Leading Creatives

by | Leadership, Production

By Ben Stapley, originally posted on BenStapley.com

There is a tension between leaders and creatives within any organization. Leaders cast clear vision. Creatives craft subjective art. Leaders push for advancement. Creatives push the envelope. Now, there isn’t a complete binary between a leader and a creative but there are some repeating gaps that happen because of how these two types are naturally wired. I want to outline ten tactics for a leader to help bridge these gaps with creatives in their organization. These tactics will minimize gaps and frustrations while increasing efficiency and effectiveness.

I’ve used these ten tactics while on staff with organizations of 20 and 200. So, regardless of your organization’s size, these tactics will apply to you. I’ll examine this topic from both perspectives. ‘Cause I’ve been in both seats. I’ve been a creative and I’ve led creatives. So I see this issue from both sides of the fence. Also, if you want coaching to help you better lead your creatives, let me know. I would love to partner with you.

  1. Evaluate An Idea Not A Person – Evaluate the idea on its merit. Do not evaluate the idea on who it came from. Sometimes during a brainstorming session we dismiss an idea because of who said it and not what was said. This can be easy to do especially if there are people in the meeting on a range of rungs on the organizational ladder. Also it can be intimidating for creatives to bring new ideas before leaders they don’t report to. To help minimize this tension, create opportunities to present ideas anonymously. One way to do this is by having everyone put down their ideas on a Google Document without their names attached. Then at the brainstorming meeting everyone evaluates the ideas based solely on its merit, not based on the person who submitted the idea.
  1. Give Clear Instructions – Nothing depletes organizational resources like movement without direction. This applies for creatives as well. Because of this it is always best to give clear instructions upfront. Knowing the purpose, timeline, target audience, distribution method & desired outcome upfront empowers everybody for success. Another way to give clear instructions is by identifying if you’re looking for inspiration or execution. Inspiration means you’re not sure what you want. So, you give a rough framework and the creative presents a number of ideas. Execution means you want the creative to execute one idea. So, no need to go into brainstorming mode. Another way to say this is either execute an idea or create concepts. When creatives have this clarity upfront, it helps them avoid wasting time by developing unneeded concepts.
  1. Be Comfortable With Dead Ends – Every employee looks for a SMALL degree of room to fail in their workplace. But creatives look for a LARGE degree of room to fail in their workplace. That’s because their best creative work will only come through trial and error. But just because a creative needs opportunities to fail doesn’t negate the need for them to succeed. So make sure to demarcate when they need to hit a home run and when they can swing and miss. A place to hit a home run would be a product roll out. Great places to swing and miss in your organization could be meetings, staff retreats and internal presentations.
  1. Give Praise – Creatives thrive on this. If you give your creative praise, they’ll work with you for a while. If you don’t, they’ll look for someone else to work with. I can attest to this personally. One of the first jobs I had as a creative was for a leader that was never satisfied. I was contracted to work 40 hours a week. But since I wasn’t earning the approval of my boss, I bumped it up to 45. Then 50. Then 55. When I hit 60 hours a week in a thankless environment, I started looking for another job. And it wasn’t the hours that did me in, it was the lack of praise. So leaders, don’t push creatives away because of something as simple as praise. Generously give it to your creatives and it will increase the longevity of your work relationship.
  1. Understand How Your Creative Is Wired – Malcolm Gladwell puts creatives into two types named after the post-Impressionist painters. A creative is either a Picasso or Cezanne. A Picasso produces their masterpiece in quick bursts of confidence and superhuman giftedness. Their first thought is their best thought. In contrast, a Cezanne spends years tinkering and dismantling their own work, never fully satisfied with it. Cezanne’s could require a hundred sittings for a single portrait. Understanding how your creatives are wired and treating them accordingly will help you inspire incredible work from them.
  1. Ask For Excellence Not Perfection – When Peter Jackson, the acclaimed director of the Lord Of The Rings trilogy was asked if he got it perfect he said, “No. You never get it perfect. You just run out of time.” If this award winning director was comfortable with the lack of perfection after spending a decade of his life on this movie, then we should be willing to as well as we look for newsletters to get designed or webpages to get updated. So when you are leading your creatives, set the high standard of excellence but not the unrealistic standard of perfection. This will help them reach for lofty goals, but not feel deflated with the realities of shortcomings.
  1. Coach Them To Handle Criticism – A lot of frustration for a creative comes during the feedback process. Unless properly guided, a creative can feel attacked during this time. Try starting a feedback session by reminding the creative that you are critiquing their work, and not them as individuals. Stating this upfront helps remove a degree of the emotions naturally embedded in the process. Another way to coach your creative to handle criticism well is by encouraging them to solicit community feedback before client feedback. Sometimes the creative may have an inaccurate view of their work. They repeatedly think it is great when it is repeatedly mediocre. If this is the case, encourage them to present their work in an online community of artists in the same field and ask for feedback. Facebook has a ton of these communities. Either their misconceptions as the creative or your misconceptions as the leader will be cleared up. Either way, it will bring clarity to the work which will increase forward movement.
  1. Learn Their Craft – If a leader doesn’t know anything about what the creative is doing or how they are doing it, then frustration will naturally arise. The leader will ask for unrealistic deadlines, impossible cost cutting solutions or endless revisions. When a leader knows nothing about the craft, the creative snickers in the background. There is a robust website dedicated to this snickering called Clients From Hell. But, if a leader has a basic understanding in the craft, it helps set up this relationship for success. This understanding not only speeds up the creative process, it also makes the end results better and more rewarding for the leader. So, learn the craft.
  1. The Curse Of Mid Management – Sometimes you lead creatives and the buck stops with you. When this is the case, the relationship is pretty straightforward, you work directly with the creative. But often you are leading a creative as a mid manager. You got marching orders from your boss to execute with a creative. This can be tricky because there are now three parties working together to accomplish one goal. When this is the case I encourage you to serve up AND down. To help fulfill the wishes of your boss AND the wishes of the creative. When you just serve the boss it makes the creative feel a little used. I was once on staff in this position as a mid manager. There was some tension with the project and my boss told me to “follow their orders since I was hired to serve them”. After gracefully reminding my boss I needed to serve up AND down in the organization to accomplish my goals, tensions diminished and the work progressed.
  1. Schedule A Show And Tell – Do you remember in kindergarten how much you loved show and tell? It allowed you to show off your favorite things to your friends. Show and tell builds anticipation and awe for kids and adults. So set aside time for your creatives for this activity – a time they present a cool and intriguing artistic artifact. These artifacts can run the gamut from comedy sketch to museum exhibit. Scheduling a show and tell will do three things. One, it will grow your creatives because they will actively be looking for great art. Two, your creatives will grow each other because they’ll share the great art they found. And three, the community of creatives will all get stronger and better because of this scheduled show and tell.

So, those are my top ten tactics for leading creatives. Hopefully these tactics will help strengthen the work relationship with your creatives and in turn execute better work faster. If I missed anything, let me know. I would love to hear from you and learn from you. If you want coaching to help you better lead your creatives, hit me up. You can find additional training videos and connect with me at benstapley.com. Have yourself an awesome day.

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