The SME Silver Bullet

When it comes to retaining star talent AND addressing professional development goals AND positioning your team for growth into new services and technologies, there IS actually a silver bullet —the establishment of Subject Matter Experts aka SMEs.

Historically, there has only been a single path for career advancement for senior-level in-house creative agency team members—becoming managers. The challenge with this limited and limiting model is that there are few management positions to promote staff into and, more importantly, functional experts don’t always make the best managers nor do they often want to be managers.

Fortunately, as alluded to in the opening paragraph, there is a more robust organizational model that includes Subject Matter Experts as a recognized part of the team structure that addresses this challenge. In simplest terms, these roles are the group’s functional gurus: the uber-designers, developers, writers, editors, etc. whom everyone goes to for advice and support. These roles, or rather the people that take them on, generally organically evolve and establish themselves as informal SMEs. The quasi-SMEs may get bigger bumps during performance review season and garner awards and acknowledgement, but often they are not formally recognized or compensated or held accountable for filling SME responsibilities.

The opportunity for you as a creative team leader is to leverage this naturally occurring phenomenon by formally establishing SME positions in your group. This involves putting in place several practices and organizational changes.

First, establish formal titles that includes Subject Matter Expert by discipline, i.e. Developer: Subject Matter Expert, Graphic Designer: Subject Matter Expert, etc. Second, and most importantly, create a position description as an addendum to the soon to be SME’s current functional position description that captures the additional responsibilities the SME will assume, and be held accountable to, above and beyond his or her functional accountabilities. Subject Matter Expert responsibilities should typically include:

  1. Coaching and mentoring fellow team members in functional expertise (including formalized events such as lunch and learns)
  2. Staying abreast of industry developments in the SME’s area of expertise
  3. Attending industry events and sharing learnings from those events with the team
  4. Identifying opportunities to establish new services/lines of business for your in-house agency
  5. Attending client meetings to explain and explore project-specific technical opportunities
  6. Taking on the more complex projects coming into the team
  7. Providing operational insights and suggestions on how to improve group processes and procedures
  8. Representing the team’s needs and interests to leadership

Accompanying the formal title and role should be appropriate compensation. Don’t expect the elevation in the team hierarchy to be sufficient incentive for an individual to formally assume the role. Also, don’t expect the SME to understand how to assume the additional responsibilities associated with the new position. You should proactively support the newly promoted SME in creating an action plan to make good on his or her new commitments.

Establishing Subject Matter Expert roles is one of the few organizational changes you can make that will have immediate positive impacts on your creative team. The model will help address professional development needs and support a culture of continuous improvement, introduce new creative and marketing services and technologies to your company and provide career paths that will keep your A-team talent engaged and retained. While it may take time and focus to establish these positions, the ROI for you, your group and your company is well worth the effort.

Andy Epstein is an industry thought leader in the field of in-house creative. He currently serves as the Director of Studio Operations for Cella Solutions where he has oversight of the managed in-house agencies run by Cella. Andy has written and spoken extensively on in-house issues and published “The Corporate Creative,” a book on in-house design in the spring of 2010. He is a co-founder of InSource, the former Programming Director for the InHOWse Managers Conference, and a key member of Cella’s professional development team. Andy is focused on empowering in-house teams to raise their stature in the design and business communities.

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