Creativity Managed: 3 Strategies for Leading Creative Teams

Creativity is only as good as the vision it’s funneled through, and a strong leader is the key to that vision’s viability. That’s what Ed Catmull, president of Walt Disney and Pixar Animation Studios, suggested in his 2014 book, “Creativity, Inc.” — an insightful and inspirational work.

Founders and executives innately know that they must lead with confidence and acumen. Still, many of them stumble on the path to nirvana. From bad hires to wishy-washy decision-making, leaders who don’t overcome their challenges doom their people to a lengthy stint in team purgatory.

When our company set out to dismantle creative barriers and strive for team excellence over ease, we used Catmull’s strategies as foundational tenets and helped our people capitalize on their diverse personalities and skill sets. Our journey boiled down to building a team dynamic around two core principles: hiring great people and practicing candid leadership.

Who You Are

Unearthing employees who are true gems takes time and effort, but it pays off in the end. We take extreme care in hiring only the best fits for our company culture. If an otherwise qualified candidate won’t mesh with our team dynamic, we would rather say “no” than risk bad results. As bosses, we’ve all ignored red flags about drama queens or kings, only to kick ourselves later.

By focusing on how new hires will integrate seamlessly into the office climate, you can avoid costly employment errors that only harm the team’s efficiency. Every team has its own rhythm, and putting the wrong instrument into the mix — even for a short amount of time — can be very disruptive.

What You Say

After putting the right people in the right positions, a leader must guide them with candor and respect. In fact, Catmull calls candor a “secret weapon,” meaning that frankness doesn’t equate to flying in hot to every meeting with an agenda or a directive. Instead, use it to set the tone so that when something is important or time-sensitive, your team understands it’s a priority.

Our company quickly learned that authentic conversations promote high-level engagement among our employees and foster more productive meetings. Moreover, transparency puts everyone at ease, allowing ideas to bloom and issues to be resolved quickly and concisely. By taking the time to get to know your team members and allowing them to get to know you, you ensure that everyone’s perceptions will be realistic and that no one will feel patronized by an uncommunicative boss.


Lead With Passion and Purpose

You can empower your creative team using these three strategies:

1. Make it personal.

When directing your vision, find a way to truly speak to your teams so they know how they impact the overall success of the company and its projects.

As Catmull notes in one of his chapters, Pixar has taken the concept of communication to an exciting level. Its film studio’s “Notes Day” allows everyone in the organization to spend an entire day evaluating how the company can operate more effectively. This process builds a personal connection between Pixar employees and everything Pixar puts its name on. 

Although most businesses can’t take a full day to work on process improvement like Pixar, they can modify and implement this concept on a smaller scale. Our company hosts biweekly show-and-tell meetings so that we can display our work to others. These meetings instill pride in individual contributors and reveal opportunities for dynamic growth.

2. Be decisive.

Resilient leaders help employees own the choices they make, which encourages them to take bold, smart, and effective steps.

Our system is simple: We start every day with a quick meeting — called a “daily” — overviewing mission-critical items. These dailies make everyone aware of what’s happening in the organization and hold teams accountable for the changes they want to see in their respective departments. They also ensure that there’s not a lot of time for an important decision to sit on the shelf. Even if we make a wrong decision, our resiliency gives our company greater flexibility. We can quickly pivot and move in the right direction, opening the door to time, budget, and opportunity.

3. Show that you listen.

Employees who feel heard have higher levels of job satisfaction and can uncover ways for your organization to evolve. Listening isn’t always easy, especially for leaders who feel stretched. But just as soliciting feedback can show customers that you care, so can devoting some time to your team members.

When we have feedback meetings and postmortems, the collaboration doesn’t stop there. We take a deeper dive into each department’s needs and functions and lean on our teams when overcoming challenges and solving problems. Moreover, we don’t rely solely on annual performance reviews to measure our employees’ happiness. In addition to these reviews, we conduct regular check-ins, sitting down with each individual at least twice per year.

“Creativity, Inc.” helped us evaluate our own teamwork gaps and catalyze the drive of our passionate and talented employees. By taking the time to not only read some of Catmull’s advice but to also investigate your own creativity processes, you may quickly find that building bridges over those chasms is simpler than you thought.

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