Transcript of The Secrets to Leading Creative People
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John Jantsch: Leading or managing people in an organization is a tough job. It gets just that much tougher when the folks that you are choosing to lead are highly creative. In this episode of The Duct Tape Marketing Podcast, I visit with Todd Henry. He’s the author of Herding Tigers: Be The Leader That Creative People Need. If you or your organization has creative people, and let’s face it, that’s what drives a lot of business today, you need to check it out.
Hello, welcome to another episode of The Duct Tape Marketing Podcast. This is John Jantsch, and my guest today is Todd Henry. He is a speaker, consultant, advisor, and author of a number of books including the book we’re gonna talk about today, called Herding Tigers: Be The Leader That Creative People Need. So, Todd, welcome to the show.
Todd Henry: John, it’s so great to be with you. Thanks for having me.
John Jantsch: I can’t believe it’s taken me this long. I’m a big fan of your previous work, Die Empty, in fact you were awesome enough that you just happened to be passing through town and we flagged you down to come speak at one of my events and it was very, very motivating for everybody.
Todd Henry: It was so much fun, and I just have to say as encouragement to you, you’re the most humble person in the world so I know that you would never toot your own horn, but just seeing your community there and seeing how people responded to you and responded to what you have built there, it just really showed me the kind of integrity that you bring to your business, because you were able to attract people from all over the place to come to Louisville to spend some time with you, learning about the things that you wanted to teach them.
Just as encouragement to you, it was really, really amazing to see your community in action there as well. You didn’t ask me to do that, but I wanted to do it anyway.
John Jantsch: Well, I appreciate that, but longtime listeners know I’m not really that humble.
Todd Henry: Okay.
John Jantsch: So let me ask you the big question that came to my mind as I was reading Herding Tigers. How does leading creative people differ from being a creative leader?
Todd Henry: Oh, that’s a great question. No one has ever asked me that, actually. Listen, we’re all creative. We all have to solve problems every day as a function of our job. That’s just the nature of the modern workplace. So, if you have to go to work, solve problems, figure things out, if you’re an entrepreneur, if you’re a business owner, you are creative to a certain extent. What I wanted to do in this book was talk about the dynamics of leading highly creative people.
Leading highly creative people is different from being a creative leader, because you can be a creative leader and lead a team of engineers or a team … which, by the way, engineers are incredibly creative and incredibly bright in that way. But, you can be a highly creative leader and be leading a more mundane, process oriented business and still be highly creative, because you still have to solve problems, figure out systems, et. cetera.
This book really is about leading highly creative people. People who maybe think a little bit differently from the norm, maybe people who might be a little more difficult to wrangle. What I wanted to do is really address some of those common dynamics among teams that are highly creative. What is it that makes them especially difficult to lead, and how can leaders, especially leaders maybe that are stepping into a role of leading highly creative people for the first time, how can they better position themselves to set their team up for success?
That’s the goal of the leader is to help their team succeed, not necessarily for them to succeed because if their team succeeds, then they will succeed.
John Jantsch: I guess it kind of begs two questions. Maybe you’re defining creative person in a very strict sense like the graphic designer or the writer or the video editor. Is that fair?
Todd Henry: I think it is fair, but I think that this applies to really leading any group of people that has to figure it out and make it up as they go, so if you’re a sales organization, you’re having to come up with creative solutions all the time to reach potential clients, having to re-strategize all the time. Like I said, if you’re leading a group of engineers, that is a project based business, a project based function, but it’s highly creative because you are doing nothing but problem solving all day. You’re looking out, exploring what Steven Johnson calls the adjacent possible, looking for potentially useful fodder for your creative process.
All of those industries have some of the same dynamics I describe in the book. Now, that said, yes, my background, my experience is in leading the ‘traditional creative’ which is the designer, the writer, the videographer, those kinds of people. Yes, I was writing specifically from those kinds of experiences, but I think that the advice in the book applies more broadly to any group of people who have to solve problems and make it up as they go.
John Jantsch: So fundamentally then, what does this group, what do these creative people need that is fundamentally different?
Todd Henry: There really are two primary things that creative people need from their manager in order to thrive. The first one is stability, and stability is about ensuring that you have clarity of process, clarity of expectations, that they know that the rules of the game aren’t gonna change midstream. In a lot of industries that don’t require a tremendous amount of overhead in order to accomplish the work, it’s not that big of a deal if the objectives change midstream, because okay, now we’ve got a new strategy, that means my job is gonna be different tomorrow.
But, when you’re doing highly creative work that requires a tremendous amount of ramp up and forethought and then iteration, when the rules of the game change midstream it can be extremely frustrating. If somebody isn’t bought in to a strategic direction, and let’s say you get two weeks into the project and suddenly your boss’s boss swoops in and says, “You know what? This isn’t really working for me.” Well, your team has spent two weeks iterating on that idea, and now they have to go all the way back to the beginning, re strategize and start all over again, simply because someone wasn’t bought in.
That’s tremendously expensive to the organization. It’s very frustrating to a team of people, and so over time, the team of people just basically says, “Alright, I’m just gonna wait until you tell me what to do. I’m not gonna bring my best thought to the table or my best effort until I know it’s not gonna be wasted effort if the rules are constantly changing.” They need some degree of stability.
There’s a myth, John, that highly creative people just want complete freedom. Just don’t fence me in, give me no boundaries, I just wanna do what I wanna do, but that is a myth, because the reality is that healthy creative process has boundaries. It has rails in order to focus the creative energy. Without that, that energy is just gonna wither up and die. So, stability is the first thing that we need. Clear boundaries, clarity of expectations, clarity of process.
The second thing that highly creative people need is they need to be challenged. They need to be pushed. They want to know that their leader has faith in them. That their leader sees things in them maybe they don’t even see in themselves yet. They want to be pushed to be the best that they can be and to try new things, to tackle new kinds of projects, to venture out into those risky territories, and to know that if they fail, that somebody has their back.
This is also very important, people won’t take risks unless they know that the leader is there to have their back. If it’s a strategic risk, not if it’s a stupid risk, but if it’s a strategic risk then the leader needs to have their back and they need to know that they’re not just walking on thin ice. Hey, you could die and lose your job at any moment, or else people will begin to hold back just a bit.
The problem with stability and challenge is that they exist in tension with one another. As we increase the amount of challenge, we tend to destabilize the organization. This is where a lot of startups and entrepreneurial organizations live. We’re building the bicycle as we’re trying to ride it and we’re going a hundred miles an hour down the highway and we’re trying to avoid traffic and, oh isn’t this just wonderful?
Yeah, it’s wonderful for a little bit, but then over time, people begin to fry. They begin to burn out because we’re not wired for that kind of challenge without the supporting infrastructure to support that challenge. Of course, on the other end of the spectrum, you have organizations that settle in and they’re so processized that there’s no challenge any longer for the people on the team. People get bored, they get stuck, they start looking for broader horizons, and this is often where you hear people say things like, “I’m just not really challenged around here. I just don’t feel like I can really do my best work here. I feel like I’m not growing.”
Sometimes it’s because they don’t feel challenged. They don’t feel like they’re getting what they need from you as a leader in terms of challenge. As a manager, as a leader, as an entrepreneur, somebody who runs a business full of talented people, you are in the unique position to be able to identify that right mix of stability and challenge for those people on your team. If you notice somebody seems to be burning out pretty frequently, well, you need to ask, is it because there aren’t processes in place? There’s no stability there to support what I’m asking from them in terms of challenge, or if somebody’s constantly complaining they feel bored, they feel stuck, is it because I’m not giving them an opportunity to grow themselves, to challenge themselves, and to venture into those uncomfortable places?
John Jantsch: One of the places that you spend a lot of time, and I was glad to see this because I see this actually in lots of organizations with lots of small business owners even, whether they’re managing creatives or not, if they’re managing people, so often they get in this weird cycle of giving work, assigning work, creating process and structure, and then the minute something gets a little hard, they take it all back. There’s no way to grow for anybody, including the organization if you keep taking the work back. I think you called it stop doing the work.
Todd Henry: Right.
John Jantsch: You need to learn this. First off, what do you feel leads to that, and I guess, secondly, how do you solve that?
Todd Henry: I think that especially for entrepreneurs, think about somebody who started a business, I know a big chunk of the people who follow your work are small business owners, entrepreneurs. There’s a tremendous amount of identity wrapped up in starting a business, in the business itself. So, you identify yourself by the output of that business. Sometimes in healthy ways, and maybe sometimes in not so healthy ways. As you start to grow your business and you start to hand off more and more responsibility to other people, it becomes difficult sometimes to separate yourself a bit from the business from an identity standpoint, so that you’re allowing other people to take ownership of certain aspects of the business so that you’re not the one constantly there over their shoulder.
If you are the person constantly over their shoulder, then again, they’re just gonna say, “You know what? Just tell me what you want me to do.” You’ve hired great people and then you’re gonna look over their shoulder and micromanage every decision they make, that’s not the way to scale a business. It’s easy for that to happen, because so much of your identity is wrapped up in the work that gets done, in the business.
What we have to do is we have to transition from a maker mindset to a manager mindset. We have to transition from a mindset of presence to a mindset of principle, or from a mindset of control, which is what really all this is about, it’s about us wanting to control the work of the organization, to a mindset of influence.
We need to establish rails. We need to have a clear leadership philosophy. We need to help people on our team learn how we think about the work and how we think about decisions that we make, not just which decision in a specific scenario is the right decision to make according to us, and so I think it’s difficult to make that transition, to move from control to influence. I think a big part of that is just extricating yourself.
I think about the world that I come from, somebody maybe was a great designer or a great writer and they get promoted. What happens typically in organizations is somebody is really good at something and so somebody comes along and says, “You know what? You’re a really good designer. You know what you should do? You should lead other designers.” That’s a fundamentally different skill set, that’s a totally different thing, and yet that’s exactly what we do. This person, basically they’ve built their entire career upon the fact that they’re really good at a thing. That thing may be is design, or maybe that thing is financials or whatever it is. But, they’ve been really good at that thing and now, all of a sudden, they’re transitioning to not doing that thing, but leading other people who are doing that thing.
How do they identify themselves? Who are they anymore? What is the value they contribute? Before, they could point to a thing and say, “I did this.” Now that you’re leading other people, what is it exactly that you do? I think that’s where the identity crisis often resides in this. Our job is to shift our mindset from a maker mindset, from control, to influence, which means I’m going to teach my team a series of principles to help them make better decisions on their own. I’m gonna teach them how I think about what a good idea is. How I think about a good risk versus a bad risk. I’m gonna teach them how to determine the quality of a product and say, “Okay, is this good? Is this a good output, or is it not quite there yet?”
How do we define excellence as an organization? I’m gonna teach them how conflict should be handled so they can handle conflict between themselves instead of having to come to me every time there’s a conflict on the team. Once we begin to teach these principles, then we can step back and do the job that we’re actually accountable for, which is either growing the business, or leading the team to grow the business, depending on the type of business that we’re running.
John Jantsch: I think for me, at least, over the years, the lessons I’ve really learned is that this has to be very intentional, of course. But, there are times when I’m doing my thing. Like you, I’ve go out and I speak and I write and I’m doing the work really, in the business. But, I have a team of people too, and it’s almost like I have to switch on that hat and remember that now I’m leading, so I’m not supposed to have all the answers. That to me is the hardest part because people come to you as the leader, and they say, “Todd, should I do this?” And your response, or at least my response is usually, they ask me a question, I’m gonna give ’em the answer and what I’ve learned over the years is you’ve gotta establish this practice of giving it back to them, saying, “What would you do in that situation?” Or something of that nature.
Todd Henry: Yes.
John Jantsch: Then, of course, the other challenge is you’ve gotta stay so consistent, I think, with it, because how many companies have read a book like yours and the person goes back and says, “It’s gonna be different now!”
Todd Henry: Yes, that’s exactly right. The challenge in all of that is either that we, as a leader, our area of greatest insecurity is the place where we have the potential to do the most damage. As a leader, if we’re not aware of that, the fact that it’s really hard for us to let stuff go, the fact that it’s really difficult for us to let our team run with things, those areas of insecurity become the places we have to turn into watch points personally, because your area of greatest insecurity is the place where you have the potential to do the most damage to your team, and ultimately to your business if you’re not careful.
John Jantsch: How much of the job of the leader, because I think creative people seek inspiration. They tend to be maybe a little more curious about how things work and why they work and don’t work. How much of the job of the leader in this case is to keep those folks inspired?
Todd Henry: I think it’s a huge percentage of the job is keeping them inspired and keeping them focused on the right things. Setting good rails, making sure that they’re looking in the right places. “Hey look over here! Hey, have you seen this? Hey, let’s not focus on that right now, let’s look at this thing over here, because this seems to be the thing that has the most potential.” That’s not the same thing as doing the work for them, that’s basically doing traffic flow for them. It’s making sure that they’re windowing out the stuff that you can see is really not essential and focusing them then on the things that are actually most important.
The thing is, if we wanna be an inspirational leader, then we have to be inspired ourselves. This is something I find often in the lives of leaders; they want to inspire their team but they’re not building practices into their own life to keep themselves inspired. They’re not dedicating time for study, for going out, for exploring, for tilling the soil and looking for potentially useful things in the environment that they can funnel to their team. They’re not doing any kind of personal and professional development themselves and yet they expect their team to be doing that, but they’re not developing themselves.
I think the first thing we have to recognize is that if we wanna be an inspiring leader, if we wanna be the kind of leader that’s bringing ideas to the table and pushing our team in the right place and is able to think systemically in a way that’s actually valuable and useful to our team because we’re seeing the patterns that are emerging in the work and in the team dynamics, then we have to be dedicating time and energy to developing ourselves, to studying, to looking for patterns out there in the marketplace and patterns out there in the environment.
That’s really one of the things we’re uniquely positioned to do as leaders because of our perch, and yet often we don’t do that. If you are not inspired, then you cannot inspire your team.
John Jantsch: One of the things that’s gotta be part of any leader is we’ve got objectives, we have key results that we’re trying to do, we have deadlines, there are things that have to be measured and tracked. I would suggest that some people would say that that’s harder to do with creatives? Maybe a deadline works, maybe it doesn’t, but how do you define and track what might be different with a creative team?
Todd Henry: That is a really great question, because you’re right. If we’re doing accounting, it’s pretty easy to tell whether we got it right or not. You could sorta say, “Numbers aren’t adding up. Okay, let’s figure this out. This isn’t working right.” It’s a different kind of problem. With creative work, it is highly qualitative often. In the end, somebody is either gonna give you the thumbs up or thumbs down based upon, in some cases, their subjective opinion. No matter how research based your work is, no matter how tight your rationale is, they’re gonna give you the thumbs up or thumbs down, and it’s basically based on what they perceive to be right or not right with regard to the work.
So, one of the tools that I like to teach people to help them determine, in a little bit more of a not quantitative way, but a little bit more of an objective way, which idea is the right idea? It spells the word EPIC, which, I don’t like doing things like that where, hey it spells this, but it does, it spells EPIC, is, if you have a handful of ideas you’re trying to evaluate, you’re trying to decide between, I encourage you to use this framework to do it. It works really, really well.
The first thing is, you’re gonna ask, is it effective? Is this idea effective? Does it solve the problem we set out to solve, or does it not? You can even rate this on a scale of one to ten, so you can put these ideas up next to each other and say, “Okay, which of these is most effective? On a scale of one to ten, how well does it actually solve the problem that we’re trying to solve?”
The P is practical. How practical is it for us to execute this idea, given our resource constraints, given our time constraints, given the fact that we only have a couple of team members who can work on this. How practical are each of these ideas, again, on a scale of one to ten?
Then, is it interesting and cool is the final metric here. On a scale of one to ten, how excited are we about this idea? Because sometimes maybe there’s an idea that doesn’t seem as effective, but it’s really cool and so somebody is really arguing for it. Okay, well, that’s fine, give it a 10, but it’s only a four on effectiveness, or a five on effectiveness, which means maybe it’s not the best idea even though it’s got a lot of energy in the room, because it is cool, but it doesn’t necessarily solve the problem we’re trying to solve.
Once you’ve ranked all of your ideas using this framework, effectiveness, practicality, and then is it interesting and cool, then you can actually have a meaningful conversation. You can say, well, idea two isn’t quite as practical as idea one, but I think we can make it more practical if we dot dot dot. So, it’s a great jumping off point for iteration. It also, as a leader, it gives you an opportunity to do some teaching with your team about how you think about ideas, or how you think about practicality, or how you think about resource allocation, or how you think about what is cool and what actually is interesting from a creative standpoint.
This is, in a world of highly subjective measurements, I find this tool to be really helpful because it gives teams a framework to have meaningful discussion instead of just saying, “Well, I like it. Why don’t you like it?” Which isn’t always helpful.
John Jantsch: I grew up in a really big family and my parents, I don’t really ever remember seeing them argue or fight. I think it made me very conflict averse as well. One of the things you talk about is that really healthy teams can fight in a positive way.
Todd Henry: Yeah. Yeah, this actually happens pretty frequently. I’ll have a manager approach me and say, “We’re a really healthy team. We never fight.” I just wanna grab them lovingly by the shoulders and say, “You are the most dysfunctional team I’ve ever encountered in my life!” Listen, if you have healthy, talented, creative people in the room together, there is going to be conflict. Conflict is the natural result of talented driven people bumping into each other. It’s going to happen. If there’s no conflict it means, A, there’s no accountability on the team, so nobody feels the need to speak their mind or bring their opinion to the table, B, people are just phoning it in, people really don’t care about the work, or, C, you’ve created such a culture of fear and conformity that people feel like they can’t speak their mind without risking losing their job.
If there is never conflict, it means that there’s something that is not healthy in your organization. Now, that doesn’t mean that free-for-all conflict should be the norm. No, of course not. We have to have some healthy principles for conflict, and this is one of the things that I went into in Herding Tigers. There are a couple of rules, I think, that we have to follow, whenever we have some kind of argument about an idea or about a direction or something. I think number one, we have to agree on common ground from the start.
I think sometimes, especially in today’s culture and you’re seeing this play out in the political arena right now, we’ve seen it in the marketplace in a handful of ways, we are seeing scorched earth strategy playing out everywhere. It’s, I will destroy the ground between you and me, and I’m gonna fossilize around my opinion, and I’m just gonna fight just because I’m fighting, because I disagree with you. I think it’s important in any conflict when we disagree, to agree on the common ground from the start and say, “Okay, are we actually fighting about the same thing here?”
I don’t know about you, but I’ve seen in a lot of organizations I’ve worked with where two people are having an argument, and then they get about halfway through and realize, oh, we’re actually not even fighting about the same thing. I didn’t realize that. We were just fighting to fight, but we weren’t even talking about the same thing here. We actually have a lot more common ground than we thought. That’s the first thing.
The second thing I always encourage people to do is try as much as you can to articulate the other person’s point of view before you disagree with them. Make sure that you understand their argument as well, so not only that you’re arguing about the same thing, but that you understand their perspective and their argument. Try to articulate their point of view and even share with them, here’s where I agree with you, and here’s where we diverge. That way you can see what you’re actually fighting about.
The third thing is, you always fight over ideas, you never fight over personality. The moment a conflict gets personal, everybody loses. When I talk about conflict, I’m not talking about, “Oh I hate those people. I hate that person. I can’t stand that … so I’m just going to muscle up every time they introduce an idea.”
That’s not healthy conflict, that’s just stupid conflict. We can’t allow conflict to get personal. It has to always be about ideas, not personality. If we follow these principles, then we’re going to have an environment where people feel like they can bring their ideas to the table, an environment where people feel like they can disagree and we can even hash it out and it can get really animated.
Another thing I wanna say that is a little bit controversial but I think is also important to recognize, I hear often people say, “Oh, our team is a family. We’re like a family.” Well, maybe you’re like a family, but you’re not a family. I think that’s a very unfair thing that managers do or business owners do, is when they say it’s a family because I don’t know about your family, but I’m not kicking someone out of the family if they don’t do their chores this week. They’re still gonna be a member of the family. There might be consequences, but they’re not gonna get kicked out of my family because they didn’t do their job. There’s a baseline level of performance you have to maintain in order to stay employed, so saying to a group of people, oh, we’re a family, no, actually you’re not, because somebody in this room might be fired at some point if they fail to do their job.
We have to make sure that we’re treating people in our organization with trust and respect. We don’t have to like everybody we work with. You probably won’t like everybody you work with, that’s okay as well, but we have to treat them with trust and respect and we have to fight well. If we do that then our culture is gonna get sharper and sharper and sharper and more and more focused and more and more refined over time and people will trust one another, because they’ll know that people are speaking up.
John Jantsch: One of the things I love when books do this is that each chapter you kinda have some summary points. Here’s some actions, here’s ways that you can talk with the team, here’s some habits you can develop so you kinda give people a whole toolbox of ideas to end each chapter rather than saying, “Do X.”
Todd Henry: Yeah.
John Jantsch: So, Todd, where can people find more about you and about Herding Tigers?
Todd Henry: The best place to find Herding Tigers is wherever books are sold, so wherever you shop for books you can find it. The best place to find me is at accidentalcreative.com. That’s where our podcasts are and all the other work that I do. That’d be the best place to find me.
John Jantsch: Well, you have, as I know, the book is in some ways a starting point. You have, of course, training and workshops and everything that you do around that as well, don’t you?
Todd Henry: Yeah, that’s correct. We have a Herding Tigers workshop that is basically our two-day in person workshop, but it’s distilled down to basically a four hour video course with exercises and workbooks and all kinds of things. Basically it’s like me coming to your company for two days, only you can get through it in four hours. Now, four hours to experience it, but then you have to do the work beyond that, but it’s basically that distilled into a video course.
John Jantsch: You don’t do the work for us? Darn it.
Todd Henry: No, unfortunately I can’t do the work for you. Sorry. It would be so much better if I could. No, I’m sorry, I can’t do the work for you.
John Jantsch: Well Todd, thanks so much for joining us, spending time with us, hopefully next time I’m in Ohio or somewhere out there on the road we can bump into each other again.
Todd Henry: Yeah, that’d be great. John, thanks for the great work that you do.