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Thursday
Jun202013

4 Weapons of Exceptional Creative Leaders

This article first appeared in Fast Company

For the leader of a company powered by creativity, the difficulties of navigating today’s complex marketplaces are compounded by the fact that, in every decision, two forces are loudly asserting their dominance.

Creativity and Profitability. A fractious relationship at the best of times.

Leading a company that must, by definition, exist in a constant state of dispute provides enough challenges to fill a book. 

But in my work as a coach and confidant to some of the world’s best, I have come to recognize that exceptional leaders unlock the power of ‘Profitable Creativity’ by developing four benevolent weapons. 

1.  Context

Context is the most under-appreciated asset of business leadership because without it, every decision becomes a guess.

But context requires you have the full picture. Which is why, well disguised guesswork is what passes for strategic decision making in many of today’s creative businesses.

Many creative companies know what they do, but not where’re they’re trying to get to. They’re on a journey, but without a clear destination.

Talented people want to make progress. Establish context and you can show them that they are. Guess, and you lose not only your own bearings, but their loyalty. 

The Power of Context

Context gives us the ability to Say No With Confidence.  

Great leaders are not necessarily braver leaders. They’re just better informed about the consequences of their choices, which makes it easier for them to make the hard ones. The result of which is they are able to keep their companies focused. 

When Steve Jobs returned to Apple in 1997 as its CEO, he began saying ‘no’ to virtually every request by Apple’s developers. He understood that saying ‘yes’ was a distraction from where he knew he needed to take the company, and having context gave him the confidence to stand by his convictions. 

Many leaders fear saying no, and see it as limiting. But more often than not, it’s the right answer when you’re clear about where you’re headed and are in a hurry to get there. 

Creating Context

Context requires that you Build From The Future Back.  Once you know where you’re headed, the decision whether to turn left or right at any given fork becomes increasingly clear.

When Reed Hastings and his partners formed Netflix in 1999, they designed the business they wanted to be in 2008, then waited nine years for the internet to catch up with their vision. Their willingness to explicitly define the future helped them attract talent interested in solving previously unimagined problems, and gave them the focus to avoid the distractions of an increasingly desperate competitor called Blockbuster.

Maintaining Context

Context is only relevant if it’s based on current information. Because the world is changing in real-time, exceptional leaders actively Welcome Disruptive Thinking.  

Howard Schultz credits much of his transformation of Starbucks with a willingness to always search for a better way, even when the company had quadrupled in value since his return. “We are turning over rocks and looking at the things that perhaps we didn’t get right and constantly beating ourselves up. If you walked into our Monday morning meeting, you would think this is a company that is still trying to transform itself.”  

Exceptional leaders instill their organizations with a constant thirst for knowledge and use it to test their own thinking. They marry this with setting a high bar for changing their mind. But when the evidence suggests they should, they do.

2.  Clearly Defined Values

Most leaders have an instinctive definition of good and bad, of right and wrong, and rely on those instincts in every situation. But exceptional leaders take time to define those values explicitly. First for themselves, and then for others. This ensures a constant point of reference for everyone, including the leader.

When talented people understand what is expected, they will usually take up the cause alongside you and apply their own talents to the challenge, secure in the knowledge that they understand the rules, and where to bend them. And you’ll have clear metrics by which to judge their contribution - and their chemistry with the organization.

The Power of Values

Clearly defined values allow you to avoid the most misunderstood aspect of building a compelling business - Over-Valuing Company Culture

In most cases when you hear a company espousing its culture, it’s inadvertently making an argument for the status quo. But culture is made up of both positive and negative attributes, and when culture becomes the sole reference both good and bad go along for the ride. 

As organizations grow, they need to adapt and evolve while maintaining their center. Culture creates boundaries. Values provide foundations. The former restrict. The latter empower.

Setting Values

Exceptional leaders establish explicit company values. And they also incorporate their values into a clearly defined Personal BrandThis gives them a compass by which to navigate the daily demands of managing organized chaos. 

A personal brand is more than the simplistic equation used by many: ‘company name + personal title’. When that relationship ends, the leader is only known for where they worked, not what they believed. 

An authentic personal brand is built on clearly articulated ‘planks’ - a series of distinctive beliefs that form an intentioned and cohesive macro-view. And the self-confidence it reflects attracts talented people as much as any bonus.

The discipline of a clearly defined personal brand also helps to overcome the habit many leaders succumb to when asked a question - the urge to be endlessly original. If you’re saying something different every time someone asks you a question, at best you’re confusing them, at worst you’re alienating them.

Maintaining Values

Values get eroded, or worse, distorted if left unattended. Maintaining them requires leaders that Address Issues Quickly

Nothing undermines values like waiting weeks or months to correct a problem. And nothing undermines creative and emotional enthusiasm like a series of inconsistently applied standards . Exceptional leaders are willing to have courageous conversations. And maintain clear standards through honest, decisive leadership.

A recent poll showed that 47% of executives in creative businesses would prefer working at a new company. 

In today’s most innovative businesses, the greatest risk of inconsistent standards is the potential loss of talented people who decide every day whether you are using their time valuably or frivolously

3.  Trust

We live in a socially connected age. Our nose for disingenuous, deceptive behavior has never been more sensitive. In that environment, establishing trust is not simply a choice but a requirement if you want to keep the best people and have them do their most courageous work.

The Power of Trust

A lot of leaders make the mistake of adding talent to an organizational structure incapable of taking advantage of new skills. 

In today’s multi-channel, consumer-driven landscape, successful companies are built by leaders who Embed Collaboration into their organizational DNA. This ensures the company is designed to integrate disparate talents and built to perform under pressure. 

Dana Anderson of Mondelez describes trust as the foundation of collaboration, and explains that collaboration is a rare commodity in organizations where idea ownership is valued over progress. 

Exceptional leaders use trust to break down personal ownership of an idea, while promoting public debate and shared exploration instead.

In the case of Mono, one of the industry’s rapidly emerging creative forces, its office is built around a central wall which acts as a public workspace. The wall establishes trust through transparency, and makes collaboration not just a philosophical initiative but a physical inevitability. 

Establishing Trust

The fuel of trust is Transparency. Exceptional leaders define it. It doesn’t mean telling all people, all things. It means being open about what you can reveal, and being open about what you can’t. 

And it means that when you’re not sure, you lean on the first part of that equation. 

Maintaining Trust

When your best people know that you’re there for them, they tend to give you the benefit of the doubt. The key is to Provide Accessibility.  

Reed Hastings doesn’t have an office. He moves around Netflix’ headquarters meeting with people at spare tables. When he does need a quiet space, he uses his watchtower, a room-size glass square built on the roof of Netflix’s main building. 

Whether you follow this virtual leadership approach, or base yourself in the corner office, walking the floor regularly and keeping the door open, both physically and emotionally, is crucial to building and maintaining trusting relationships. 

4.  Momentum

In today’s business environment, momentum is essential fuel. It takes enormous effort to create motion from a standing start, and it is much easier to change direction if you’re already moving. The most dynamic leaders make decisions fast and move on.

Innovation is the consequence of exploration. And you can’t explore while standing still.

The Power of Momentum 

If you create a one percent improvement in one area of your business today, and tomorrow do the same thing, seventy days from now that capability will be twice as good. This is known as the ability to Aggregate Marginal Gains

In 2009, a man named Dave Brailsford presented a plan to the British government to build a cycling team capable of producing Britain’s first ever winner of the Tour de France. He thought it would take four years. His plan was based on an approach he described as, “aggregating marginal gains - how small improvements can have a huge impact to the overall performance of the team.” Sir Dave, as he is now known, broke down the individual elements of a world-class cycling team and focused on improving each component piece by one percent. And his plan, which resulted in Sir Bradley Wiggins becoming the first British winner of the Tour de France, did not take four years. It took three. 

Creating Momentum

Momentum is blocked when the criteria by which decisions are made are set too high. Exceptional leaders Measure Decisions Against Success, Not Perfection. Not only does this engage their staff and create progress - a meaningful reward for talented people - it also creates a better work-life balance in the process. 

Companies die in the quest for perfection. In the meantime the organization loses the benefit of the learning that any decision provides. Great leaders stack decisions on top of each other and evaluate progress against the destination, course correcting as they go. 

Maintaining Momentum

Nothing undermines the effort and emotional investment of talented people more than allowing other members of the team to consistently under-perform. Exceptional leaders are willing to support a policy of Firing Fast, knowing that only by supporting the highest standards can they maintain the morale of talented people - and the company’s momentum. 

A recent BusinessWeek article highlighted the fact that on a typical weeknight in North America, Netflix is responsible for almost a third of the internet’s downstream traffic. That requires immense infrastructure and engineering talent, one of the most sought after talent pools in the modern world. The temptation for most leaders is to cling to scarce talent like a life raft, indulging under-performers based on their expertise not their performance. Netflix takes the opposite view, encouraging managers to provide fired employees with industry-leading severance packages, thereby removing managers’ guilt and raising standards. 

 

Context. Standards. Trust. Momentum. 

Four weapons that will give you immediate competitive advantage on the road to ‘Profitable Creativity’.

Monday
Mar182013

Eight Ways To Win The Race for Creative Talent

This article first appeared in Fast Company.

Many creative businesses limit their talent recruitment and retention strategies to money and flattery.

But companies adept at unlocking what we describe as ‘Profitable Creativity’ are built on more sustainable practices.

Many of these, I learned first-hand over a decade building a company filled with demanding, world-class talent. In that time, we lost not one of our artists to a competitor. The others I’ve experienced in my work as a confidant to some of the world’s most successful Chief Creative Officers and company owners.

In all, there are eight. And seven come with the added benefit that they cost nothing to implement.

  1. Build An Evangelical Business. Creative people yearn to make one thing more than any other. A difference. They want to solve problems they believe are important. Ten years ago, Netflix and Blockbuster were in the same business. The difference lay in their respective visions of the future of movie rentals. Internet-supplied delivery at your convenience? Or rainy Thursday nights staring at an empty shelf in a store? Which set of problems would you rather solve? Nothing attracts creative people like a clearly defined vision of a better future. And the opportunity to be part of making it come true.
  2. Avoid The Deflationary Value of Money. In Dan Pink’s excellent book, Drive, he explains that many creative people are in fact de-motivated by money. In some cases it makes them perform worse, because when a task becomes ‘work’, creative people tend to feel restricted. As a manager, focus whenever you can on highlighting the intrinsic value of solving a client’s problem. And when your company decides it must ‘do it for the money’ - an economic reality in virtually every business - be mindful of the impact this has on your most creative people.
  3. Pay Fairly. There is a time to spend money. Paying ‘below the market’ shatters trust. Many companies ignore this truth, under-paying early on when the company can - then over-paying later, in order to keep talent locked in place. This builds suspicion and destroys loyalty. Instead be relentlessly pro-active in maintaining market-parity compensation, with bonuses for extraordinary results. Desperate competitors may still try to over-pay to hire away your best people. But loyalty to you will drive the price even higher. And if occasionally your competitors succeed, they will do so only by damaging their own margins.
  4. Measure Progress. At Rosetta, one of the industry’s fastest growing interactive agencies, the rigor of the employee review program stands in stark contrast to most creative businesses. Employees are measured on a set of four published benchmarks that encourage both personal initiative and collaboration. The system is transparent and consistent. At the end of the year, everyone is evaluated and rated against their own peer group at their own level. This ensures that every employee has a clear understanding of how much progress they have made. According to a recent Harvard Business Review study, nothing matters more to talented people.
  5. Engineer Engagement. Gallup Organization research has shown that most people become less engaged with an organization over time. Nothing dilutes loyalty more than a company’s willingness to support under-performers. Be relentless about improving or firing the weakest links and raising standards and expectations. It attracts and unlocks greatness. 
  6. Invest in Individuality. Google attributes their growth to the investment they have made in requiring twenty percent of their engineer’s time be used for anything the engineer wants, so long as it makes Google a better company. Gmail, for instance, was the invention of one person in one day. Creative companies that charge by the hour can’t match this level of investment. But when you decide to invest zero in the possibility that your talent can create value in unpredictable ways, it suggests you think they are not capable of doing so.
  7. Be Open. Be Honest. Transparency is essential to attracting and retaining great talent. We define transparency as this: telling what you can, and explaining what you can’t. Sharing openly encourages your people to give you the benefit of the doubt. Critical to building loyalty.
  8. Say Thank You. The artist in all of us needs to be recognized. So does the human being. And yet most companies are slow to praise or even to thank. Which is strange since each of us makes a choice every day about where we work. It need not, after all, be here. Saying thank you at the end of every day has always seemed to me to be a small acknowledgement that you take neither their talent nor their choice for granted.

Individually, each of these practices will make an organization more empathetic. Essential fuel for unlocking Profitable Creativity.

Collectively, they will make your company irresistible to talented people. And invaluable to your customers.

They do require investment. Mostly of time and humanity.

But the ROI will exceed any expectation you think is reasonable. And most you would believe are unrealistic.

Try one today. And let us know how it works.

Friday
Jun152012

Cannes - A Preview

The Cannes Advertising Festival takes place next week. According to the press and the list of registered delegates, more advertisers than ever before are attending. More proof of an industry in flux.

The fact is that an industry that depends on originality for its success has been fearful for too long of change. 

Fear is creative kryptonite. It makes powerful creative businesses wilt under problems that they would quickly solve if they belonged to someone else. 

For the next week, Cannes provides the creative industries with a lead box. One formed by a combination of conversation, exploration, exhortation, celebration and a good deal of rosé.  And for a few days the absence of fear will remove the fog, clear the air and open a horizon of possibilities.

The truth is those possibilities are always there. Waiting, silently, for those with vision and courage to walk through them armed with simple truths.

That the way forward is not barred by economics or by rules or by others.

That the way forward lies within our grasp.

We need only a destination that is important to us and the means by which to get there.

Which makes it a practical journey. A journey guided by Purpose and powered by known practices.

This is not esoteric optimism. Or fanciful philosophizing. 

It is the foundation on which to build a business that, as Jeffrey Katzenberg said at Cannes last year, “sits at the intersection at which Art meets Commerce.”

It is an intersection that offers endless choices for where you take your business. 

Picking the right one should not be based on hope. Or a guess.

It should be based on a map.

Does your company have one?

Thursday
May312012

Charles Day Joins Cannes Creative Leaders Programme

If you're going to be in Cannes for the advertising festival this year, I hope you'll try to make it to the Creative Leaders Programme sponsored by the outstanding Berlin School of Creative Leadership

I'll be joining Keith Reinhard, Sir Martin Sorrell, Sir John Hegarty and a host of industry leaders in discussing "Strategy On The Road To Excellence".  

My focus will be on discussing 'the art of building a world-class creative company' and I'll be blogging before and after about some of the key insights of the week.

Thursday
May172012

What It Takes To Be An Effective CEO

In my work as a Leadership Confidant with some of the most influential Chief Executives around, I often get asked to describe the characteristics I see most often in the very best leaders.

I have come to realize there are four that must be present.

1. Unrelenting Standards. When Steve Jobs returned to Apple in 1997 he was a fantastic example of this.  He knew that the company was inconsistent and lacking in rigor. So he started saying no to anything that didn’t meet his standards. For a company founded on innovation, it was a shock to the culture to find the CEO unwilling to compromise. But slowly, his standards became the company’s standards, and the history of extraordinary innovation that followed proved he was absolutely right.

2. Being Respected Before Being Liked. Too many leaders want to be liked and are unwilling to say no even when they understand that what’s required for excellence isn’t being done. Inadvertently they’re saying, ‘I’d rather lower my standards than risk upsetting you.’ You can’t build long-term success like that. Great leaders work to build respect through clear, empathetic, ethical leadership that places the future of the business as the focal point of each decision. 

3. One Eye on Today. One Eye on the Future. The ability to employ split vision is one that not every great leader is born with. But it is one that can be learned, and then reinforced with well designed practices and strong organization. Clear reporting structures and systems, a well-constructed board of advisors that are encouraged to challenge the status quo, and a strong senior leadership team all play a role in allowing the CEO to keep their focus on the needs of today and the challenges of tomorrow.

4. A Clearly Defined Company Vision. This is not always the responsibility of the CEO to develop but it is their responsibility to maintain and constantly refocus to ensure its enduring relevance. In this fast moving world in which we live, understanding where your business is headed and how you’re going to get there are critical elements of the map by which any CEO guides the business forward. Only then can they know if the have the right people in place to make the journey successfully.

Not every CEO possesses these characteristics when they take the job. The great ones are those who develop them quickly, and then use them as the platform to build extraordinary businesses. 

Monday
May142012

What Will Make Your Business Valuable in 2017?

The leaders of most creative companies are unnecessarily hesitant to apply their best skills to their business.

Their creativity.

Instead, they hold on to the known and the certain, thereby failing to push the envelope far enough or fast enough on new problems their company could solve.

This eventually turns competitive advantage into a parity product.

I look at it like this.

75% of Apple's revenue comes from the iPhone and iPad.

Five years ago, neither of them existed.

Or put another way, what got you here won't get you there.