business advice | Jun 25, 2019 |
My firm values my admin skills, but how do I show them that I’m capable of more?

Dear Sean,

I’ve been an assistant at a small firm for a little over a year—and as much as I’ve learned, I’m totally over being the lowest person on the totem pole: the schlepping, errand running and administrative tasks. Sometimes, there’s so much admin that I don’t have time to take on even the small design tasks that are sent my way.

Part of the problem, oddly enough, is that I’m so good at my job. My boss is constantly saying things like, “I don’t know what we’d do without you keeping us organized.” But the skills the team views as essential are the menial tasks I hate, not the ones that will help me grow as a designer. How do I get them to notice that I have talent as a budding designer, too? I’m ready to prove that I’m capable of taking on bigger things and get promoted, but I don’t know how to start!

Onwards and Upwards


Dear Onwards and Upwards,

I must be old-school, because the idea of working your way up appeals to me—a system in which you earn the right to do the next task as you savor the one in front of you. But it’s not that simple anymore. Today, you have to choose yourself. No one is going to bestow the opportunity to prove your capabilities—that is, and always will be, up to you. The question you have to ask yourself is where you want to be indispensable and how you can solve a problem nobody recognizes (or even thinks is a problem).

Your firm is a small one, so I am sure that you have intimate knowledge of the projects that are underway and potential ones coming down the pike. This knowledge can be helpful as you start to figure out how you will make yourself essential in new ways.

A very simple example for you: I am of the opinion that designers who are not versed in augmented reality, virtual reality and the difference between 4G and 5G will become obsolete in the near future—truly, it is going to be the difference between the fax machine and texting, and we all need to pay attention. So if your firm is not up to snuff on the opportunity and you are completely into it, why not make it your mission to educate everyone on the subject? Demonstrate how the technology can be integrated into the firm’s existing design process and how it can be used to drive value, either through specific pricing for the work or the ability to upsell an idea. Make yourself an expert, solve a problem—and the value of choosing you will become self-evident.

What will not work is waiting for someone to tell you what you need to do to move ahead. Equally problematic is asking anyone what you need to do to move forward. The reason is simple: You are already awesome at what you are doing! All firms need structure and process; those capable of implementing that structure and process (i.e., you) are very valuable indeed. What feels menial to you is the proverbial grease to the wheel and is essential to the success of the project and the firm. If you want to move away from this role, you are going to have to demonstrate that your value is greater somewhere else (i.e., as the resident technological expert) than it is where you are now.

Last, know this: Anybody can learn anything today given a baseline talent. What makes a difference as you seek to advance, then, is a mix of desire, personality and the willingness to have faith in what you most believe in. Clearly, you are valued where you are, which tells me you likely have the first two in spades. Add to that faith in yourself and I am confident the rest will take care of itself.

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After a 30-year career, do I still need to belong to a professional association?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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