man talking to someone else about job titlesWhat’s in a job title?

Globally, the vast majority of creative firms have less than five employees.

Two challenges with this: firstly, it makes for a large competitive pool. That’s good for clients but perhaps not so great for business owners. Secondly, it’s difficult for microbusinesses to keep good employees because progression is limited.

It’s not unusual for an employer to fast track the progression from graduate to midweight, then senior to design director just to keep an employee. What previously would be a decade of work experience is now often truncated to less than five years. That’s not good for our industry and it’s not good for employees.

Employee retention is a real problem in any small business. Once you find the right employee, it’s difficult to keep them from exploring the next challenge.

Rewarding good employees

One sure way to keep an employee interested is variety — serve up an array of interesting projects. And one way to build a sustainable business is to have a stable of loyal clients. See the problem?

For a business owner, holding onto a client is gold but it can be understandably boring for designers. What employee wants to design an annual report for the same client for multiple years? Even when you share the love between designers, it’s far from a new frontier.

So, it’s hard to keep the good designers interested and happy – so happy that they want to stay and not move onto the next challenge. Especially hard in a small studio where there’s not really the career growth of a larger business. That’s why many creative business owners reward their employees by title.

What’s in a job title?

Sometimes if it isn’t financially viable to reward an employee, reward is offered by way of a title, way before it is earned. It becomes a problem when the promotion is based on potential rather than skill. It’s not a great base for managing expectations because the next level of promotion will be expected in a similar time span. It’s a slippery slope.

It’s also not great when employees leave and offer themselves at that level for their next position. Their lack of skills reflects badly on their previous employer as much as on them.

Reward on skill

Rather than reward employees on potential, reward them on skill.

Even when finances are tight, a majority of creative business owners want to fairly financially compensate their employees. Problem is working out what is fair. And when employees should be promoted to the next level.

The answer is to employ using comprehensive, detailed job descriptions — document expectations around tasks and skill level. And while you’re at it, outline the improvements necessary to get to the next level and the financial reward that comes with that promotion.

Good job descriptions are all about clarity – they take out any ambiguity. And they standardise roles and responsibilities across the business. It is just as important – maybe more – to clarify the roles of founders and partners as it is for employees. The skill is to make them accessible and usable so they’re not read once and thrown in a drawer to yellow.

Meeting expectations

Larger isn’t always better. Many creative firms are based on a tight group of skills, expanding with contractors as and when needed. The challenge for any team is employing well then meeting expectations.

Good job descriptions do that. They help onboarding because the list of needs is clear. And they help manage expectations because it is clearly documented what needs to be done to what level.

It just so happens writing bespoke job descriptions is part of our skillset. 😉 Hit me up if you would like more detail.

What do you think? Got any problems/questions? As always, happy to discuss further, just email.

Carol Mackay



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These articles talk more about job titles and job descriptions:

  1. When is the right time to employ?
  2. How job descriptions impact studio culture
  3. Is new business in your job title?

About Carol Mackay

After 30+ years running a graphic design firm, I pivoted from client-focused projects to consult to the design industry. Now with the Design Business Council I use my experience, and research, as a design mentor and coach. I help designers build robust, sustainable businesses, and help businesses integrate, and profit from, design.

The core of the DBC is the building a design community – over 85% of designers work in businesses with less than 5 employees, many less than 3. That means designers don’t have the same support network of other professionals. The DBC’s solution is supplement paid gigs with research, mentoring breakfast meet-ups, informative UNseminars and practical workshops in Melbourne, Perth and Sydney.

An archive of my previous career is at mbdesign.com.au.
My current work can be viewed at designbusinesscouncil.com and designbusinessschool.com.au.

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