Creative Leaders Workshop – our findings

Earlier this week we invited a group of CR readers to a special workshop event dedicated to creative leadership. With some of our ‘Creative Leaders 50’ nominees on hand to offer advice, we discussed what it takes to lead creative team in 2016. Here’s what we found out…

The event was held at the M by Montcalm hotel in Shoreditch and was made possible with the generous support of our sponsors, Workfront. As our special guests, we asked some of the talent from our CL50 list along – Ross Phillips, Creative Director of Spyscape; Caroline Pay, former Deputy ECD at BBH; and Lee Schuneman and Juliana Ferreira, Studio Head and Head of Design, respectively, at Microsoft Lift London – to give us their take on leading a creative team and the kinds of challenges they’ve faced.

The four of us from CR each hosted a table and, over the course of an hour and a half, the leaders moved around from group to group to face new questions, offer up advice and continue the discussion.

So what did we discover about the current state of creative leadership and what it’s like to run a creative team in 2016? What things get in the way of creativity and how do you get around them? What about inspiration and failure? Well, we took some notes, and presented here are some of our findings from the afternoon.

Know your people.
‘How do you recruit new talent?’ was a question put to all of our creative leaders. Word of mouth, personal recommendations, networking events (like this one!) came high on the list, it seemed. In terms of assembling a team, matching up people with different expertise and perspectives can lead to interesting things – and give everyone a better understanding of how their colleagues operate – but this also brings fresh thinking to a project. The idea of the ‘hybrid’ role came up – someone with core skills but who can also move around in different areas within a team.

We also discussed how changing where you work with more regularity can actually be a good thing – the value of the experience of different places and environments is high. (This perhaps sounds easier than in practice – leaders, of course, then have to find someone else equally as good as a replacement.)

And don’t think of your ‘team’ to the extent that individuality is ignored – find out what everyone’s hopes and aspirations are and how these fit in with the business. If they’re not aligned, have a conversation about how someone might be able to move around. Good communication and clarity – making sure people know what’s expected of them from the outset – should not be underestimated, it was felt. Make sure you know what your team expects from you, too, and that your clients know what you can deliver.

Inspire your team.
Most of us work/read/communicate on a screen these days, so one of the best things you can do to recharge is get away from all that. Organising a day out, going to see something special – these aspects of working life were considered vital to the health of a creative company. Yet while this attitude might be encouraged within a studio or agency, many were concerned that work-related social activities were too often not regarded as proper work, or part of a working day. The benefits of doing so, however, seemed to greatly outweigh the reasons for staying office-bound and not taking in the latest exhibition/installation/theme park etc.

Then there were the benefits of simply ‘creating’ outside of the work environment – whether it was sketching, or making things with our hands – a rich creative life is vital to developing creative ideas. Many people cited a lack of physical space – or, yes, time – to do these kinds of activities and remarked that, unless they were actively encouraged by senior team members, people could be reticent for fear of looking like they were doing something ‘extra curricular’.

Get out of the way.
Part of the job of the creative leader is to get out of the way and let the people in your team be as good as they can be. As a creative leader, the role is no longer necessarily about coming up with the ideas, but sorting out the good ones from the weaker ones – and supporting people in developing those ideas as best they can. While managing situations was seen as important, ‘micro-management’ was the big ‘no-no’ to emerge here.

It was said that, in an ideal world, it’s important to shield your creative team from worrying about ROIs and client targets and let them focus on making great creative work. And when this happens, make a fuss – celebrate when people do things well to keep them motivated. When working on long-term projects, particularly stressful ones, or ones with a lot of pressures or restraints, it’s important to celebrate ‘incremental wins’, every little victory achieved along the way.

Clear leadership is about decision making, delegation and going with your gut – people will, as was pointed out, pay a lot of money for your gut.

Fail. Fail again. But not too much.
Human beings have been ‘failing’ in various ways since the beginning of time but in recent years it’s become something of a fashionable business concept that’s now more thought of as part of the learning process of getting towards a successful result. It was felt that, while failure should perhaps not be overtly encouraged (‘that’s enough failing for today thank you, Mark’), rather, it can merely prove healthy to change our perception of what failing is and what we might learn from it.

Why not examine the work that didn’t make it as a team? Maybe even ask your team to show off the work they liked that didn’t go through? It may have failed in one sense, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t good or you shouldn’t be proud of it. “I don’t plan for failure,” one of our group said, “but I cherish recovery”. Now go and get back in that saddle.

Bring your client in.
This was a subject that prompted a lot of discussion: how to keep your client happy, informed and part of the process of making something great. Everyone agreed that, naturally, communication was vital – face to face meetings with team members throughout projects, regular catch-ups to assess performance and to hear from employees – but that equally this applied to client relationships.

Some felt it was important to set shared goals with clients at the beginning of a project so that you are both clear about what you expect to achieve from something – and to keep them involved with regular meetings and updates. That way, the responsibility for failure is shared, too, and not placed entirely on you as a studio or agency. Also, why not film or blog regular updates on projects to share with clients? It’s easier to do this than ever before and, as was mentioned on the day, it can really work.

A balanced culture.
While you don’t want everything to be too warm and cuddly (a competitive environment can be healthy), no-one wants to work in a culture of fear and dread either. Again, communication was a key part of a good working environment – it was felt that all too often people are busying away without awareness of the wider team effort. Communicating how long certain things take to do, particularly digital projects, was also a challenge in itself.

And trust – trust came out as one of the most valuable assets of any creative business. Just as clients can’t see what’s in your head – you have to gain their confidence – your team needs to have confidence in the people within in it. “We think our job is to come up with the end result,” one of my group said – “the reality is that it’s really about the getting there”.

Thanks to Workfront; Ross, Caroline, Lee and Juliana; all of the CR readers that came along; and our events team. All photography by Ian Newcomb

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