“In a sense, everybody is a ‘creative’ these days,” says Nelson Rodriguez, VP of global marketing at creative staffing firm Aquent. And he would know: over the last decade, Rodriguez has managed hundreds of digital creatives at Aquent, Microsoft, and the digital agency he founded. While creative work once conjured up images of solitary, eccentric artists and writers, the modern workplace is teeming with creative jobs. “You have graphic designers, UXers, gamification experts, front-end developers, coders… the list of creative jobs goes on,” he says.
While this abundance of creativity produces innovative, design-forward companies, Rodriguez says that it takes special skill to manage creatives. “It is completely natural for someone who is creating something to feel pride of ownership, but this ego can sometimes get in the way of giving the company what it needs,” he says.
There may have been a time when companies made allowances for the egocentrism inherent in Don Draper-ish creative personalities, but those days are far behind us now. Rodriguez says that the digital world is getting more crowded, forcing businesses to compete by turning projects around quickly. Creative employees cannot hold too tightly to their work, because it’s only a matter of time before it will be be tinkered with or scrapped entirely. “As a creative, the work that you’re doing is so ephemeral,” says Rodriguez. “I think back to artists of the past making things that would stand the test of time, like the Eiffel Tower or a statute. The very dynamic of art has changed.”
Many managers struggle with how to give creative employees negative feedback without squelching their vision. The solution, Rodriguez says, is to deliberately move away from a culture that highlights individual genius and instead create a workplace that makes teamwork pleasurable and fun. In Rodriguez’s experience, creatives who have a collaborative approach are more flexible and willing to tear their work apart to make it better. “Ideally, you want creatives to have a very short memory; you want them to make things, then a week later, forget who on the team did what,” he says.
Not surprisingly, he says, the first step to achieving this is hiring. “We look for people with a very particular profile,” says Rodriguez. “Someone who has a lot of great work under their belt but does not carry an ego.” In practice, this means seeking out people who are willing to question their own work and throw out a range of solutions to problems, rather than assuming that they already have the one right answer.
Once you’ve put together a team to tackle a project, Rodriguez says that one important way to create a warm team atmosphere is never to blame individuals when things go awry. This highlights the upsides of being on a team: while no single person gets all the glory, no one receives receives all the blame, either. Rodriguez finds that creatives thrive under this management style because they shift dreading the possibility of failure to being excited about how to pitch in. “If a product has launched and it isn’t up to scratch, it is never okay to point fingers at people,” he says. “What we give people credit for how they are willing to jump in and help.”
While many leadership handbooks encourage managers to praise employees’ personal accomplishments, Rodriguez tends to disagree, at least when it comes to working with creatives. Highlighting one person’s work only leads to a hero culture that he is working to eliminate. “If I am completely honest, I don’t spend much time raving about what one person did and asking the whole team to clap,” he says. He’s found that this does not discourage employees. In a recent global meeting, Rodriguez asked his colleagues and peers what form of recognition they preferred: the majority said that they preferred a private thank you from their supervisor, rather than receiving massive public accolades. He’s taken this feedback to heart, offering personal kudos to his staff and avoiding public shout-outs.
Rodriguez says that one of the challenges to cultivating team spirit is that many creatives telecommute, help out on a freelance basis or are part of an external agency. The key here is to be very clear with these external team members about goals and pitfalls. “When you’re dealing with creatives who are not sharing the lunch room jokes with your team, it is so important to be specific about what success looks like and what the no fly zones are,” he says. He also advocates bringing all external team members into the office to help them get a feel for the project: “You need in-person meetings when you want someone to fall in love with something. Once you’ve won them over, you can do so much over email or on the phone.”
This culture should eliminate any possible conflicts that might arise from creative egos, but if problems do occasionally pop up, Rodriguez says that humor is the best antidote. He laughs at himself all the time and encourages his employees to do the same. “I make it clear that no idea is sacred,” he says. “It’s not like each idea is a delicate little flower that needs special treatment. Every idea can be made fun of and made better.”