Creativity

10 Reasons You’re Not Ready to Lead a Creative Team

Business, nonprofit, and religious organizations are all filled with people who are terrible at leading creative people. In some cases, they were promoted to the position and understand they are out of their depth. But in most cases (in my experience) they actually believe they’re good at leading creative people, when in truth, they are completely out of place. Based on working with more than a few horrible creative leaders over the last few decades, here’s my checklist of 10 Reasons You’re Not Ready to Lead A Creative Team:

1) You simply don’t like creative types. You think they’re not serious, undisciplined, or just weird.

2) You don’t understand why they prefer to work late at night or early in the morning. You think they should just show up like everybody else and be done with it.

3) You’re not willing to defend their work to the people you report to.

4) You think creative people don’t have a mind for business so they won’t understand the bigger picture or strategy.

5) Controlling the creative team is very important to you.

6) You like to micromanage their work.

7) You think creative people are flakey and undependable.

8) You think creative people have gigantic egos.

9) You think creative people only care about how “cool” an idea or project happens to be.

10) You like to take credit for their work.

If you suffer from any of these tendencies, then it may be time to rethink your position. Because if you don’t understand how creative people think, what they value, and why you need to defend their work, then you’re really not ready to lead creative teams.

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35 Comments

  1. Spot on Phil, as always! Leading creatives is a skill and an art. The best thing we can do is guide the overall direction and allow them to CREATE!
    I love the 3rd point – we MUST defend their work to those we report to. This builds rapport with them, which in turn allows them to trust you and give you even better work!
    I’d be interested in how to create “healthy boundaries and guidelines” for a Creative Team.

  2. As a former, present and hopefully future leader of creatives this is deeply convicting. I think I’m guilty of all 10 of these at some point in the past and will likely use this as a point of self review in the future in analyzing how effectively I’m leading creatives. Very convicting and very helpful. Great stuff as always Phil!

    My one point of encouragement that I might add to someone who is leading and failing with these things is you can change. As a leader I’m most often driven by efficiency, productivity and what I perceive as pure hustle. In that I miss the essential value that creatives bring to the team when measurable results are difficult to define. As a leader you can swallow your pride and admit your shortfalls in leading creatives and steadily begin to improve in that area. I would encourage you to admit it openly and directly with those that you lead and work together to improve the relationship. Your entire team will be better for it.

  3. I think you about covered it here, phil! The one thing I would add is, many non-creative leaders don’t understand that creating is a PROCESS, and process takes time.

    The saying that goes for project management is that you can have it fast, cheap, and good, but not all three, you can only pick two- and those two depend on the values of the company. If a leader expects to have all three from their creative team, they’ll likely be disappointed in their team.

  4. These are right on the money Phil.
    There is much to share about this subject but here are a few things to know if you ARE ready to lead a creative team.
    Understanding
    You must have minimally a basic working knowledge of each separate department so each team member is confident you will have an understanding of their journey and support for their specific creative process and contribution to the whole. One cannot be an expert at everything but the ability to understand multiple disciplines and speak the language of each specific department is vital to the team having confidence in you.
    Communication
    You must be able to define the goals and cast the creative vision in a cogent and creative way that excites the team with the uniqueness and creativity of what is being accomplished. First, build excitement of the final product and explain the hoped for impact it will have on your audience; how it will enlighten them, teach them and entertain them. Second, explain how each dept serves that final vision.
    Atmosphere
    Create a safe and supportive atmosphere where the team feels respect. As a leader, be sure but don’t be rigid. Be open to new inspiration that will come to light during the process. In a supportive and safe environment those new inspirations will be shared; otherwise they will not.
    Being open to small adjustments of inspiration during the process that serve the vision and mission can make the difference between a good outcome and an inspired one.
    Amick Byram

  5. Phil, this article is spot on for those new to leading a creative team and a great reminder to those of us currently leading the teams and/or involved in the creative process. Here’s a couple of thoughts. I think it’s important when managing creative people to take the time to listen and understand the thought process behind the work and concepts they bring to the table.

    Also, what makes someone great at leading a creative team isn’t just allowing creatives to just “go off and create” by themselves and “come back with something” but involve them in the actual discussion and overall strategy of any promotional campaign or project at the onset, along with key stakeholders that are responsible for driving the project down the field and into the end zone. (Note: Particular teams and responsibilities may vary depending on the organization)

    This means involving the creative team in understanding the overall vision of the project and how they play and important role in the overall process. Leaders need to help creatives understand the intended message “content”, the chosen audience (internal/external), mode of delivery (digital, print, social media) and the end result at the onset. Having these type of discussions with key stakeholders helps a creative team do their job more effectively – because frankly each team cannot afford to work independently of each other, or in a vacuum. Leaders can champion the cross pollination of communication and ideas between teams, help break down any silos that exist, and create an atmosphere where each person can listen, share, and strategize together to secure the “win.”

    Also, leaders need to recognize that each creative person comes with different unique talents. It’s the manager’s job to determine the best fit for each assignment based on the person’s individual strengths and weaknesses. Once that’s learned, give them space to do what they do, while setting standards and objectives for the project overall, to help eliminate any confusion.

    And, one more thing, if you have the awesome opportunity to manage a creative team always be available to help, truly care about them as individuals as well as employees, and always give public praise and credit when deserved. Enjoy the project together and rejoice in that you get to work with awesome professionals who are great at what they do! If by chance, there is a “miss”, it’s upon the leader to take responsibility for the department’s mistake, learn from it, and move on.

  6. Phil, this article is spot on for those new to leading a creative team and a great reminder to those of us currently leading the teams and/or involved in the creative process. Here’s a couple of thoughts. I think it’s important when managing creative people to take the time to listen and understand the thought process behind the work and concepts they bring to the table.

    Also, what makes someone great at leading a creative team isn’t just allowing creatives to just “go off and create” by themselves and “come back with something” but involve them in the actual discussion and overall strategy of any promotional campaign or project at the onset, along with key stakeholders that are responsible for driving the project down the field and into the end zone. (Note: Particular teams and responsibilities may vary depending on the organization)

    This means involving the creative team in understanding the overall vision of the project and how they play and important role in the overall process. Leaders need to help creatives understand the intended message “content”, the chosen audience (internal/external), mode of delivery (digital, print, social media) and the end result at the onset. Having these type of discussions with key stakeholders helps a creative team do their job more effectively – because frankly each team cannot afford to work independently of each other, or in a vacuum. Leaders can champion the cross pollination of communication and ideas between teams, help break down any silos that exist, and create an atmosphere where each person can listen, share, and strategize together to secure the “win.”

    Also, leaders need to recognize that each creative person comes with different unique talents. It’s the manager’s job to determine the best fit for each assignment based on the person’s individual strengths and weaknesses. Once that’s learned, give them space to do what they do, while setting standards and objectives for the project overall, to help eliminate any confusion.

    And, one more thing, if you have the awesome opportunity to manage a creative team always be available to help, truly care about them as individuals as well as employees, and always give public praise and credit when deserved. Enjoy the project together and rejoice in that you get to work with awesome professionals who are great at what they do! If by chance, there is a “miss”, it’s upon the leader to take responsibility for the department’s mistake, learn from it, and move on.

  7. I’m a “creative type” with a leader who isn’t one, but I don’t have any of these issues. My leader definitely understands that we are different and while he doesn’t always understand us he does do an excellent job of defending and protecting his team, while also challenging us to meet the expectations of the ministry, even if it’s outside of my comfort zone. I think I have a very collaborative relationship with my leader, though we don’t always see eye to eye, I know I’m heard.

    I’ve had the type of manager in the past who was definitely like this article described, a micro-manger, not understanding why I work the hours I work, extremely controlling. That was a miserable work environment so I can definitely say that people like that exists and it’s a very hostile situation to work in. You could lose a lot of talented people if you operate like that.

    Creative people aren’t flaky or oblivious to business culture, but we do have a different way of processing requests and seeing things. As a leader, you should welcome that alternate perspective as we sometimes see things you don’t (and visa versa).

  8. In my experience we try to emphasize understanding the problem that needs to be solved and enabling our values and principles to create the boundaries so that creativity can be unleashed and focused into really valuable outcomes. Everything else is on the table. If we stifle creativity, we fail. Technology is also creating new horizons of possibility for people willing to engage their gifting and talent in creative work with incredible benefit. We owe it to our teams, ourselves and our ministries/businesses to unleash this in every way possible.

  9. Great article, Phil. Definitely a good “Creative Eye for the Concrete Guy” checklist for leadership. What if the roles were reversed? Can you speak to the situation where a super-creative guy is leading the engineers and technical staff?

  10. As a former, present and hopefully future leader of creatives this is deeply convicting. I think I’m guilty of all 10 of these at some point in the past and will likely use this as a point of self review in the future in analyzing how effectively I’m leading creatives. Very convicting and very helpful. Great stuff as always Phil!

    My one point of encouragement that I might add to someone who is leading and failing with these things is you can change. As a leader I’m most often driven by efficiency, productivity and what I perceive as pure hustle. In that I miss the essential value that creatives bring to the team when measurable results are difficult to define. As a leader you can swallow your pride and admit your shortfalls in leading creatives and steadily begin to improve in that area. I would encourage you to admit it openly and directly with those that you lead and work together to improve the relationship. Your entire team will be better for it.

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