Lessons for New Managers of Creative Teams

I recently took on a new hobby: singing in our church choir. I’m a total noob at the singing part, but it is clear that a successful choir is greater than the sum of its parts. Great outcomes require great leadership, and not just about music but also about people.

It got me thinking about teams and leadership. Exceptional individual contributors usually get tapped to lead, but the transition can be hard. Few people are natural managers. It takes time, experience and hard work. And of course, the first step is deciding that one wants to improve.

Here are a few of my lessons:

  • As the manager, you own what happens in the room. If there is something going on that you don’t like, you own fixing it. Here are your primary tools: process, communication, your own example, and who gets to be on the team.
  • The longer you wait to solve a problem, the more complicated and expensive it becomes to fix.
  • Fix root causes not symptoms. How do you find the root cause? Lean manufacturing calls it the 5 whys. You keep asking why something is happening until it feels like you are there. “Why did that happen? Because A. Why A? Because B. Why B? Because C.” As a manager, you want to fix C, not A.
  • People do their best when they have both personal and communal goals. Give the individuals something to work towards, and give the group a bigger mission to align around. Then continually connect the dots of their present work to the bigger goal. It takes constant repetition. Let me repeat that: it takes constant repetition.
  • Be a straight talker, albeit with empathy as to what you say and when you say it. Smart people see right through blown smoke.
  • Creative people want to be pushed and they want to be respected. If you give them both, they will do their best work. If they have neither, their morale will drop and you will eventually lose them. (see Dan Pink on purpose, mastery and autonomy in his book Drive)
  • My last point for this list is a sad reality: it is hard to be a good leader and stay close friends with the team. If you need the latter, stay an individual contributor. If you want to lead, then be prepared to make hard decisions. Those decisions will earn respect, but also create distance. You won’t be “one of the gang” anymore. That is the tradeoff.