How to lead creative people

James Allen gives us tips on how to lead the maverick creative voices in your business.

In the book ‘How Google Works’, the authors Eric Schmidt and Jonathan Rosenberg talk a lot about their concept of ‘Smart Creatives’, the type of worker that Google wants to employ and encourage. According to the book, Smart Creatives are not confined to specific tasks, they take risks and don’t get hemmed in by role definitions or organisational structures. 

They don’t keep quiet when they disagree with something, they get bored easily and shift jobs a lot, they have deep technical knowledge in how to use the tools of their trade, they’re experts in doing, and they don’t just design things, they build them too. They’re also competitive and driven to be great, which often involves working long hours.

The list continues.

Smart Creatives can change perspectives in an instant. They’re curious, always questioning the status quo, seeing problems everywhere. They’re self-directed and they don’t wait to be told what to do – and may ignore direction if they don’t agree with it.

They’re open and freely collaborate. They judge ideas based on their quality, not where or who they come from. And finally, they are communicative, expressing their ideas with flair, humour, and charisma. Do you recognise any of these traits in yourself or in your colleagues? It’s a revealing insight into the remarkable talents and quirks of creative people.

Creativity is very much a team sport. Great new ideas come as a result of connecting existing ideas and brainstorming together. 

Another source of insight into creative behaviours and attributes is ‘The Innovator’s DNA’ by Geoff Dyer, Hal Gregersen, and Clayton Christensen. They interviewed 25 top businessmen including Jeff Bezos from Amazon and Procter & Gamble’s A.G. Lafley, and as well as 3,000 executives working within a whole range of businesses.

Their research revealed five specific behaviours, i.e. the innovator’s DNA. The first is ‘associating’: synthesising and connecting ideas from different fields and different areas. Next comes ‘questioning’, challenging the status quo, asking ‘why are we doing this?’.

Then there’s ‘observing’, which consists of watching and noticing, seeing things from other industries or other areas of the business and considering how they can apply these to their projects. ‘Networking’ means they go out and talk to other people within different departments, companies and industries, always looking for new ideas and new viewpoints.

Finally, innovators are adept at ‘experimenting’, always trying and piloting new ideas and seeing how they work. If you can find and nurture these Smart Creatives with innovation in their DNA, they will deliver fantastic results for your business. So how do you manage, motivate and reward them?

Teresa Amabile, a Harvard Business School professor, has researched creativity within organisations for more than 20 years, and has created a comprehensive overview of what leaders need to bring to the table to help creativity thrive and flourish within an organisation.


The first is to acknowledge and accept that you are not, as a creative leader, the sole fount of ideas. Creativity is very much a team sport. Great new ideas come as a result of connecting existing ideas and brainstorming together. So your role is to be the appreciative audience, to ask inspiring questions that encourage others to come up with responses and ideas, allowing ideas to bubble up from the workforce.

Creative leaders should also walk the walk – show the rest of the team that this kind of activity and behaviour is OK, that it’s OK to be playful and to take time creating. This might mean taking the lead in playing on the office ping pong table or encouraging meetings on the sofa.

If people want to come in a bit late, or do some creative thinking on the weekend and then take time off during the week, have an open mind about that kind of thing.

Within teams, enhance diversity wherever possible. People with different backgrounds and experience can bring a lot more to the table in terms of a range of influences and inspiration. Also, encourage individuals to gain diverse experiences, through job swaps or lateral moves so they get experience with different departments or different roles with an organisation.

Next comes accepting the inevitability and utility of failure. This is where you need to create psychological safety so people feel that it’s OK to take risks and that they can learn from failure. A big part of this is to protect and nurture ‘fuzzy’ ideas – when you have an initial idea and you don’t necessarily know how successful they’re going to be. Don’t put them under pressure in terms of how much money they might make.

Creative people embrace challenges, love to learn, thrive on feedback and constructive criticism. Give them the opportunity to learn and develop their skills – training and development is very important for encouraging creativity within an organisation. They also take inspiration from the success of others – so provide mentorship and coaching.

Finally, introduce employee involvement practices to help people understand why they’re doing what they’re doing, helping them to see the meaning behind what the company does.


About the author

James Allen is founder of Creative Huddle, and works with teams and organisations to help them learn skills for modern business, including creativity, critical thinking and problem solving. Creative Huddle is running a Creative Leader open workshop on 12 October in London.

TJ has two tickets to give away so comment below this article to be in with a chance (we’re promoting them on social media too). If they’re already gone, apply the coupon code TJ20 at  check for a 20% discount on anything, toolkits included.


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