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October 19, 2015

Building a Great Creative Team

A diverse group of creatives laughing
Photo by jacoblund, iStock Photo
Every leader within a new organization faces their fair share of challenges. Maintaining productivity, easing team anxiety, and implementing change while cultivating relationships is no small feat. The same applies to creative leadership, however the dynamics are a bit different.

Creative Managers and Directors have the distinct responsibility of assessing and assembling a team with skills that are non-transferable, nor inherent—making the challenge even more complex.

Ideally you’re walking into a role where you’ve got a roster of top talent and a sizable budget to go with it. But let’s face it, that’s not the reality of most Creative Directors and it certainly wasn’t the case for me.  I was hired into a new role at an organization where I was responsible for transforming the creative culture and overseeing user experience; a discipline that was acutely undeveloped. Career pathing for creatives was nonexistent, as hungry talent longed for opportunities to grow.

Understand the Business Challenges

Ground yourself in the problems that you face and be brutally honest. You can’t solve problems that you aren’t being truthful about. If your problem is retention, own it.  If your problem is antiquated platforms and technology, own it.  If your problem is lack of training and/or subject matter expertise, own it.  

Don’t be afraid to solicit input from stakeholders, they have different POVs that could be invaluable to you. Understand that there are various lenses you need to view your obstacles through in order to provide value to your organization. In this particular role, I happened to have inherited all of the problems mentioned above (and a few more), but I found success in acknowledging the issues and swiftly devising a plan of action to address them.

Narrow Your Focus

As you evaluate the challenges you face, try to get to the root cause and let that single important issue be your guide. As I mentioned, my department also encountered a myriad of obstacles. Everything from a revolving door of contractors, to a lack of institutional knowledge, increased unproductive hours due to constant onboarding, and significant budgetary restrictions. While on the surface, these seem like separate issues, but it was clear that the common thread was retention—that became my focus.

Define the Vision

Once you’ve determined where to focus, you then need to define your vision. Who are you? Where do you want to be? What do you represent? How will the vision benefit your team, what value does it bring to the organization? Those are some critical questions that you have to be prepared to answer. But remember, vision without passion is futile.  If you don’t believe it, you can’t sell it.  If your passion isn’t infectious, you’ve failed before trying. My vision was to create a full service, in-house agency, composed of fellow impassioned creatives. Coined “The Experience Studio”, the team would be poised to deliver compelling and innovative digital experiences. The atmosphere would be one in which high performers are engaged, challenged and rewarded. This team would be the genesis of innovation and thought leadership within the organization.

Get Collective Buy-In and Sell It

The next step to visioning is to rally the troops. You need supporters throughout the organization that advocate for you. If you’ve done your due diligence of including stakeholders into the process early on, finding advocates will not be a problem. But you can't rest on your big idea and cheers from your supporters alone, you’ve got to pitch it to the “higher ups” as you would to a client, but with your business development hat on.

My pitch to the CFO, the CMO, and the VP of HR included the financial impact to the department budget, the measures of success, the organizational structure, new/revamped roles, and how those roles help to meet the company’s strategic plan. You’ll want to include similar content in your pitch. If you can’t justify the plan with sound financials and a comprehensive strategic plan that aligns with the organization’s goals, you’re guaranteed to get nowhere.

Move the Plan Forward

Once you’ve sold the vision and been given the green light, it’s time to get down to business and you need a staffing plan. Seek counsel from your HR department and tap into their knowledge of industry shifts/trends, marketplace value and substantial referral network. For me, working hand-in-hand with our Manager of Talent Acquisition was critical to acquiring a talented pool of candidates.

Assess the Talent

Before you start to hire, you should pause and conduct a clear-eyed evaluation of the current roles on your team; taking a real contemplative look at the areas in which you need the most support. It’s also important to ask team members where they see themselves and identify areas where they can develop new skills. A good manager provides developmental and promotional opportunities for receptive team members, but be honest with yourself and your team. If someone is truly not ready for added responsibilities or if there’s demonstrated inability to perform at the level that is expected, then you’re setting them (and yourself) up for failure.

Get Some Help

Now that you’re ready to start building your all star team, dust off those old job descriptions and breathe some personality into them. For creatives, job descriptions aren’t about bullets of tasks and technical proficiencies, it’s about the cultural fit and how their creative talent will be cultivated. Try to paint a “day in the life” picture, defining your role as an opportunity to co-create with your peers, contributing to a greater good, and highlighting the benefits of being a team member.

Provide Ongoing Support

You’ve hired your team, you’ve onboarded them, you’re ready to hit the ground running…now what? Continue to foster an environment of inclusiveness, diversity of thought, and creativity. Listen to your team, ask for input, see what motivates them individually, and work with them to deliver. Having spent the majority of my career on the corporate side of creative, that’s not always easy (depending on the company that you work for). Corporate environments, in my experience, don’t understand that creativity doesn’t turn on at 9am and turn off at 5pm. It can’t always be spurred in a conference room and it certainly can’t be scheduled for a meeting. The creative process is very fluid, therefore, it’s imperative to give your team members the time and space to actualize and do what they do best.  


Need help building or cultivating your A-Team? Get in touch, I’d be happy to help you navigate the corporate creative waters.

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