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5 Keys to Successfully Manage Creative Employees


Managing creative employees can be challenging: It’s a constant balancing act. On the one hand, you need to maintain an environment that encourages exploration, experimentation and risk-taking. On the other hand, you need to push people forward to produce work on time and on budget that meets the needs of the business.

To achieve these goals, successful creative leaders should prioritize building an egoless culture within their team. Employees shouldn’t care who came up with what idea. They should focus instead on how to make each idea even better.

After 15 years of working in both corporate and agency environments, I’ve discovered these five keys to managing creatives that will keep the inspiration flowing while satisfying the C-suite.

1. Make teamwork the priority.

Giving negative feedback to creatives is the hardest part of this job, but it can’t be avoided. To make it easier, move away from a culture that emphasizes individual accomplishment and focus instead on the value of teamwork. In this context, recommendations to change specific elements of a piece or even reject it outright, are always phrased in terms of “How can we make this better?” Feedback, then, isn’t about calling out losers. It’s a rallying cry to the team to pitch in on a new solution.

2. Cultivate non-attachment.

While you want to bring out the best in people, you also need to encourage them to be open minded. After all, they are creating for the business, not to satisfy their personal muse. What’s more, whatever they come up with will undergo inevitable changes and might get scrapped altogether. Adopt an agile approach: Produce ideas quickly, provide timely feedback and push for rapid iterations of concepts. It’s much harder to get attached to ideas that are produced in this fashion than to something you slaved over for two weeks.

3. Hiring is key.

This approach to creative work is not going to be for everyone. To create an egoless team, you need to find and hire people who are talented, but they also need to be open to dissenting opinions of their work and willing to experiment with alternate directions. The real super stars here are those who are more interested in finding solutions to problems than in holding on to the belief that they have already found the one right answer.

4. Don’t point fingers.

The approach I’m describing here only works if you stick to it. You can’t encourage teamwork while things are going well and then single out people when things go awry. You also have to remember that you are part of the team; you share success and failure with them. When things go wrong — and sometimes they will —your response can’t be “What were you thinking?” or “Who did this?” Instead, it has to be, “What have we learned?” and, more importantly, “How can I help?”

5. Customize your praise.

I realize that great teamwork depends on the individual efforts of the talented people that I’ve hired. As much joy as people may get from collective achievement, they will also appreciate being recognized for their contribution. I’ve found, however, that most of the time direct feedback from me or one of our clients means more to them than public accolades. There’s no one right way to recognize employees. Ask your team members how they prefer to be recognized and then show your appreciation appropriately.

Obviously, the success of this approach will depend a lot on the culture of the organization. It’s one thing to structure your agency along these lines, as I have done. It can be quite another thing to try and put the team first within a larger organization where the praise of individual accomplishment and the assignment of individual blame, is the norm.

I strongly believe great and effective creative work is a group effort. And you can consistently produce that kind of work if you prioritize teamwork through a supportive, collaborative environment where talented people are encouraged to take risks, solve problems collectively.

By Nelson Rodriguez