The Career Formula to ‘Creative Director’ 
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Looking Back on the Yellow Brick Road ::

The Career Question

Working with a, young, eager, ambitious junior designer, she asked (about advancing in her career), “How will I know when I am ready to be a creative director? I mean, how many years will it take?”

I thought about that for awhile.

How the heck would I know??

I had been doing this for over twenty years and never once did I think to question my own progression. Had I figured this out? My career was never crafted, nor a formula. Twenty years goes by fast. Really fast. One minute you are trying to prove yourself out of college, html coding in Mozilla for this new thing called the ‘web’ — and the next thing, you are broadcasting Facebook ‘Live’ at your daughter’s high school graduation and getting asked if you can mentor some design graduates because you are ‘seasoned’. Kids, life, technology changes…just too fast.

So back to the junior designer’s question…

Like a broken record, this just kept repeating in my head:

“You want to know the difference between a master and a beginner? The master has failed more times than the beginner has even tried.“ — Stephen McCranie

I only know more because I have failed more. (Wait, how does that not make me a failure?)

But still, ‘Creative Director’ status doesn’t come from the amount of years experience you have. Neither is it earned by the number of teams you have worked with, or even the quality of the creative you’ve been a part of. Of course, all of those combined play a part in the respect and wisdom you’ll aquire, but the real career pivoting point for me was actually the simplest thing, yet hard to do.

It’s a mindset.

So I came back and told her:

“You’ll know when you are ready to be a Creative Director when you genuinely want those around you to be better than you are — and you do everything in your power, without ego, to cultivate them to be their best (I let that sink in for a second).

When you champion others work, you really are championing yourself. You will be revered more than you ever know when you focus on the relationships instead of your name at the bottom of the credits.”

She kind of looked disappointed. I think she was assuming some master knowledge would be past down in an academic format (a, b, c…) like a Bodhi revealing celestial secrets… not a ‘state of mind’ (eye roll). Wanting other people to succeed in lieu of yourself, is difficult to live. I can imagine her thinking that she would never get any credit for her accomplishments that way.

The Truman Approach

While I was on a year contract working as the temporary-acting CD for an agency in Raleigh (while they could find a replacement for the position), one of my personal goals was to inspire the team to see the ‘big’ picture instead of the nuts and bolts. Branding over pixels, relationships over wins. They needed a mantra that was visible everyday…a reminder that they were all on the same team and should be each other’s advocates. One weekend I built some signage and put one of my favorite quotes up on the wall in the main common room:

“It’s amazing how much can be accomplished if no one cares who gets the credit.”

— President Harry S. Truman

I love this quote because it goes against most of the career advice I got when I was young, especially as a woman in my field. It was so crucial to ‘prove’ myself over and over. It was very therapeutic to put this up.

Being an ‘invisible’ hero means walking a fine line between not letting yourself get taken advantage of, while enthusiastically championing your teammates without inserting your ego. The work is a success by pushing boundaries together, not a means to an end for your personal award or byline. When young, emerging designers ask me these questions about , I ask them, “You wouldn’t take credit for your child’s accomplishments, would you?“. Unfortunately some won’t even grasp this concept until they have had children to relate it to.

Finding a creative team where all the players genuinely have this same mindset is tough, but I can see it happening more now than ever. Technology has created a pace where those who truly follow Truman’s philosophy are the game-changers. They set the standards for market disruption and set the industry standards. Trust me, people find out who they are and want them on their payroll.

Having led the creative direction on a few of these teams, I can honestly say that it is incredibly refreshing when everyone puts their heart into it and lets their guard down. They are unbreakable, and the creative is phenomenal. Oh yeah, and the work is…fun.

More often, though, it is the Creative Director’s role to setup Truman’s precedent and keep cultivating this concept until the team lives it on their own. Experience in the field (yes, making mistakes) gives you the wisdom and know-how to motivate different personality types and talents on your team. My final advice to the junior designer was that the earlier in her career she started practicing this mindset, the quicker her progression to ‘Creative Director’ would happen. That phrase sounded much more ‘Bodhi-like’ to her.

Michelle Petrie, Author

Principle: Oryx Creatives 

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