The Speakers Speak: Jackie Schaffer Discusses Career Tracks

The Speakers Speak is a series of insightful interviews with the 2011 InHOWse Conference presenters. Last week Jim Woods talked about how to best position an in-house team. In this post Jackie Schaffer, Vice President and General Manager of Cella, looks at how individual in-house designers can set themselves up for success in their companies.


I know you’ve been consulting for a number of 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?

We typically work with the leadership ranks of the creative organizations and based on the outcomes of our engagements, I would encourage more designers to be open with their managers about (1) their career ambitions and (2) challenges they encounter in their current roles. Regarding career ambitions, designers shouldn’t be overwhelmed to respond with their 10-year goal or with a specific role. Just make sure your manager knows what you enjoy most about your job and what you want to do more of and then ask their support in determining what a logical next step to work toward might be.  When discussing challenges with your managers, please don’t provide a list of problems. Proactively share what you’ve done to try and address the challenge and other ideas of you may have—sharing your thought process and demonstrating you are investing in helping solve the challenge will show your manager that you aren’t just complaining, but are truly investing in improving the department.

How about the biggest challenges?

This one is a tough one, because I don’t think most people want to hear the answer. Being an in-house designer means you provide a function for your company that is not the core competency of the company. For example, if you are a designer at a pharmaceutical company, you don’t research, manufacture, or sell the product. And while marketing strategy is extremely important to the success of these products and creative execution of that strategy is also important, it’s not the company’s core service. What this means is there are less opportunities for career advancement for those in the creative department versus someone in sales or product development. That doesn’t mean there isn’t opportunity, but creative team members need to recognize that sometimes the best career opportunities are outside of their current company, not always within in it. The other part about advancement that designers need to keep in mind is that to make more money you need to learn new skills and your business must have a need for those new skills to pay you for them.

Designers generally take one of two career paths: the “star track” or management. Let’s be honest, most designers don’t want anything to do with a management role—it’s counterintuitive to what makes them tick as a designer. The “star track” is often not well developed at most companies, but designers can partner with their managers to develop one. This track should provide a career path for rock-star individual contributors. But to be clear, it’s not just about being good at your job. It’s about being an innovator and consistently upgrading of your skill set.

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

For one reason or another, some corporations are “hand-cuffed” to employees. This presents itself in a few different ways:

  • For some corporations it’s extremely difficult to dismiss employees even when poor performance exists
  • Employees may be compensated too highly which leads to creative teams with very low turnover which has benefits but can also lead to complacency and staleness—some level of turnover is healthy. Low turnover makes it difficult for leadership to bring in new skill sets as the business changes which can lead to the team not being able to deliver against new-in-kind requests, specifically in the emerging media categories. And while on the surface overcompensating staff sounds like a good thing for the staff, it also handcuffs them to a job they may no longer be satisfied by
  • Organizations have designed their org charts and services around individual’s skill sets instead of the organization’s needs which can lead to too heavy a reliance on single individuals

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

Don’t expect that your manager or your organization will map out your career path for you—take ownership of this conversation…it’s your career! And try and remove titles from your goals, articulate your goals by identifying the tasks and responsibilities you want to master.

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

While I think it’s very important to gain insight into how the in-house community operates and I do believe there are significant differences—I advise designers and leaders not to limit their education to only experiences dedicated to the in-house community. That said, there are some great resources specific to the “innie” community. For creative leaders and managers, I have to recommend the In-HOWse conference and blog, as well as Cella’s CreativeExecs blog and Beyond the Creative training. And for all in-house creative team members if the term “Design Thinking” is new to you, start reading and researching starting with Daniel Pink’s “A Whole New Mind.”

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

Of course! I’ll be presenting on the three major financial models that in-house teams are structured under—allocation, chargeback and a hybrid approach. I’ll spend most the session discussing the key benefits of chargeback models and time tracking, as well as what creative leaders need to consider when they advocate for a chargeback model. Many creative leaders tend to think that becoming a chargeback department is a silver bullet to solving their challenges—so we’ll also discuss the drawbacks.

One thought on “The Speakers Speak: Jackie Schaffer Discusses Career Tracks

  1. L_S

    Thanks for the great article!

    I’m the print designer in a three person art department at a high end manufacturer. We are growing as a company – we have been for some time now. My workload has been increasing steadily for the last few years and demand for more creative ads and printed pieces has never been higher.

    In my review this year, I asked about growth potential. My boss knows I want to move up and I’ve been demonstrating my abilities for several years now. He proposed that we (he and I) sit down and look at how the structure of our department could expand. Very exciting.

    I’m interested in hearing about the organizational structure of other in-house teams.

    Can anyone out there chime in with how your in-house team is set up?