Atmosphere Matters

phil cooke Apr 21, 2022


“Starbucks was founded around the experience and the environment of their stores. Starbucks was about a space with comfortable chairs, lots of power outlets, tables and desks at which we could work and the option to spend as much time in their stores as we wanted without any pressure to buy. The coffee was incidental.”

— Simon Sinek, author, motivational speaker and marketing consultant


You may be working on your own right now, but as you move forward in your career, you’ll discover more and more opportunities to be a leader of other creative professionals. Thanks to great leadership teachers like John Maxwell, Patrick Lencioni, Jack Welch, Seth Godin and others, there are fantastic books and other resources out there on leadership. However, when it comes to leading creative people, the story is a little different.

It’s no secret that culture is more important than vision. I’ve worked in creative, vibrant organizational cultures where original thinking is valued and wonderful things happen. On the other hand, I’ve worked at organizations where you could literally feel the oppression when you walked into the building. Those destructive cultures often have leaders with great vision and potential, but because the culture is so negative, that vision will never be realized.

Since those days, I’ve focused a significant part of my career on discovering the secrets to building creative, vibrant cultures. In that process, here are 10 critical principles I’ve seen turn around numerous organizations.

  1. Create stability. Creative people need stability. If they’re worried about losing their job, financial problems or excessive turnover, they’ll never release their best ideas. I’ve seen terrible leaders think they’re motivating the team by threatening them with being fired or telling them they’ll be blamed if the company goes out of business—which is the worst thing you could ever do.

Even when you’re going through difficult times, create an atmosphere of stability for the team. That doesn’t mean you lie, but you search for the positive inside the negative. No matter how dire the situation, leaders need to surround the creative team with a positive purpose.

You’ll be rewarded down the road.

  1. Make it safe from excessive criticism. Critics are a dime a dozen, but leaders who can help their team move from bad ideas to legendary ideas are rare. There’s a time to look at what doesn’t work, but that should be done in an atmosphere of trust. Criticism always goes down better when it comes from a trusted and respected source.

That sometimes means separating the creative team from other departments. Many times, employees in other departments don’t quite get how the creative process works. As a result, they can become jealous of their crazy offices, different working hours or relaxed attitudes. In those cases, they often criticize because they don’t understand. Once again, the leader needs to protect the creative team from inside and outside criticism.

  1. Make sure your leaders are on the same page. All it takes is one of your leaders to contradict what you’re trying to do to wreck a creative culture. At the beginning of building your culture, make absolutely sure your leadership team is unified and moving with you. One critical or disconnected leader or manager can sow seeds of doubt that will topple the entire project.

I’ve been hired by leaders and spent time with them going over their vision and goals for the project. But the next day, I got a call from another high-level leader in the same organization who said, “Now, what the CEO asked you to do yesterday isn’t exactly what we need.” Then he proceeded to cast a completely different vision

That leads to catastrophe. Creative people need to pursue a unified vision, so make sure before you engage creative people, every leader in the business, nonprofit, church or other organization is on the same page.

  1. Be flexible. Creative people don’t all operate on the same schedule or work the same way. Give your team some flexibility, and it will revolutionize their attitude. At one major nonprofit I talked the CEO into allowing the creative team to rip up carpet, repaint, dump the cubicles and design their own workspaces. There was fear and trembling on the CEO’s part, but within a matter of months, the creative team transformed the organization.

A very traditional, small-market TV station brought in a hot, young designer who dressed, acted and looked different than anyone else in the organization. He essentially freaked everyone out, and a very vocal group of older employees demanded he be fired. But I knew his potential and talked the station manager into letting him work from home—far away from the old school thinkers and critics.

Within six months his designs had completely turned around that TV station. Creative people come in all sizes, shapes, attitudes, skill-levels and more, so let them stretch your thinking.

  1. Get them the tools they need. Nothing drags a creative team down as much as broken, old or out-of-date tools. Sure, we all have budget challenges, but do whatever you can to get them the right computers, design tools, video equipment—and whatever else they need.

Granted, part of the excitement and allure of a startup is launching with limited resources. But once that initial excitement is over, that enthusiasm wanes quickly when we’re dealing with old or inadequate equipment, office supplies or other resources.

I’ve said it before: The less time and energy they spend overcoming technical and equipment problems, the more time and energy they can spend on developing amazing ideas.

  1. Push them outside their comfort zone. Leaders often think that creative people want to be left alone and operate on their own schedule. Sure, they like to create their own timetable, but they also relish a challenge. In fact, while they probably won’t admit it, most creative people actually love deadlines because it gives them perspective on the project. I don’t even like to start working until I can see the deadline approaching. There is just something about a challenge that gets my blood flowing and the ideas coming.

A little fear in the face of a great challenge can inspire creative teams.

  1. Get out of their way. One of the most important aspects of a creative culture, once it’s in process, is to get out of the way of your creative team. We all know micro-managing is a disaster for anyone—especially creatives. So, give them space and let them solve problems on their own.

This is particularly difficult when it comes to leaders of creative people. Face it: successful creative results are generally more exciting than successful results from the logistics team. So, it’s natural for leaders to want to be seen as part of that work. But the truth is, leaders will get credit because they’re leaders, so fight the fear that you’ll be left out of getting proper credit.

Set the stage well, and then get out of the way and let them fly. That’s the best way to winning respect.

  1. Understand the difference between organizational structure and communication structure. This is a huge issue for me. Every organization needs an organizational structure. Who reports to whom matters, and hierarchy is important. Without a proper organizational chart, most organizations would end up in chaos. Even with a “flat” management model, understanding the order and flow of any company or nonprofit matters.

But when it comes to communication, I recommend you throw the organizational structure out the window. Your creative team should be able to call anyone to ask questions and discuss ideas. Don’t force them to communicate through supervisors, managers or anyone else.

In one organization, the designer of a new logo was forced to wait for months until approvals travelled through nine layers of managers, department heads and vice-presidents until it could get to the CEO for the final sign-off. The process took 37 revisions over nine months. Needless to say, it was a disaster.

Create a free-flowing communications system, and the ideas will grow.

  1. Walk the factory floor. Leadership expert John Maxwell recommends that leaders “walk the factory floor” and meet every employee. Develop a personal relationship with employees at all levels—especially when it comes to your creative team. Former Pixar and Disney Animation President Ed Catmull took that seriously—even when it came to giving bonuses. When they produced a box-office success, they’d share the profits with the team that produced it, which often included a great number of people. But Ed didn’t just mail or direct deposit the check and send a nice note. Ed took the time to either go to each team member personally or invite them to his office individually and hand them the check and tell them how much their work was appreciated.
  2. Give them credit. Finally, a great creative culture allows everyone to be noticed for their accomplishments. Never take credit for your team’s work, and always give them the honor they’re due. You’ll find that when you protect your creative team and allow them to get the glory for their work, they’ll follow you into a fire.


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