Roger von Oech has just posted a terrific interview with David Armano, Creative VP at Digitas and author of the Logic + Emotion blog. That’s right, Roger von Oech the creativity guru is conducting the interview, so you get two creative heavyweights for the price of one!
Lots of you will already be avid readers of Logic + Emotion – if not, you really should have a look, it’s packed with ideas and experiences about creativity, communication and running a creative business. Some of my personal highlights are T-Shaped Creativity, Influence Ripples and Anatomy of the New Creative Mind.
Back to the interview. As a business coach I’m particularly interested in the questions about David’s approach to management. In places his answers read almost like textbook descriptions of the coaching style of management. Now I’m not for a moment suggesting that David learned his approach from a book or a course – it’s obviously an extension of his authentic communication style, and he’s frank about the mistakes he’s made while learning the trade. But – as with the managers in my research project interviews – I’m fascinated by the similarities between coaching and the natural approach of a successful manager in a creative business.
For example, here’s David’s description of his role as a manager:
I view my role as a â€œpersuader.â€ I canâ€™t force my teams to do great work. I also canâ€™t force clients accept our ideas and executions at face value. I need to convince my teams and clients that pursuing the right kinds of solutions is a worthy effort.
This nails one of the central problems faced by managers of creative professionals – you’re responsible for the outcome, you’ve got deadlines and deliverables on your mind, but you can’t control the process. Creativity and creative people resist control, so the old corporate style (“do it because I’m the boss”) will backfire if you’re tempted to use it. David recognises that he can’t “force” his team or his clients to accept his ideas, so has to persuade them. “A worthy effort” is a telling phrase – one of the big motivators for professional creatives is a sense that their work is significant and worthwhile, giving them a sense of purpose that goes far beyond fulfilling their duties as employees.
So how does David “persuade” others of the value of his ideas?
my secret weapon is being hyper-engaged at the “defining moments” in a project. There are times when the client or someone on my team is willing to settle for “just OK.” This is where I’ll kick in high gear. I make the case for “more than OK”. I’ll do whatever it takes – searching for examples to aspire to, telling stories or using metaphors to get everyone on the same page. But I don’t make the horse drink – I can only lead them to the water as best I can.
Again, this is a classic coaching strategy – raising the bar and delivering powerful feedback when necessary, but crucially stepping back and allowing people to reach the goal in their own way (“I don’t make the horse drink”). Like many excellent coaches, David fosters creativity and commitment by using indirect methods – “searching for examples to aspire to, telling stories or using metaphors” – instead of direct instruction.
David is honest about his own learning process – here’s his answer to Roger’s question “What are the two biggest mistakes youâ’ve made in your profession?”
Not giving my teams enough ‘space,’ and not managing peer relationships effectively. An effective creative director should excel as a facilitator. I wasn’t very good at this early on in my career and I’ve had to work on it. The mistake I made was using my teams as a production crew to execute my own ideas vs. cultivating an environment where they could come up with the idea while I helped refine them. I’ve learned that though project success is important, it’s also just as important that your team grow during the project.
This is a very common pitfall for new managers, as they make the transition from a ‘hands on’ role as a member of the team to the ‘hands off’ role of team leader. I’ve encountered it in many industries, but I believe it’s a particular challenge for a creative professional – as creators we identify so strongly with our work that it’s very hard for us to ‘let go’ and let others take over. I once heard about a creative director who referred to his junior designers as “Mac monkeys” – they were only there as extensions of his own creativity, to flesh out the parts of the design he couldn’t be bothered doing himself. As a result they were demoralised and spending their lunchbreaks and frequent sick days looking for a new agency.
David is clearly aware of the dangers of this attitude, and describes the critical difference between a creative and creative director when he says that “an effective creative director should excel as a facilitator”. His description of this role would make an excellent definition of managerial coaching: “cultivating an environment where they could come up with the idea while I helped refine them”.
He makes another important point about balancing “project success” with helping “your team grow during the project”. Again, this is a classic feature of coaching, which seeks to balance performance management and development, integrating the learning process within the day-to-day work of a team, rather than confining it exclusively to training sessions and ‘away days’. As Jill Fear and others pointed out in my research interviews, facilitating on-the-job learning in this way is very common in creative agencies, who are not always given due credit for this kind of staff development.
The final point about management in the interview addresses the need to manage upwards and sideways as well as downwards in a traditional manager-staff relationship:
I have a better track record of managing both down and up vs. sideways. However, if you want to have influence your organization, you need to manage at all three levels. Iâ€™ve learned this throughout my career, but still find it doesnâ€™t come naturally for me. So itâ€™s a work in progress.
This “need to manage at all three levels” is something I’ve encountered a lot when coaching managers, even in large organisations with a traditional hierarchical structure. It’s even more relevant in a creative business, where network structures are common (though not ubiquitous) and managers need to manage relationships with their boss, peers, clients and collaborators as well as their team. The best managers are the ones who recognise the fluid dynamics at work in all of these relationships, and know when to rely on (or defer to) authority and when a more collaborative style is called for.
Thanks to David for sharing and Roger for asking the kind of questions I like having answers to. I’ve cherry-picked the bits on management here, but there’s plenty more in the interview – including wrestling, “bathroom people” and the dark side of blogging…