Promoting your work, establishing yourself as an expert, and delivering on your promises are key characteristics of designers who survive and thrive in the corporate environment.
Gain Trust and Keep Your Commitments
Several years ago, I managed a large in-house design team. I occasionally encountered individuals who felt unhappy about their current employment or felt undervalued and not recognized for their contribution. They often blamed others for their current situation or developed a sour attitude that affected their work. A good designer can develop self-destructive behaviors because of her failure to work on, what I like to call, design survival skills. The solution isn't job-hopping to try and find a company that will value her skills, but developing the ability to promote her skills and contributions by gaining trust and increasing visibility. These simple steps can make the difference between being given new and innovative projects, gaining trust from upper management, increase earning potential, or being pushed into a frustrated corner to deteriorate in skills and abilities.
Survival of the Fittest
Working on a corporate team is similar to playing on a sports team. Imagine yourself on a basketball court, playing a game. Someone passes you the ball and you take a shot. You miss. The next time you're back under the basket and open, chances are no one is going to pass to you. You have to find another way to regain the trust of your team, perhaps rebounding an opponent's shot and assisting in a play, but you probably won't have another opportunity like your first one. Imagine what would have happened if you had made that first shot. You would have been passed the ball much more often and become a valuable member of the team. You need to build trust by succeeding when you're given the ball.
On a large design team, there is typically a hierarchy of players. Some seem to be the rock stars and get the newest and hardest projects, while others get the "crumbs" or the leftover work. The crumbs are the grunt work, the company picnic flyer, the direct mail ad, the small stuff that isn't essential or can easily be outsourced if budgets were cut. It's usually the ones getting the crumbs who can feel disgruntled or frustrated in their current position. It's not fun to be the one on the bottom, and it's not fun to manage the employee who keeps himself stuck there.
With new employees and interns, I spend the first few weeks onboarding and training them in our company’s best practices. When they seem to have gained their footing and understanding of how the company works and how the design team works together, I usually give them a "test" assignment that will show off their skills and commitment to delivery dates. I give a few parameters, but I really want to see what they are capable of delivering without too much handholding. It's based on a concept from Team Rubicon on building high impact teams: build trust through training, transparency and trials. If the designer rocks on the assignment, the next test is going to be harder and bigger. That's a good thing for your career.
How do sports teams and crumbs relate? It's the principle of making the most of what you're given and proving your worth. If you're given a shot, work hard to make it matter.
An important note here: You are never out of the test phase in your career. If there are failures in your performance, learn how to pick yourself up and try again. Your resilience may be the test itself.
Eating Crumbs Can Starve Your Design Skills
As a designer on an internal team, it's easy to forget that someday you will need to re-enter the marketplace and you can become complacent in your skills. Even worse, your skills may lag so far behind, you become irrelevant in your own organization and become unnecessary when your company shifts direction. Your marketability is determined by how well you solve problems, and not solely on how well you work with current technologies.
In a large organization, you can't always chose your projects. Sometimes you're given a basket of crumbs. It's what you do with those crumbs that matters, and who you let know with self-promotion that will make a difference in your career and for your company.
Keep Your Promises
One of the easiest mistakes to make is not to keep your project manager up-to-date on the progress of your design work. It's typical for an internal designer to be working on multiple projects with multiple project managers. Time management and communication are essential skills to develop if you want to be successful in the corporate environment. One of the easiest ways to kill your reputation and trust is not to communicate with your project team, especially if you don't see them on a daily basis.
One of my newest designers was struggling with trust issues with his project management. He was passed by for several promotions and he was becoming pessimistic about his work. He couldn't figure out why he wasn't trusted. Everyone loved his designs, but they didn't trust him with large projects. Unknowingly, he was failing to let anyone know when he would be delivering comps, prototypes, or final designs. It was a guessing game if he would come through on time or show up to meetings.
With some crucial feedback, we came up with two simple solutions. First, he posted his weekly schedule on his desk. If someone stopped by his desk and he wasn't there, they could see that he was working with another team. It became obvious that he was a hard worker and meeting many obligations. The perception that he was never at work disappeared.
The second solution was to send out a weekly status report to all of his project teams. This helped confirm with the teams that he was working on the assignment he had promised to deliver, and that he was on target for that delivery. It also allowed him to communicate any issues with the due dates that might be slipping.
Communicating your current design status and delivering on your promises is the simplest way to promote your capabilities. Others around you will naturally trust your feedback and contributions. When you are a trusted team member who delivers on your promises, your reputation increases exponentially. When you break those promises, it becomes much harder to regain that trust.