I write quite a bit about the pitfalls and problems in creative organizations, partly because by the time clients call me, something is badly broken. I’ve also been in the business long enough to see the damage that some of these problems can cause, especially when they are ignored or denied.
I’m writing the Pitfalls series to help creative leaders avoid some of these problems. If you want to grow and do great work, here are two types of people you want to avoid or manage very carefully:
The Special Snowflake
We tolerate a lot of bad behavior from talented people, whether they’re planners, developers, or creatives. Idiosyncratic dress, odd work hours, healthy egos, temperamental outbursts. If their work is good, we give them lots of space. But the Special Snowflake—usually a creative—takes it to an extreme by only focusing on their own needs despite what’s best for the team.
Here are some warning signs:
• Their egos are corrosive. They belittle others, refuse to take direction, and treat subordinates or non-creatives with disdain.
• They use agency resources for personal projects. Most creatives have their own side projects or art, but letting them use work time and resources for their own projects while neglecting their paid work can damage morale and productivity.
• They think that rules are for other people. This is more than just being late on time cards or expense reports—it’s things like not showing up for work at all or missing critical deadlines.
What can you do?
• Set clear boundaries. Very few creatives do work that’s more valuable than your entire culture. One asshole can ruin an entire workplace, create a hostile work environment that can land you in court, and ruin client relationships. Don’t be afraid to set limits, up to and including termination.
• Encourage outside work—within guardrails. A director who makes his own short film can increase the profile and reputation of a production company, but make sure there is an approval process for any time and resources from other staff or the company. And be crystal clear about who owns the resulting IP.
• Understand their motivation. If they’re stuck on one soul-sucking creative account, then let them work on a new business pitch or a pro-bono campaign that you can use for marketing. Are they burnt out? Consider a sabbatical. Is there some personal problem that plagues them? Agencies have a pretty heavy party culture, but talented creatives often deal with the pressure of work with substance abuse. If you’ve got a creative who can’t make it into work on Mondays, that might be a sign of a substance abuse problem rather than a Special Snowflake. Make sure you understand what they are dealing with and offer support.
Very few people really like change, but some are especially resistant. Thwarters fight every change in system or approach, and can undermine important changes. They’re often found in project management, account management, or in the business side of the agency.
• They’re territorial. Healthy disagreement and frank discussions are critical to a healthy creative culture, but Thwarters love to play Devil’s Advocate and disagree with anything that might change their domain. When they’re successful, they can hold entire agencies—even surprisingly large ones—hostage to their fears.
• When faced with challenges, Thwarters always say “no.” Some of the most challenging of them talk about supporting change, but undermine it through negative gossip or by simply refusing to implement their parts of the plan.
• They’re strongly networked with other Thwarters. Despite seeming incapable of teamwork, they’re actually very good at it when it’s time to resist change. If resistance crops up in odd places, chances are that you have more than one Thwarter, and that they’ve begun to work together.
What can you do?
• First, understand that most Thwarters are motivated by fear, often of seeming incompetent. New ways of working or thinking require new skills and people who have built a career and a sense of competence on a specific skill set developed over time can be terrified of looking stupid in the cold light of change.
• Understand their learning styles. Make sure they have the training and support they need to learn new ways of working. Some people can’t use a new software system after a three-hour training session, but they’re fine after one-on-one coaching. Be clear that failure is OK, and be explicit about understanding the discomfort that comes with change.
• Have action items and clear responsibilities for every plan, then check in as a group. Praise them when they do well, and hold them accountable when don’t. It’s hard for Thwarters to slow things down when the boss praises their strong moves—and calls out the fact that their action items remain unaccomplished every week. Thwarters want to look competent, so hold them accountable.
• Share ownership. If you get resistance, ask how the Thwarter would handle it. Turn them into responsible actors, not just constant critics. Help them feel like they’re part of the solution.