What’s Next for Creative Leaders: Influence Without Management

We all now how the story goes for the traditional path of a creative career. An apprentice learns their craft from a master, they then master their skills, and then they become a master in their own right, which often includes taking on apprentices of their own (typically in the form of staff). It’s what comes next after managing people (being a master) that has occupied my thoughts for a few years now.

I always thought that being the boss was the golden ring  and that having a team to manage, coach, and mentor was the pinnacle, or end goal, of a career. But having managed several teams, I’ve realized that that is not necessarily true. Yes, managing people does come with perks such as better compensation and even training. But in terms of the career path, that role is really about training the next generation of Masters. You’re a coach, not a boss, and you’re guiding the team for great work and the next big win both today and tomorrow.

image from Getty

What’s next? Influencing Others, Not Managing Them

As a manager, you need to split your time between managing and doing creative work. I can tell you from experience, that managing is hard work. Really hard, time-consuming work. To do it right, you need to give up a lot of the doing creative work in lieu of managing the process of how the work gets done, and ensuring a high level of quality. It’s not just “move it up, move it over, and change the color” of art direction. It’s performance reviews, budget allocation, air traffic control, meetings … lots of meetings.

At some point, you can choose to pass the torch of management to someone else (perhaps even your own apprentice). This doesn’t mean hanging up your coat and hat or throwing in the towel. What I’m talking about is taking back the reins and doing creative work of some kind. Now it’s time to lead, without managing.

Consider a path where you’re taking all of your experience and expertise and using them in the most influential ways possible, without necessarily managing a team. You get to do what you really do well, which is be creative. You get to influence others (people, business, clients) through your creativity and passion for your craft, using all of the expertise and knowledge accumulated over the course of your career.

What’s Next for Creative Leaders

In my role as president of InSource, I’ve had the opportunity to speak with several in-house creative leaders about the “what’s next” question. Here are some of the big ideas I’ve learned thus far from experiences of in-house leaders who have found their own version of that what’s next.

Hang out your shingle. For many in-house (and agency) creative leaders, the next step is going out on their own as a consultant or starting your own agency. You’re ready to give up the stability of a pay check and benefits for the exhilaration of serving your own clients and working on a diverse variety of projects.

Teaching, full-time. What better way to influence others than by doing it full-time as a college professor? When you teach full-time, you often are required to perform some kind of work that maintains your status as an industry expert, such as limited client work, writing, speaking, etc.

Change your corporate role. For some in-house leaders, staying in-house is preferred and in fact, the loyalty and desire to influence the brand is still very high. Those of us who have seen the corporate role and pay range sheets know that high-level individual contributor positions can earn as much as department leaders. So instead of leaving, maybe there is a way to influence from within? Consider becoming an individual contributor again, performing at a very high level as a creative strategist or similar role.

One industry leader I know even switched departments altogether to Human Resources of all places. Vanessa Dewey was recently profiled by InSource where she described how she has shifted her career within Mattel:

“Until recently, I was an art director for packaging and branding. I’ve transitioned into a new role where I inspire, educate, connect, and celebrate creative at Mattel. Overall, I’m supporting a creations company that instills the wonder of childhood. One project that I’m working on right now is a podcast based on the idea that everyone at Mattel can be a creative. Ultimately, I want to connect with these inspiring peers and to celebrate them.”

Vanessa’s story is a great example of someone who has found a way to utilize her passion, experience, and expertise in a way that continues to be valuable for Mattel. She’s done that within the company she’s been working at for a number of years already as well.

So when it comes to creative leadership, your “what’s next” is really limited only by your own imagination. Take some time to develop your own ideas of what that might look like, and start planning for the day when you’re ready to take that big leap.


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