You Can’t Do It Alone: Tips For Creative Leadership.
What skills are good to have when leading creative people? In this Client Blog post, I’ll give some thoughts and (hopefully) insight into hiring, managing and leading a team of creative people. Everything I’ll talk about here is from the perspective of a creative and leader of an internal team of writers, producers, and designers, something I’ve been doing for a few years – and while there are no BTS videos or key art sketches in this post, it will provide a view behind one client’s curtain of a way to build, manage and lead creative teams in this era of increased collaboration and openness. And even if you don’t work for a larger organization, what I’ll talk about here is pretty universal in terms of working with other creative people. There are a ton of great books on leadership, and this blog doesn’t profess to have all the answers. But maybe they’ll help you develop a perspective and management or communication style that works for you. I also want to take this time to thank everyone for all of your incredible feedback and support of this blog. I do it all for the love of what we do, and hearing that people either learn something, or get inspired, or even just love the pictures is really gratifying and humbling. It’s also made me want to continually “raise the bar” for blog content – to challenge myself to come up with new and interesting posts. As always please share the site with others if you like it.
HIRING GOOD PEOPLE.
Whether you’re looking to build a team from scratch, replace someone who left, or fill an entirely new position, there is nothing more important than hiring good people. Obvious, right? But it’s obvious because it’s true – you’re only as good as the team you surround yourself with. I am a firm believer that you can always find great people to work for you, even if you may be challenged by things out of your control – as long as you excel at a few key areas:
1. Be transparent. You can’t be fully transparent about everything, (salary, etc) but it’s important that you are upfront and honest with as much as possible. People can sense when you are honest and not playing games, and when you act that way, they will be too. Cut through the bullshit – tell people where you stand on their skills, what you think they have or don’t have on their resume/reel that you’re looking for, and allow them the opportunity to own it, or defend it, or respond to it. Bottom line – most people want to work for other honest people. It’s an attractive feature when looking for creative talent because most creative people don’t really want to play political games, they just want to do great work and have fun. “Transparency” is a term being used more and more often – both in the creative process, and everyone from the CEO to the President of the United States professes transparency. It’s not only become something that’s a ‘bonus’ but also standard operating procedure for most of successful companies.
3. Have a great reputation in the industry. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again – don’t be an asshole. Sounds easy, but it’s surprising how often I hear about jerks in the industry or people who aren’t driven by the creative but by other factors. If you have a great reputation, it will spread, and people will want to work with you and for you. After all, life is too short to work with assholes. I am lucky that I’ve always been surrounded by supportive and positive leaders – and I believe the days of ‘the screamer’ bosses are numbered.
4. Invite your team to be a part of the hiring process. Ultimately, you (or your boss) will be the one who pulls the trigger. But one thing that’s always worked for me is to have candidates talk with their potential co-workers. Again, it doesn’t sound that revolutionary but I’m still surprised when I hear about people hired who never talked to their co-workers until the first day. Not only is it good for the people who already work for you to feel included and heard in the process, it also gives that prospective hire another proof-point of your transparency, and that you have a good team (presumably) that the potential hire will want to be a part of.
5. Communicate your decisions. After you make your decision, talk to the people you interviewed in person and let them know your decision, one way or the other. They may not appreciate you not hiring them, but they will appreciate your honesty and hearing the news straight from the source. Plus, it’s an incredibly small world – you never know when your paths might cross again.
‘MANAGING’ AND LEADING CREATIVE PEOPLE.
So, you have a team in place, and now it’s time to walk the walk…to team up with them to make the best work possible, keep them motivated, excited, fulfilled and as eager to come to work every day as you (presumably) are. No biggie, right? Here are a few thoughts on how to do that.
1. Have fun and build a culture of fun. Do things as a team that aren’t all business, all the time. Just as I’ve talked in other posts about “Creative for Creative’s sake” sometimes it’s ok to just do stuff that’s fun for fun’s sake. What fun does is it makes people feel safe, relaxed, and happy (trust me, I’m working towards a point here). That, in turn, gets the creative brain excited – and an excited, creative brain comes up with a lot more cool ideas than a bored or stressed one. And of course, it’s just fun to do fun things.
Have fun. NG Creative Team Holiday Card, 2013. (Photo by Mark Thiessen)
2. Share creative things you find with your team, and encourage them to share creative things THEY see. In today’s content-rich environment, it’s pretty much impossible to see everything cool being done. Encouraging a culture of sharers will allow you to see more great stuff out there, which inspires ideas, and in turn builds the internal creative culture. The old “there are no new ideas” adage is true, but that doesn’t mean that an idea that’s been done before can’t be done better, or be evolved into something new, or lead you down a path that allows you to discover something wholly new or transformed from something old.
3. Treat people the way you want to be treated. Yep, I just used The Golden Rule. People simply don’t want to feel like they’re being managed (just like clients dislike feeling managed by agencies) they want to be appreciated, trusted, encouraged and challenged. When I say “treat others as you want to be treated” that also means to always remember what motivated you and then do the same with your team as a leader. When I was coming up in the industry, I did a lot of listening and watching of others, and sort of took mental notes of what I wanted to emulate, and what I DIDN’T want to do. For example, getting concise, clear feedback quickly was something I appreciated from my bosses, and still to this day try my hardest to do myself when I’m sent a cut or a treatment or script. And I started my career as an intern in a local TV station, learning and soaking up what I could – and trying to become invaluable to others whenever I could. Today, I enjoy speaking with interns and sharing what I learned when I was in their shoes. What I tell them seems simple and obvious now (work hard, take on tasks that others don’t want, be a “go-to” person), but when someone told me the same thing I remember really appreciating the advice. And lastly, share your vision or your goals with everyone. People want to know what they are working for and towards – so let them know your expectations. I remember a few times in my career where I didn’t quite know what my boss’ goals were for the team (besides getting higher ratings) and it can make you feel a little hazy on what their expectations are – so tell your people what kind of culture you want to build, and what kind of work you want to create.
4. Lead by example. I could lie and say that I lead by example when I attend shoots with the goal of showing more junior members on my team what to do on a shoot – but the truth is, I go to shoots because I love being on-set. But the way I look at it, even that is leading by example – shooting is fun, and I still have a ton of fun on shoots after all these years because it’s ok to geek out over stuff you love to do. So my nerding-out is, in a small way, leading by example. That positive energy can be infectious, and nothing’s more tiresome than too-cool-for-school jaded creatives that don’t want to show their excitement and geekery!
5. Treat your partners well. Even though your agencies aren’t technically “part” of your team, do the right thing and treat them as if they are. Thank them, be considerate of them, and and be transparent with them. It’s important that you don’t see them as being there to serve you but rather there to work with you. When your team sees that, they’ll know the expectations you have when working with outside companies. In return, you might even forge some great friendships, and get better creative work.
6. Give credit where credit is due. That’s pretty easy. People should feel appreciated, and more importantly, it’s just the right thing to do. It never ever hurts to give credit to someone else, but always hurts when you don’t receive credit for something you felt you helped create. I give full credit for my career to the many incredible managers and creatives who took a chance on me over the years, as well as creative people I’ve collaborated with over the years, and my team that I work with every day. Many of them have been mentioned and featured in the blog, and of course there are many more that I bounce ideas off of, and listen to their advice on a daily basis. And there are many brilliant people out there in the creative and filmmaking community that I’ve never even met in person that motivate me. (Some credit for this post goes to Cinematographer Shane Hurlbut, whose recent post on leadership got me thinking about things I’ve learned over the years) So – I cannot say it enough to those who have assisted and inspired and collaborated and taught me so much – thank you!
7. Stay humble. No matter how much praise you may receive from others, or how many award nominations or accolades you may get, just remember how lucky you are to be doing something you love, collaborating with other great people, and never let your successes go to your head or overfeed your ego. It’s always a great to begin every new project with a clean slate – and it certainly will keep you humble. What you’ve done in the past should inform or influence your creative decisions, but they cannot guarantee your success. Being humble and treating each new challenge as an opportunity will go a long way to help push you to do your best, and overconfidence can breed laziness.. Never take anything for granted. One interesting example that comes to mind is on “Killing Kennedy” – prior to our shoot, we had to walk the talent (Rob Lowe and Ginnifer Goodwin) through the concept and our creative plan. That was a humbling experience because as nice and excited as they were, it’s still Rob Lowe and Ginnifer Goodwin! We planned and prepared and were completely buttoned up for that presentation – humble creatives that were confident yet accommodating, and we just wanted to make them look as good as possible and represent the movie in the best manner we could.
8. Learn to balance your ego. Note that I didn’t say “don’t have an ego.” Having an ego is not a bad thing, because it gives you confidence to take creative risks and the belief you can pull them off. Sometimes great work can come as a result of having a little creative swagger, and that’s good. But at the same time, don’t forget #7, to be humble. A healthy ego gives you confidence. An unhealthy ego believes that you have all the answers yourself – and don’t need to collaborate because you’ve already figured it out. Learning to balance your ego will not only make you a better creative (and easy to work with) it’ll make you a better manager as well – I’ll follow a decisive, confident leader every day of the week. It’s been a large part of my own success – watching great leaders with healthy, balanced egos and doing my best to emulate that same approachable confidence.
9. Always look for the best in others, until proven otherwise. Generally, I’m a glass half-full kind of guy. If an agency is late with their first rough cut, I try to assume it’s because they’re working extra hard to make it better, not because they’re not doing their job or that they’re just slow. Having that mentality will lead to a less stressed-out work environment, and until you know the full story about why that cut might be late, it doesn’t do a ton of good to blame or point fingers or assume anything. Assuming the best in others also shows that you trust your creative partners. One of the greatest pieces of advice I ever got from a previous manager of mine (and I’m sure I heard it from my parents, too!) was that “There are always two sides to every story.” Nothing can be truer than that, trust me. Now, of course this tip is reliant on having good partners – it’s possible that the agency WAS just slacking, and that cut was late because they weren’t doing their job. That happens, too. And once you find that to be the case (rather than immediately assuming it is the case), the next step should be pretty obvious – think twice before hiring them again.
10. Be self-aware. This is one of the most important parts of being a manager or leader. Understand how others see you and what their perception of you is. “Perception is reality” is true – it doesn’t ultimately matter if you think of yourself as collaborative creative person if nobody else around you thinks that. Get a mentor that’s close to you but more seasoned and solicit their feedback/advice and take it to heart. Listen to that feedback and take your personal feelings out of the equation. At one point in my career, I discovered that others’ perception of me in one particular area was quite different from how I saw myself. Once I got past the shock I realized that I had to fix it – and I made a shift in how I interacted and collaborated with others by making a simple tweak that my mentor suggested. And it worked. Being stubborn or resistant to feedback because YOU don’t believe it’s true will only hurt your own growth and creative development.
Sometimes I lead by watching others work, apparently. Photo by Jon Connor.
There are, of course, many more things than this that can make you a creative leader. And let me say that I am by no means the pinnacle of creative leadership! I have my days, like anyone, where I do better, and days when I do worse. Days where collaboration comes easy, and days when I just want to do what I want. But it’s all about constantly trying to learn and expose yourself to new things, and keep up with the never-ending pipeline of creative content being made. Strive to be self-aware and thick-skinned. Hire great people, because when you surround yourself with other talented creatives, it’s amazing how much easier that makes everything. Build or surround yourself with a creative culture and treat everyone with respect. I’m lucky to have the best team in the business. They push me to make the work better, they always challenge and surprise me – and keep me honest and grounded. And for that, I’m a lucky guy. Mostly, try to stay true to who you are and find a leadership style that works. Love what you do – and if you don’t, then figure out why not and do something about it. These are a few of the things I’ve learned over the years, and I hope that they will help your career and your creative as much as I believe they’ve helped mine. Thanks for reading.