5 ways to protect workplace culture when your brilliant CD is also toxic (Column)

How to sniff out a CD who could ruin your agency's culture before you hire

Mandy Gilbert is CEO of Creative Niche. Rick Boyko is founder of Sparkstarters.

When sitting down to hire a creative director, the degree to which he or she can lead a team is probably a secondary thought for most hiring managers.

Creative Niche's Mandy Gilbert

That’s because in most interviews, the focus tends to be on awards, charisma and a CD’s ability to reimagine their organization in a way that attracts new clients. Hiring managers tend to obsess over portfolios, the high-profile nature of the potential CD’s past work and, of course, their innovative new ideas. They sometimes become so enamored that they get trigger happy, hiring without fleshing out the candidate’s place in their culture, not to mention how that CD can drive business forward over the long term.

Then, after making just such a hire, employees start heading for the exits and the head-scratching and blame game begins. What went wrong? Our new creative director was supposed to improve collaboration, reinforce ideation, attract top new talent and send profits soaring. Instead, our revenue is down and we’ve parted ways with some of our top performers.

The problem is usually that leaders became so focused on a creative director’s work, they lost sight of his or her ability to engage, inspire and manage people. While this mistake is common, choosing a new creative director needn’t be a zero-sum game where workplace culture is sacrificed in the name of accommodating a brilliant, but impossibly challenging, CD.

Sparkstarters' Rick Boyko

Of course, this raises the question: do creative directors tend to be difficult? As legendary agency head David Ogilvy once said, “Our business needs massive transfusions of talent, and talent I believe can best be found in nonconformists, misfits and rebels.” The reality is that talented people are often difficult. A leader’s job is to manage and minimize that difficulty. In the end, the only thing that truly matters is the work. If the work is great, then it’s worth dealing with the difficulty. If it isn’t, there is no excuse for keeping that person on board.
The exception to that rule, however, is when that CD’s demeanor threatens the very success of the agency or department they’re chosen to lead.

Not sure how to determine whether a creative director’s behaviour is becoming an agency-wide liability? The easiest and earliest way to spot this problem is by paying attention to those reporting into the CD. If there are consistent complaints or grumbling, there’s a good chance he or she is a problem. A leader not only has to lead, but also has to be followed, after all.

Still not sure? Attend a team meeting and look around the room. If you’re met with long faces, employees fiddling on their iPhones or generally acting disengaged, it’s an obvious sign there’s a problem with your new CD. Even simply taking the time to speak to employees and ask pointed questions about the work they’re doing, as well as their thoughts on the new processes and procedures the CD has implemented, will tell you a lot.

Of course, the key to that working is being willing to see the signs of cultural rot. Many leaders simply refuse to believe their bright new CD is the problem. We’ve seen this scenario play out many times in the past, and it never ends well.

The most effective way to deal with a difficult CD is to avoid hiring one in the first place. The key is to pay attention to red flags that emerge during the recruitment process. The first is how they describe their work and themselves. If they overuse words such as “I,” “me” and “mine,” they could be a problem. Ego is a sure giveaway of a poor team player. Another is laying blame on past colleagues or leaders for any lack of results. If any of these red flags are waved during an interview, it’s time to start asking more detailed questions.

Start by asking the candidate to share a couple of stories of how they provided opportunities for team members, took a chance on them or enriched their career in some way. Also ask them to outline past experiences when they were forced to approach an employee if their work didn’t pass muster, and how they handled the situation.

If you’ve missed the opportunity to take a proactive approach through sound recruitment screening, don’t panic. There are ways to manage and even engage a difficult creative director. Here’s how:

Change their job description
If you employ a CD who is difficult, but contributes to your organization’s success, then remove management duties from their job description and make sure their role is strictly a creative one. Consider this your best strategy for limiting their ability to influence others and potentially create a toxic workplace environment.

Invest in their development
Not all difficult CDs are lost causes. Many can be mentored either by someone in a more senior leadership position, or through a third party. Alternatively, it could make sense to help them become better people managers through leadership and executive training. Professional coaching and internal incentivized mentorship programs can also work if structured properly.

Build a firewall to protect your client relationships
Difficult CDs are usually a flight risk either through termination or because they’ll eventually tire of your environment and quit. The greatest threat is that in doing so—and because so much of your organization’s success hinges on their work—they will walk away with key clients or talent. The best way to avoid being caught in this situation is to ensure that more than one person (ideally a more senior executive) also owns the client relationship, and that the CD’s contract contains an enforceable non-compete/non-solicitation clause.

Focus on the entire agency
Focus on developing a number of strong creative stars within the organization to ensure that it remains viable and produces great work over the long term and attracts and retains great talent. How? It starts by structuring programs and opportunities for experience-sharing, mentorship and the development and retention of great people. Give staff the opportunity to do meaningful, challenging work. Acknowledge their success and work to retain their services by providing competitive compensation and the workplace flexibility (everything from flex hours to decent vacation allowances) that today’s young creative types demand. Then make sure your leadership team is responsive and connected. As the old adage goes, people don’t leave companies—they leave managers.

And if none of that works…
Fire the difficult CD quickly and begin the (often taxing) process of rebuilding your company culture. Doing so not only indicates your commitment to protecting your employees, but also your dedication to doing the right thing for your people.

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