The Human Touch – Leading Creative People

My Pop Tech Speech:

Today I want to talk about creative leadership. Not necessarily creative ways to run a business, I’m sure you’ve heard all the ten steps to insert creativity into your business. This is not what this speech is about.

 Rather, I want to talk about the challenges and rewards of leading a company made up of creative people.

 I am happy to say that today businesses value creative people more than ever before. I spent the majority of my career trying to convince companies why creativity mattered. Creatives think in new ways. They connect seemingly disparate dots. In short, they are most equipped to tackle the particularly complex problems many businesses face as they innovate..

Of course, creatives are also  known to be unique. At times… very unique. They can  often be moody, reclusive, and temperamental. They keep odd hours. They get bored easily.  In fact, these tendencies make the drivers for creative people different from what drives most business minded individuals. people

 What may drive most business people does not drive a creative person at all.

So, while a creative person’s individual outlook and non-traditional habits are why you want this person in the first place, this can also present some management challenges.

Today I want to make the case that the most successful organizations—whether they’re startups, big businesses, or non-profits—are not only the ones who hire creative people, but they are the ones who have leadership that knows how to harness and put to good use all that creative thinking.

 Let me back up a step and tell you a little about my background.

I don’t consider myself particularly creative. I’m certainly not a designer. I am, however, the president of a firm called Quirky. We make invention accessible and design over 100 products each year. I did not study business in college, and yet I grew a small boutique design firm called frog design into one of the world’s largest and most respected innovation consultancies.

 How is this possible? Not necessarily creative. No traditional business background. And yet, I run successful creative businesses. What is going on?

The fact is, my success lies in my non-traditional background.

 In today’s creative economy, a non-linear, eclectic pathway is now an advantage.

This was not always true. 20 years ago, if you had a background that included studying theater arts, working in film, a stint traveling the world, some experience working as a marketer, and then a job as an operations manager, someone looking at your resume might have thought you couldn’t make up your mind. It was a negative.

Now those kinds of diverse and eclectic backgrounds are a positive.

That’s because we are living in a world that is more connected than it has ever been, and a world in which doing business is an increasingly global prospect.

 It stands to reason that if you have a varied background, you have a multidimensional outlook that is more in sync with the multi-skilled, international landscape that is much closer to our day-to-day lives than it used to be. Not only do you have to interact with different kinds of people, but also you have to learn how to adapt in different situations.

And that takes empathy.

 The dictionary defines empathy as “the ability to understand the feelings of another.”

 The core idea behind Emotional Intelligence is empathy, in the sense that someone with high emotional intelligence has a unique ability to not only understand one’s own emotion, and the emotions of others, but who can use that information to guide behavior and thinking.

Daniel Goleman, the author of the book Emotional Intelligence, applied EI to business and leadership in an article for Harvard Business Review called “What Makes a Leader.”

According to Goleman, “Leaders with empathy do more than sympathize with people around them: they use their knowledge to improve their companies….”

He goes on: “This doesn’t mean that they agree with everyone’s view or try to please everybody. Rather, they thoughtfully consider employees’ feelings – along with other factors – in the process of making intelligent decisions.”

Goleman created an Emotional Intelligence model that describes 5 core tenants:

Self-awareness (“the ability to detect your own moods and emotions and how they impact others”)

Self-regulation (“the ability to redirect” one’s worst tendencies)

Motivation (“a passion for work that goes beyond money or status”)

Empathy (“the ability to understand the emotional makeup of other people”)

Social skill  (“proficiency in managing relationships and building networks”)

With all this attention and research on empathy and emotional intelligence, one would think it would be used more in business.

Unfortunately, it’s not. A businessperson with empathy is still considered soft or a push over.

 However, I believe that businesses that lead with empathy are showing profits as a result of this. Here are some examples/evidence that illustrate those organizations, which show empathy works.

Look at Google. Between the year 2000 and 2011 the number of women working at Google dropped significantly. So much so that the company began trying to figure out what was going on.

 They looked at a number of business practices from the interview process to continuing education at work, but one thing that stuck out was the company’s maternity leave policy.

 At the time Google offered 3 months leave at half pay, but many women were not coming back to work after having a baby.

So in 2012, Google changed its maternity leave program from 3 months at half pay to 5 months at full pay.

 Google also put in place other initiatives to attract and keep more talented women. They made sure to include female managers in the interview process. And they began a series of training sessions and career workshops that were taught by senior women at Google for the benefit of younger female employees.

 Over the past two years, Google has managed to attract and retain more women, and their attrition rate among women has been cut in half.

By initiating a deeper understanding in their employee’s personal lives, Google was able to meet its business goals.

 These days you hear a lot about personalization. How can your organization have great service? How can it relate better to customers? In short, how can a company become more human?

This is a tough problem for any business, but you can imagine how difficult it is for very large B2B company like IBM.

 Back in 2011 IBM was trying to transition from a manufacturing company to a service provider.  They knew that they’d have to do some heavy lifting to be more “human”—to show that they could understand and have an expert grasp on customer relations.

 So did they hire a famous personality to be their spokesperson? Did they roll out their CEO to do advertising? No. They did what they do best: they built a computer. But this wasn’t just any computer. This one was named Watson and it could play Jeopardy.

Remember this? This was a big deal. In 2011 IBM convinced the game show Jeopardy to let Watson compete against two former Jeopardy champions. Watson is an artificially intelligent computer that can answer questions just like any human can. On Jeopardy Alex Trabeck would ask the question, and the cameras would show Watson deliberating and trying to get the answer right against the two other contestants.

And the weirdest thing happened. The audience began rooting for Watson. They began to feel for a machine. The ratings on Jeopardy went through the roof. Watson ended up winning. The show was a huge success.

 More than that, though, IBM did something no one thought they could: they “humanized” a machine – and by extension they humanized their brand – because viewers felt empathy for Watson when it got answers right and wrong.

 Watson is still going. There was a NOVA special called “Smartest Machine on Earth.” Now Watson is picking fashion trends and doing scientific research analytics. The computer is even cooking food in a food truck.

 And what happened to IBM’s business after the Watson Jeopardy show? IBM experienced 20 percent growth in their analytics business during the first quarter directly after the show.

 What does this tell you….That designers are ethnographers and cultural anthropologists. They do field research so they know exactly whom they’re designing for and what their real-world needs are. Not only is this an example of empathy—which literally means putting yourself in someone else’s shoes so that you can better understand them—but it’s also an efficient way to do business. It allows designers to create something that solves a real problem in the consumer market.

Empathy is good business.

 Everyday when I go to work, I try to take the loneliness out of the job. I ask people about their children and about their significant others. I ask them about their interests outside of work.

 I want people at Quirky to know that they’re working at a company that understands them. If you understand the human element of a person—you understand the whole person.

This is important because life and work are no longer so different.

Work is a journey, much like life. People expect that work is more than just balance sheets and budgets. More and more, people want to work at a job that gives meaning to their lives. This is especially true for creative people.

This new reality almost demands that business leaders have a deeper understanding of and compassion for their employee’s lives outside of the office. The key is to acknowledge more than just the work.

As leaders, we have the ability to give others the courage and the power to do at work what they do at home. Our empathy provides more compassion in the workplace, and it encourages more loyalty, more creativity, and by extension better products.

 So give yourselves the permission to have more of a human touch as leaders.

You, your employees, and your businesses will be better off for it.

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