Developing skills and building a career are not the same thing.
Looking back over the years, I’ve come to appreciate how a few people can have more impact on a developing career than any particular role or experience. When I started working as a professional designer, my first boss taught me how to work with clients. The co-founder and creative director at another agency taught me how to think strategically. Then there was my last boss and team VP, who showed us all how to lead in seemingly impossible circumstances. These, and a few precious others, were all my mentors in some form, at a pivotal moment in time.
Here were a few a my favorites…
When I applied for my very first design position at Affordable Creative Services, I had a passable portfolio and a lot to prove. For whatever reason, owner Russell Anderson took a chance on me. He was my original, foundational mentor — though I didn’t realize it at the time. A truly amazing teacher, Russell taught me how to field inbound phone calls, run effective client meetings, and manage vendor relationships. He was also a very direct person. Early on, for instance, he told me that I needed to work on my layout and typographical skills (which was painful to hear, but true), and respectfully dressed me down every time I mishandled a client (which was often). But over the course of two years, Russel laid the original foundation I would later build my entire career on.
Some time later I landed a graphic design role at Hinge, a small agency with clients throughout Northern Virginia. My boss was cofounder and creative director, Jen Sterling, who is the personification of creativity on tap. With fiery red hair, a contagious laugh, and a mind overflowing with ideas, she was impossible not to like. For the brief time I worked at Hinge, Jen pushed me to explore bigger ideas and new solutions, regardless of how “small” the project or client was. She always encouraged me go further than I thought was possible, no matter how crazy my ideas were, while teaching me how to win over skeptical clients (who, to my constant surprise, tended to go with the best, most creative concepts instead of the cheapest). As a result of Jen’s unfailing enthusiasm, I produced some of the best print work of my career, and fell in love with “winning” through great design.
Unfortunately, business was not growing for Hinge, and my personal life was falling apart. After getting laid off and then moving to Washington DC as a recent divorcé, I scoured the job market for almost three months before finding a position at Greenfield / Belser, a legal marketing and professional services firm near Dupont Circle. My boss there was Burkey Belser, cofounder, president, and creative director. One of the biggest personality I’ve ever encountered, Burkey has supremely high standards and an indomitable spirit. He challenged everybody to try harder, to be better — always and no matter what. Every Friday, for instance, the company got together to hear one of our peers give a presentation about something they were passionate about. Consultants were regularly invited to train folks in new proficiencies. We blogged, shared recommendations for industry-related books, and practiced pitching our work to prospective clients. Meanwhile, nearly all creative work went through dozens of design iterations in search of the perfect message, the perfect visual, or the perfect layout. It was hard work, but I’m more grateful for my time at Greenfield / Belser than at any other place. What Bureky taught me then has only continued to grow in importance and nuance as the years go by.
After many more years of working at agencies, I eventually went “product side”. At one point I landed at Mozilla on the Content Services team, a fledgling group tasked with monetizing the New Tab on Firefox through targeted, non-invasive advertising. Darren Herman led the team as Vice President before Mozilla dissolved the group 24 months later.(It wasn’t until after joining the team that I realized how antithetical the very idea of advertising was to an organization like Mozilla.) For 18 of those months, he was my boss, mentor, and true friend.
What was so special about Darren, however, wasn’t what he did, but how he did it. Darren didn’t just “manage” people, he connected with everyone on the team — personally and regularly — to discuss their issues, professional goals, and opportunities for growth. He didn’t just “lead” them either. Every decision he or the organization made was communicated to the team early and often (usually with charts, graphs, and financial data), and he invited everyone to participate in the decision-making process whenever possible. More importantly, Darren actively sought to strengthen the culture and values we shared as a team, which gave us a coherent identify we could all be proud of during some very trying times. Working with Darren, and watching him work, prepared me for the job I have now, and because of him I have a clear template for leadership to iterate on.
For me, having a mentor at crucial moments has made all the difference in the trajectory and quality of my career. Sometimes I didn’t always recognize when I was being “mentored”. Other times I made a conscious effort to learn from a certain individual. The point is that there was somebody import, teaching me important things, all along the way. If it were not for these special people, I would not be the designer —or the person — I am today.
So if, dear reader, you happen to be looking for some inspiration or direction in your career, take my advice:
Make finding a new mentor your priority this year. Your future self will thank your past self.
The mark of a champion is to welcome scrutiny, persevere, perform beyond expectations, and provide an exceptional product – for which forgiveness is not necessary.
– Danny Meyer