The principles of high-performing creative teams

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I receive emails from readers every week and often, when someone emails me for the first time, they apologise for the intrusion. I must say that receiving insights, swapping dialogue with people from around the world and seeing the impact that my writing has had on people who read this journal has been the highlight of my career without fail. If you've been reading for a while and you've hesitated to reply, ask a question or are intrigued about my business, the consulting and creative work I do or the strategy course I run — don't hesitate.

I’ve spent the last week settling into a new office in Melbourne’s CBD and enduring that everyone I work with is feeling just as settled. I’ve also spent some time on-boarding the new wave of Strategy Masterclass students. It’s always nice getting to know people from around the world with a thirst for learning. The new, four-week version of the course has been popular.

I’m extending the discount code deuce into this week — it's a 20% discount and limited to the first 20 students who enrol. If you want to jump in, you can learn more here.

My journey in building this course has created in me a genuine interest in, and passion for creative leadership — coupled with an intrigue for how creative teams can work together in better ways.

And to me, 'better' means less stress, higher productivity, fulfilled employees and a profitable business.

I’ve managed a number of teams throughout my career, some high-performers whilst others not so.

I’m comfortable in knowing my own role in both of those scenarios and also understand that the teams that perform best come with some distinctive attributes of their own. Attributes that are synonymous with both the team and individuals within it.

Last year I wrote The Difference Between A-Players and B-Players, an article that explored the key traits of high-performing creative leaders. Early this year I began the journey to write a book on the topic of creative leadership which has seen me interview upwards of 30 leaders in design, technology, advertising and strategy from around the world. From organisations as diverse as IBM, British Airways, Google, Pinterest and Disney. The journey to writing a book, I've found, is a long one, but along the way I'm constantly learning about my own career development and, naturally, myself.

In this research I began to learn more about my own style of leadership and how it impacts my team, clients, partners, family and friends — I've learned to dial down, and correct aspects of my personality — and also, dial up aspects that are working well. I've learned that tactfulness, patience and perseverance are often overlooked traits of a good creative leader. Difficult attributes to learn but powerful when mastered.

I'm often asked what people need to do to progress in their own careers. The one mistaken misconception and assumption behind this question is the interest in what book they should read, which blog they should subscribe to, which course they should do and which shiny new app they should master.

I've come to realise that those people who are focussed on such things will forever limit their own ability to grow and succeed for their focus should be elsewhere.

Throughout researching my book, working in my business and developing initiatives such as the recent Mental Health and Creativity Report; I've started to develop my own list of attributes that I feel are key principles in high-performing creative teams, and by nature, high-performing creative leaders.

Here are some of them:

Self awareness

Every member of a high-performing creative team has an intimate understanding of their own weaknesses, strengths and value. Without a fragile ego, they welcome interaction, collaboration and co-working. Self aware people know their value, regulate their mood and understand that they aren't the centre of the universe — instead they form an integral part of a creative eco-system. The self aware creative leader is mindful, empathic and conscious of their impact on the work they do, the environment they work in and the world they step into.

A focussed effort on hitting goals and promises kept.

All the high-performers I interviewed spoke about focussing their efforts on attaining goals — a key aspect of being able to measure their own, personal performance and that of their teams. Measurement allowed transparency in a high self aware environment and enabled constant pivot and correction of broad objectives. This meant that agreements between teams and promises between individuals carried a higher level of importance and accountability.

Integrity, trust and respect

They say that trust arrives like a tortoise and vanishes like a hare. So very true. Members of high-performing creative teams earn one another's trust over time not taking it for granted. The self aware and focussed team develop trust through open and authentic sharing of their own strengths, weaknesses and value of contribution to the effort — and continually manage their own accountabilities and agreements with one another. Led by example, high-performers reflect the integrity and respect shown by their leadership — and, if they don't agree, they leave.

A safe space for new ideas

High-performing creative leaders are forever conscious of their environment; ensuring that new ideas, not simply personal opinion, are always welcome and comfortable in the knowledge that a framework exists to capture them, prioritise them, execute them and measure their impact. Free from stress and the anxiety-fuelled merry-go-round of agency-land, they create a new space for their teams to leverage the power of creativity outside of the status quo.

Constant learning and evolving

Every individual I interviewed from high-performing creative teams was a self learner — every individual, without fail was teaching themselves at least two new things at any given time. They weren't reading a book for the sake of reading a book — they self-started, self-taught and brought back to provide value from that learning to their team in almost daily iterations; applying their learning and constantly evolving.

This, to me, was powerful and only possible if individuals carried the first few attributes well within themselves — selfless sharing of learned new ideas can only come from a humble, self-aware person. Focussed effort towards measurement and hitting goals can only come from someone who isn't distracted from shiny new objects, but rather uses that inevitable distraction as a learning opportunity to feed back into their team.

And the integrity of a safe, trusted-filled and respectful working environment can only come when individuals bring authenticity to the table, honest self analysis and awareness and a level of self awareness that contributes positively to moving a creative team forward.

I'd love to know your thoughts on what attributes your team have that moves them from average to extraordinary.