How To Build a Creative Team That’s Resilient, Engaged, and Effective
In my 15 years of leading video professionals I’ve learned a few key lessons about what it takes to bring a creative team together.
The output of creative professions is more than just a product of going to work, applying talent, and mixing it with some technology. The essential element that separates great work is the impact of an artist pouring their heart into it.
It’s the brains, the emotions, the vulnerability, and the courage to do something new. I like to call it soulwork.
So when it’s your turn to lead creative professionals, how will you care for those creative souls in your care? How will you help them to grow? How will you help them to flourish as artists, craftspeople, and more importantly unique souls? I have some ideas that might help.
StrengthsFinder: Harmonize your team
One of my mentors for creative work, Nick Kelly (profiled in our article on building trust in creative teams), encourages creatives to focus on their strengths. We all have weaknesses that we know we need to work on, but the key to professional fulfillment is to identify your strengths, and help those in your charge to do the same.
Personality tests and profiles abound, but the most helpful system we found is StrengthsFinder—recently rebranded to CliftonStrengths. Instead of merely focusing on the personality of the individual (it does that) it also identifies strong combinations of people for a team. In this way, you can build out a creative team that complements one another, instead of competing with each other.
A good fit
It’s important that your support for one another can endure the ups and downs of executive reviews. Some personalities need to focus on execution, others on strategy. Some people do well working with “internal clients”, other people like to go “head down” and come up for air every now and then. Some personalities are innovators, some are perfectors.
The key is to fit the right people and put them into the right place. I’ve realized that many times people come in doing one thing—like editing—move to another discipline like producing, and end up directing. It’s important to create opportunities for people to pursue growth, and set them up for success.
It’s how you create a team that capitalizes on the core strengths of the individuals, leverages the harmony of the group, and provides future opportunity.
One-on-ones: develop genuine connections
By far the biggest challenge I’ve faced as a manager of video teams is making real personal connections. I’d much rather have my work talk for me. But the reality is that the best work is created by teams who care for each other as whole people.
As a leader, your best tool for developing those relationships is the one-on-one meeting. As described in The Effective Manager, it’s a half-hour, weekly meeting with each of your direct reports. (I linked to the audiobook, because I prefer to listen to these kinds of books, but here’s a link to the digital version and an excerpt below.)
Each meeting starts with your team member bringing up anything that is getting in their way. Maybe they need to debrief and they need someone to listen to their frustrations. Maybe there’s a communication breakdown with another team member. Perhaps they are going through personal challenges.
Whatever it is, let them open up. After ten minutes or so, it’s your turn to bring up any issues or things that you need to communicate with them. Sometimes this can just be keeping them in the loop with changes or things on the horizon. Sometimes it might be sharing your personal experiences or what you’ve learned from your mistakes.
“Whatever it is, let them open up.”
From time to time, you can use the final ten minutes to talk about career development and growth opportunities. Did they do a side-gig on the weekend? Should they do an online course? What are they learning, what would they like to learn? If done on a weekly basis, the one-on-one will help keep your team connected, mentally healthy, and much more productive on the job.
Most of us are now working from home in some capacity, so the question “do one-on-ones work remotely?” naturally arises. The answer is definitely “yes.” Even though it doesn’t provide the connection of going out to coffee, you can do them remotely. You might be surprised to hear that I recommend the phone for these meetings.
Just a short time ago I felt like phone calls were only for life and death situations. But now, I’ve come around to embracing phone calls as a lower stress way of having a conversation than video chats. one-on-one video chats can actually be a little intense when you are both staring into the camera or the screen.
Using the phone lets people go for a walk and get away from their computers. Give it a try, and see how it works for you.
Growth: One area per project
As projects come through your team, the temptation is to try to level-up on everything every time. But this can be tough if you have a succession of projects that are roughly the same budget.
What you can do is figure out a single area to push the team on a project, or series of projects. For instance, our team set out to create a series of 15 second videos for social. We had to do them using other employees as talent and there was no cash spend approved for locations or anything.
However, I had just come back from working on the set of the film The Farmer and the Belle: Saving Santaland. I enjoyed watching the DP Kacper Skowron execute some great shots on a tight schedule. He also had a very strong working relationship with the gaffer and grips. So I decided that we’d use this series of 15-second videos to beef up our lighting and rigging skills.
On this series of videos I knew we’d have more time than money, so we could take our time to light and rig our shots. On other videos we might focus on growth in our audio skills, writing dialogue, or single out something else.
That way, when a big project comes in, you can combine all the little learning to make a big jump.
Blameless post-mortems: debrief without blame
Once you get through the project and it’s shipped, it’s time to celebrate. If something could have been done better, the best leaders “share the credit, take the blame.” But sometimes it helps to gather around a project, after a moment, and do an assessment of the successes and the weak points.
I like the phrase that one of our software development team uses: “blameless post-mortems.” The idea is to evaluate the weak spots on a project without pointing fingers. We all know that all the team members are putting in their best efforts.
So without placing blame, it helps to ask questions about areas that felt a bit bumpy. That helps us all to do better the next time around, and allocate resources better.
360 Reviews: a double-edged sword
We all need feedback on our performance. We all have blindspots and weaknesses. 360 reviews provide a short list of questions (maybe three or four) where peers can give feedback and encouragement about their coworkers.
A system like this can easily be misused, so it helps if a team member is able to choose a couple of people that they’d like to receive their 360s from, and the manager can also select a couple. The best practice for 360 reviews is that they be done at a separate time of the year from annual reviews or discussions about compensation. Use 360 feedback to help build up your team.
Some feedback will come in that the manager will simply need to set aside because it is ill-informed or irrelevant. Some feedback will be invaluable. Help your team members to separate the “wheat from the chaff” and implement the constructive feedback.
It can be really difficult to hear the areas that you need to improve upon. It can be painful to hear that you’ve got work to do to improve the fractured relationships you have with co-workers. But 360 feedback can give you the starting point to humbly go to your co-workers and listen. You’ll find out quickly where you need to grow.
It’s important to understand that this is not the time for defensiveness, just humility. When we can make improvements, it opens up opportunities that may have never existed. Creative work, particularly in video, is a team sport. 360s, when done with good intentions, are an effective tool for us to help each other mature.
Celebrate victories: even if it feels cheesy
When a video ships, it’s so easy to slip right into the next thing. But it’s critical to celebrate victories. Thank team members publicly for their specific contributions. Try to point out specific details in their work that exemplified elegance or ingenuity. A clever solution to a difficult edit, a beautiful shot, and perfect bit of motion all deserve a bit of recognition. A thankyou gift card to the local coffee shop, or giving someone the afternoon off can also go a long way.
Try to hold onto the idea that “soulwork” is omnidirectional. When you’ve poured your heart into something, you need someone to pour a little bit of encouragement back into you. Find ways for co-workers to recognize the contributions of their peers. That way it doesn’t all fall on the “leader” to recognize individuals. Everyone can demonstrate leadership through positively influencing those around them.
Professional Development: Growth is the key
Some organizations are threatened at the prospect of employees taking on side projects. But unless it is with a direct competitor, there are a number of positive aspects to a side hustle. They can provide a means of growth for individuals to take on projects that may expand their expertise. They’ll bring back these skills—this is especially true for video pros. You can even help a department that you may not usually work with.
For example, we allow team members to check out equipment like cameras, lenses and lights for personal side projects on a limited basis. This might be something like shooting a wedding on the weekend.
Of course, we let people know that they can’t build a business on borrowing gear. The needs of the team come first, and that gear may be needed for a company project, so there’s no guarantee that it’ll be available. But people appreciate and respect the privilege.
If you’ve hired trustworthy people, go ahead and trust them. This kind of benefit can bring enormous gains in the areas of mutual growth and understanding.
“If you’ve hired trustworthy people, go ahead and trust them.”
Of course, extra-curricular gigs aren’t the only route to new skills. Online courses, books, and conferences are also powerful tools. So maybe build a library or provide access to online courses that allow your team to pursue new lines of professional development.
For instance, a motion designer may want to start learning 3D. A DP may want to attend a workshop on lighting, or local event with a camera manufacturer. Video editors may want to go to NAB and figure out how to build a more robust shared storage system. A director may want to attend a film festival.
Find something special that each person can do each year. This will become a cornerstone of their professional growth.
The leadership of any team is a privilege. The leadership of a creative team feels like an even greater trust. You’re asking for vulnerability, risk-taking, and a willingness for people to set aside their egos to achieve a greater vision that hasn’t been done before.
With this knowledge take care as you lead your team in the creation of their “soulwork”. When you critique their work, know that they are on empty because they’ve poured out their soul and put it on a monitor. Know that the best creative work employs the mind, body, spirit and soul. Recognize the privilege that you have of bringing creative work into being.
But more importantly, recognize the privilege and responsibility of helping each other flourish and grow. If we do that, we’ll go home exhausted, but full.
Featured image by Irina Logra.