Five Tips for Leading Creative Teams

Creative teams need leaders for inspiration and managers for getting things done. In the interest of simplicity, this post is directed towards individuals with limited experience in the creative industry. The primary focus is leadership and gives a few tips for navigating the creative process as team leads.

Wall Street Journal referenced Warren Bennis’ 1989 book, “On Becoming a Leader”, to list out key differences between leadership and management perspectives — both are necessary. We’ll discuss management techniques in a later post.

Leadership, according to Kevin Kruse, “is a process of social influence, which maximizes the efforts of others, towards the achievement of a goal.” In regards to creative teams, this means keeping your team inspired and productive, as well as maximizing the quality of the product for the client.

Now that we have a definition of leadership take time to reflect on your leadership style. You know the adage, “know thyself”? It’s time to dust off that psychology book. Personality tests and leadership assessments can help you identify and understand your tendencies. Additionally, it’s important that you understand your leadership style before assembling your creative team. Once you know which personality types work best with yours, assembling and leading a creative team will be less problematic.

One other thing to consider: leading requires enhanced emotional intelligence to steer the team’s creative process effectively. Daniel Goleman describes effective leaders as possessing a high degree of emotional intelligence, which includes self-awareness, self-regulation, motivation, empathy, and social skill. Accordingly, if you exhibit high levels of emotional intelligence, you may be capable of handling more difficult team members and clients. Arguably, if you have a great deal of emotional intelligence, those unexpected events or stressful timelines will roll off your shoulders when you have to roll up your sleeves.

Are you still with me? OK, now we are on to the tips!

1) Learn the language and basic principles of your team’s creative process

Misunderstandings due to language disrupt the creative process and flow. Knowing the language will help reinforce positive perceptions about your leadership competence. A leader that can articulate a vision and desires of the client will save the team many hours of work. I’m not saying that you should control every aspect of the process — that would be micro-managing the project and limiting potential creativity. Instead, speak with precision about your team’s core creative principles. For example, if your team consists of graphic designers, you should be knowledgeable about design principles such as contrast, repetition, alignment, and proximity among others. Get versed up on the basics, and your team members will thank you.

2) Be pragmatic when assembling teams

I never knew what the phrase “know your people” meant until I had a team full of difficult members. Team members should be able to inspire each other and play off of each other’s creativity; they should be constructive to the process. Through trial and error, I learned to put together teams that had more compatibility, and an increased likelihood to meet milestones and deadlines.

Consider team diversity of talent and skillsets. Beth Comstock, senior vice president of GE, via HBR Blog Network, states, “diversity is the crucial element for group creativity.” She goes on to say, “assembling and managing diverse teams is hard work. That tension essential to creativity is tough to manage, requiring deft leadership.” In other words, know what you are getting yourself into for the duration of the project.

Identify which employees will work well together and with clients. Be sure to define roles and responsibilities for each member and yourself. Perhaps, there is nothing worse than having that “who was responsible for what” discussion right before a milestone or deadline.

3) Clearly articulate vision, milestones and goals

Meetings with your clients should include the key members of your team. I’m not saying have everyone on your team sit in on each meeting, but I am saying you should ensure there is a clear understanding of the client’s desired outcome shared with team members with the most stake.

Come in with an overarching strategy and your personal creative ideas in mind. Then, formalize milestones and goals with team members and clients. I recommend listening to the client more than speaking and ensure clarification of each of the client’s requests. Follow up with actionable items at the end of each meeting; this will help immensely with client management.

4) Create an environment for the creative process

Encourage constructive criticism and problem solving, but ensure an open-minded environment. If your team encounters difficulty during brainstorming, consider taking the meeting to a different location. Maybe try taking your team members out for walks to discuss and formulate ideas. In a TED2013 presentation, Nilofer Merchant suggests taking one-on-one meetings out for a walk and talk to let ideas flow, “fresh air drives fresh thinking”.

One other necessity for your team’s work environment is access to resources to get the job done. Communicate with your team members to ensure they have the practical tools of the trade. Sometimes leaders need to build a case for purchasing updated equipment and getting the appropriate training to keep up with the industry. Put on your long-range planning hat and keep up with industry trends to ensure that you and your teams maintain top-quality products. Your clients will thank you in the form of return business.

5) Assessment and Feedback

As with most processes, we tend to glaze over assessment and feedback. However, we shouldn’t rely solely on our observations when we have access to additional perspectives. How can we expect to identify all of the flaws and strengths without hearing from each member? We simply wouldn’t get the whole picture. If you are just starting out as a leader, I recommend keeping your assessments qualitative. Start off with a feedback session with the team members, either one-on-one or in a group setting. To ensure you get the complete picture, be sure to include an anonymous means for feedback like SurveyMonkey.

Keep your notes on each project and client, because you might see the same project next year. Be sure to answer the core question: did you achieve the primary goal? Also, look into each team member’s perception of the creative process. Did the team members feel like they accomplished something meaningful? In the end, feedback is a great way to discover and recognize team members that went above and beyond.

In summary, keep your team inspired and productive, and you will maximize the quality of the product for the client. Learn the language to talk the talk, so you can efficiently execute the mission. Assemble your teams pragmatically with an eye for diverse perspectives, so your team can form original ideas and set new trends. Formalize a vision statement, key milestones, and set practical deadlines. Ensure that your team’s work environment and resources support the creative vision. Tie everything together with a good assessment and feedback process. Rinse and repeat.