Leading Creative People

Brian WillmanLeading creative people is one of the most challenging skills for executives but for many businesses this is a critical success factor. From pharmaceuticals to IT to advertising, the presence of a few very creative people given good leadership can be the difference between a good and a great business.

The basic tension that leaders of creative people have to be able to manage is between exercising management control and creating a culture which allows creative people to flourish and fly.

Here are some useful skills for those who lead creative people:

  1. Sensitivity to people.  You need good antennae to pick up what is going on.  You need to be a great listener.  You need to pick up and use data that will help you to understand each individual.  If you are aware of this as an important skill, you can practice it and get better at it.
  2. You need a certain amount of physical resilience to allow you to relish the challenge and keep going.
  3. You need credibility in the eyes of those you lead.  This is not necessarily a high degree of technical ability, though some is required, but the credibility that comes from being a competent leader and a well connected person.
You need enough technical knowledge to ask good questions and follow the answers.
  4. You need to be honest because the truth is liberating and obfuscation and deception will be sniffed out by clever people.  Deliver what you promise and don’t promise what you cannot deliver.
  5. You need passion for the work itself (not the bottom line – the profits will follow).  You have to communicate that passion either through your body language or by using appropriate words – find out what works for you.

Here are seven things you shouldn’t do:

1. Too little pressure and insufficient ambition.Companies that are complacent lack the challenge and stimulation that nurtures creativity.  Strategic direction needs to be clear as do individual and group goals and these should include an explicit commitment to creativity.  Creative individuals need exposure to what matters right from the start of a project and this could be data, clients, consumers and users.  They also benefit from frequent, focussed and motivating feedback that recognises contribution and progress but also gains commitment to changes and avoids triggering defensive behaviour.

2. Too much pressure. Goals should stretch but not exhaust.  Creative individuals need to be exposed to what matters but protected from what doesn’t (especially internal politics).  A degree of friendliness in the team is important to “oil the wheels”.  Too much work pressure overloads and demotivates creative people. People need sufficient space and time to reflect, experiment and even fail.

For example, the manufacturer Gore’s ‘Elixir’ non-breakable guitar-wires were invented by an engineer who used his “free-time” to improve the gear cables of his mountain bike.  Then he asked how these cables could be used to develop less brittle guitar strings. He teamed up with an engineer who had invented Gore’s ‘Glide’ non-breakable dental floss and with a second colleague who was an amateur musician. They played together with this idea for three years without being subjected to any form of direction or control. Gore now controls 35% of the acoustic guitar strings market, although Gore had absolutely nothing to do with the music market prior to this invention. In fact, the Elixir guitar wires were invented in one of Gore’s medical product plants!

3. An inappropriate physical space.  
The workplace should stimulate and motivate.  It should offer a degree of comfort and the necessary infrastructure to minimise “irritators” that interfere with the flow. Each individual should have some space that they have control of and can customise to suit their personal wants.  If there are too few resources, individuals devote their creativity to finding resources.  We have to offer these people flexibility to work at times that they prefer.

The Head Office of the Dutch Rabobank Group has been designed to resemble a village community with very few people given their own permanent offices and many stimulating areas in which meetings can take place.  Their Netherlands banking arm has created Rabo Unplugged so that employees can be connected with each other from practically anywhere.

4. Over reliance on intellectual commitment and insufficient emotional connection.Leaders need to spend enough time energising individual team members.  They need to show real interest in each person and personal support.  They need to be present – “be here, now” as John Lennon described it. They need to understand the goals and motives of each person and connect with these to win people’s emotional commitment. Interesting, challenging and meaningful work is essential.

 5. Believing that yes means yes
. Leaders cannot take superficial acquiescence as sufficient.  They have to be willing to spend time with individuals building personal commitment to what needs to be done.  They need to be clear on the scale of the challenge, honest about the difficulties and frank about personal concerns. Then they can feel confident that there is sufficient commitment.

6. Over reliance on team processes.
 Teams are important for support, identity and dissemination of information but long meetings with irrelevant agenda items should be avoided.  Bring people in when you need them and get them out as soon as possible. Teams of creative people are by nature intellectually diverse and encourgement must be given to healthy affective conflict.  The best conflict will happen informally as work progresses.  We need to expect, even anticipate, such conflict.

Small teams work better than large ones.  Managers should look out for opportunities to segment when teams become bigger than six or seven.  All teams benefit from a degree of cohesiveness and managers need to look out for individuals who contribute to the feel-good of the group.  Such behaviour is frequently over looked, even undervalued.

7. Bureaucratic structures.Structures should stimulate and sustain, not stifle. High levels of control are not appropriate for people who are already highly motivated to do great work.  Creative businesses struggle if they become too big as creativity isn’t scaleable.  Excessive hierarchy, demanding bosses and too much exposure to internal politics are all killers.

Comments are closed.

People Dynamics