Managing a creative team

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Written by Alistair Pearce on 19 October 2021 in Opinion
Opinion

In another exploration of working with creatives Alistair Pearce looks at what managers need to do to support their creative people

Is it possible to manage creative colleagues? Yes, but the manager does need some special skills. The previous pieces in this series focussed on one of four creative character types: Playful, Solo, Artiste, and Molotov. Let’s look at the manager and leadership strategies that can enhance the creative process.
 
The manager of creative colleagues needs to be a connoisseur, a protector and a fan. Connoisseurs of fine wine or art don’t need to know how wine is made or how to hold a paintbrush, but they do recognise quality. The manager of creative colleagues is in the same position; he / she doesn’t come up with the creative ideas but must recognise and insist upon creative work of an appropriate quality.
 
Creativity isn’t secure and predictable; it is insecure and unpredictable, and the most fertile environment for its growth needs to be constantly diverse
 
The managers of creative colleagues also have to be happy with guard duty, and it’ll help if they have extra eyes in the backs of their heads. Creatives need protecting from the bureaucratic procedures of normal organisational life. Businesses, for perfectly sound commercial reasons, need to be secure and predictable, and this is achieved by a plethora of explicit and implicit rules, regulations and procedures – everything from parking spaces and dress codes to line management diagrams and promotion criteria. All fine, all useful and all ensuring, for laudable reasons, security and predictability. But creativity isn’t secure and predictable; it is insecure and unpredictable, and the most fertile environment for its growth needs to be constantly diverse, a vibrant ever-changing reservoir of competing ideas, ideologies and practices. A ‘secure and predictable environment’? Certainly not! The protection the manager should offer the creatives shields them from the organisation’s security and predictability, for its adoption by the creatives can only limit the quality of their work.
 
Fine, but the manager-protector should have eyes in the back of his / her head, and this is because the manager not only has to cherish the creatives’ best interests but simultaneously respect and implement, through those creatives, the company’s aims and strategies. The manager is therefore not only a protector but also a translator of company goals into a language that will engage and excite rather than repel creative colleagues. This is tricky, for it seems that the manager should now be the conduit for the bureaucracy warned against. Not really, for the wise manager will, with the creatives, focus not on details of timescales, budgets and sales figures – all extrinsic motivators, but instead on the higher-minded ideals of company aims. Many creatives will happily and proudly buy into these if they’re judged humane, honourable  and aspirational. They will sense the aims’ intrinsic motivation echoing a common characteristic of deep creativity: an exciting endeavour carried out not for extrinsic reasons – such as salary or a reserved car parking space – but for the intrinsic delight and value of the task itself.
 
The third element of the manager’s job when working with creative colleagues is to be the leading fan of their work, its loud chief supporter. In this role the manager will argue for its importance in achieving company aims, and thereby justify the ongoing provision of resources such as personnel, time, money, space and equipment. Given the unpredictable nature of creativity the manager-fan may also have to press for less predictable assets, perhaps exemption from normal office requirements such as defined working hours, location of work and reporting lines.
 
Football fans love their clubs but do not accept poor performance for long or expect to be signed up as players. And the managers of creatives should take a similarly critical view of the quality of their creatives’ work, and must never expect that working with them will somehow prompt their strange gifts to be shared. The manger’s motivation for doing the job should come from facilitating creativity not generating it.
 
From this job description one question screams out: how can managers of creatives be trained to undertake the role? Training programmes will of course vary according to company needs, but many will seek to equip the manager with skills and knowledge allowing them to:
understand the circumstances within which creativity flourishes and withers;
replicate and maintain a positive creative environment;
acquire the critical knowledge and taste to appreciate the quality of creatives’ work;
translate company goals into creative motivation; 
evaluate and explain the importance of the creatives’ work to senior management.
 
The manager of creatives is a highly skilled ‘connoisseur-protector-fan’ or more simply a patron.
 
Alastair Pearce is director of Working With Creatives

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