In every industry, no person is more prized than the artist, be she a chef, a diva, an airframe designer, a computer programmer or a deal maker. On the other hand, no person is more mercurial, less reasonable and quicker to be insensitive and even abusive to colleagues, managers, and customers alike. No wonder they are often described as "unmanageable."
To make the successful direction of creative people even more difficult, most are quite articulate in their contrariness. Yet, because they tend to be non-linear thinkers, the deductiveness of their reasoning is consistently short-circuited by dazzling leaps of imagination and inventive excursions around points of logic. Moreover, they always approach a discussion from exactly the same perspective-their own. Creative people begin a dialog with bountiful quantities of their own sympathy and Mr. Mullen heads Mullen Advertising in Wenham, Mass. This article is excerpted from his new book, "The Simple Art of Greatness: Building, Managing & Motivating a Kick-Ass Workforce." (Viking, $19.95).
end it unshakably certain of their unique point of view.
Every industry has its creative factions and every industry deals with them the same way: we spoil them. Advertising pampers its art directors and copywriters, a restaurant indulges its chefs, computer manufacturers coddle their software writers and clothing manufacturers handle designers with velvet gloves. There are any number of human reasons we do so: because they delight us, of course, but also because we fear them and because we've learned that we can't live without them. Yet, the ultimate business explanation for the reasons we indulge, coddle, pamper and spoil our creative colleagues is-blasphemy of blasphemies-because they deserve it.
Creative people, like the rich, really are different-neither good nor bad, productive nor unproductive, frugal nor wasteful-just different. Yet if you as a manager can get a handle on how to motivate creative people, they will be among the most caring and hardest working people in your company.
I believe that creative employees respond to motivation more directly and energetically than any other class of professionals, but what energizes them best is the unfettered chance to exercise their creative powers. Therefore, your job (as well as your sole option) is to align the company's goals with theirs, and not vice versa.
Begin by accepting the creative temperament, and by understanding its sometimes delightful, sometimes damaging dynamics. Then organize for success-fit the right creative person to the right job from the beginning, or bear the unpleasant consequences. Asking strong creative people for change or compromise is largely futile. Sure, they'll accept a little peripheral alteration here or there, but they'll protect the core of their concepts like mother bulldogs. Their seeming insensitivity to your "practical" needs has nothing to do with a lack of discipline or an inability to understand what you are asking. It has everything to do with their own self-esteem. And creative people's self-esteem is exclusively a function of their need to reach out to the new, the different, the unusual and the astonishing.
In my experience, creative people approach most new assignments with optimism and excitement. They are quietly certain that they, perhaps uniquely, can solve the problem at hand and do so in a way that will draw the breathless admiration of peers and strangers alike. In fact, most creative failures stem directly from bad management, usually originating in a poorly thought out or incomplete definition of the problem at hand.
Creative people become recalcitrant and uncooperative only when they have struggled and sacrificed to develop a truly inventive answer to a problem only to find that, post facto, the question has changed. The strongest assistance you can give your creative colleagues is to point them in the right direction from the beginning. Before you even involve them, make sure that you have already defined the job by a clear (written) statement of the strategic objectives and a well-considered set of priorities. Then, stand back and let your creative associates exercise their taste and art. Use your powers of logic to judge the accuracy, the relevance and the clarity of their product, but allow your trusted creative colleagues free rein in deciding the emotional qualities of the expression.
Once the creative product is produced, that's the time to assert your management power by supporting the creative effort with the same passion and energy as those who developed it. It is so easy, and so destructive, for management to sell a creative product down the river when faced with strenuous client objections. It isn't just the weeks of labor that are being abandoned, it's a piece of your creative colleague's heart. Worse yet, the solution that you are allowing the client to wave away may just not be the best answer to the problem, it may be the answer. New ideas are fragile, and your creative partners deserve your commitment to fight for their integrity.
Bill Bernbach, advertising's universally esteemed saint, spoke as persuasively about the creative process as he did about the virtues of the early Volkswagens.... "Analyzing creative work is like dissecting a frog. It's unpleasant and destructive business, especially for the frog."...."The irony is that the most gossamer things, the most indefinable things, so delicate that they are dissipated by analysis, turn out to be the things that create those big, beautiful numbers in your profit statement."
Creative people can not only be managed well, they can be managed non-exploitatively, so that the artists become and remain well regarded by their fellow employees and by themselves. The management of your creative employees may be one of your greatest challenges, but I promise you that your successful efforts will provide your greatest rewards.