Leading creative spirits

May 07, 2018

Understanding what fans their flames and what douses their embers will foster a more productive and fulfilling environment for everyone.

Editor’s note: This top eight list was borrowed from Tony Morgan, chief strategic officer and founder of The Unstuck Group. The descriptions for each, however, are original to this article.

I came to Little about a year and a half ago from a global energy and technologies company. And while, believe it or not, there is plenty of creativity and innovation that goes into steam boilers, turbines, and nuclear power, it’s fair to say that it’s a bit different than the creativity I’ve experienced at Little.

The best part about working at a design firm is that the entire environment is an incubator for creativity. I’m surrounded by architects, graphic designers, interior architects, digital media experts, engineers, brand stewards, visual merchandisers, and space/land planners, whose passion, attention to detail, and abstract thinking is exciting, endearing and occasionally challenging. As the national director of human resources, it’s critical that I and other leaders in the industry understand that design professionals are who they are and that no two are alike. I’ve learned, however, there are best practices when it comes to leading creatives.

  1. Tell them what to do, not how to do it. While creatives do need to be briefed properly on the task at hand, they have an experimental mindset. As leaders in a creative industry, we have to not only invest in this but also set the example. Oftentimes, a project led by a creative means allowing time for experimentation and fact-finding while embracing the potential for failure. It’s this process that moves us all toward bigger success and innovation.
  2. Know they’ll be emotionally attached to what they create. Giving effective feedback is challenging. Employees who work on complicated creative projects can internalize and almost become the project for a while. In our business, this is where design critiques or pin-ups become valuable exercises. So the way we offer feedback should be rooted in empathy, with the understanding that we’re all in it together. It is also important to remind the creator that they are not their idea. Feedback is focused on the idea, not on them as an individual.
  3. They’ll need a deadline but it needs to be reasonable. Whether you’re dealing with an architect who’s designing a building or a marketing employee who’s designing a presentation, deadlines are important. While they may cringe at the sound of the word, creative people admit they need the structure. However, make sure everyone agrees the deadline is reasonable; otherwise, you’ll end up with a frustrated employee and suboptimal results.
  4. They are more motivated by praise than by money. The secret to getting great work out of your creatives is to praise them. Money definitely doesn’t hurt either, but let’s be real. Don’t you think they would have chosen a different profession – law or healthcare, perhaps – if they were in it for the money?
  5. Routine can easily lead to boredom. Sometimes we silo our creatives within a particular project type because that’s where we’ve seen them excel or it’s simply where we need their help most. Make sure you balance that day-to-day need with what truly inspires them and gets their creative juices flowing. Give them the freedom to explore new challenges and opportunities – you may be surprised what this may lead to in their day-to-day tasks.
  6. They deliver new ideas but dread the details. A good deal of research shows that creatives are full of ideas, and that details make their heads spin. That’s why having them on teams where they are balanced by more organized teammates who can help make sense of the ideas is important. Focus the creatives on tasks that benefit from the strength you hired them for and let those well-suited for project management and execution attend to the details.
  7. They need a creative and participative environment. Creative people value collaboration. In fact, the best results often come when creative teams work together constructively. The breadth of diverse creative teams – not just gender, age, and ethnicity, but also life experiences – stokes new ideas and influences a different way of thinking.
  8. Constraints are good but they need to experience freedom. As leaders of creatives, there’s a balance of placing “boxes” around these employees and giving them free reign. Sometimes, constraints are the opportunities and having a “box” to push against allows your creative employees to think outside of it.

There’s no magic formula for leading your creative team, but understanding what fans their flames and what douses their embers will foster a more productive and professionally fulfilling environment for everyone. And keep in mind that creativity isn’t reserved for right brain types; many left brainers embody their own version of creativity and will benefit from leaders who keep these tips in mind. I should know – the engineers and techies I have worked with continually surprise me with their ideas and creative solutions.

Kate Bitterwolf-Hyde is Little’s national director of human resources. She can be reached at kate.bitterwolfhyde@littleonline.com.

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