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Managing creative talent - what every leader needs to know

Creative people are often complex, and come with complex issues. It’s part of what makes them great at what they do - but not always easy to manage. Getting top creative talent to work well together calls for an understanding of their motivations and their behaviours.

By creative, we mean truly innovative people and while we tend to think of designers, it also covers professions like architects, product developers and content creators - roles that produce the exceptional work that defines an organisation.

Here are some of the issues to be aware of, and how to spot the warning signs:

Understanding their different motivations

Creative people are motivated by producing great work, they set themselves high standards and want to compete with themselves and other creative businesses. It’s intrinsic motivation and comes from within. For these reasons, although financial reward still matters, it’s a secondary motivation. Offering more may help with retention, but it won’t generate higher levels of creativity.

So, what really motivates? The satisfaction of solving a problem, that breakthrough moment that nails the brief better than anyone else can. It realises a hugely satisfying creative ‘high’ with all the recognition to follow. Increasingly, people are motivated by a sense of purpose too, the feeling that they are contributing towards something positive. In a creative context, working on life-changing campaigns or products can also give this same sense of reward.

However, all of this depends on the culture, that has to motivate too.

Creating an engaging and authentic culture

Creativity needs an environment where it can flourish. One that is high on autonomy and trust and low on bureaucracy and micro-management. Your people want a leadership style that understands how they work and gives them the space they need. A culture that recognises that risk is necessary to push boundaries and that accepts failure constructively. As Neil Armstrong might have said, “we need to fail down here so we can succeed up there.”

Values need to be authentic and leaders need to live them too. There’s no point installing the trappings of a creative workplace - the cool looking office, pool table, ‘sleep’ pods etc and then making people feel guilty for taking a break. It won’t work if you say the mission is all about solving a problem for the greater good - and then put profit first. Engagement comes through a positive atmosphere, a combination of the right conditions and the support and encouragement to let the creativity happen.

Spot those unhelpful behaviours

Of course, a creative business has a mix of talents that need to work together but whose behaviours don’t always make that so easy. Creative people are rightly passionate about their work and with passion comes conviction. This comes with a strong belief that their idea is the right course. Criticism isn’t always well received.

Immersion in projects makes many creative people introverts in nature, more interested in their work than people. Building a sense of team can be a challenge where the focus is often internally focused on their ideas and solutions. Creative people often seek recognition from others - without always wanting to work with others.

As a leader, the best way to spot and manage any unhelpful behaviour is to spend time with them and really listen to what they are trying to do. Ask questions, understand the personalities, find out what they need and link people together who can help each other but who might not realise it. It may also be necessary to find ways to incentivise people to work together rather than produce individual efforts.

Identifying and managing imposter syndrome

It’s a classic problem - people who are great at what they do somehow feel that they aren’t. Creative people pride themselves at being an expert so when they are asked to work with other experts it can trigger severe self-doubt. This is dangerous for a creative business as people experiencing Imposter Syndrome will take fewer risks, make less progress in their work and become inefficient because the self-doubt leads to intense procrastination or constant checking.

We recommend building awareness of imposter syndrome into your induction and training and training your creatives and managers how to move on from it. Monkey Puzzle has created an Imposter Syndrome slideshow for Management Today – you’ll find some of our tips helpful. See ‘13 ways to beat imposter syndrome.’

Avoiding burnout

The creative sector is prone to burnout through stress and overwork. Wrapped up in the desire to produce outstanding work, it creeps up slowly and the results can be devastating. Some of the warning signs are: Increased apathy about things you were previously passionate about, disproportionate feelings of overwhelm, becoming ever more compulsive about the thing that is causing you to feel this way - and, not surprisingly, physical and emotional exhaustion.

Leaders can help manage the risk of burnout by raising awareness of it and encouraging prevention strategies to keep energy levels up and reduce the build up of stress. Some of the best ways to cope are more about life than work. Prioritising sleep, finding a life rhythm and working on the quality of relationships. We’ve covered burnout in more depth in our article ‘3 Life hacks to keep your energy up and avoid burnout’.

In conclusion

For a leader, creative businesses are rife with management challenges. People can sometimes be more interested in their work than their colleagues. Some may seek recognition but others could just as easily suffer a lack of confidence leading to a feeling of imposter syndrome that belies their talent. And, in a sector where long hours are the norm, the pressure to perform can lead to burnout.

You have to be present in a creative business - get to know the people, their work and their strengths and weaknesses. A leadership style that understands how creative people work and can create the space and culture they need will go a long way towards getting the best out of them.

For further information

If you have any questions about leading and managing creative people, we are here to help. We offer coaching and training for leaders to master communication, influence with integrity, and get a positive response from their people. Find out more about our Leadership Development Programmes and 1-2-1 Coaching.

You’ll find additional management tips in our article ‘Why aren’t my brilliant people being brilliant?'

How Can We help?

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If you’d like our support in making these ideas work for you and your business, please get in touch.

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