Lost In Translation

Rick (he asked that we not use his real name) was a rising star at his company, a small and growing design firm providing print and interactive solutions to technical and industrial clients. Known for his punchy, on-target creative work, he was the go-to person for the company’s highest-profile projects. So as the studio continued to grow and needed to add a creative director to the staff, Rick’s name was first on the list. He accepted the promotion, only to learn—the hard way—that the personality traits that made him a great designer weren’t necessarily the ones that would make him a great (or even marginal) manager of creative people.

"So many creative directors have been promoted to that position because they were good at being creative," says David C. Baker, principal of ReCourses, a management consulting firm for design and communication companies. "But there’s no connection between that and being a good creative director. It’s a huge shift to go from being responsible for the quality of your own work to being accountable for the quality and output of your team. It’s a tough transition for many designers."

The tendency to want to do the work for team members is a common pitfall for new creative directors, he adds. "They’ve been praised for years for their ability to do great work. They want to continue receiving that praise, or they still feel pressured to be one of the company’s highest producers."

A 5-Point Guidebook
In his seminar, "Managing Creatives and Creativity," Baker focuses on five strategies that can help new creative directors build strong relationships and communicate effectively with their teams.

1. Know yourself. You can’t effectively direct the work of others if you don’t know your own management style, strengths and weaknesses. The first thing a new creative director should do is take a thorough look in the mirror. Honestly evaluate your strengths and weaknesses, why you were hired for the job and even whether you’re well-suited for it (if you’re not, seriously consider turning it down). Baker also suggests using a personality profile to identify your key traits. He recommends three: the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator, the Predictive Index and the DISC Personal Profile Software System.

2. Know your team. Your most effective tool in managing creatives is to get to know them and the way they prefer to work and communicate. Jeff Fisher, principal of Jeff Fisher Logomotives in Portland, OR, advises a thorough inventory of team members’ personality traits, skills and working methods. "Managers need to educate themselves about the manner in which their ‘creative types’ best perform and how their personality plays into their maximum creativity. The skill set of one designer may not be the best possible fit for a particular project, and perhaps it should be assigned to another who fits the requirements better."

3. Manage them the way they want to be managed. Designer A likes to have a half-hour sit-down to discuss the project at hand, with a super-detailed creative brief that outlines all expectations and deliverables. He prefers frequent check-ins and regular feedback. Designer B wants to be handed a creative brief, given the timeline and some mandatory elements, and left alone until the first creative review. Designers C, D and E fall somewhere in between. Learning how to manage various people according to their own unique communication style has been a big challenge, says Chris Gomersall, associate creative director for Moxie Interactive in Atlanta. "It’s just all about the way people like to work," he says. "None of the methods are better than the others, just different." And while it may take more time to tap into team members’ personalities than to adopt a one-size-fits-all management style, "it ultimately creates better working relationships and better work," Gomersall says.

4. Communicate often. Learning how to communicate expectations and give constructive criticism is probably the most stressful challenge for new creative directors. The solution, Baker says, is to build strong relationships with team members through frequent and effective communication. He recommends managers hold regularly scheduled, 10-minute meetings with each person on the team. Different from yearly evaluations or project-specific meetings that communicate deadlines and scope, these brief sessions allow the manager and team member to talk openly about concerns and help keep frustrations from building up. Baker advises against a "sit-down" meeting, instead recommending a four- or five-block walk. He advises both manager and team member to keep an ongoing log of concerns and discussion points, so that each can be satisfied that items on their agenda have been aired and discussed.

5. Set the standard, then back off. Directing the work of other people is a lot like being a coach. And knowing when to be hands-on and when to step back and let team members make—and learn from—their own mistakes is a huge challenge. Often, creative directors are tempted to help too much for the sake of getting the work done on time. Learning to resist the "rescue" instinct is difficult, but valuable.