I’ve been working on a series of learning modules and workshops for leaders called The Creative Manager designed to encourage managers to be more creative in the way they lead, engage and get the best out of their people. It’s not easy being a manager, particularly a middle or line manager, in a large organisation nowadays. We ask them to communicate corporate messages, facilitate discussion, lead their people through change, maintain motivation, drive up engagement, inspire innovation, role model behaviours, improve wellbeing, solve problems, manage performance and many other things. It’s a big ask, that’s for sure – and in my opinion one which requires a much more dextrous and creative style of leadership capability. So I’ve been looking at how we can ensure our managers have the modern communication skills to meet these expectations as well as the techniques to exploit the creativity that exists inside them and their people. In doing so, I’ve talked to leaders, listened to experts, read books, attended talks, followed the latest thinking and generally used my intuition to finally plump for six core capability areas which I think define the Creative Manager – storytelling, novelty, play, empathy, affinity and purpose. Of course, these are not ‘new’ skills in themselves and many managers already have a natural tendency in one of more of them, but for me they comprise the six areas in which a manager’s creativity can best be harnessed, exploited and shared. Let me explain:
Storytelling – This is the art of using stories to release creativity, motivate, inspire and share knowledge. Of course, storytelling has always been a natural part of the human psyche – from cave drawings to Hollywood – and storytelling in business is not a new concept. But do most managers really understand the power of a good story and do they have the techniques to both tell and encourage stories as an engagement tool? Stories make people care. They help people visualise and simulate, they provide context and they inspire people to act. A lot of storytelling ‘training’ is patronising. If you’re human, you can tell stories. But I do think managers could benefit from a few simple techniques to enable them to communicate the company narrative through creative storytelling.
Novelty – This is the term I use to sum up the skill of bringing freshness and perspective into the workplace in order to drive up engagement, productivity and innovation. Most organisations are logical, analytical, left-brained environments with their standards, guidelines, set processes and repetitive behaviours. Unfortunately, these environments can stifle creativity and make office life dull and boring. People sometimes don’t feel they have the ‘permission’ to raise new ideas or they don’t have the right stimulus to innovate or do things differently. I think managers need the skills, techniques and imagination to inject some new thinking into the way they connect with their people and inspire them to action. To me, novelty is about looking at things in a different way, injecting some ‘newness’, being curious and inspiring creativity by drawing out and developing the ideas that can lead to innovations and engagement. It’s not the manager’s job to come up with all the ideas, but it’s very much the manager’s job to facilitate an environment where ideas can surface, grow and flourish.
Play – There’s enough evidence now to prove that happy people make productive people, and that people who are encouraged to laugh and be playful make more creative and engaged workers. Most business communication is about serious messages delivered in a serious way, so this skill is all about how to inject some playful behaviour into the workplace. When we talk about play at work, it’s not about bringing a board game into the office or putting a snooker table behind the filing cabinets. Play in this context is about creative problem solving, collaboration, laughter, knowledge sharing and experimenting. Managers shouldn’t be afraid of being playful. Play is a perfectly valid and effective way of learning about the serious business of work. One day managers will be appointed on their sense of fun.
Empathy – The best communicators make an emotional connection with their audience, but you don’t have to be Gandhi to make an impact. What’s more important is the ability to empathise with and understand the people you’re communicating with, so you can tailor your delivery and engagement style to match their needs and preferences. This skill is about listening, understanding and relating to individuals – behaviours that will make every leader more effective. Empathy is sadly lacking in many organisations today and there’s compelling evidence that the next generation of managers who have grown up in the digital age are going to be particularly poor at empathic relationship building. We need to get this bit right.
Affinity – Why is it that some messages stick and other’s fail to connect? What makes a good message and what makes a great communicator? This is a skill I am calling Affinity – the art of connecting with an audience so that they listen, understand, trust, value and act upon your words. This doesn’t come easy to many managers but you don’t need to change who you are to make a connection and build affinity. I believe managers need a creative toolkit to help them to bring messages alive, to liven up their team meetings, to inspire their people to act and to cut through the noise. A little bit of imagination can go a long way.
Purpose – Ever since the first human beings looked up at the sky we have pondered our place in the universe and our reason for being. Today the ‘search for meaning’ is stronger than ever and in business the desire to see purpose in what we do is becoming a critical area for leaders and communicators to respond to. For managers, the challenge is to not just communicate the ‘what’ and ‘how’ of company strategy, but the ‘why’. If people care, they will act. So how do you make people care? I see the ability to build a sense of purpose as a key leadership competency for the future.
As I said, some managers already excel at these skills and many more have the creative drive to keep their people engaged and motivated in other ways. But all I’ve tried to do here is to put a simple framework around the answer to the question “how can I be a more creative and engaging manager?”. I say here are six ways you can start.