Building a Great Creative Team

Leadership, Management, Strategy

Every leader within a new organization faces their fair share of challenges like maintaining productivity, managing department dynamics, easing team anxiety and making quick and impactful changes.  The same applies to creative leadership, however, Creative Managers and Directors have the distinctive responsibility of assessing and assembling a team with highly specialized skills and expertise.  Those skills being non-transferable nor inherent, making the challenge even more complex.

Ideally you’re walking into a role where you’ve got a roster full of top talent.  I mean, your bench is DEEP and your CFO is making it rain on your budget to do whatever your brilliant creative mind can think of.   But let’s face it, that’s not the reality of most CDs and it certainly wasn’t the case for me.  I was once 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 illusive, as hungry talent so urgently longed for a change. Concurrently, some not so inspired, adopted habits of complacency.

It’s a difficult place to be, but not insurmountable. Maybe you’re in a situation where the work outweighs the resources you have.  Or maybe you’re in a situation where you have no resources and need to build a team. Or perhaps you’ve inherited a team that wasn’t quite the right fit for the needs of the business.  If any of those scenarios sound familiar to you, read on.  Hopefully my story will give you some guidance on how to effect change within your organization and establish a first class creative tiger team.

Understand the Business Challenges

Ground yourself in the problems that you face and be brutally honest.  You can’t solve for 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.  Understand that there are various lenses that you need to view your obstacles through.  Furthermore, stakeholders have a different perspective that could be invaluable to you. Your vantage point is not the only one that counts.  To truly provide value to your organization, you also have to take into consideration the needs of others.  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.

a slide from the experience studio pitch deck

A slide from my presentation to the C-Suite leadership team, outlining the business challenges and obstacles that impact the team’s effectiveness.

Narrow Your Focus

You may very well have 99 problems, but you need to focus on one.   As you evaluate the challenges you face, you’ll notice how you can attribute them to one root cause.  Let that single important objective be your guide in channeling your attention. 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 on boarding and significant budgetary restrictions.  While on the surface, these seem like separate issues, really the common root cause was retention; and that became my focus. By tackling retention, I was able to put the right incentives in place, which attract and maintain the right employees required to deliver against the company’s business objectives.

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.

Define the Vision

Once you’ve found your focus, you then need to define your vision.  Who are you? Where do you want to be? What do you represent? What’s your value proposition? Why should people care? Those are some critical questions that you have to be prepared to answer.  Those answers will lay the foundation of your vision. 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 focus; retention. My vision and passion; a concept I call, the Experience Studio. The Experience Studio would be an in-house agency, composed of dynamic, impassioned Creatives 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, helping to deepen customer relationships and increase brand loyalty.

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 just can’t rest on your big idea and cheers from your supporters, you’ve got to pitch it as you would to a client.  To pitch the Experience Studio, I put together a deck and presented to the CFO, CMO and the VP of Human Resources. The presentation included the financial impact to the budget, the measures of success that would be garnered from establishing the “Studio”, the organizational structure, new/revamped roles and how those roles help to meet the company’s strategic plan while aligning with the organization’s transition from waterfall to agile.

illustration of discovery and delivery team overlay

At the top: a slide from my presentation to the C-Suite leadership team to procure resources and better align the Experience Studio with our Product and Engineering Team. At the bottom: a slide from the same presentation, demonstrating how the new roles align with the company’s strategic plan.

a slide from the experience studio pitch deck

You’ll want to include similar material in your proposal. You can’t say to the CFO “hey I have this great idea to increase headcount and make cool stuff, now I need you to give me money outside of the financial plan for the year to make it happen”. Guaranteed, you’ll get nowhere. But, if you can justify the plan with sound financials and a comprehensive strategic plan that ties back to the organizational goals, you’re in a better position to negotiate.

Moving the Plan Forward

So being the compelling pitch artist you are, you’ve sold the vision and been given the green light.  It’s time to get down to business; you now need a plan.  Ideally, your presentation is the foundation of the plan, but the devil is in the details and you need help pulling it together.  It doesn’t take a village to create a staffing plan, but it does require a trusted partner and for me, that collaborator was the Manager of Talent and Acquisition.  Seeking council from and tapping into their knowledge of industry shifts/trends, marketplace value and substantial referral network was critical to the assembly of the Experience Studio candidates. In other words, HR is your friend!

Assessing the Talent

I don’t support going in and slashing roles nor do I support going on a hiring frenzy to sustain your staffing plan. You’ll need to be very contemplative in your approach.  It is important, however, to assess the talent that you currently have and look at where you want to be. It’s also important to ask your employees where they see themselves. Identify gaps and areas in which team members can shift to and develop new skills. A good Manager provides developmental and promotional opportunities to key performers to establish a career path and job satisfaction.

But be honest with yourself and your employees.  If someone is truly not ready for added responsibilities or if there’s demonstrated inability to perform at the level in which is expected, then you’re setting them (and yourself) up for failure.

social media strategist job description
user interface designer job description

Two of the job descriptions I wrote for recruiting talent into the Experience Studio.

Help Wanted

In addition to evaluating your current team’s capabilities, you’ll also want to evaluate your job descriptions and breathe some personality into those stale documents.  Consider them every bit as important to a company’s marketing strategy as social media content and a website presence. For Creatives, job descriptions aren’t about bullets of tasks and technical proficiencies; a new job is about the cultural fit and how their creative talent will be challenged and cultivated.  Try and paint a picture of the day in the life of this role, illustrating how it would be from day one.  Position your role as an opportunity to co-create with your peers, contributing to a greater good and highlight the benefits of being a team member… you’ll have ideal candidates filling up the pipeline in no time.

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