There is greater demand for good design than there are good designers, and competition for talent has been increasing for years. Good economy or bad, hiring and keeping the right people is the most important thing we do at Moment…not one of the most important things we do, the most important thing we do.
Yes, design is also clearly very important, but that cannot happen, at least not well, with the wrong people.
Over the past 11 years of building Moment, hiring and retention has been a constant focus. Something useful I’ve learned: Think about what makes a great design career, and work to build a place that allows great careers to happen.
What makes a great design career?
I for one, have come to believe that above all, the components of a great design career are love, growth, and compensation.
Designers don’t get jobs, they build careers. They expect to advance through an organization; and as they do, they expect to have more extensive influence — influence within Moment (what we’re doing, how we’re doing it, and for whom), and influence outside Moment within the industry at large.
A friend, someone wiser than I, Martin Zagorsek, told me years ago there are three reasons you should stay in a job:
- You love what you do
- You are growing and advancing
- You are being well compensated
While it would be great to tick off all three, any two will do, and any one by itself is insufficient.
A big little word, but that’s what it is. Designers love what they do. Many people merely tolerate their jobs; but again, designers don’t have jobs, they build careers. Unlike a job, a career is often with you for the most vital years of your life. You invest in it, you’re married to it.
People change jobs every day, but switching careers is a life event. So you’d damn well better love it. Sure, some days are better than others. But on balance, people seek positions from which they derive enjoyment and a sense of fulfillment.
Building a great design career requires a constant stream of new challenges. Designers place tremendous value on building new skills and refining existing ones.
Many jobs, perhaps even most jobs, reward repeatedly executing similar processes efficiently, predictably, and with limited deviation. In other words, getting really good at doing the same things over and over again. But that’s not the case with design.
A good design position constantly pushes you to expand your capabilities. Most situations you face should be, at least in part, new and unfamiliar. New situations require you to think your way out of them; rather than rely on what you’ve done in the past, despite how successful you may have been.
Compensation is obviously a big consideration when thinking about a career.
If going to art school and becoming a designer were part of your plan to get rich, then you probably got some bad advice along the way. However, as the economy evolves and places more value on design, designers’ compensation has risen proportionately. Design is a profession, an increasingly important and respected one, and, as is the case with any professional endeavor, there is an inevitable monetary facet to it.
Compensation can make it difficult, but not impossible to leave a position. Even exceptional salaries fail to retain designers who hate their jobs, and feel their skills atrophy.
I’ve thought about this model for years, and found that for most people, in most cases, it holds up pretty well. Again: All three, would be great. Any two will do. Only one and you’re likely to leave. None? Then you should have more respect for yourself.
If you accept that Love, Growth and Compensation are core considerations for designers choosing where to build a career, then the question becomes how to design a company that facilitates all three. In the grand experiment that is Moment, what does it mean to consider Love, Growth and Compensation to be strategic drivers, critical factors that determine the success or failure of Moment’s strategy.
Collaborating with fellow Momenteers to figure that out is by far the most interesting part of what I do. Optimizing investment of our time, money and other resources to balance Love, Growth and Compensation is the fundamental challenge I face in my role.
I’m far from having all the answers, but here’s some of what I’ve learned so far.
To foster love, cultivate culture
Strong leaders focus on the behaviors and beliefs characteristic of their people. An organization’s culture impacts nearly every aspect of life within it.
When asked what you love about your job, “Culture” is a common answer. Nobody enjoys going to work each day to deal with a dysfunctional culture.
The philosophy of culture
There are two ways I’ve seen design firms try to cultivate a high-performance culture:
- Be nurturing and supportive, or
- be competitive and calculated.
We chose the first one.
For starters, we strive to make Moment a place that challenges people with high standards, but is free from unproductive conflict. A place that recognizes achievement, rather than rewards ego. We want people to feel connected by shared values without sacrificing rich diversity. We promote openness and transparency and we expect honesty from one another.
The experience of culture
We experience culture through the interactions we have, the behaviors we observe and the context in which it all takes place.
More tangible investments in culture are things that enhance our environment, and make Moment a more enjoyable place to be. The architecture of our space, yoga classes, snacks, the roofdeck, really good coffee, really really good beer, etc… These perks are more than creature comforts; they’re an important expression of appreciation for our team. You will never see a vending machine in a Moment office as long as I remain in control of such things.
When culture is a strategic imperative, costs associated with offsite retreats, Fresh Direct, conferences, education, tiki parties, all those seemingly superficial luxuries, suddenly become more important. They’re important because they have meaning to the people who come to work here everyday.
Realistically, hosting an occasional Happy-Hour doesn’t magically result in a strong culture. But it’s important to create forums for cultural connectedness to happen. Plus, all that stuff is a lot of fun.
The fuzzy part
Of everything discussed in this post, culture is the most ambiguous and can seem impossible to measure, and hard to change. And I personally find it exceedingly difficult to anticipate how the changes we make as we grow impact culture. Thankfully I’m surrounded by people better equipped to get it.
To grow peoples’ skills, grow the company
While individual growth and company growth may seem like two separate concepts, I believe that peoples’ opportunities, and our scale, are directly connected.
Designers are an ambitious lot by nature. Core to a career path is the expectation that you will progress through increasing levels of influence over an organization. Without that, you’re simply stuck in a job.
I’ve heard other leaders say “we want to stay small.” Good luck with that. When people want to “stay small”, they often just want to avoid the risk and headaches that come with running a larger organization. I get that, but there are trade-offs.
To retain great designers, Moment must grow, and there’s no way around that. Standing still would limit career advancement for everyone. When managed well, adding new people, clients and projects is the best way I know how a company like Moment can provide challenges and opportunities for people. To whatever degree it’s under our control, our intention is to scale this organization and to push more people into leadership positions.
Growing skills at Moment
While working to grow Moment, we also need to work to grow peoples’ capabilities. If we only focus on creating opportunities, but fail to support people stepping up to those opportunities, we’ll end up with frustrated designers and disappointed clients.
We’ve spent much of the last year focused on:
- aligning individual designers with the right project situations, and
- developing skill-building resources.
People, at least the people we tend to attract, want to grow and learn; and it’s incumbent upon us to support them in those pursuits.
Some investments we make in peoples’ growth include: allocating time for mentorship and career management, a robust (if not lengthy) performance review process, flexible conference attendance policies, and support for outside classes and workshops. Plus constant focus on Practice Development, a perpetual evaluation and evolution of our core competencies: Experience Design, Graphic Design, and Development.
The hard part
Managing scale to deliver the right opportunities to the right people at the right times is a relentless challenge. It pushes on nearly every aspect of Moment: sales, team structure, design process, operations, finances, everything.
So where does it all end? What’s the right size? Not sure yet. I’ll write another blog post when we get there.
To compensate people fairly, focus on profit
Financial performance is crucial to Moment’s existence. We are a for-profit, commercial enterprise providing professional services in exchange for fees. As is every design firm on the planet, no matter how much it may seem like a labor of love.
Designing and implementing a business model that consistently produces profit has a big impact on:
- our culture,
- our ability to scale and
- the investments we’re able to make in our people.
In general, business models have three parts: Revenue and Cost, which then, if you’re lucky, result in Profit.
How much revenue we generate, and how effectively we’re able to increase it is special sauce, so excuse the limited details.
Suffice it to say, we exist in an economic context; there is a market for design, and we are a market participant. The amount of revenue we’re able to generate is largely linked to the value the market places on what we do.
Like any other services firm, it’s important that we maintain focus on our long-standing client relationships, continue to build new relationships and consistently deliver excellent work. Unlike any other firm, I believe we do these things exceptionally well.
Read any analyst report, and you’re left believing “Cost” is an evil four-letter word. Cost isn’t bad; it’s good, and it’s necessary. Cost is a tangible and unambiguous reflection of what a company values. Analyzing cost, looking at how a company allocates its limited resources, yields clear insight into priorities.
If you were to look closely at one of our Profit & Loss statements, you would see the vast majority of our financial resources go towards people in one way or another.
As revenue is generated, and cost is removed, the glittery substance that’s left is Profit. Revenue gets all the spotlight, but it’s profit that impacts a business. As Warren Buffett said “Revenue is vanity. Profit is sanity”.
Profit allows us to do two important things:
- reward our top performers, and
- control our destiny.
If retention is a priority, rewarding top performers is a no-brainer. When we have more profit, we have more options to make more people happy. It’s that simple.
Profit equals options. It allows us to control our own destiny because it allows us to make long-term decisions and avoid short-term thinking. It’s freedom to grow on our terms, at the right pace for us. It allows us to avoid dependence on lenders, investors or anybody who might feel entitled to “help” us run Moment.
The tricky part
Compensation is different from love and growth because it’s quantifiable. And that makes talking about compensation sensitive, it’s not something people are generally open with.
Compensation decisions are a struggle, the desire is to spread the love and make everybody happy. But this isn’t little league, and not everybody’s trophy can be the same size.
While all of this may sound great, in practice Love, Growth, and Compensation are often in conflict with one another. There are constant tradeoffs and difficult decisions.
If it were all for love…
We would only do super interesting work for altruistic, purpose-driven clients. People would have a strong sense of meaning and fulfillment. But it would be a challenge to find reliable sources of revenue and to invest in growth and competitive salaries.
If Moment XXL is the goal…
We would grow quickly, opening new possibilities for people to expand their careers. But we run the risk of eroding culture, the environment would become chaotic, and difficult to manage. People’s roles would become ambiguous and overstretched, and the quality of our work would suffer. We’re also much more likely to overextend our financial resources.
If it’s for the almighty dollar…
We would only do the most lucrative work available, and everyone’s compensation would reflect that. But that work would be limited to the industries that can support it, and it would lack diversity. We would drive to get the highest margin from each designer, and work/life balance would suffer.
We constantly seek balance between Love, Growth and Compensation. Each new client relationship we develop, and each new project we shape represents a series of tradeoffs along these three lines.
I see us doing a lot of things well, but thinking of the company with this model in mind helps me understand where we can improve. Despite our best efforts, complacency happens and we fail at big and small parts of this every single day. The point is to try to get as much of it right, as much of the time as we can.
Moment is a design firm, built by designers, for designers. That makes us unique, because one thing that comes very naturally to designers is seeing how things can be better. The decisions we make, and the balance we strike is a big part of what makes Moment special.
This post was originally published on Moment’s Medium publication, Design Intelligence.