mantra. In lean times, companies need people to pinch hit and increase efficiencies. “As a department, we pride ourselves on being very resourceful and accommodating any request, no matter how difficult,” Arnowitz says. When corporate belt-tightening occurs, firms appreciate dexterity all the more. So make a point of volunteering for less-than-glamorous projects that can yield tangible results. For example, you might offer to spruce up the company’s sales presentations. Your ability to help the team generate new business is sure to be appreciated.
5. Plan for the worst
Even if you’re a dyed-in-the-wool optimist, always have a “Plan B” for your career. The first step is to update your résumé and portfolio. This not only prepares you to launch an instant job search, but also gives you a sense of any skills gaps you should fill. For example, if you notice most of the samples in your portfolio are similar, you might seek out a new type of assignment or take on a pro-bono project.
It’s also wise to nurture your network. The best time to approach new people is when you don’t need anything from them, so make an effort to build relationships while you’re happily employed. Websites such as LinkedIn and design:related allow you to connect with new contacts from the comfort of your own home. But don’t underestimate the power of face-to-face meetings. Participate in organizations such as InSource, a group for in-house creatives co-founded by Arnowitz, or local AIGA chapters or Adobe Users Groups.
It’s only natural to feel uneasy when companies start to batten down the financial hatches, but taking action can ease your anxiety and reinvigorate your career. Arnowitz sums it up this way: “You have to keep reinventing yourself to stay fresh and competitive. Find your voice and where your value lies, and above all, be passionate.”
Julie Sims is director of communications strategy for The Creative Group, a specialized staffing service placing creative professionals, and HOW’s official career partner.
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