I don’t know anyone working in content creation who doesn’t sometimes doubt their career choices.
It’s hard, man! One’s often tempted to ask: Would crunching numbers by day leave more room for creativity by night? Is managing creative teams, work, products, and processes endlessly more complex than managing a more objective product? I think the answer is: Yes. And also: Of course not. Anything you show up for consistently, through ups and downs, and in collaboration with other people, will probably challenge and reward you in equal measure.
But, even armed with that perspective, I still remain deeply interested in what makes other creative professionals — let’s call them Content People if you will? — tick. As Ted Lasso says, “All people are different people.”
So, in an effort to have a good excuse to talk to talented folks about their work as creatives, managers, and leaders, I’m launching a limited-series Brafton podcast called — you guessed it — Content People. We’re exploring what it takes to work in content, and wringing out every last drop of career advice, leadership wisdom, or craft-focused tips we can from our sage guests.
We’re shooting to have about 18 episodes, nine of which are already “in the can” (so fun to say).
You can check out our first episode here, and it’ll be generally available wherever you get your podcasts. Subscribe, rate, and review if you’re into it and feeling generous — we would be grateful.
Our first guest is a good one. I talked to Todd Henry, the founder of Accidental Creative, and author of several books about successfully working or leading in a creative environment, including “The Accidental Creative” and “Herding Tigers”. The latter is a favorite of mine and one that I reference often with Brafton’s management team.
Future guests include the likes of:
Atoosa Rubenstein, former editor-in-chief of “Seventeen” and “CosmoGirl!” Magazines. Atoosa is back on the scene with her own substack, Atoosa Unedited, and a recent TEDx talk.
Amy Odell, fashion journalist, author of “Tales From the Back Row: An Outsider’s View from Inside the Fashion Industry” and “Anna: The Biography”, and writer of the Back Row substack.
Kimberly Brown, author and columnist who writes The Cut’s career advice column, “Your Next Move”.
Cliff Stevens, Managing Director at Liberty Mutual and head of their in-house agency, Copper Giants.
And plenty more talented and impressive folks who were so gracious and generous with their time, opinions, and ideas.
If you have thoughts, opinions, or suggested guests for future episodes, you can reach me and our producer, Ian Servin at [email protected].
Thanks for reading. I hope you give us a shot and let us know what you think.
COO at Brafton (and now: Host of Content People)
Hi, everyone. Welcome to Content People, a podcast where we talk to smart people about creative work, creative leadership, and their career journeys. This podcast is produced by Brafton.
Brafton is a content marketing company powered by a global team of creative professionals and marketing experts. My name is Meredith Farley. I’m the COO at Brafton. That means I oversee our creative production and service teams, and I’m here with Ian Servin. Hey, Ian.
Our creative director video who’s producing this podcast for us. Thank you, Ian.
Absolutely. I’m super excited for this podcast. I’m super excited for this inaugural episode with Todd. It was a really fascinating conversation with a really interesting guy.
Yeah, me too. So Todd Henry is a self-described arms dealer for the Creative Lab Revolution, and is the founder of Accidental Creative, a company that works with individuals and teams to figure out and foster creativity.
He’s a frequent speaker on topics like productivity and leadership, and he’s the author of great books, including The Accidental Creative, Die Empty, Louder Than Words, and most recently, Herding Tigers, which is all about teaching people how to be a leader that creative people need.
And Herding Tigers is a book I’ve read and I loved some of his insights about, number one, how managing creative teams is different than managing different types of environments, the kind of the ways that you need to create both challenge and safety and structure for your creative teams. And he just has some really interesting concepts, which we dig into in the podcast. I felt engaged with his content and even talking to him. I think he really makes people who work in an agency or creative environment feel seen and heard and not crazy, and he gives really good advice.
What did you think about the convo with him?
Well, it’s so excellent. I think it’s fairly rare that you find someone who not only is thoughtful about management concepts and creative leadership, but is also a practitioner who has sort of lived through that experience, and is someone who’s really articulate and can write a book about it. So that whole thing is really unique and really ended up giving us a really fun interview.
So I guess we should hand it over to the Todd interview.
We hope that you enjoy the conversation. It was really fun to get to talk to Todd and we’re excited to bring you more content like this coming soon. So with that, we’ll kick it over to Todd Henry.
Intro yourself. Tell our listeners a bit about you. And then I’m really excited to jump into kind of how you got into creative management and your expertise there. And then talk through some of your expertise and Herding Tigers, which I’m a huge fan of and really get into the weeds on.
Sure. Yeah. So I, well, I like to informally tag myself as an arms dealer for the creative revolution. That’s kind of my little fun little kitschy way of describing what I do. But really what that means is I help people who have to create on demand every day, understand the dynamics of creating for a living and some of the pitfalls that we can slip into unknowingly and so the places we can get stuck and how to move beyond that, you know, most people don’t struggle with having the skills, the talent to do what they need to do. It’s the unseen dynamics that trip them up.
And I learned this early on. I was a creative director for an organization and led a team of about 40 people. And in the midst of that time really was struggling to find other people who could relate to what I was dealing with. What I was wrestling with is I was trying to do my own work and also lead other people through creating work every day. And so I started, you know, talking to creative directors at some of the other agencies, you know, some agencies here in town, people who are leading teams and just asking them, Hey, what are you finding? What are you looking for? You know, what are you seeing in your team? And they were saying, Well, we can’t really find anything either.
So I decided to create a resource to have a conversation about this create on demand dynamic. I started a podcast called The Accidental Creative in 2005, which is wow, 17 years ago now.
And at the time, I thought I was really late to the podcasting game, which is kind of funny and retrospect that I thought I was late to podcasting in 2005. But the podcast pretty quickly took off. And there were thousands of people who were following along and listening. And it was pretty exciting to to see that happening because I felt like, Hey, there’s a community now that we can where we can actually talk about some of these dynamics.
That led to me getting invited to present at conferences and speak to some organizations and whatnot. And so I pretty quickly figured out, Okay, I think this might be a business. So I ended up creating my own business, was offered a book deal with Penguin Random House for the first book, The Accidental Creative in 2009. And that book was released in 2011. And really, so then for the last, you know, 11 or 12 years, I’ve been traveling all over the world, teaching people and teams how to be prolific, brilliant and healthy, all at the same time, which is hard to do, but how to do a lot of work, how to do good work and how to do it in a sustainable way.
And, you know, as you mentioned, that’s led to several other books, including Herding Tigers, which was in some ways kind of the follow up to The Accidental Creative. The Accidental Creative was targeted at individual creative professionals. And Herding Tigers really was targeted at leaders who have to lead talented people every single day to help them understand what those talented people need in order to thrive. I would speak at a conference or a company event, something like that. And people would say, Hey, The Accidental Creative was really helpful to me. Thank you for writing that book. But let me tell you about my manager, right?
So I realized managers aren’t equipped to lead talented people or to understand what they need. And so that was really what that book was designed to do is to help managers understand the unique nature of creative work and also what it is talented creative people need in order to thrive.
Yeah, I feel like, you know, every time you talk or I when I was reading your books, I feel like you have such an ability to really hit on the pain points of being a professional creative or being a creative manager. And I definitely feel very like seen, heard and advised whenever I’m engaging with any of your content. And I love in Herding Tigers where I feel like you give some really strong advice for the folks who are moving from that creative role into the management role, and, you know, potential pitfalls or challenges or mistakes that someone in that might roll in that role might face, and or solutions for some of the common pressures. And I think it’s really, I think you just, you know, you have such a way of, you’ve said you’re such an incredible resource for folks in that Space. And a lot of the, you know, the folks who are on Brafton’s mailing list and come to draft insight, for example, so the audience for this podcast are a mix of creatives who are in doing the work every day, and managers or directors who are working to create a good experience for their teams. And in prep for this, I revisited Herding Tigers. And one thing that I really like spent a lot of time thinking about and finding really compelling was the quad that you draw. And I was wondering if you could kind of talk about that a little bit about the ways in which managers can recognize when people are stuck versus angry and the things that they can do to create kind of the most successful, stable, but challenging environment for their teams.
Yeah. So there really are two key things that talented people need in order to thrive in order to do their best work. The first one is stability. And this is often what we hear creative pros complaining about the most. The process keeps changing in the middle of the project or my boss’s boss won’t make up her mind about what she wants for this project or the client, you know, keeps changing the scope in the middle of the work. And but yet they want to keep the same budget, but the scope keeps changing, you know, in the middle of the work or whatever. These are the kinds of complaints we often hear. Well, what they’re really talking about is a lack of stability. There’s a lack of predictability of process or clarity of process. In some cases, there’s a lack of clarity of expectations. You know, sometimes managers become really, really unclear and unprecise in what they expect from people, especially when they feel insecure about whether it’s the right decision.
So when they are uncertain, they become very unclear in their communication. And that can lead to a lack of stability because I don’t even know what kind of target I’m shooting for, you know, I’m just trying to kind of make it up as I go. And so all of those things are part of this stability thing that talented creative people need because listen, we’re taking risks.
We’re making intuitive leaps in our work. Well, we need to have some stable ground in the midst of that in order to be able to do that work. If everything is unstable, including the process, including expectations, including whatever target we’re shooting for, then it’s going to be really difficult to take risks. And what will happen over time is if there’s that lack of stability, people eventually will just say, you know what, I’m tired of doing a bunch of work and then having to redo it. So I’m just going to kind of wait until you tell me what to do.
You know, and I’ve seen this in a lot of organizations where people will get burned and they get burned and they get burned. And so finally, they just say, you know what, I’m just going to wait until you tell me what to do because I know you’re going to come in and change it anyway. There’s no predictability or stability of process here. And obviously we don’t want that because that means we’re not leveraging the full creative faculty of the people on our team. So stability is that first piece.
The second piece is challenge. So it’s possible and I’ve experienced a lot of these organizations to have an incredibly high degree of stability. So predictability of process, clarity of expectations, all of those things. But the work kind of feels like it’s a labyrinth repeat type of work for people where they’re just basically cranking up production work over and over and over doing the same thing over and over and over. You know, clients will come and say, we want to do something wild and new and take us in a new direction, but really we kind of just want you to tweak what we’ve already done before. And in those kinds of environments, it can be really difficult for creative professionals to stay engaged, just stay motivated because they need to be challenged. They need to be pushed. They want to try new things. They want to sharpen their skills. They want to stretch themselves. They want to implement new kinds of ideas. And when they feel like they’re just basically going back to the same well over and over and over again, it’s not very engaging for them. So the problem with these two things, stability and challenge, is that they exist in tension with one another. So as you increase the amount of stability within an organization, you tend to decrease the amount of challenge because you’re basically making everything more predictable, easier, more clear.
There’s less of a sense of challenge, right? And as you increase the amount of challenge, you tend to destabilize things. So a lot of organizations go through these cycles where they take on two or three new clients or they take on two or three new kinds of work, right? Two or three new big projects and everything gets really crazy for a while because we’re trying to figure out how to do the work while we’re doing it. And then over time, things stabilize and maybe even become a little bit too stable to the point where it’s starting to become boring. It’s starting to become predictable and people feel like maybe they’re not as engaged as they once were. So there’s kind of a trick to this, which is that we have to have conversations with each person on our team about what they’re experiencing and what level of stability they need, what level of challenge they need in order to feel engaged. It’s not a set it and forget it thing. It’s an individual thing. You creative people need to be individually and strategically led on your team.
So there are questions in the book Herding Tigers that help people, you know, help people identify with their team. Hey, are you feeling overly stretched right now? Are you feeling overly challenged? You know, how can we provide some more stability in the midst of that for you, some more infrastructure to support your ambition? Or, hey, are you feeling like you’re up for a new challenge? You know, is that something are you starting to feel a little bit stuck in your life, your career? How can we begin to instill that in your work as well to help you feel more challenged, more engaged? So again, it’s not a set it and forget it thing. It’s like a set of dials that you kind of have to continuously tweak in order to get things in the right place. And also to be clear, we’re going to go through cycles of high, high challenge, low stability, low challenge, high stability. We’re going to go through cycles. We’re going to move through these quadrants, as you described them often.
We just have to be mindful of the fact that that’s a part of life. It’s a part of work, but we also cannot fail to pay attention to the metrics, the dashboard, right, in our organization and understand where people are and how they’re feeling so that we can continuously tweak those elements and make sure people are getting what they need in order to succeed.
Yeah, no, it makes a lot of sense. And I think one thing I’m curious for your advice on is that some creative folks, I think, are very vocal and very communicative with their managers. They will say, I’m feeling stuck. I’m feeling bored. I’m a little burned out on this. I want XYZ. And of those instances, the manager’s like, okay, all right, all right, let’s see what we can do here. And then in other instances, you know, there are some people who are maybe they are not feeling it or seeing it within themselves, but it’s starting to manifest and or they just might not be maybe as vocal with their manager.
And perhaps their first thought might be, maybe I just need a different job or to go work somewhere else because this isn’t working for me anymore. And I feel like sometimes what I really encourage people to do often if they’re starting to think in that direction is to think, well, how clear have you been in your communications about what you need and what you’re looking for where you are.
So what advice do you have for, I’m curious, for both managers and creatives about staying in sync with each other and, you know, having good conversations about how they can calibrate to make sure that the creatives are feeling supported but challenged and for the managers that their team is as stable as possible. If it may be something that doesn’t quite come really naturally to either of them.
Yeah, I mean, I think it all comes down to, as you said, it comes down to conversation and being intentional about those conversations and not allowing things to just drift, not allowing organizational inertia to take over. I think we have to be very careful to ensure that we’re having uncomfortable conversations.
And as a manager, we have to be the one to initiate those conversations. And we have to push people because when we have those conversations and we push people to share with us what they’re experiencing, it creates a kind of a patina of accountability within the organization. It is up to the professional, the person on the team to share what they’re experiencing.
If you give them an entry point to do that and you model for them that, Hey, I really care about your experiences. I really care about how, you know, how you’re engaging with the work. I care about how our processes are affecting you. I really care about that. I really want to make sure that we’re doing everything we can to set you up to succeed. And they don’t share with you struggles that they’re having. It is completely on them. There’s nothing more you can do as a manager.
But you do have to make sure that you model for them that this is a safe place to place where vulnerability is encouraged. Authenticity is encouraged, but I want to be clear about that. Authenticity is not transparency, right? There’s a difference between authenticity and transparency. Sometimes we think authenticity means, Hey, you know, I’m, I’m an open book.
Everything I know, you know, everything, you know, about me, you can see that’s not healthy for an organization as a manager. There are things that you know that your team probably shouldn’t know. It would probably freak them out. Just like there are things I know that I don’t share with, you know, I hate it when people make parenting analogies with leadership. I hate that. I really, really don’t like that, but I’m going to do it right now. There are things that I know that I don’t share with my kids because it’s going to freak them out because they just don’t, they don’t need to know it and they don’t understand it fully.
They don’t have all the information, right? And it’s kind of the same thing in management where there are going to be things we know that we don’t always need to share with our team at all times. There may be a select few people that we’re maybe monitoring for potential leadership in the future. We want to share that with, but you know, we have to create an environment in which people feel permission to speak their mind and to be vulnerable and to express what they’re experiencing without fear of reprisal, which is why people often don’t do it. If I share that I don’t like what’s going on, that means I’m going to be reprimanded or I’m going to lose access to this project that I really want to work on or something like that, or I’m not going to be tapped for leadership in the future.
So how do you create an environment in which people feel free to come to you so that they don’t feel like they have to turn to their peers and create a toxic doom loop of gossip and, you know, complaint, which is often what happens when you don’t encourage that kind of communication directly with you?
Yeah, no, I think that’s great advice. I love that distinction between authenticity and transparency. I think particularly sometimes new managers might struggle a little bit to find the line there and end up feeling maybe a little guilty for holding things back that are maybe not helpful or wholly relevant to the problem. So I think that’s really wise. I mean, you know, for me and a lot of the Brafton management team, we are really heavy on one to one’s weekly check ins chats.
We talk a lot about checking in as opposed to checking up on somebody. And that, you know, I feel like especially in the remote environment, which I’m curious to chat with you about too and your ideas around that has been really helpful. But I think some people, some of its experience and some folks are just a little more naturally comfortable than others that kind of like shooting the breeze on a call a little bit, encouraging a connection and some actual, you know, having a real conversation where it feels like you can be honest without there being high stakes.
I’m curious for your advice to management who are interested to kind of cultivate that environment with their staff, anything specifically that you do or you recommend that approaches they take?
Well, the most important thing as it, as it pertains to trust is to understand that it is the little things that you do that either instill trust or breach trust with your team. Most of us aren’t overtly lying to our team. Most of us aren’t overtly misleading our team, intentionally misleading our team. Most people are doing little things like making small promises that they don’t know they can keep. I call this declaring undeclareables.
And so they’ll say, yeah, let’s meet next Tuesday at 2pm. You know what? Something came up. We’ll have to meet tomorrow at 10am instead. You know what? Actually, there’s not really, I don’t have anything to say. Do you have anything to say? We’re okay. Let’s just not meet this week. It’s little things like that that signal to them that you are not a trustworthy person. So when you need them to trust you, it’s difficult to gain the trust that you really need. So that’s the first, the first way. The second way is when we play the superhero, when we push everybody away, we don’t invite them into our thought process, but instead we push them away. We think that’s going to instill trust because we’re projecting, hey, look how competent I am. I know exactly what I’m doing. I know all the answers.
But your team knows that you don’t have all the answers, and they suspect that something isn’t quite lining up. And so we have to invite our team not just into the what of the work, but into the why of the work, which means we need to invite them into our thought process. Talented people need to understand not just what they’re expected to do, but why it’s important, why, why it matters, how it fits into the grant. And I don’t mean why in the grand existential sense of, you know, the world and the universe.
I’m talking about why in the context of their work, why does this matter? Why does it matter to the client? Why is it going to matter to the people our client serves? Or why does it matter to our organization, to the people we’re going to use our products or services? They need to understand why it fits into that strategically in order to do their best work.
So all of these are things that we do to instill trust. And sometimes the best thing you can do with your team is to say, I really don’t know the right answer. And I would love to have a conversation about that. What do you think we should do? Let’s talk about it. Let’s come up with a solution together, because I have some suspicions, but I don’t really know the right thing. That’s a wonderful way to build trust with your team.
We think that’s going to break trust because aren’t we supposed to have all the answers? But the reality is no, and they know that you don’t have all the answers. So sometimes it’s great to just invite them into your thought process.
You talked a bit in the book about navigating those moments where it’s a high pressure moment and there are stakes. And a new manager who’s just been in the trenches a few months ago might feel really tempted to jump in, play the hero, do the work for the team, maybe in front of the team, instead of knowing how to help them achieve the results that they need themselves.
So being the doer or the player coach as opposed to the leader. And I think those can be really tough moments, especially in an agency environment. If you’re a newer manager, there’s a big client, there’s a huge deadline, there’s a lot of commercial pressure on a situation. And the manager might be feeling like, man, we can’t mess this up. I can’t mess this up. I don’t want this to reflect poorly on me in my new position.
So I’m really curious to hear you talk about your advice for how to navigate maybe a micro management versus doing the work yourself instinct when they’re new and the results really do matter. Getting it right is important in that situation.
So the way I like to frame this is your entire career as a creative pro is a giant setup. Because when you’re early in your career, you’re rewarded for controlling the work, for doing the work, for the technical execution of the work. That’s how you’re rewarded. And often people are promoted to managerial roles based solely on how good they are at doing the job that they’re going to be managing, right? Which is fine. I mean, it’s hard to find other metrics sometimes that would indicate somebody’s ready for a promotion.
The problem with that is that doing the work and leading the work are fundamentally different jobs. So when our entire career has been basically determined by our ability to control the work and get the work done and execute, and then all of a sudden now we’re leading other people who are doing the work, of course, we’re going to be control freaks about the work because we need to make sure the work is done right.
Problem is when we are control freaks, when we step in and do the work for people, we aren’t allowing them to develop the skill of doing the work for themselves. Or what I should say is we’re not allowing them to develop the nuanced skill of thinking about the work in productive ways. Instead, we’re teaching them tactics. We’re showing them how to do this particular thing in this particular situation with these particular sets of objectives. But we’re not teaching them how to solve new and more interesting kinds of problems. So the way that I often describe this is we have to lead by influence, not by control, meaning we have to become a teacher. We have to teach principles and instill principles in our team that help our team think about the work in appropriate ways rather than stepping in and doing it for them, which is basically going to cause them to turn their minds off.
You’re just going to tell me what to do anyway, so just tell me what to do and I’ll just do it. That’s not helpful because over time, your team becomes, basically your influence becomes a smaller and smaller set of concentric circles until it depends purely upon you in order for anything to get done in the organization. That’s difficult and to your point, the work has to be right, which means this approach might take a little more time. We might need to plan a little more strategically for allowing people to have some space to experiment and try things and maybe come up with ideas we never would have thought of on our own.
It requires a little more front-end space in the process at times. And by the way, there always comes a time when you may have to step in and actually control the work, actually get the work where it needs to be. If you’re three days before you’re delivering a project and it’s nowhere near ready to deliver, you might have to step in because the work has to be right.
The problem is that a lot of people do that way too early in the process. And as a result, their team basically is trained to come to them to get answers rather than to think about the work on their own and do the work on their own.
So the fundamental principle is your job is not to do the work, your job is to lead the work. And that is a fundamentally different kind of work. You lead by influence, not by control. So what are the principles that you’re teaching your team about how to do the work? How do you know when an idea is right? How do you know when something is good enough? How do you know how much time to spend on this kind of activity versus that kind of activity? How do you know what’s an acceptable risk and what’s not an acceptable risk?
These are the kinds of things your team should know, should be taught so that they can then go out and do the work on their own. And then your influence is compounded within the organization. Then people don’t rely on you. Instead, you’re sort of trying to help shape and guide the work rather than stepping in and controlling.
Yeah, that makes sense. I feel like there’s no better feeling as a manager than to see something happen. And you’re like, oh, that’s kind of maybe a principle I’ve espoused in action, but from combos we had a year ago and to release that influence. And I think I would imagine, or I feel too, probably it’s really important that the manager of the manager needs to not be a person who is always holding that new or middle manager responsible for, I mean, you have to have, you have accountability and responsibility for your team’s overall performance.
But if every mistake is your mistake, then you have no space to navigate. And I feel like that’s a dangerous place to be as a middle manager. And so far as systems or business structures, everyone needs a little space there.
I think one thing I’m curious about is that there are some managers of creative teams who maybe want to find that space for their team. They want to give themselves a little runway. They want some time to incubate and figure these things out. But there are very real production pressures. There are work queues, there are tight deadlines, there are not enough people on staff to get through everything. Do you have any tips for if you are in that position and they’re kind of a long road ahead of you of really getting your team there, like tiny actionable things that a direct team manager who maybe doesn’t have influence over their business structure, but they are overseeing this team, kind of little steps they could take to support their team in finding that space?
Yeah, you have to start small. Don’t ask for the world. And I wrote about this in Herding Tigers, right? You have to make a business case for why you think this is the best approach. So if it is, I want to give my team a little more time at the beginning of the project and exploratory phase to generate ideas to come up with a direction so that I’m not telling people what to do, but they have a little more time to figure it out for themselves at the beginning of this project.
You need to make a business case for that. You need to track results at the end of a project. You need to say, Hey, here’s what happened as a result of this modification of our process. Here’s what the net result of that was. Yeah, it took us a little more time, but here’s what the net additional value that we created was for the client. This isn’t just about making people feel good. We’re not in the business of making people feel good at work. That’s not what we do. We are professionals, meaning we’re getting paid to do a job. But at the same time, if we can create an environment in which people are engaged and they feel valued and they feel like, wow, I’m actually being given a little bit of latitude to bring my full faculties to this, then you are inevitably going to create better and more unique kinds of value for the clients that you serve.
That would be my best advice is A, start small, ask for small things, and as you make those changes, monitor what the results are, make sure you have some good metrics in place, and then make the business case for it. Don’t say, but my team feels so much better. Make a business case for it.
Here’s what the business outcome was of this, because that’s the language that most top-level managers speak. Basically, they want to be able to justify it to their own manager. Why did you let Meredith change this thing? Well, I need to be able to go to my manager and make a case for why that’s the best business scenario for our organization.
Yeah, no, agree. In some ways, I think sometimes it feels tricky to the managers because they can feel in a tangible way the benefits, but finding the bottom line KPIs that are going to quickly move up the food chain and make changes happen can feel challenging, but doable. I feel like that’s a new creative part of being a manager in a creative environment. I feel like in those moments, I’ve found leveraging a few minutes in one-to-ones is like, okay, this is just creative spacetime. Let’s talk about some ideas, some concepts as best as you can, also leveraging team meeting times to bring some space and creativity as opposed to just focusing on admin and things of that nature.
One thing that I feel like is a cloud or maybe a rainbow depending on your perspective overall of this is COVID and the move to remote work and how that has changed so much about our work dynamics, our work environment. I’m really curious. I know some of your work while Herding Tigers, it’s written pre-pandemic. What do you think the new challenges are and new best practices for being a professional creative and or managing a professional creative in this new world?
I think that’s yet to be determined. I think anybody who tells you they have the answers is probably trying to sell something because I don’t think we know yet. We don’t have enough data yet. Even as it relates to things like culture, you hear people saying, well, our culture still feels fine. It still feels the same. We still feel like the same team, even though many of us have been remote for so long. You probably are still largely the same team that’s together that was together at the beginning of the pandemic. You already had some cultural norms and relational expectations of one another going into the pandemic. All you did was move those online.
You haven’t really tried to build a brand new team and establish a culture completely remote, which is a challenging thing to do because really we see one another as our relationship to be much more functional and transactional when we’re online than they are when we’re in person. There are different neural pathways that are triggered in us when I’m looking into a camera or looking at your little square on the screen than when I’m sitting across a table from you.
I’ve only had three in-person speaking events since the beginning of the pandemic because events really haven’t been doing a lot of in-person events. There are some, they’re starting, certainly starting to come back for sure. A lot of them have been carried over. They were delayed and delayed and delayed. Now they’re sort of having them now that were kind of post COVID a little bit, at least in the US. But it was interesting because I spent a lot of time yesterday with people in the same room and I thought, boy, this is a really different dynamic than what I’ve been doing for the last two years, which is staring into a camera and teaching and training people virtually. It’s just a fundamentally different thing when you’re in a room with people.
I think the answer is, I don’t know, it’s still to be determined, but here’s what I advise managers. You’re probably having team meetings, but I encourage you to have maybe even more frequent check-ins, as you said, not check-ups, but check-ins with people consistently, even throughout the week, even throughout the course of the week, just to make sure that the lines of communication are open, just to make sure that they feel free to contact you or you’re giving them the opportunity to share what’s working and what’s not working more consistently, rather than, okay, they’re off on their own for a week in between check-ins or whatever it is. I mean, a lot can happen in a week and it’s not like you’re all in the same office together where they can just stop by your workspace and ask you a question.
That’s my encouragement, is you just need to stay more relationally connected with your team, and even more personally connected with your team as you’re able, because you don’t have those little casual moments to have conversation or to get to know someone in the same way. It feels very different being on Zoom or WebEx or whatever than it is being in the room with someone. That’s a long way of saying, I have no idea what’s on the other side of this, but relationships become even more important and intentionality becomes even more important when we’re in a remote world, because that’s the only thing that’s holding our culture together.
Yeah, my gosh. Well, I’m bummed you can’t give me the answer Todd, because I thought maybe you’d tell me what that makes sense. I think that’s really interesting. It’s funny what you’re talking about, neuro pathways. It’s reminding me. I subscribe to the management tip of the day from HBR, and I love them, and some of our managers have started to subscribe. If anyone’s interested in that type of thing, I think it’s a great daily email in your inbox summarizing a basic principle from one of the HBR management articles.
Today, it was really meant to support someone who might feel a little bit of social anxiety in their work interactions. One thing it talked about was how really focusing and listening to and paying attention to the other person is the best way to authentically show up as your real self and no need to be wholly overthinking even the casual personal questions.
What I was thinking was that there are probably so many different things we’re processing in person in these business like one to ones or in office, any interaction of the person’s body language, the expression on their face, what they’re eating or drinking or what they wore that day on a conscious and subconscious level, and that it makes it so much easier than in person to be attuned.
To your point, when we’re just a little box on a screen, not only is it so much harder to really, without being reductive or jumping to conclusions about how that person is feeling or processing or thinking about something, it’s harder to pay attention to them in a way that also serves you as the person who is immersed in the moment and responding organically and authentically. I do think that a fair number of folks have struggled to feel, have felt more anxiety or overthinking around their professional interactions in a remote environment as opposed to the in-person for some of those reasons. It is challenging. It’s tricky too.
On the personal connection point, I think there are definitely some managers who have no problem, quick chat, how’s your day? How’s this going, et cetera? Others who feel a little more boundary. What do you think they need to be bringing? What approach do you think managers need to be taking to make sure that they’re staying personally connected to their staff as well as professionally aware of what’s going on?
I think it just takes effort and it takes a willingness to ask questions and to just listen. I have a good friend, Michael Bungastanier, who wrote the coaching habit, a book called The Coaching Habit. He said, our entire job as managers is just to ask questions and let people answer. That’s really all we’re supposed to do when it comes to coaching people as a manager. I’m a big believer in that.
I think a lot of managers spend way too much talking. Another from Scott Mouts calls it the weight principle. Why am I talking? Because managers spend way too much time talking. What I would encourage people to do is when you have those little check-ins, have a question that you want to ask, something that is going to allow the other person to spend some time sharing with you what’s going on in their world.
Ask the question and then just keep your mouth shut and just let them talk. Ask follow-up questions if you need to, but just being inquisitive about what’s going on in their world, you want them to feel a connection to you and a connection to the organization. As you said, people want to feel seen and known and heard. A lot of creative pros don’t feel seen and known and heard. They feel used. They feel abused. They feel leveraged in the course of their work, but they don’t feel seen and known and heard.
If you as a manager can make somebody feel that way, you will inspire loyalty and trust. You simply will because there are enough people out there who don’t do that that when they encounter somebody who genuinely does care about them and really wants to see and know them and understand them, it completely changes their calculus.
Yeah. I know that makes a lot of sense. I feel like you’re hitting on something around creative work and creative management generally, which is that creative folks, craftsmanship is a core part of their essence, not to be too dramatic about it, but that they are accessing and giving to their work each day. I think when they’re not feeling heard or to your point feeling leveraged or used, it feels like perhaps even more of a violation than it might if you were a different type of information worker doing different types of tasks that didn’t feel as wholly tied to who you are. I think that’s a big part of why so many, the creative industry in general, is having the great recession has hit it so hard.
What advice do you have for creative workers right now who are navigating this really interesting job market where it’s cyclical, it’s in waves, and sometimes creative workers are really valued. Other times it feels like such a challenge to get the compensation and work-life balance that you want. What do you think creative folks should be looking for in a workplace these days with so many options available to them?
Let me start by saying what I think they should not be looking for. You should not be looking for your job to be the sum total of your creative engagement. If you’re looking for any job to completely, creatively satisfy you, that is a fool’s errand and you’ll be chasing unicorns your entire life, you will because no job can do that. You’re going to have to do work you don’t like. You’re going to have to do work that you know is not your best work because you run out of time, you run out of budget. That’s just going to happen. I think especially a lot of young people in the marketplace, they bounce around looking for that perfect job and in truth, it doesn’t exist. That would be my first thing.
The second thing I would say is especially if you’re newer in the marketplace. I’ll give advice to new mid and later career people. If you’re younger in the marketplace, the most valuable thing in the world you can find is an organization with a manager who cares about you and wants to invest in you and help you become the best professional that you can be.
If you have, maybe you don’t even necessarily love the nature of the work the company is doing, but your manager is totally invested in you and is developing you and really wants to see you shine, wants you to take risks, wants to build into you and is proving that they really care about you and your career development. Even if that’s not at that organization, that is like gold.
Another friend of mine, Cal Newport says, our job really our first 10 years of our work should be about building career capital, which means building the skills and capacity and credibility necessary to be able to make some kind of career leap at some point. Sometimes people don’t stay in a place long enough to do that because they’re always looking for the perfect set of tasks that they want to do every day. Instead, you have to think about it like, okay, I’m building my basic platform. I’m building career capital right now that I’m going to be able to trade in later for more flexibility for the kind of work I want to do later. That’s kind of the early stage person. I would say that’s what you’re looking for.
For the mid-career, I think you’re looking, you don’t want to get trapped in the tide pool of lower mid-level management where there’s really not much advancement for you. I think you’re looking for what are my opportunities for advancement organizationally. If you’re looking right now for a new role, I think you have to be looking at, okay, I’m looking at this role, but what exists within this organization for me beyond this if I want to continue to advance?
Because sometimes people take a job because, oh, this sounds like the kind of tasks I want to do, the kinds of people I want to work with, but there’s really no place to go in the organization. I think it’s always good to make sure you keep your mind on that when you’re looking at the new role. Sometimes, by the way, that can mean even making a lateral or even slightly downward step in order to move into an organization where you’re going to have a better potential future.
Just keep that in mind. It’s not always about climbing the ladder in a sequential way. Sometimes you have to make a lateral or even downward step in order to have the runway to be able to advance in the way you want to
Later career people, I would just encourage you to think about contribution. What kind of role can you take that will maximize your ability to build into other people and multiply your impact in the world? I’m at the place right now in my life, in my career, where I’m starting to think about what are the multipliers of impact that I have in my world? I’m getting later in my, I’m almost 50 now. I’m getting later in my career. I really want to make sure that I’m spending the latter years of my career multiplying my impact and building into people, which is, I think, what most people do when they get later in their career.
It’s less about just collecting a paycheck and it’s more about meaning and purpose and impact. These are things we often don’t think about. We’re just thinking about the nature of the work and the job and the people get to work with, but I think it’s important to take these other things in consideration as well as we’re analyzing where we might land.
I love that. I think that’s such a great framework. Great boss. Then look for your opportunity to leverage what you’ve learned. Then look for the opportunity to make an impact and share what you’ve learned and feel the value of that. I love that. That’s, thank you for sharing that.
Well, you have made impact on me. I love everything that the wisdom you shared is so helpful and I’m really excited to share what you covered today. I know some folks are going to want to dig into you and your content, your podcasts, your books. Where would you recommend that they start?
You can listen to the podcast. It’s called The Accidental Creative. As I say in the intro, since 2005, we’ve been delivering weekly tips to help you be prolific, brilliant and healthy. We have tens of millions of downloads now of the show, so check it out at accidentalcreative.com or just wherever you listen to podcasts. If you want to read any of my books or if you’re interested in having me maybe speak or train your company, you can go to ToddHenry.com. You can find out more about everything I do there.
Awesome. Well, Todd, thank you so much. It was such a pleasure to get to talk to you a little bit. I really appreciate it and thank you.
Thank you. It was great to be here.
All right, everyone. Hope you enjoyed our chat with Todd Henry. We’ll be coming to you next week with an interview with Atoosa Rubinstein. She’s the former editor-in-chief of Cosmo Girl and Seventeen Magazine. Atoosa was a huge influence on me when I was younger, and it was a dream to chat with her. She is so cool.
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