The Speakers Speak: Emily Cohen discusses proactive strategies

The Speakers Speak is a series of insightful interviews with the 2011 InHOWse Conference presenters. This week, Emily Cohen, partner at Cohen-Miller Consulting, discusses the realities of corporate culture and high-level strategies for addressing those challenges.

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I know you’ve been consulting for a number of Fortune 50 companies. From your perspective, what are some of the biggest opportunities available to designers working in corporations today that they may not be taking advantage of?

In-house designers limit themselves by purely positioning themselves as designers and not design-thinkers or problem-solvers. They also contribute to the “us vs. them” divisive culture that often exists between in-house design teams and their clients (often marketing).

The biggest opportunity, then, is for designers working in-house to be more proactive and offer strategic solutions to solve their client’s business objectives by positioning themselves as design thinkers and partners, not as reactive in-house vendors. In-house designers often complain they are not thought of as value-added partners to their clients. Yet, many in-house designers expect that level of respect automatically, when, in actuality, they really need to earn it and prove it. That takes an equal mix of fortitude, confidence, great personality, business-savvy and true talent.

How about the biggest challenges?

The two primary challenges faced by most in-house designers are compressed schedules and unclear, multi-layered and subjective approvals. Yet these are symptoms of a much larger underlying problem, which is that in-house design teams need to focus on operations far more than they currently do. We often see creative teams that lack overarching operational roles, yet they have project or account managers who are simply fighting-fires and working to solve daily project-level issues. Most design teams need dedicated operational resources that focus on big-picture operational improvement areas such as technology, performance metrics, workflow/process management and resource forecasting. Without that operational attention – it’s really hard to overcome many inherent challenges faced by in-house teams, including unrealistic deadlines and layered approvals.

As a consultant what is the biggest challenge you’ve faced in working with corporations?

Corporate politics. Most companies – large and small – often have unwieldy internal politics or stagnant cultures that are averse to change. Overcoming or working within engrained politics is the hardest but most important challenge consultants and in-house teams have to address and navigate in order to do their jobs effectively.

If there is one piece of advice you’d give to an in-house designer, what would it be?

Build strong internal relationships with clients and colleagues alike. Those in-house designers and creative teams that are truly successful have focused on building authentic, one-on-one mutually beneficial relationships with their clients as well as with many individuals at the executive level. If you are respected and trusted by a variety of internal stakeholders, you build a much-needed network of internal advocates. Advocates will forgive your mistakes and provide guidance and support when you or your department needs it.

What books, conferences, blogs and periodicals would you recommend to the innie community?

Well, your blog (of course), as well as IHAF and InSource – both organizations focused on the issues faced by in-house corporate creative managers.

Books I love include:

Designing Brand Identity by Alina Wheeler and, for change management strategies, Switch by Chip and Dan Heath. Of course there is the classic book Orbiting the Giant Hairball, A Corporate Fool’s Guide to Surviving with Grace by Gordon MacKenzie that I try to read yearly.

Could you give us a hint about what you’ll be presenting at the InHOWse Conference?

This event is for those managing and working with different generations that are bewildered by their colleagues’ behaviors. Millenials can’t relate to Baby Boomers who are willing work crazy hours and “don’t have a life”. Alternatively, Baby Boomers don’t trust the younger generation who seem “distracted by various social networks, unfocused and have unrealistic career expectations”. Attendees will learn how to identify generational challenges and leverage them for a more successful team.

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