Big companies scale up to repeat their early successes. Toyota makes a consistently good product over and over again. Whirlpool does the same. They're heavily invested in systems they can confidently replicate.
Size isn't always the culprit, but creative-minded people sometimes feel suffocated in big corporations. To be sure, that same culture clash can take place just as easily in small companies, too. But it's often the most rigidly organized businesses that need creative thinkers the most—yet struggle to give them the space to thrive.
It's worth pointing out that even creative professionals—people whose jobs depend on their creativity—working in creative industries can feel hemmed in by their organizations. Many designers, writers, videographers, and other creatives I’ve met do their most fulfilling work in small- to medium-sized firms where the work is on creative production for a range of clients.
The challenge is, that sweet spot is tough to find. Not everyone can work for a perfectly sized, super-supportive creative shop—there just aren’t that many of them out there. And many of us find very good, meaningful reasons to say "yes" to the giant corporation and take that corporate gig.
But I've come to believe that the best talent will always chart its own path, no matter how unlikely the terrain. Many creatives survive and even thrive in a traditional corporate environments, often by nailing these three criteria.
Large companies tends to focus on making the most profit most efficiently by following and maintaining a consistent chain of command. That doesn't always incentivize creativity. Creative types don't usually respond well to top-down authority or monetary incentives. But it's hard to unload all the blame for that on employers. Northwestern University psychologist Dr. Carola Salvi, who studies creativity (and advises me in my coaching business), explains that "due to their autonomy and professionalism, as well as their critical nature, creative people are not easy to motivate."
The reason is because creative people see their work as their calling—we're powered by what's often called "intrinsic" motivation. But often a good deal of company time is spent on reinforcing structures that have nothing to do with (and sometimes even detract) from that type of motivation—through meetings and gatherings that feel, at the very least, bewildering if not plain useless to creatives. That woman doodling on her legal pad and staring off into space as the meeting drags on is likely from the creative department and working on her next campaign—or wishes she were.
But while creative people may not love structured hierarchies, we are generally good collaborators. If you’re in a traditional corporate environment, you might have to recognize the authority of others who outrank you, but you can still use your creative insights and your innate empathy to see people as they really are—behind the hierarchy—and simply treat them as equals working toward similar goals.
Similarly, look beyond the paycheck. Many unhappy creatives I work with say to themselves, "Hey, it’s just a paycheck." If that’s what you’re telling yourself about your job, try something else: Try listing five rewarding creative activities your paycheck lets you do. If you can only come up with two or three, you either need to be doing more creative activities outside of work or need to start drafting an exit plan.
Creative people always find one another—it’s one of our many distinct survival skills. Of course, it’s pretty easy to find each other in a corporate environment simply by job title, or if we’re all in the same department.
But in a large company, or one that structures its creative roles by division as opposed to department (maybe you’re one writer working on a team of engineers), you may have to reach out a bit further to find fellow creative employees. Banding together to form effective, semi-independent groups can often be for the better—both for the larger business and the clients it serves.
And that's just for those who actually work in creative roles. You also can also find truly creative thinkers with not-so-creative sounding job titles, and in departments that aren’t focused on creative production. The empathy that's so vital to creativity will help you locate like-minded people. Chances are good that if somebody in your office strikes you as uniquely empathetic, they may also share your creativity—regardless of what they do.
Ideally, anyway, creative people love doing their work because they believe in what it supports, and flourish when great work gets recognized. This set of needs and motivations creates an ideal environment for mentoring—and yes, I mean you as the mentor.
If you haven’t considered taking on this role before, a traditional corporate environment might be the perfect place to try it. Of course, there will be more opportunities to coach others, the longer you work at a single place, but there are ways to support your peers, even as a recent hire or junior staff member.
If you're working at an entry level and feel underwhelmed creatively, think back to what you found most useful as a college student during workshop critique and seminars. That peer-to-peer insight and exchange of ideas could be just as effective a way to support your colleagues at work, even if you're low in the pecking order—and you may find it creatively invigorating.
So if your employers are willing, try to convene a creative review group to develop your peers' skills alongside your own. Getting together simply to talk about and acknowledge each others' work and contributions will build your own leadership skills—and possibly a better in-house creative department.
Ted Leonhardt is a designer and illustrator, and former global creative director of FITCH Worldwide. His specialized approach to negotiation helps creative workers build on their strengths and own their value in the marketplace. Follow Ted on Twitter at @tedleonhardt.