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By Brian Baker, Vice President, Highmark Techsystems

In this second of a three-part series, we continue to dig into some of the most important things I’ve learned in the last 20+ years about Creative Direction. We will discuss a number of ideas to help your team succeed, and some things to avoid.

 If you were to poll a room full of Creative Directors (well… any business leader, for that matter) as to what their most important role was, you would undoubtedly get quite a variety of answers. They would range from financial to creative in nature, but I would offer this: The most important, foundational role of a leader is simple.

Advocate for your team.
Sure, there are lots of important functions that we play, and a typical Creative Director (if there IS such a thing) is in a constant state of juggling responsibilities, projects, personalities, and deadlines. But a Creative Director’s success is measured by the success of the team. They must rely on their team to do the majority of the actual work. As we discussed in Part 1 (link to previous article here), micromanagement is the cardinal sin for a Creative Director. We have to trust our teammates to not only do their jobs, but to do a great job. In order to do that, they need to invest themselves in their work. If we are going to trust them, our teammates need to be able to trust US. We are asking them to “go to war” with us… to invest their passion, to give up nights or weekends. They need to know we have their best interests in mind. They need to know that we have their back, that we are willing to ask for the things they need, and to defend them from outsiders who are critical. They need to believe that behind closed doors, we aren’t throwing them under the bus. Nothing will ruin a team faster than a leader who blames their teammates or takes credit for their success. Which leads me to my next two points…

Give away the credit.
Most of the time, good ideas are the result of collaboration. In the best cases, nobody in the room might even know who actually had the idea. Often, a Creative Director is a leading contributor to the “big idea,” but it rarely begins and ends with them. As already stated, one (or more) of our teammates is usually involved in a lot of the heavy-lifting. When a project is successful, they will be proud of their contributions. It is crucial to make sure they get credit for it… even if a lot of it belongs to you. Your teammates will see it, and they will appreciate it. As a young designer, I’ve had others take credit for my ideas and hard work, and I’ll never forget what it felt like, or how it affected our team.

Take the blame. Seriously.
If we are measured by the success of our teams, then failure is on the Creative Director. This is the tough part of the job, the one that most people would rather not sign up for.  However, chances are that you have a different relationship with senior leadership than a young designer does, and are a lot more secure in your position and your psyche.  A leader who takes the blame for his team will earn their loyalty and respect. And I know from firsthand experience, they will rally around you in the future. Nobody wants to fail a leader that they respect. Conversely, nobody wants to go the extra mile or work all weekend for someone that will throw them under that bus.
While a good Creative Director advocates for and defends their teammates externally, it’s still important to correct behavior and address performance within the team. Don’t confuse advocating for your teammates with turning a blind eye to deficiencies or pretending everything is perfect. It’s incredibly important to continue building, growing, and improving your team. But it’s also important HOW you address those issues with them. Be constructive, but honest. Treat them like adults, and do it in private. I’ve never resented a boss who pointed out areas I needed to improve or critiqued my performance if they were fair and honest. I usually agreed with them, and their guidance helped me become better at my job. It also helped make the team stronger.

Another way that we need to advocate for our teammates is to protect their personal time as much as possible. It’s true that sometimes asking your team to work nights or weekends can’t be avoided. However, it’s incredibly important to make sure it’s the exception and not the rule. I’ve seen many good designers leave their employers because they were burned out. Build a good stable of freelance talent, and tap into it instead of constantly asking for overtime. When you do ask for overtime, balance it with some extra time off.
Don’t make the mistake of equating the amount of overtime someone works with their value. Instead, encourage production and impact. One of the best bosses I’ve ever had said to me on my first day on the job, “I don’t care when you get here or when you leave. Just produce.” There are a few ways to interpret that statement, but at its core, it’s about assigning value to what someone contributes or produces… to how they impact the organization; as opposed to how many hours they worked. Too often, we think that we will get more out of someone if they work more hours. It may work in the short term, but if someone’s work-life balance is off, it won’t end well. And it will be our fault.

Have fun.
Actual fun, not FAKE fun. We’ve all seen the proverbial pool table or pinball machine in the office. Somebody decided it would make the company look creative and fun if they put it there. But if it’s just a prop, it’s annoying, not fun. If your company has the kind of culture where people are encouraged to play games and it is an accepted part of the culture, that’s fantastic. But in most places, nobody ever gets to play pool. We’re all too busy, and we know what it looks like to others if we are screwing off, playing pool. I’ve also seen Creative Directors take their whole team to do something they thought would be fun, like going to an art museum, or bowling. That might be fun, but it might be something they have no interest in. Instead, get to know your team, and what they like to do for fun. Incorporate that into a team-building activity or trip. My last employer has a ping-pong table that doubles as a conference table. Some of the guys started having tournaments at the end of the workday, and it became a regular part of the culture. That’s pretty cool, and it’s real, actual fun.

But most of all, try to keep the work fun. Try to stay positive and encourage a fun environment that doesn’t take itself too seriously. Encourage each other and celebrate your successes together. Be genuinely thankful for the efforts of your teammates, and make sure they know how much you appreciate them. We are blessed to be in an industry that is a lot more fun than most. We are surrounded by creative people with odd sensibilities and numerous talents. If you and your team can’t have fun on a regular basis while you are working hard, you are doing it wrong.

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