How artists of all types can think more broadly about the practical application of their creative skills.
As a Director of Career Management for over a decade running the career centers for MBAs at two top-tier business schools, Stacey Rudnick offers insights on the transferable skills of creatives in the workplace and how they can apply their unique skills to career transition and exploration.
So many people who graduate with a liberal arts degree or come from a creative/design background can end up disenfranchised from the world of commerce. The business ecosystem is often unkind to, or worse, dismissive of artists of all types preferring to screen resumes on
only quantitative and technical skills. Yet in a world of rapid change where the newest buzzwords in business are “design thinking” and “innovation”, two things that artists bring in abundance, it is high time that recruiters tune in to and actively seek out the broad set of skills and training from within the realm of the arts that may have heretofore been undervalued.
Much has been written about the decline of a liberal arts education as universities increasingly focus on STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math). While it is heartening that the arts have recently gained attention and received equal weighting via the relatively new acronym STEAM (A = Arts), liberal arts colleges receive increasingly less support from many academic institutions while the revenue drivers within EDU: business, engineering, science, law, and medical schools garner increasing funds for research, faculty, new buildings and scholarships to attract the best and brightest students. A liberal arts education was founded on the concept of giving students a broad-based, humanistic education that would make them into good citizens. According to Wikipedia, today the “term (Liberal Arts) generally refers to matters not relating to the professional, vocational, or technical curricula.” Given the high cost of a post-secondary school education, vocational aspects are increasingly tantamount to the decision of college major. Moreover, an academic degree grounded in the liberal arts often emphasizes skills that can seem out of touch with today’s emphasis on speed and technology: reading full length books, writing term papers, thinking conceptually, studying philosophy and history, and doing somewhat laborious primary and secondary research. Yet this ability to gather information from varied sources, to sort through unique opinions and to come to one’s own well researched and structured conclusions represents exactly the type of skill business executives need today. Succeeding in today’s collaborative and team-based work environment means we need leaders who are educated in the very skills that are the basis of an education in literature, language, art history, music, philosophy, visual arts, history, psychology, and science. We need the trained skills of artists that have gone out and worked in their professions, now eager to try something new. As we look at some of the skills most highly prized from recruiters, we see a set of transferable skills that sit squarely within the educational and work experience of the artist.
Pick your medium: be it art, writing, music, or psychology…the experts in these areas are among the best at adaptability. Why? They are the “right-brain” thinkers, drawing on a range of experience that is all about the ability to adapt to change. The visual artist must incorporate constant changes in light, movement, mood to their design and aesthetic. The writer has to master creative inspiration within the structure of a coherent theme. The ensemble musician must collaborate seamlessly with peers adjusting tempo, rhythm and mood to create a holistic work that balances. Consider the psychologist who must adapt to the unique needs and backgrounds of each client. What gives creatives enormous adaptability is the receptiveness to change, the ability to incorporate it into their work and to flex their approach to problem solving. Their process allows for fluidity and flow in a way that the rigorously mapped out engineer’s mindset may not.
Complex business problems require innovative thinking. Technology has erased most information advantages. We have the same access to information, tools and best practices. What so often defines the breakthrough moment to solving complex problems is the combination of analytics with creativity. No one is asking businesses to abandon their spreadsheets, but what we do with the data and analysis may now be different. How can this information be used differently? How can we gain a deeper understanding of customers and business problems? Artists excel at empathy and insight. They can provide unique perspectives to old problems with new ways of looking at things. If the edge in business can no longer be found by building a better financial model, can it be found by allowing an artist to utilize their skill to create a new approach?
Artists know that persistence pays off. They understand what it is to rewrite, redraw, redraft, and rehearse until they get it right. They are willing to go over the same work again and again to attain their version of the ideal. In an age in which we accuse Millennials of having the attention span of a goldfish, consider that a liberal arts education and training gives students both time and opportunity to learn to focus and to finish. The work environment is hungry for people who will stay until the job gets done, who care about getting the work right and who take pride in their work product as a reflection of themselves. This may be truest for the artist. Perhaps now, more than ever, arts education and work experience exercises the attitude muscles most in need of a workout — patience. Not everything can be done instantaneously and learning to persevere through a difficult project or one that is not going well initially teaches the value of sticking with it. A true work ethic is the ability to work hard even when it is not immediately rewarding or fun, knowing there is a long-term goal. Employers value this. Artists embody this in their practice.
Wikipedia defines “design thinking” as the “design-specific cognitive activities that designers apply during the process of designing”. In other words, a creative person’s process. Now the subject of books, symposia, several consulting firms and as an approach to problem solving and ideation, design thinking is among the latest buzzwords in business today. High tech companies are seeing the real benefit of pairing top designers with tech experts knowing that the key to making their newest apps work is not just a question of break though software design and functionality, but also intuitive and inherently attractive user interfaces that are easy to navigate and help guide users to where they need to go in the most seamless fashion. Who better to inform and innovate in the technology space than those who have studied, art and architecture, color, tone and light, space and perspective, interior design? In the book “Designing for Growth” a design thinking toolkit for managers”, the authors state that “gifted designers combine an aesthetic sensibility with deep capabilities for visualization, ethnography, and pattern recognition that are well beyond the grasp of most of us – managers included”. The trained eye matters in management, not just in design. Good design makes for better processes, organization, tools and different ways of creating solutions. Emotional insights can help the marketer connect a product to the consumer at a deeper level than the competitor. We must learn to see business and the arts as collaborative entities that can complement one another, each enhancing the value of the other.
The single most common complaint of MBA recruiters about candidates is regarding their communication skills. While MBAs are often valued for their remarkable quantitative abilities, many of the so-called “soft skills” are the critical difference between getting interviewed and getting hired. Looking good on paper is not enough. The good news is that this is an area in which artists can fill a notable gap. Businesses need world-class communicators for a host of positions. The ability to emphasize, both in person and in your resume or online profile, your strong communication skills cannot be emphasized enough. Are you a good writer? Blogger? Savvy with social media? These are critically important skills in marketing positions today. Have you presented your own artwork in shows and had to communicate their value? Wonderful – you have experience in sales and business development. Have you had to synthesize large volumes of written works for school and developed a synthesis or hypothesis? Then you have developed new thought leadership. Businesses compete on communication. In a world where we are constantly bombarded by messaging across all types of devices and media both in and out of home, everyone is talking, no one is listening. Having the ability to creatively break through the constant background noise whether through a carefully crafted email, a social media campaign or iconic visuals in advertising there are numerous opportunities to showcase where ones writing, creative and speaking skills may be the most discriminating talent in a marketplace hungry for innovation in business communication.
Openness to Criticism:
Few people know have developed the kind of thick skin that an artist does both while in school and in practice. Whether from formal peer and panel reviews to the unsolicited comments of a passerby or online spectator, criticism is a routine measure of the day. Both judging and being judged are learned skills as part of honing one’s aesthetic, musical or written mastery. Artists of all types are used to being in a community of other artists who are at once mutually supporting and critical. The ability to have withstood all types of critique is a unique skill in the world of business where most young employees are and have been individual contributors. As such, they may not have received a great deal of criticism. An oft cited complaint of employers today regarding Millennials is that they “expect a gold star for everything” wanting rewards, praise and thanks — just for doing their job. Artists have a lot of experience working long hours, often working solo, without rewards or anything approaching the type of instant gratification that seems to be a need for most Millennials. The ability to represent and discuss ones intrinsic motivation can be a differentiating factor in a sea of other candidates. Maturity matters.
Holistic Thinking vs. Linear Thinking:
Business loves the engineer. The flawless logic, process orientation, and attention to detail create a seemingly perfect fit to business needs. But business needs holistic thinkers in management. The ability to see beyond the process, to manage complexity, to see the big picture is critical in today’s diverse global business environment. Artists have to balance the needs of clients, fit works into existing spaces, and manage changing environments while trying to move toward their vision of the finished work. Being goal/mission oriented while incorporating broad knowledge of complexity and constraint is work that is part process part abstract. All artists need to reconsider what their value is in the marketplace and how their skills can be adapted and utilized in business. Because artists have been deprived for so long, particularly financially, I think that they have come to expect to work for less than they deserve and do not appropriately value their own time and skill sets. I have always found it fascinating the root of the word career is the same as for careen, from the Latin carraria or road for vehicles according to Merriam-Webster. Thus, career can be used in the same way as careen, as a verb to “to go at top speed especially in a headlong manner”. Let us take off in this new direction as we pursue our career transitions, at high speed, with a sense of adventure and risk taking. Let the world see, what we as artists already know. Business today needs art not only to survive, but also thrive. It may be the only remaining competitive advantage that cannot be reverse engineered.
Stacey Rudnick is passionate about helping students and experienced professionals with career transition. She has a degree in Art History from Duke University and an MBA in marketing from Emory University. Stacey works at the University of Texas at Austin, McCombs School of Business and lives in Austin with her three children. She is an active gardener, writer and artist in her spare time.