What’s the most important thing about managing a design business?

The DBA’s John Scarrott looks at the fundamental thing all bosses in design businesses need to know.


Source: mkosut

An effective leader in a design business needs an awareness of all corners of the business and the competencies that create top performance. They need to be able to deliver consultancy, win new business and deliver the marketing and PR that underpins those moments to the long term strategy and direction for the company – not to mention a handle on the numbers that indicate what is happening to the business. Finally, there are the people that arrive at work each day who require leadership, motivation and management.

Of all these skills and responsibilities, is there one that can take priority?

I asked Brian Mansfield, managing director of Taxi Studio, a design business based in Bristol. Brian has been at Taxi for five years and has seen the business grow from 14 staff to 28  over that period.

For Brian, the answer to the above question is straightforward: It’s the people that make the business. “It begins and ends with people” he says.

For Brian the competency that matters most for design industry bosses is talent management – by a clear margin. In this article I will explore why he believes this is the area to spend more of your time as a leader, what he does to deliver and contribute to this element of the business and the hidden upwards spirals that can be set in motion by making people your focus.

First of all – why put people first?

A continuous upward spiral of growth starts with your people

Mansfield says: “Great people create great work, which leads to happy clients. But it doesn’t just stop there. Happy clients lead to more fulfilled and happy people which leads to even better work and even happier clients. What’s interesting is that this formula has an upward spiral built into it. Once it’s moving it requires effort to keep it moving but it has a momentum of its own too.”

You can only create an employer brand through your people

“Design businesses often have a dominant gene within their culture. It might be new business, brand strategy or client service for example. But you can only create an employer brand by making ‘people’ the dominant gene. And the potential value of creating a positive employer brand is that it increases your ability to keep your talented people and to attract additional talented people. Another upward spiral is set in motion.”

Your people are your source of energy as a business

“When you focus on your people, putting them first, you create centres of light, heat and energy. These can seem to just ‘pop up’ as if by magic. But they don’t. They only get created by the right eco-system being in place. And this determines your focus as a leader.”

As a leader you can’t do everything – you need other people

“This can be tough for design business leaders who have risen up through the business by being great at one competence. Having a focus that is very specific can lead inadvertently to a blind spot for ‘what you can’t do’. Focusing on your people gives you a broader perspective that makes it easier to let go. This is another positive upward spiral. The more you focus on your people then the stronger your business becomes. You hire and trust great people to compensate for what you aren’t good at and the business benefits from their strengths.”

A focus on people creates the potential for a shared philosophy

“A shared philosophy for the business means that we can enjoy the journey to our destination as well as the arrival. Our attitudes towards each other, how we behave and trust each other mean that even if things go wrong, we can learn from these experiences and apply this new knowledge to future situations. Any blame culture is left on the platform and even situations that could be seen as failures by other businesses are learned from and even celebrated by a people-centred, learning organisation.”

Clearly these are compelling reasons to make people the focus of your time as a leader. What does Mansfield do to put the above principles into action? For him, talent management does not equal HR. An HR department is important of course, but it performs another role.

Mansfield has five key beliefs that direct his actions to manage talent successfully within the business:

Use your time wisely

“My role means I’m always at risk of being time-strapped. A question I always ask myself is ‘How do I use my time?’ To answer this I adopt the role of servant leader within the business.I seek out opportunities to be useful to the people running the business.”

Consciously create your culture

“We are overt about our culture. It helps us to understand the decisions we are making and creates a framework to explain those decisions. This means we can be consistent in our decision-making. Our culture is an accumulation of conscious decisions made over time. By having this history, we create a safety for our people that allows them the freedom to say what they think without fear of censure or blame. So even in tough situations we are able to take useful ideas forward to learn and develop for the next time.”

Protect the reef

“Our business’s culture is a bit like a barrier reef, a fragile ecosystem that requires delicate and continuous nurturing and care to protect it. And my role is to protect that ecosystem. The people are the fish swimming around, all different sizes and unique. You need to actively manage the reef to get the best out of people, for the business, for themselves and for the clients we serve. I look for opportunities to be an example for and spread the values that sustain the reef. These include self-awareness, fairness and real relationships, sharing the spoils and enjoying the journey as much as getting to the destination. ”

Manage the Mojo

“The stronger our culture, the more likely we will be able to retain and attract great people. Our USPs are built around our people. We aim to create centres of light, heat and energy. We look to develop and grow future leaders. It’s key for us to align our energies and prioritise the employer brand.”

Success and succession

“Ultimately, a focus on developing a people culture creates future leaders and delivers a succession model that works. It means the business will continue to thrive and develop in the future. The future of the business will not rest on the achievements of one person because new talent is always coming up through the business and ready to step up and lead.”

John Scarrott is membership director at the Design Business Association. His DBA blog, Conversations With, is here.

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  • Steve Burden November 30, -0001 at 12:00 am

    Having worked at Taxi I can safely say none of the above is true.

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