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Strategies for Managing Creative Workers

December 1, 1994
Related Topics: Featured Article
Question: Which employee would you rather manage? A) The marketing manager in the double-breasted suit who sits behind a mahogany desk in an office with hunting prints on the wall? Or, B) The graphic artist in the black jeans and T-shirt who sits at a drawing board lit by a lava lamp? If you answered "B," chances are you have a few lava lamps of your own hanging around.

Creative workers, after all, are known, and even revered, for being a little, shall we say, unconventional. For example, one writer claims she can't work certain times of the year because atmospheric vibrations from Russian woodpeckers interfere with her creative process. In a burst of creative zeal, perhaps she becomes one of those woodpeckers. Sure, she's entertaining to be around, but the same characteristics that make creative people such as her so valuable as employees also can make them a pain in the paintbrush to manage.

Talk to HR managers in companies that employ a large number of creatives, and they'll tell you these people are emotional, defensive, passionate, egotistical, overly sensitive and mysterious. And although they may be greatly respected for their ingenuity and cleverness, and for their ability to think outside the box, they're also viewed as iconoclasts who would just as soon flout the corporate structure as learn to work within its boundaries.

Yes, these are stereotypes, but like all stereotypes, they contain a germ of truth. "Creative people are high-maintenance," says Lori McAdams, director of HR for Lucas Digital Ltd. in San Rafael, California. She should know. Half of her company's 650 employees are involved in some type of cutting-edge creative endeavor, mostly in creating visual and audio effects for feature films. They removed Lieutenant Dan's legs in "Forrest Gump," made Jim Carrey's tongue slither two feet out of his mouth in "The Mask" and created herds of digital dinosaurs for "Jurassic Park."

"Creatives live in a different world," she says. "They're visionary, independent and extremely bright. When their talent is nourished, they can do amazing things."

But nurturing creative talent in the business world is different from nurturing talent in an art school, a recording studio or at a writer's retreat. Why? Because in corporate America, creatives are hired to produce a product. They must contend with the daily realities of budgets, deadlines and client needs. They have to work with many other people to get a job done. And although most creatives are thankful to be hired and paid for their creativity, the very structure that makes that job possible is what they rebel against. The trick, therefore, is for HR professionals to find ways of channeling their talents toward a profitable solution.

"My biggest challenge is assimilating the creative spirit into the corporate environment," says Paul Barker, creative director of the specialty design division of Hallmark, Inc., based in Kansas City, Missouri. "Most creatives began creating as a form of personal expression," he says. "Creating products in the business world is different from creating something to be hung on an office wall or in a museum, however. Their creative potential has to be pointed at larger opportunities."

But can creative potential be directed? What kind of environment do creative employees need in order to thrive? And what about companies such as Lucas Digital and Hallmark in which the output of highly creative people forms the lifeblood of the business? How do they manage the imaginative?

Give creative people tools and resources that allow their work to shine.
"First, realize that the best creatives are at their very soul artists who would be creating whether or not they chose to make a living at it," says Allison Polly, vice president and creative manager for McCann Erickson, an international advertising agency based in New York City. For this reason, they're largely self-motivated. The quality of their work matters. And, as Barker says, "Creatives often feel guilty getting paid for doing the kind of work they want." (How often do you hear an accountant say that?)

But don't assume that creatives simply wag their tails looking for opportunity. Their enormous intrinsic motivation will flounder if it isn't supported and encouraged by external factors. What are those external factors? What should managers do to keep creative employees creating?

Because creatives are internally driven, what matters most to them is the quality of the work itself. Whether they're writing advertising copy, designing theme parks or creating computer games, their rewards come from seeing their precious ideas reach fruition.

In the advertising industry, for example, creatives are hired based on the quality of their "book," which refers to a portfolio of print ads or a reel of television commercials. "Creative people want to create the best," says Karen Abbate, vice president and creative director at McCann Erickson. "We don't feel the need for external motivation. We do it for ourselves."

A creative director at Glendale, California-based Walt Disney Imagineering-the division that designs Disney theme parks and attractions-adds that his creative staffers feel tremendous rewards just being able to work for "The Mouse." "There's a certain magic here that people like to be associated with," he says. "The quality of Disney work is so superb that creative people love to work here."

To bring about this satisfaction in creative employees, companies should invest in the kinds of resources necessary for these employees to do their best work. At New York City-based Conde Nast Publications Inc., home of trendy and upscale magazines such as Vogue, Architectural Digest, Vanity Fair, Bon Appetit and Details, the creative employees' rewards come from being able to spend money on a quality photo shoot, traveling to research a story or having the budget to print a complicated design spread. "Our employees get satisfaction from seeing their work produced in a quality manner," says Freddy Gamble, HR director. "It's them on that page."

For this same reason, managers at Lucas Digital have found that the most effective method of motivating their employees is giving them the latest "toys" to play with. "Our employees constantly are striving for a new look or a new technique to be used in films," McAdams says. "They're constantly pushing the envelope." Not only does the company make sure employees have access to the latest digital technology, but managers make these resources available to employees for use in personal projects. "Making these tools available not only rewards employees, it helps them realize what else they're capable of achieving," she says.

"One writer claims she can't work part of the year because atmospheric vibrations from Russian woodpeckers interfere with her creative process."

At the J. Paul Getty Museum in Los Angeles, some of the most creative employees are mount makers who find ways to secure the exhibits so that they're able to withstand what the organization calls "seismic events." They look for creative, unobtrusive ways to affix a vase to a stand, for example, or secure a large sculpture without harming the artwork or obscuring it from view. "Most of the items in our permanent collection already are secured," says Kristen Kelly, manager of administration. "But we also are starting to display traveling exhibits, and each new and different object will require a new and different way of securing it."

Because the seismic mitigation work is part of the mount makers' job descriptions, the museum supplies these workers with materials and space, and allows them a fair amount of time in which to work on new technologies. "However, we have to put limits on it," Kelly adds, "because other parts of their job are important too." The amount of time allowed for projects fluctuates and is decided by museum conservators who manage the mount makers.

Despite the limits, the creative workers remain motivated to pursue the technology because, "They're at the forefront of developing seismic mitigation techniques," Kelly says. "If they can come up with ways to protect the collections of other museums, they'll receive tremendous recognition. Being on the cutting-edge like this is all the motivation they need."

Provide ongoing recognition and appreciation.
Although creatives are self-motivated, this doesn't mean that they don't require and respond to external recognition. They pour their heart and soul into their creations-their "babies." They need to feel special: After all, they are. Not everybody can think like a 15th century artist as do the conservators at the J. Paul Getty Museum. Not everyone can create TV ads that people watch like soap operas, like the "Sharon-and-Tony" series created for Taster's Choice by McCann Erickson.

Constant reinforcement from managers is essential in getting good work from any employee, but especially from creatives. They can be insecure, and thus need reassurance more often. Moreover, "creatives are ego-driven, especially in our business," Gamble says. "Our publications employ some of the best fashion and art directors around, and we have to make it clear to them that we know they're special."

Ideally, this recognition should come from creative managers who understand the creative process and can appreciate good quality work. When an accountant tells an artist her work is pretty, it may be nice, but the compliment isn't nearly as meaningful as one coming from an art director who's able to comment on the artist's ingenuity and sense of perspective.

Despite the need for recognition, however, HR managers in companies with a large number of creatives agree that formal reward programs aren't nearly as effective as giving creatives regular pats on the back. Besides, if you develop a recognition program solely for creative employees, it can alienate the administrative types and reinforce an "us-vs.-them" mentality.

Just as important as recognizing creatives' accomplishments is keeping them stimulated and inspired to continue producing. Creative people get bored easily. For them to continually produce fresh, new ideas, the right sides of their brains need constant arousal. Let them get out and breathe a little.

That's why Fisher-Price in East Aurora, New York, encourages its toy designers to get out and regularly visit such places as toy stores, day-care centers, trade shows, parks and playgrounds. These workers face the daily challenge of creating toys for 1-, 2- and 3-year-olds. These are grown adults, mind you, who must think like toddlers for a living. How successful do you think you'd be if you had to think like a baby while sitting at your desk in a business suit? Probably not very, even if you wore a bib and drank from a two-handled spillproof cup. Original ideas, after all, don't always happen because someone sits in a room waiting for them.

For this reason, the company also frequently organizes offsite meetings to give creative employees a necessary change of scenery. "We've had brainstorming sessions on the brink of Niagara Falls," says Tom Mason, senior vice president of research and development-the same job Tom Hanks had in the movie "Big." "We've sat around plastic tables in a Toys 'R Us store. You see, we want our designers to come up with crazy ideas, and to do that they need constant stimulation."

Managers at Fisher-Price have discovered that a variety of assignments is another key to success in product design, and rotates its designers among different product categories. One year, a designer may work on kids' furniture. The next year, he or she may design girls' toys. The goal? Fresh ideas, new approaches, off-the-wall techniques, products parents will buy and toys kids won't put down.

This need for continual stimulation becomes obvious when you look at the environment in which creatives work. Given the chance, many will surround themselves with what may be considered rather unconventional office decor. Mark Moore, an art department manager at Lucas Digital who's worked on such movies as "Star Trek VI" and "Baby's Day Out," has in his office what he calls a "wall of inspiration." On it are old comic strips, photos from Aviation Week and Space Technology, covers of music magazines, and illustrations of skateboards, cars, robots and kitschy 1950's-style spaceships.

Abbate, who has written advertising campaigns for AT&T, Kodak, Toshiba and Nestle, has the letters of the alphabet stretched across one wall in her office, sculptures of the numbers one to 10 on another and a stop sign painted in green with the word "go" on it on the third wall. Down the hall from her is a creative director who has a lamp with a shade in the shape of Elvis Presley's head.

So what's the point? That what's inspiring to one creative may not be to another, but all of them need to express themselves and to create the kind of environment that stimulates them the most.

In the interest of fairness, however, companies that employ both creatives and non-creatives should allow non-creatives the same opportunity to decorate their offices as they see fit. That's what Hallmark does. "Employees in the business unit also can do what they want to their offices, but they don't tend to follow suit-at least not until recently," Barker says. "As the environment in the creative department gets wilder, I've noticed the business people starting to let their hair down a bit more."

Creatives require flexibility and a minimum amount of structure.
Freedom to express themselves isn't enough to keep creative workers productive. If you ask any of them what sounds the death knell of creativity, chances are they'll say "structure"-rules and regulations, endless rounds of approval, strict dress codes, hard-and-fast office hours, rigid assignments and fill-in-the-blank paperwork. Therefore, if you want your creatives to perform to the best of their ability, loosen the corset that binds your corporation.

This doesn't mean allowing them to create whenever and wherever they please, free from all company rules. You still have a business to run. What it does mean is recognizing that creatives need some flexibility. So don't impose structure where it isn't necessary. "Creatives come in and out of their productive periods," Gamble says, "unlike people in administration, who may have a similar mood, pace and work flow throughout the day." So if it isn't necessary for a creative to be at his or her desk from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m., why insist upon it if 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. works just as well?

Of course, structure means different things to different people, and varied assignments require various structural elements. At McCann Erickson, for example, employees work in team environments, so regular working hours there are a must. The creatives have gotten used to it and they don't object. The kind of structure that has gotten in their way, however, is the need for several layers of management approval. "Creativity is very subjective," Abbate says, "and with each approval, work gets watered down in an effort to please people. Here, we keep the levels of approval to a minimum so that our ideas stay intact as much as possible."

What's most important is being flexible with creatives' work assignments. Sure, creatives are hired to do a specific job and they must respect the parameters within which they work, such as budgets, deadlines, product guidelines and client requests. A project supervisor or creative manager should be put in charge of communicating and enforcing these parameters. But give creatives the freedom to innovate whenever possible. "Creatives don't take explicit direction well," Gamble says. "If you're too specific in your instructions, they'll get bored and feel resentful. If you can recognize their intelligence and their ability to figure things out, and give them the room and space to execute an idea, it will pay enormous dividends."

Hallmark's Barker agrees. "Our employees are conceptors and idea generators," he says. "We want passion to show in their work. That's why we give them guidelines, not directives." For example, managers may tell a team that it needs to create a birthday card for mothers falling in the $2 price range, and that the copy should be written using a me-to-you style. "That's all we'll tell the team," Barker says, "because we want the members to focus on the content, the depth of expression and the relevance of the solution. They aren't simply wrists executing an idea."

Furthermore, as important as it is for creatives to be respectful of deadlines and budgets, don't put them in charge of devising or enforcing them. Put a numbers person on the design team and let him or her sweat the details. At Lucas Digital, for example, three-person teams work on every visual effects project. These teams usually include a visual effects art director, who actually creates the effect; a supervisor, who determines which method should be used to create the effect; and a producer, who's in charge of budgets, scheduling and interfacing with the client.

Employ creative people to manage and evaluate creatives.
Just as important as having numbers people in charge of creatives' budgets and deadlines is having other creative people as their supervisors. "I think it's essential that creatives manage other creatives," Barker says. "They've lived the experience and know what it takes. Hallmark would never put an individual in charge of the financial department who didn't understand finance. Without some expertise in the creative process, how can you expect someone to effectively manage those employees?"

Of course, because of their aversion to structure, routine, and in some cases, human interaction, not all creative people will want to be managers. Generally speaking, those who do will make it known and position themselves to pursue such opportunities. "Here at Fisher-Price, the process tends to be one of natural selection," Mason says. "Those with a desire to get involved in management tend to think about bigger business and people issues, and they work to get noticed."

The company doesn't penalize creatives who want to stay creating, however. Instead, it offers a dual career path. One path leads toward management; the other toward the ability to take on larger creative projects. Creative employees may jump to the management path at any stage in their careers, Barker says.

And speaking of management, HR professionals agree that one of the toughest aspects of managing creative employees is evaluating them. "They aren't doing anything quantifiable," says Kelly of the Getty Museum. "A mount maker can appear to be staring into space for a whole day and then the next morning come in and execute a brilliant idea."

Barker agrees that evaluating creatives is challenging. "It's extremely difficult to measure creativity and innovation," he says. "It's ethereal. There are lots of vapors. But when creative work is wonderful, you know it intuitively."

Because of the inherent difficulty in judging creative work, there's no one right way to do so. Sure, there are some tangibles, such as meeting deadlines and staying within budgets, but evaluating creative output can be pretty arbitrary. That's why at Lucas Digital creative employees' supervisors evaluate them, in part, based on their eagerness to take on new work and to pursue ongoing learning of new technologies and techniques. "We know if the motivation is there, their work will be good," Moore says.

Seeking to eliminate the arbitrary nature of creative evaluation, Hallmark takes a more thorough approach, evaluating employees based on four criteria:

  1. How creative managers and senior creative people view the quality of a creative's portfolio.
  2. How well a creative's work sold.
  3. How well a creative's work performed in consumer preference tests-in other words, how often his or her products were chosen over similar products manufactured by Hallmark's competitors.
  4. How fellow team members rate the creative's ability to resolve conflict, be a team player, solve problems, and so on.

Which categories are most important? "Because creativity is so subjective, 60% of the evaluation is based on the subjective feedback of creative managers and consumers," Barker says. Thirty percent of the evaluation score is based on team feedback, and only 10% comes from sales.

In addition to evaluating creative employees' work, managers must help them. The perfect, most wonderful, "why-didn't-I-think-of-this-sooner" solution to a creative problem rarely appears spontane-ously. More often, an idea is born and then nurtured into adulthood through a process that involves a lot of rejection and revision. "Rarely does a designer's original idea make it to the big screen intact," Moore says, referring to his world of visual effects. Simply put, there's a lot more rejection than acceptance in the life of most creatives.

"Here at Fisher-Price, our product plan calls for us to develop 100 new and innovative products a year," Mason says. "To get those 100 products, we start off with approximately 5,000 ideas. This means we reject at least 4,900 ideas a year. How? Systematically, and hopefully, without hurting our employees' feelings. Still, it can be a pretty negative environment."

But what does systematic rejection look like? "If we're completely honest and forthright and timely in response to an idea that won't work, employees accept the rejection easier," Mason says. "We don't wait to reject an idea and we don't B.S. employees about the reason. It's still a difficult pill to swallow, but employees get used to rejection very quickly. Here, in their first week on the job, their work will be rejected several times."

Indeed, creatives who've played the corporate game know they can't get married to their ideas. There are too many people to please and too many constraints on creativity from the bottom line. But don't count on them to be stoic in the face of such rejection. Kid gloves are in order.

Keep in mind, there's no one-size-fits-all creative.
The linear thinkers among us may think all creative brains work the same way. Hardly. The interests, motivations and passions of creatives vary greatly and are reflected in the kind of work they choose to pursue. Even creatives that do basically the same thing can demonstrate great variety and skill level.

"Creatives often are misinterpreted," Moore says. "They don't just sit at a desk and spit out ideas. They are multi-dimensional." When assigning projects to them, consider their backgrounds, interests and enthusiasm for a project. The designers for "Jurassic Park," for example, weren't just visual-effects people. They had to know about creature design, anatomy and paleontology. The people who worked on "Star Trek" had to know about space and how to "create energy effects," he says.

Because of the variety of projects, Lucas specifically looks for people with varied backgrounds and expertise in certain subjects. Recently, for example, the company hired an artist because of her background in zoology and her interest in animals. It brought her on as a contract employee to create highly-stylized mosquitos, zebras, rhinos and other animals for a film on which the company was working. It became obvious pretty quickly that her talent had wider applications, so the company hired her into a permanent position. A recent project had her creating facial expressions for dragons to be used in the upcoming feature film "Dragonheart."

Personal interest in a project creates the kind of passion that can't be faked. People gravitate toward work that interests them. Employees who work at Vogue, for example, "know that vichyssoise is served cold," Gamble says, where-as staffers at Details, a publication geared toward Generation Xers, could care less. And the marketing executive with the hunting prints would wonder why either topic mattered.

And therein lies the final management challenge: getting creative and non-creative types to work together effectively. "Non-creatives need to understand that creatives aren't just staring into space all the time," says Kelly, "and creatives need to realize that the 'suits' aren't just making rules and pushing paper. Each type of employee needs to understand what the other is doing and why."

How do companies do this? Communication, training and teamwork. Hallmark sends its creative managers to a business leadership course, for example, in which they complete projects that require them to make decisions about distribution, advertising, technology and inventory control. Through this process, the creatives become aware of all the factors-in addition to the creative design-that affect sales.

At the same time, business managers can attend a course in which they must create a product line for a hypothetical group. In one recent course, managers were asked to develop a line of cards for the Lapland culture in Northern Finland. "They realized how much information they need to complete a project," Barker says, "which increases their sensitivity toward the creative employees. Now they know when creatives are doing such things as looking through magazines, they're really searching for ideas and gathering information."

To foster even greater understanding between creatives and noncreatives, Hallmark puts them together in product teams. The company also measures employees based on many of the same performance objectives, including sales figures, consumer product performance and their ability to meet deadlines.

In thinking about non-creative employees, Abbate adds: "I actually think we're more similar than we're different. Every job requires creativity regardless of whether the word 'creative' is posted on the office door." Furthermore, everyone can be sensitive about their work, everyone wants to be appreciated, everyone wants the best tools and resources, and everybody wants their work to shine.

"We're just not that different from normal people," agrees Mason. Maybe not. But then how do you account for lava lamps and Russian woodpeckers?

Personnel Journal, December 1994, Vol. 73, No. 12, pp. 104-113.

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