When it comes to your creative employees, it’s about telling them what to do, not how to do it
Nearly all companies want innovation and creativity to keep their business vital, but the fact is many executives aren’t overly comfortable working with creative individuals.
Why? They often have fundamentally different mindsets. C-suiters tend to be more buttoned-down, bottom-line oriented, and logical, whereas creative types are typically most comfortable with expansive, out-of-the-box, blue sky thinking. Entirely different approaches.
Despite these differences, a productive working relationship between the two is possible, and important. Over my decades in Fortune 500 management, I spent considerable time managing creative talent — advertising agencies, directors, designers, copywriters, etc. The work was both difficult and rewarding. But along the way, I learned three important things while working with these individuals.
1. Tell creative people what to do, not how to do it
You sometimes learn more from your employees than from management textbooks. A good example of this involved a highly imaginative event planner I once managed. Being a sports fan, I sometimes got quite involved in the events she was planning — e.g. our company’s sponsorships of U.S. Open Golf and Tennis Tournaments) — far more than I needed to, down to menu planning details and such. My event planner was experienced and capable, and one day when she’d grown tired of my meddling, I mean management, and could no longer contain herself, she told me directly, “You know, when you’re working with creative people, you really should just tell them what to do, not how to do it. They’ll probably find a better way.” It was as if the proverbial light bulb suddenly went on; She was totally right. I didn’t need to do half of what I was doing with her. My over-involvement in her projects was producing little, except frustration.
2. Avoid micromanagement
As the story above shows, there’s a substantive difference between thoughtful management and pesky micromanagement. While micromanagement is rarely a successful tactic (studies show it’s a key reason for retention problems), when it comes to creative types, it’s exceedingly ineffective. Most people chafe under too much authority, too much forcefulness, too much control — especially employees who pride themselves on finding uniquely creative solutions. I worked with senior executives in the marketing/advertising biz who sometimes imposed their own solutions on creative teams. Do you know how many times the imposed solutions were objectively better than the ideas the creative teams came up with? I’d say about zero percent. Do you know how many times they caused serious consternation among creative teams? I’d say about 100 percent.
3. Provide clear strategic direction
That’s not to say there’s not a critically important role for senior management in the creative process, because there surely is. But it’s not in the guts of the creative engine. It’s on the business side. It’s providing clear strategic direction. Think about it: you as a manager are the one who knows your business best, the overall environment and the nuances of your specific industry. You’re the one who deeply understands what a project needs to accomplish and what results you’re seeking. You need to provide clear input, sound direction, and then make sure the ultimate creative product — whether it’s an ad, an event, a new product, etc. — meets your business needs, because at times your creative team, being highly creative after all, will come up with some wildly off-base ideas. This is never art for art’s sake. This is art for business’s sake. Your role is to let the creative folks do their job, but be sure the results are firmly grounded in reality and meet business needs.
You may well find creative individuals in many unexpected roles in an organization, not just classic “creative” roles like video or writing or designing. Over the years I worked with highly creative product specialists, actuaries, and investment professionals, for example. They were extraordinarily valuable to our company. The best managers had great respect for them and knew how to work with them. An organization is always stronger when it productively harnesses its creative talent.