Founder of The Accidental Creative, Todd Henry, shares lessons learned from managing creative employees AKA “herding tigers.”
- Why bounded autonomy produces the best creative results
- The right–and wrong–way to provide feedback on creative output
- How you may be subtly eroding trust
Todd Henry teaches leaders and organizations how to establish practices that lead to everyday brilliance. He is the author of four books (The Accidental Creative, Die Empty, Louder Than Words, and Herding Tigers) which have been translated into more than a dozen languages, and he speaks and consults across dozens of industries on creativity, leadership, and passion for work. His book Die Empty was named by Amazon.com as one of the best books of 2013. His latest book, Herding Tigers, is about what creative people need from their leader, and how to give it to them.
Items Mentioned in this Show:
- Sponsored message: Abby Connect answers your phone when you can’t.
- Career decision course: Do I Stay or Go
- Course video previews: Video 1, Video 2, and Video 3
- Todd’s book: Herding Tigers
- Todd’s company: Accidental Creative
- Todd’s personal website: ToddHenry.com
- Todd’s podcast: The Accidental Creative
- Book: Hit Makers: How to Succeed in an Age of Distraction by Derek Thompson
- App: Scrivener
Todd, it’s great to have you on the How to be Awesome at Your Job podcast.
It is great to be here, Pete. Thanks so much for having me.
I think we’re going to have so much fun. I’ve seen your podcast, The Accidental Creative, again, again, and again in the iTunes rankings that I probably check more than I should. Here we are talking to the man behind the brand.
I’ll tell you, having been podcasting for a very, very long time I know how hard it is to build an audience and how hard it is to create something that so many people find valuable. Kudos to you because you have really climbed the top of a very difficult mountain and have stayed there for a very long time. That’s a testament to the value that you’re providing to the audience that ….
Oh shucks. Well, flattery is always a great start Todd.
That was not planned, by the way. We didn’t talk about that in the pre-show that I was going to do this.
Okay, you’re going to compliment me and then I’m going to compliment – let’s go back in time a little bit. Speaking of large audiences, you mentioned that once you were a country singer full time and you had audiences as large as 40,000 people.
Oh my, I think we’re done here. Okay, this has been …. Yeah, I actually as I now call it – it’s funny with my kids I call it my misguided 20s. This was like 25 years ago now. But, yeah, I actually toured as a country musician singer. We played like West Coast Bakersfield, Buck Owens kind of really sort of rowdy honky-tonk kind of country music.
It was really fun for a number of years. We got to open for some great bands. One time we got invited to play at this festival over in I think it’s called St. Clairsville, Ohio, it was called, get ready for this, it’s called Jamboree in the Hills.
Somebody told me there were like 40,000 people there that day. It was really amazing. Seriously, I have never been in a situation before where it was like people as far as you can see. I speak events now and do all kind of – I have never seen a crowd like that before. It was literally – like I hear the phrase a sea of people, it was literally a sea of people. I couldn’t even see the end of the people.
That was really fun. It was a great experience. Then like so many of those kind of stories, I met a girl and realized that maybe the music business wasn’t necessarily going to be a long-term thing and ended up choosing gainful employment and marrying an amazing woman, which has absolutely been the right course of action. 25 years later here I am. That’s it. That’s my life story.
That is good. The thing is with meeting an amazing woman, you have so much more fodder for your country songs.
That’s true. That’s true. Well, see, that’s what happened. I got happy and then I didn’t have anything sad to write about anymore and I had to give up country music.
That’s unfortunate in a way but in another way we’re all being enriched by your work. Maybe you could orient us a little bit to what is Accidental Creative all about.
Yeah, I started Accidental Creative about a decade ago. The goal of the company is to help people and teams be what I call prolific, brilliant, and healthy all at the same time. Doing a lot of work, doing great work, and doing it in a sustainable way, in such a way that they can continue producing high volume of quality work over the course of time.
It’s really difficult to do because we’re all facing the pressure to do more. Resources are scarce. Expectations are only rising. I’ve never worked with an organization and had someone say, “You know, it’s just amazing. Expectations keep going down.” No, of course not. Expectations are rising.
With that, we all have to adapt and learn how to build practices, and rhythms, and structures, and systems into our life to help us approach the work that we’re doing on a daily basis, which when we’re dealing with the creative process, when we’re trying to solve very complex problems is challenging because you can’t force creativity into a predictable system. You don’t know when that brilliant insight is going to happen.
The only way that you can systemize around creativity is by having rituals, practices, systems, wells that you draw from. The thing is, Pete, that you have to build those systems before you need them. If you’re going to create on demand, if you want to have a brilliant idea at a moment’s notice, you have to begin far upstream from the moment you need that brilliant idea. The way you do that is by building practices, systems, rhythms into your life. That’s really what we do is we work with companies to help them do that.
That’s good. We’re going to talk about that in sort of group settings with your book Herding Tigers and management and collaboration, but while we’re talking I can’t resist, could you give us maybe one or two practices you’ve found for yourself, for clients, for listeners that just rock in terms of a little bit of effort and a whole lot of result.
Absolutely, yeah. Well, one is, it’s going to sound like the most basic thing in the world, but it’s not what we know, it’s what we do that matters. The practice is implementing a ritual of study into your life.
By study I don’t mean pull out the trigonometry textbook and dust it off. That may be fine. Maybe that’s what you’re curious about. But what I mean is are you building time into your day to fill your mind with valuable stimuli. Are you exploring your curiosity? Are you, as Steven Sample from USC called it, are you communing with great minds.
Are you allowing other people to fill your well so that when you’re in a moment, because creativity really is just connecting things, as Steve Jobs famously quipped? We’re connecting dots, sometimes no intuitive dots that live just outside the periphery of our field of vision.
The more stuff we put into our head and the more we begin to think systemically, the more non-intuitive dots we can connect. As we do that, we begin to create disproportionate value.
But it begins by not just putting things into our mind, but actually taking time to stop and think about, “Okay, how does what I’m absorbing right now affect or in some way relate to the work that I’m doing?”
I might be reading a book about gardening or particle physics, but I can glean insights from those books and apply them to the work that I’m doing and try to force them together and try to play with what Steven Johnson calls the adjacent possible. Explore and experiment and try to connect dots and play around with ideas.
I can do that during that study time in a way that I often can’t do in my on-demand role at work because we simply don’t have the time or the resources to be able to play around forever. Do you have a ritual of study in your life? That’s a huge, huge thing.
Then sort of on the other end of the spectrum. I’ll tell you that one of the most valuable practices that I’ve personally implemented and now many other people that I have talked to have implemented is taking a midday walk. It sounds incredibly simple. It’s well, like yeah, duh. Okay, but are you doing it? Is that something you’re actually implementing?
What this does for is it gets us out of our environment. Often when I’m trying to generate ideas with teams, I’ll send them on what I call a stimulus dive, which means I want you to go out into the environment. I want you to go out into the neighborhood around this office building or whatever, wherever we happen to be and I want you to just observe.
I want you to come back with one piece of stimulus. It could be something you find in a store. It could be something you pick up off the street. It could be something you see. You can snap a photo of it. Whatever it is, I just want you to observe your environment and think about how are the things I’m seeing and observing potentially helping me solve this difficult creative problem that we’re working on right now.
It’s amazing what just getting out and being active and getting out in the environment and allowing new stimulus to wash over you can do for your creative process. Those are two very simple things. There are a thousand more I can talk about right now. Two very simple and immediately implementable practices I think people could put in play to help them jog ideas more consistently.
That’s cool. It just sounds like that would be a fun place to work. “Oh, my job right now is to – okay. I’m down with this. Thanks Todd.”
Frankly one of the biggest hurdles I have to get people over is like, “Okay, are people actually working right now?” “Yes, they’re working. Yes, that’s what they’re – right now they are working.”
As a matter of fact if you just have them sitting and staring at the problem, that’s probably the least effective thing you could have them do right now. Very rarely do you solve a problem just by sitting and staring at the problem.
You have to go out. You have to look at parallel problems that have been solved in the past. You have to go out and challenge assumptions. You have to go out and look at what’s going on in the environment. You have to immerse yourself in different kinds of stimuli. Go do a dumpster dive, see what happens. It feels very inefficient, but these kinds of things reveal intuitive connections that are just beneath the surface that we often sort of overlook in our mad dash to try to solve the problem.
That sounds wise. You’ve collected a number of these practices, and mindsets, and mechanics, and goodies in your book Herding Tigers. Can you give us the overview on what’s this all about?
Yeah, for many years I like creative teams and I would always hear this phrase, and you’ve probably heard it too Pete, that leading creative people is like herding cats.
Every time I heard that it took everything I could, I mean seriously not to punch the person.
I’m not a cat. How dare you.
Well, because what’s implied by that is that creative people are flighty, that they have no discipline, that they just bounce from thing to thing, that they think they are the center of the universe. They’re egomaniacs. I mean that’s really I think what is implied by that.
One time I was speaking at a conference and it just came out of my mouth. I said, “How many have heard this phrase, that leading creative people is like herding cats?” and all the hands went up. I said, “It’s not like that at all. It’s actually more like herding tigers. These are powerful, majestic creatures capable of great beauty one moment and then turning around and ripping you to shreds if they’re not led properly.”
Everybody laughed and I thought, oh, that’s really cute, so I put it as a line in the book and then that became the title of the book thanks to my editor.
Really what I wanted to communicate to leaders is listen, if you want to get the best work out of the highly talented creative people on your team, who are by the way very driven and very driven to do great work. They want to do great work because often they identify themselves by the work that they do.
Then you have to know what it is they need, which sounds intuitive, but I think we often make assumptions about what creative people need that aren’t actually true.
For example, we tend to think that creative people are all about freedom. “Just give me freedom. Don’t fence me in. No boundaries. It’s all about the idea. All about freedom.”
That’s not actually true. If you talk to creative pros who are in the trenches, who are professionals, who are really doing great work, they’ll tell you that a lack of boundaries is detrimental to the creative process. They need some kind of bounding arc. They need some kind of boundary to help them focus their attention, focus their assets, focus their time, their energy.
Orson Wells, the great filmmaker, once said that ‘the absence of limitation is the enemy of art.’ I think that’s a brilliant observation. Without some sort of limitation, some sort of bounding arc, it’s difficult for creative people to focus their energy on what really matters.
The book is really about what does it creative people need from their leadership and how do we create an environment in which highly talented, driven creative people can thrive.
That really resonates with me as I’m thinking about – so I’m making this course right now. I’ve been working with some designers and more. It’s like great creative folk in my own experience, it’s like they eat it up when I give them some guidance.
In terms of like, “You know what? That question mark there that you’ve put into that logo, to me it feels a little bit like looming and scary, like a monster being projected over a flashlight. I want it to be more calming and sturdy and stable, like we’ve got guidance coming for you to this question.”
Part of me thinks I’m a little bit crazy when I say these things out loud. It’s like, “Okay, Pete has some odd associations maybe from his childhood about a monster in his closet.” But then great creative folks like, “Oh, thank you. That is so helpful for me.”
Yes, absolutely. That is super helpful and the way you provided that feedback is very helpful. It’s very specific.
One thing that drives highly talented creative people crazy more than anything else is when somebody says, “It’s not working for me.” Oh, thank you. That’s very helpful to me.
But when you say, and this is really important as well, when you say, “Hey, I see what you’re doing here. I see what you were going for. I think I understand your strategy and your logic here and it’s not quite working for me. Let me elaborate on why it doesn’t quite resonate with me. Do you think we could do something like this or do you think we could change this thing or do you think you can think about it through this lens?”
That is super helpful feedback for creative people because listen, they want to get the project right. It’s not just about following their idea. It’s about accomplishing the goal of getting the project right. You’re the client or you’re the manager, whatever. They want to please you. They want to do what satisfies your objectives, but they need very specific feedback.
They need to understand that you use them and you see what they’re doing and that you care about the thought that went into the project. When you just go up to someone and you say, “Well, it’s not working for me,” basically what you’re doing is you’re discounting the last three weeks of their work. You’re saying, “That’s not working. What else have you got for me?” Okay, not helpful.
I would, just as encouragement to you, Pete, the way that you offer that feedback, being very precise about what you like and what you don’t like, that’s exactly what creative people need from you in order to produce their best work.
Good, good. Sometimes I wonder or worry like, “Am I driving this person to the edge of their sanity?” Like, “Oh, this guy. Listen to-“but, so thank you for that affirmation that that is indeed helpful as opposed to pushing people to a breakdown of sorts.
Well, I will also say that one of the other things that’s a struggle is that this exists in tension. Yes, feedback is important. Yes, being very precise and specifically setting boundaries is important, but there has to be freedom within those boundaries to explore, to take risks, to try things.
Some leaders go overboard on the controlling piece. They go overboard on the feedback piece. Instead of saying, “Hey, here are the boundaries. Here’s what I’m looking for. Why don’t you play around with this and see what you can come up with?” Instead they say, “I want you to make a video for me that does this and this and this. And here’s the look I want. And here’s an example of something that’s just like it. Now go make it.”
Well, that’s not very motivating either because there’s no challenge there. Yes, there is stability for the creative, but there’s no challenge there for the highly talented creative person. What they’re going to do is basically just say, “Okay, just tell me what to do. That’s fine. Just tell me what to do.”
You’re not going to get the best work out of them. You’re not going to get the blessing of their intuitive perception, that dot connection, their years of experience because you’re basically telling them what to do.
What we’re aiming for is a bounded autonomy. Freedom within boundaries. Then frequent checkpoints in which you give feedback, like you gave before, which is beautiful. It was wonderful feedback. That’s exactly what you need.
“Hey, here’s some feedback. Now why don’t you go work on it within these rails?” Then you check back in and say, “Okay, we’re getting closer. Now, let me give you a little bit more feedback. Now, go work on it. Great.” That’s what healthy creative process looks like.
That is well said. Thank you. If folks are making the leap associated from – they were doing the creative making of stuff and now they’re beginning to do some management of folks who are doing that for them or for the team, what are some of the key mental shifts, adjustments that need to go down?
This is a real struggle. I love how you say the mental shifts. I call them in the book the mindset shifts that you have to make when you transition from maker to manager.
Listen, when you’re early in your career and you’re making work, you’re a tactician – again, when I say making work or I say creative people, we’re all creative as a function of our job. We have to solve problems. Creativity is solving problems. That’s what we do every day. If you have to go to work and solve problems every day, this applies to you. You are a creative professional.
But when we go to work and we do something functionally, so if we’re performing a task or producing some kind of work, and basically we’re accountable for making sure that that work is great. That’s our job and we produce a result or a product or whatever it is.
At the end of the day, we measure our success as a maker by how great the product is. I can draw a very direct line between my efforts and the end result. I can say, “I made that. That’s how I define myself.”
For example, in the world of agencies, creative agencies, which is where I spend some of my time, a designer can define themselves as a brilliant designer. They become known for their work. They have a style. They have a thing that they do.
Maybe if you’re a salesperson, you have a specific way that you approach sales, specific way that you approach relationships, and you become known as the person who does that thing. That’s what you’re known for. You’re the closer. You’re the person who can get the result, which is great.
But the moment you transition from maker to manager, you have to make a couple of significant shifts in how you think about it because you are no longer defined by the work you do. You’re defined by how you lead other people who are doing that same work, which is a difficult transition for people to make who have defined themselves their entire career as a person who does a thing.
“Okay, well if I’m no longer defined as a person who does a thing, who makes a thing, who manages a relationship, whatever that is, if that’s no longer me, how do I define myself as a leader? Who am I anymore? I don’t even recognize myself.”
Which is why many leaders when they first transition to a manager role, default to control. They default to clamping down, to stepping in, to doing the work for their team because they think I can do it better than my team members can. I’ve been doing it for five years. I know the job better than they do, so I’m going to step in and make sure that the job is done the way it needs to be done.
But there’s a problem with that and the problem is you’re not giving those people the chance to grow, to take risks, to develop their skills, and over time your entire team’s sphere of influence and their capacity never grows beyond your direct sphere of involvement.
You’re going to train your team just to stop and think, “Okay, you know what? Just tell me what you want me to do. I’m just going to wait for you to tell me what to do.” That’s what you’re going to train your team to do and you’re not going to retain people with a lot of potential, highly talented, creative people for very long if that’s your mindset.
You have to transition from a mindset of control, which is all about getting the work right now to a mindset of influence, which is “I am going to lead you and guide you and provide that bounded autonomy for you, give you a chance to play and take risks and try things with frequent checkpoints and I’m going to check in with you and make sure that you’re on course.
But I’m going to give you the freedom to experiment and play and develop your skills so that the capacity of our team is growing over time beyond the sphere of my direct involvement.”
That’s a really difficult thing, Pete, for leaders to do because they have been defined by the work they produce. You would think that when you get promoted to a managerial role, you would think, “Oh, hey, I’ve arrived.” Now the ego’s kicking in, all of that, but for a lot of people there’s a bit of an identity crisis that happens because “Who am I now? How do I define myself?” We have to define ourselves as people who lead by influence not by control.
Well said, well said. Now I’m curious when it comes to the influence and control point, a lot of listeners have shared that they don’t even have the option of control. They don’t actually have direct reports that they have the power to reward, to review, etcetera.
And yet within their sprawling matrix-y whatever organization, they need to be persuasive and influential and have folks indeed produce something and something good. I’d love it if you have any sort of special prescriptions for being influential in that space and getting things done and getting things done brilliantly.
Absolutely. Well, first of all, you have to prove yourself as component. That’s the baseline for any level of influence in any setting is if you’re not doing the work, if you haven’t shown yourself capable of doing the work, no one is going to respect you. When I say stop doing the work when you transition to being the maker, that implies that you have actually proved before that you can do the work, that you’re stepping back from it.
But the main thing with regard to leading by influence is it’s really important when we talked earlier about making sure that you understand what drives other people, leading by influence is letting other people know what drives you. It’s letting them understand your leadership philosophy.
What is it that you expect from other people? How do you think about work? What are the battle lines that you draw when it comes to how you do your job and how you interact with other people?
For example, it’s really important that other people understand how you define what quality work looks like. That can be such a subjective thing.
You need to communicate to the people around you, “Hey, when you come to me with something, here’s how I measure whether this is good enough or not. Here’s how I measure whether an idea is right or not. Here’s how I believe conflicts should be handled. Let’s talk about that philosophy of how conflicts should be handled. Should it be handled individually? Should I be involved every time there’s conflict?”
It’s important that you communicate to other people. There has to be some overriding leadership philosophy or point of view that you’re communicating to other people so that they understand how to interact with you and they understand how you’re making decisions and they understand the guiding philosophy that is informing your personal choices and interactions with them.
There was an Australian business man who once told author Tom Peters that he basically had a very simple leadership philosophy. It was I want to reward excellent failures and punish mediocre successes, which means if you succeed in a very mediocre way, I am going to punish you because that’s not what we’re aiming to do here. I expect you to take risks and try things.
If you fail, but you fail in an excellent way because we’ve learned something, because you’ve learned something, you’ve developed a skill, you’ve given us a head start on our competition even though we’ve failed in some way, great. You will be rewarded for that.
It’s really important that we communicate those kinds of rails to the people around us and help them understand the grid through which we’re making decisions, the grid through which people are rewarded, the grid through which people will be reprimanded.
I like that a lot. I’m thinking now about how do you measure quality. I think if we zoom into just the realm of reports, proposals, spreadsheets, maybe it’s not as sexy as a logo or a website or something, but in that realm, I’d love it if you could maybe share a couple sort of precise examples of how someone might articulate, “This is what I expect from an outstanding write up sent to me.”
Yeah. That’s a great question.
Again, part of the challenge is that quality is, it’s right there in the word, it’s qualitative. It’s part of the challenge. What is quality in one circumstance may not be quality in another circumstance. It just totally depends on the objectives, depends on the client. There are probably clients who want something fast more than they want it to be maybe of the utmost quality from your sort of subjective opinion.
But I always like to encourage people at the end of any project to basically ask three questions to determine whether it’s quality or not, whether the project was successful or not in that way.
Number one, did we accomplish our objectives. We went into the project knowing we were trying to accomplish something, we were trying to create something, so does the thing that we did solve the problem we were trying to solve. If the answer is yes, great, wonderful.
Secondly, did we maintain our values in the process because if you produce something but in the process of producing that, you destroyed the team around you or there is all kinds of backbiting and infighting and everybody hates one another now, well, okay, I would be really hard-pressed to say that was a successful project because yeah, you produced a quality end product that accomplished the objective, but the team hates itself, so the process was in some way corrupt.
I think you have to include the process in that definition of quality too. Did we engage in a quality process? Did we maintain our values in the midst of it?
Then finally, and this is a little bit subjective, but I always encourage people to ask this question because I think it’s important, are we poised to do it again. If we had another project just like this come across our desk tomorrow, could we do this again? Are we able to do it again or are we completely spent? Are we completely burnt out? Are we at a place where I need three weeks in Hawaii to recover from this project, which is often the case?
This is what a lot of teams do. They sprint, sprint, sprint, sprint and it’s like, “Okay, we’ve just got to climb this mountain. Once we get to the top of this mountain, we’re going to be good.” They get to the top of the mountain and everybody’s like, “Okay, okay.”
Then they get to the crest of the mountain, they look over and there’s another bigger mountain right in front of them that the leader’s like, “Okay, let’s go take that one.” The people are like, “Are you kidding me? You told me this was the mountain we had to climb. Now there’s a bigger one in front of us.”
I think we always have to ask ourselves are we poised to do it again. Can we continue producing work at the rate that we’re producing this work or are going through cycles of crash, burn, refresh? I think that has to be included in the definition of quality and excellence as an organization in order to continue producing what can be prolific, brilliant and healthy over the long term.
I like that a lot and it’s resonating. I’m thinking about my own exhaustion, like, “Hm, what needs to change here? Is it more help? Is it – yeah, is it just a clearer sense for how long things actually take because I’ve never used those tools before and it takes some time to learn those tools even though they say it’s supposed to be really easy on the sales page of the website.”
Sure, absolutely. This gets sort of to the issue of trust. As a leader, you will lose your team if you do that.
If you are not being realistic with them, if you’re not painting a clear picture of what’s going to happen, when it’s going to happen, what’s expected of them, if you say things like, “Well, let’s just get through this and then we’re going to have a couple days break,” and then you get to the end of the project on a Friday and you say, “Actually, I need you guys to come in this weekend because blah, blah, blah.” Whatever.
You’re like Office Space, right? Yeah, I’m going to need you to come in this weekend.”
You’re going to lose your team. Now you won’t lose them immediately. They’ll show up. They’ll do their job begrudgingly, but they’re not going to be engaged. I guarantee you they’re going to be looking for other jobs before too long if that happens very frequently because most leaders don’t blow trust in the big ways.
You’re not overtly lying to your team. You’re not overtly underpaying them. You’re not overtly doing things that are causing dissention and all that. It’s the little things that cause us to lose trust.
Trust is the currency of creative teams. You cannot function as a creative team without trust because trust is what enables us to take risks. Trust is what enables us to collaborate even when we disagree with an idea, I trust you enough that I’m willing to go your direction because I believe I trust that you have my best interests at heart. I’m willing to do that. If we begin to forfeit trust, we forfeit everything as a creative leader.
Well, I would love to hear a few little examples of how trust gets eroded that might really strike home and cause people to look themselves in the mirror and go, “Uh oh.”
Yeah. I’ll give you one very quick story. I live in southern Ohio. A couple of years ago there was a bear spotted in southern Ohio, which is an anomaly by the way. I’m not sure where you’re based, but we don’t really have bears around here.
My kids were freaked out. They’re like, “Oh my gosh. There’s a bear in southern Ohio.” They’re envisioning this bear climbing up the wall of our house and sneaking into their room and eating them in their sleep. I’m like, “Listen, listen, listen. That bear is like 100 miles from here.” I live in Cincinnati.
I was like, “Okay, the bear’s like 100 miles east of here. It’s out in the woods. That bear has no interest whatsoever in coming into the city. That bear is perfectly happy. It’s going to make its way back over to Kentucky, where it belongs. It’s going to be fine. Everything’s good. Don’t worry about the bear. You’re never going to see that bear in a million years.”
Two weeks later, Pete, two weeks later, I pull out of my driveway, I turn right, I go down to the bottom of the hill and there’s a news crew camped out at the bottom of the hill right down the block from our house. I roll down my window and I say, “Hey, what’s going on?” They say, “You’re not going to believe this about a half hour ago two joggers saw the bear run into the creek across the street,” a block from my house, Pete.
The bear was in my neighborhood. The bear was literally in my backyard. The bear that I had promised my kids, “Oh, it’s 100 miles away. There’s no way you’re ever going to see that bear,” was in my neighborhood.
Over the course of the next two weeks that bear was seen basically in every place we go: restaurants – it was in the trash at some of the restaurants we eat it, it was seen in the trash of some of our neighbors, it was running around the neighborhood, people say it running in the moonlight, all around our house.
Let’s just say that dad lost a little bit of credibility with the whole bear thing with the kids. For like three months after that it was like, “Now dad, is this really true or is this kind of like the bear thing?” Not a good thing, but super cute. Cute story. Not cute for dad, but cute for the kids.
But we do this as leaders all the time. We do. I call this declaring undeclearables. We say something because we think, “Oh, this is most likely going to happen, so I can declare this as an undeclearable. Hey, if you work this Saturday, I’m going to give you next Friday off. Well actually something came up. I didn’t have anything to do with it, but somebody up above me said that we need to work on this thing, so I’m going to need you here on Friday.”
It’s a little thing. It’s a very little thing, but it’s not little when your team takes your words to heart.
Yeah, and they made a plan. They were going to do a cool think on Friday, now they’re not going to do it.
That’s exactly right. They made a plan.
Had to disappoint their family, their friends.
That’s right and it’s really easy to navigate yourself to a place as a leader where your words mean nothing. They mean nothing.
When it comes to encouraging your team to take a big risk to follow you into the metaphorical battle of doing complex, difficult creative work, they’re not going to follow you. They might follow you begrudgingly. They might go behind you, but they’re not really following you because they don’t really trust you anymore. It’s the little things we do as leaders that forfeit trust.
I encourage people to think about is there a place in my leading right now where I am saying things because most likely I’m going to be okay, but I can’t guarantee that it’s really going to happen because that’s a way that you potentially setting yourself up for a breach of trust. You have to be careful about your words because your words actually have weight to the people on your team. Your words matter.
That’s potent. Thank you. Todd, tell me, is there anything else you really want to make sure to mention before we shift gears and hear about some of your favorite things?
I think the main thing that I want to encourage people in is listen, if you have hired talented, bright, sharp, amazing, driven people for your team, understand that they care about the work and they care about the mission and they care about you as a manager. It may not always seem like it, but they care about you as a manager and they want – it’s really important to them that they’re doing work that matters to them.
You have to know them. They need to know that you see them, that you believe in them, you know what makes them tick, that you see the great work that they’re doing, the sacrifices that they’re making. This is another thing we often overlook. As managers we don’t recognize the blood, sweat and tears that actually goes into doing creative work.
I just want to encourage people, “Listen, you need to know your team. You need to provide stability for them and protect them from the chaos monster of the organization. But you also need to give them permission to take risks, to be themselves, and to know I see you, I value you, I believe in you and I know that you’re capable of great things. It’s just that we need those great things to be within a kind of bounded autonomy and creative pros will respect that.
I love it. Thank you. Well, now could you share with us a favorite quote, something you find inspiring?
Yeah, it’s kind of a long one. I could say it verbatim, but I often share this when I speak. It’s by Thomas Merton, who’s one of my favorite thinkers and writers. He was a cloistered monk in Kentucky actually, just outside of Louisville in the mid-1900s and wrote I think some of the most potent observations about life and art and work and spirituality.
But he said ‘There can be an intense egoism in following everyone else. People are in a hurry to magnify themselves by imitating what is popular and too lazy to think of anything better. Hurry ruins saints as well as artists. They want quick success and they’re in such a hurry to get it, they cannot take time to be true to themselves and when the madness is upon them, they justify their haste as a species of integrity.’
The part that really resonates with me is the part about being in such a hurry, they want quick success that they’re in a hurry to emulate other people in order to get it.
That’s a reminder to me that I need to step back on a consistent basis and ask, “Am I navigating according to where I believe I should be or am I navigating according to what everyone around me thinks I should do.”
Because it’s really easy, Pete, and I’m sure you’ve seen this in your work as well, it’s really easy to get to a place and look back and say, “I never wanted to be here. I just did what everybody else told me I should do or what they would do in my circumstance.”
There are all kinds of reasons people will tell you to take a risk or do something, Pete, right? There are all kinds of reasons. They will say, “Oh yeah, you should go do that,” because they just want to see if you’ll jump off the cliff. They don’t have your best interests at heart. “Yeah, you should go do that.”
You have to be really careful to make sure you’re navigating toward something meaningful and not just emulating others for the sake of quick success. That’s what that quote does for me.
That’s powerful and wise and I wish I took that to heart maybe in the first three years of my business. I just sort of said, “Oh, I should start a blog? Okay. Oh, I should be on Twitter? Okay.” It’s like, no, no, no. The very first step is to identify a need that I can contribute to in a helpful way that real people have.
And from a business perspective, will ultimately pay for. It’s like, oh, okay.
That’s exactly right. Yes, absolutely.
That’s more important than starting a blog.
Absolutely. We see this, right? We see people copying tactics because tactics seem to work in the short run. That applies to large organizations as well as small.
How many times have I come into an organization and you see the book du jour on somebody’s desk. It’s like, well, okay, everybody in the organization is reading this because it’s the book du jour. But it’s just the latest trend. It’s just the latest thing that everybody’s reading, but it’s not really solving their problem. It’s just we’re chasing after something.
It’s always important that you step back – by the way, if you want to make Herding Tigers your book du jour, I would fully endorse that. That’s totally great. But if not, if it’s not for you, that’s great too. We have to step back and ask what problem are we really trying to solve here and what’s the best way for us to solve this problem, not what would everybody else do in our circumstance.
Lovely, thank you. How about a favorite study or experiment or bit of research?
Yeah, I’m actually – it’s funny, the first thing that comes to mind right now is I’m reading a book called The Hit Makers, which is about how things become popular in an age of distraction. It’s really fascinating.
One of the studies that they reference in the book is a study about the fact that people tend to – we tend to think that people like things that are extremely novel, extremely new, extremely creative from that perspective. The reality is we actually don’t. We actually like things that slightly push the boundary, but also feel extremely familiar.
That’s why a lot of the pop music that is so popular, people are like, “Oh, that’s so repetitive and mundane and whatever,” well, but there is something about it that is unique. There’s some hook or something that makes it feel a little bit edgy, but it’s still rooted in something very familiar to people, which is why a lot of pop music, popular music sounds very similar on the radio.
They all have sort of a unique hook, but really if you dissected the songs, they’re all often very, very similar because as human beings, that’s what we gravitate to.
If you’re in a place where you want to introduce an idea into your organization, it’s not always best to go in and say, “I have something nobody has ever thought of before.” No, no, you need to say, “Hey, here’s kind of where we are and here’s the ground that we’re kind of taking right now and here’s kind of an intuitive leap just beyond the bounds of where we are. What do you think?”
You have to contextualize it for people and help them connect the dots if you want it to resonate. I can’t remember the name of the study. I can’t remember who did it. But that’s the one that’s really clicking with me right now.
Good, thank you. How about a favorite tool, something you use that helps you be awesome at your job?
Yeah, I use the writing tool Scrivener. For anyone who does long form writing, it is by far my favorite tool I’ve ever used for writing.
It allows you to write in a non-linear way. I tend to write my books from the inside out. I don’t write them from the beginning to the end, so I can work on sections at a time and just put a couple hundred words in a section and whatever I’m thinking about at that point in time. It’s great. Yeah, highly recommend Scrivener.
Cool, thank you. How about a particular nugget, something that you share that really seems to connect and resonate for people?
It’s funny. The one that gets shared so often on Twitter, like every day there are probably 50 or 60 people that share this is ‘Don’t let your rituals become ruts.’
I think I spend so much time talking about rituals and building rituals into your life, but it’s really easy to allow the ritual to become the objective.
I always tell people, “Listen, your systems in your organizations exist to serve you, not the other way around. You don’t exist to serve your systems.” People think systems are set it and forget it. They think rituals are set it and forget it.
You know, “We have a recurring meeting every Monday. That’s what we do.” Really? How long has it been since that meeting’s felt extremely productive for your team?
I would just encourage people look at all the rituals, the systems, the methods, the things that are going on in your life and consider have any of these rituals become ruts for me and do I need to shake them up and do something different to jog my creative self.
I like that. Thank you. If folks want to learn more or get in touch, Todd, where would you point them?
The best way to find me is at ToddHenry.com. That’s my personal site. From there you can get to Accidental Creative, the Accidental Creative podcast, which I’ve been doing for 13 years now, twice a week. You can check that out at ToddHenry.com as well and also find all my books.
Lovely. Do you have a final challenge or call to action for folks seeking to be awesome at their jobs?
I do. Listen, friends, because I’m in the same boat that you are. I care very deeply about my work as I know that you do. I care very deeply about the people I work with, as I know that you do.
It’s important to recognize that that project you’re working on is going to be forgotten in 50 years. That company that you’re building right now, nobody is going to remember that in 50 or 75 or 100 years. That amazing campaign you did that won all of those awards, nobody is going to care about that in 50 years. Not to depress anyone, but that’s the reality.
The truth is the way that you influence the people around you, the way that you lead other people, the way that you impact their life for the better is going to continue to resonate down through generation, after generation, after generation. They way that you build into people is going to echo for generations to come.
That is your legacy. That is your body of work. That’s the only thing that’s going to last from how you spend your days right now.
My encouragement to anyone out there who has any form of leadership responsibility, which is all of us because we lead ourselves and lead other people, lead the people around us, but if you have influence over people, I encourage you to commit to being a leader who makes echoes because that is your legacy.
Awesome. Todd, this has been so much fun. Thank you for sharing this. I wish you tons of luck with Accidental Creative and Herding Tigers and all the cool stuff you’re doing.
Thanks so much Pete. And thanks for the great work that you do. Very few people understand how hard it is to continue to produce great content like you do week after week. Thank you for committing to all of us who are fans of your work and continuing to stay committed to producing great work.
Oh, thank you.