business advice | Dec 22, 2020 |
How do I tell a great employee I can’t promote them because they lack creative vision?

Dear Sean,

As part of my firm’s year-end review, I meet with each of my employees to talk about what they accomplished this year and where they want to go. This year, one of my employees expressed the desire to move up in the firm. She outlined her accomplishments and made a case for a promotion. But here’s the catch: I just don’t think she’s got the creative vision to take that step. She’s a great employee in the role she’s in (client management and execution), but her creative chops are far less strong. How do I explain that the kind of promotion she’s looking for probably isn’t coming?

Creatively Blocked

Dear Blocked,

This is such a multilayered question and really gets at the core of what you believe in: nature, nurture or both?

First, a caveat. Personal relationships and how you feel about your employee are irrelevant to this conversation. Your design firm is not a teaching hospital, it is a business created to produce art for clients who care. Your employees exist because they have the talent, wisdom and experience to simultaneously serve the mission of the firm and its clients in a way that allows the firm to profit from their work. End of story.

Your job as the nucleus of the firm is to maximize the talent, wisdom and experience of those around you so as to maximize the value of your firm, both for the art created and the clients who seek out the art. To paraphrase Einstein, asking a fish to climb a tree is a futile exercise for all. While I absolutely believe most “talents” can be honed and developed through diligence, persistence and commitment to the work, I also absolutely believe that there is a baseline, and by corollary, a cap if that talent is marginal. The judge of talent is personal to you, and as with anyone responsible for the evaluation, the decision is yours alone. Whether you are right or wrong is not the question, only your conviction in the answer.

The crossroads at which you now find yourself is one of deep personal opinion and the idiosyncrasy you must honor. For you, your employee just does not have it when it comes to creative vision. Even if she could develop that, the sacrifice of her client management and execution skills make the trade-off not worth it for you and your business. It is not about whether she has no talent, it is that she just does not have enough talent to take her where you need her to go. This is the hard truth. You owe her the candor she needs: She is a fish and she needs to stay in the water.

Of course, you could end it there, with disappointment that she will never be the creative she aspires to be while she is in your employ. Alternatively, you can help her celebrate that she is the yin to your creative yang. My deep suspicion is that you have over-emphasized creative vision over client management and execution (which is why she thought becoming responsible for creative vision would be a promotion). The future will not be kind to that overemphasis. Creative vision only matters if it can be executed with the purpose, conviction and, yes, the creativity required to make the journey itself remarkable.

Perhaps this is your time to fully assess the value provided by each element of your firm and if they are weighted appropriately. More than ever, design firms need specialists devoted to the craft and profit of the area for which they are responsible.

To wit, I do not believe in bonuses for expected excellence. I believe in paying people to be the very best at what they do at the top of the market value (plus 10 percent) so that money is no longer the question. Extra compensation should only come to an employee for exceptional work that yields a better than expected profit (which, in most cases is not dollars, but client satisfaction). All should be aligned with the mission of the firm, and that mission should mean something more than just the words—your employees are there to be the living embodiment of the mission. It will be how you will sleep soundly at night, today more than ever.

If your employee is a steward of your mission, she should know that so she can truly savor the fact that her being a fish really matters to you, your art and your business. And if, at the end of the day, she is bound and determined to find her way to being the person responsible for the creative vision, you can help her find another employer who might just give her that chance.


Sean Low is the go-to business coach for interior designers. His clients have included Nate Berkus, Sawyer Berson, Vicente Wolf, Barry Dixon, Kevin Isbell and McGrath II. Low earned his law degree from the University of Pennsylvania, and as founder-president of The Business of Being Creative, he has long consulted for design businesses. In his Business Advice column for BOH, he answers designers’ most pressing questions. Have a dilemma? Send us an email—and don’t worry, we can keep your details anonymous.

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