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(Yang Wenshuang/Getty Images/iStockphoto)
(Yang Wenshuang/Getty Images/iStockphoto)

CREATIVITY

Managing creative people: Soft touch or no special favours? Add to ...

As publisher of Toronto’s ECW Press since 1974, Jack David has supervised plenty of editors. “When they read something new, they always think to themselves, ‘How can we make this better?’ Editors live to make changes,” he says.

The best way for publishers to manage editors, he says, is not to manage them at all, but hire the right people in the first place. “The biggest challenge is allowing them to do their job, have control in dealing with the author and come to a consensus with the author on what makes the book better. I don’t want to interfere in that process.”

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Yet there are times when the editor, trying to produce the best book aesthetically, clashes with the publisher, who must consider commercial performance as well. “This is a pretty tricky area,” admits Mr. David. “The publisher will move the needle, the editor will hang on to what she thinks is right, and there will be some back and forth.”

It’s not unusual for employers overseeing highly creative workers to consider them “high maintenance.” But do they have to manage them differently than they would more typical employees? And, if so, how can they manage them better? Not surprisingly, the views among experts vary.

Cori Maedel, a human resources consultant, and founder and CEO of the Jouta Performance Group in Vancouver: Managing creatives has to start with the organization deciding what kind of culture it wants, Ms. Maedel says. “If an organization isn’t clear what its culture is, it’s not going to attract the right fit – and I don’t care whether that’s a construction worker on a job site or a creative genius with a PhD.”

If an organization doesn’t have its entire staff aligned with what its leadership is trying to achieve, “then they’re going to make stuff up as they go,” says Ms. Maedel. “That’s where breakdowns happen, whether you’re a creative genius or a professional within a financial firm. When you’re not clear about where the organization’s going – and where everyone fits within that – there’s going to be problems managing them.”

She compares two video game developers that employ highly creative minds. Electronic Arts Inc. is more structured; Capcom Game Studio Vancouver, more relaxed and collaborative.

“If I’m a more collaborative person, I shouldn’t be in EA. But I don’t think one [way of managing its creatives] is right or wrong. You can’t say EA’s formula hasn’t worked. It’s a matter of whether you have the right people in the organization for the culture you want to create.”

Simon Parkin, practice leader for recruitment and talent management at the Talent Company Ltd in Toronto: Mr. Parkin has a different perspective. “I wouldn’t say creatives are more difficult to manage; it just takes a different style of leadership.”

If you want to foster a creative atmosphere, you need to build and support an open and encouraging environment where creative risk-taking and positive debate are emphasized, says Mr. Parkin. “People shouldn’t be fearful of being penalized for raising their ideas or even running with their ideas.”

Bosses also need to shield their creative workers from the distractions and barriers to being creative, says Mr. Parkin. “The leader’s role is to act as a buffer between the creatives and the day-to-day happenings of the organization.

“There are so many things they’re being tasked to do, but on top of that they’re being asked to be more innovative and creative. Organizations often don’t give them the time or the space to actually come up with these ideas.”

Mr. Parkin cautions organizations against having the same expectations for all their employees, insisting that one size doesn’t fit all.

“They’re doing themselves a disservice if they’re trying to build an environment of creativity yet applying the same standards to everybody across the board.

“Individuals within an organization have different roles, and should be subject to different expectations. For example, some creative staff can work from home, whereas other staff may have to work from the office. If somebody on the operations side is looking at the creative side and saying, ‘Why do they get all the privileges?’ then they simply don’t understand what that person’s role is and why the organization is supporting them in that way.”

Nancy Vonk, co-founder and partner of Swim, a creative leadership training service, and co-chief creative officer at the Ogilvy & Mather Toronto advertising agency for 13 years: What sets advertising creatives apart, she says, is “that they have to turn on creativity on demand, every day.”

She concedes that copywriters and graphic designers can bring with them an emotional temperament. “It’s hard to picture a wildly creative person who would be absolutely calm and grounded and rational at all times. It does mean some volatility, and it does mean that helping them do their best is a different challenge than another employee is going to be.”

Ms. Vonk is a great believer in empowering creatives.

“The biggest failure is when you don’t give your people the opportunity to grow,” she says. “You can get too used to seeing a particular employee at a certain level, and you don’t bring them along fast enough. Creatives will leave when you don’t empower them to the level of their abilities.”

That means giving even a lowly intern the opportunity to propose ideas on even the biggest projects. “I wouldn’t call it autonomy, but everybody deserves their shot,” she says.

The flip side is that creatives must recognize that rejection of many of their pet ideas comes with the territory. The issue for their boss is how to deliver the bad news.

“The best way for a creative director to reject an idea,” says Ms. Vonk, “is to explain why it’s not suitable, instead of just saying no. You are dealing with people’s fragile egos,” so tact is advisable.

However, Ms. Vonk warns against “empathizing too much” with creative underlings. They need to hear the harsh realities in a calm, business-like way, she says. “You can’t treat these people as babies to be coddled just because they’re creative. Taken too far, that’s a recipe for disaster.”

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