Leading Creative People

“We say it’s like herding cats!” was a comment about leading and managing creative people when I was a guest speaker at the Munich meeting of MAGNET – the Marketing and Advertising Global Network.

My presentation to the owners of advertising agencies from around the world was on the subject of Leadership. One aspect they were particularly interested in was how to lead ‘creative’ staff.

My own view is that creativity is not the monopoly of the ‘artist’ or the people who describe themselves as ‘creatives’. Creativity is in us all and in all departments of an enterprise. I use the T-Shirts and Suits metaphor to emphasise that creative businesses must bring together both creativity and business acumen, wherever it comes from, to create successful organisations. Nevertheless, many agencies find themselves employing people who are categorised as ‘creatives’. These people pride themselves on their creativity but sometimes also on their disdain for ‘business’ matters. The big question was: How can we effectively lead these ‘creative’ types?

Amongst several other things in my presentation (Six Leadership Styles, Level 5 Leadership, etc), I mentioned an article in the Harvard Business Review on ‘Leading Clever People’ (details below). The researchers make several interesting points about leading creative people (and other clever people including scientists and academics). Before my own presentation I was musing on the conclusions of the article and the analogy of ‘herding cats’. I couldn’t help thinking of some similarities between the article’s conclusions about leading creatives and managing a pet cat.

  1. ‘Creatives’ do not want to be led. Neither do cats. Try putting a lead on a cat.
  2. ‘Creatives’ like to do their own thing. So do cats. Some companies allow their employees to use 20% of their time to pursue personal projects. I call this the ‘80% loyalty’ philosophy. Some cat owners accept that their cats sometimes disappear for days to do their own thing. They probably have another human who also feeds them.
  3. ‘Creatives’ have a low boredom threshold. Cats soon get bored with you.
  4. ‘Creatives’ expect instant access. Even if they want you to keep away from them most of the time, when they want you, they expect to get to see you. Similarly with cats. You can’t find them but they can always find you when they want you.
  5. ‘Creatives’ won’t thank you and will be unwilling to recognise your leadership. Cats might get friendly when they want something, but after they get fed they just walk away.
  6. Even though they don’t acknowledge it, ‘creatives’ need you and the organisation as much as you need them. Despite cats’ aloofness, like ‘creatives’ they do depend on the shelter and food you provide.

I won’t try to push the comparisons further but it does seem that there are some amusing similarities!
Let me know what you think – I’d like to hear your views.

The HBR article is ‘Leading Clever People’ by Rob Goffee from London Business School and Gareth Jones from INSEAD, who have studied leadership for 20 years. Their article was published in March 2007 and is available online from Harvard Business Review.

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