How Senior Executives Find Time to Be Creative

Here is an excerpt from an article written by Emma Seppälä for Harvard Business Review and the HBR Blog Network. To read the complete article, check out the wealth of free resources, obtain subscription information, and receive HBR email alerts, please click here.

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The number-one attribute CEOs look for in their incoming workforce (according to an IBM survey of more than 1,500 CEOs across 33 industries and 60 countries) is not discipline, integrity, intelligence, or emotional intelligence. It’s creativity.

After all, every company wants to be at the forefront of its industry and on the cutting edge of innovation. And for that, you need highly creative employees.

While much of the advice on becoming more creative is known, what’s harder to figure out is how busy executives actually find time to put it into practice. To find out, I spoke to some of the most innovative leaders across key industries, from technology to consulting to manufacturing. Here’s what they said.

Seek out unfamiliarity. Research shows that we are at our most creative when we are in an unfamiliar environment. One study showed that spending a few days out in nature disconnected from all devices — an unfamiliar and unusual experience for most people — led to a 50% increase in creativity.

But if you don’t have several days to retreat to the woods, how do you make time for new experiences? Terykson Fernando, former Creative Director at Hubbl (which sold to Airpush for $10 million) and now Creative Director at Sattva, tries to integrate observation into everyday activities. “The entire universe is filled with ideas and has in it what I am trying to create, so I take clues from everyday life by observing every little thing and being inquisitive about the how, why, what of things around me.”

If that’s not quite enough of a push, Lars Bastholm, global CCO at Google, offers a tip: “I used to tell creatives who were stuck on a brief to go to the magazine store and buy three magazines that they’d never in a million years buy. Like Orthodontist Monthly, The World of Monster Trucking, that sort of thing. Then I’d suggest they read them cover to cover and try to reframe the brief they were trying to crack with the target audience of those magazines in mind. Usually it would not only be super fun, but it would also open up new avenues of thought that could then be applied to the original brief.”

Simon Mulcahy, interim CMO at Salesforce, recommends an exercise he calls “flipping the binoculars around.” For example, if you’re a bank branch trying to increase customer loyalty, look at a company in a completely different industry, like Starbucks, and ask how it keeps customers coming back.

Get feedback from diverse sources. 

While not every study agrees, there is a good amount of research showing that diverse groups are more creative. The leaders I talked to not only made an effort to bring together people from different backgrounds and perspectives but also took the time to talk to people outside their industry about their ideas.

Rufus Griscom, serial entrepreneur and CEO and founder of Heleo, puts it this way: “Ideas are like people — they don’t like to be isolated or treated jealously. They like to mingle, interact with other ideas.”

“Like most young entrepreneurs, I used to be worried that if I shared a new business idea too broadly, someone else would run with it, and I would lose the opportunity,” he told me. “Now, when I have a promising business idea, I literally share it with every smart person I encounter who has any interest in it. This results in introductions and new information, and it increases the likelihood that the idea will one day turn into a business.”

Phil Harris, SVP and Chief Strategy Officer at Riverbed, adds an important reminder. Inside an organization, really listening to this feedback is just as important as soliciting it: “When we are in a room, there are no titles, grades, seniority. All voices have equal weight and all have equal time. Everyone knows they are listened to, and their contribution is always given time. Everyone is in a relationship that is based on trust and honesty, and not always the easy kind of honesty.”

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Here is a direct link to the complete article.

Emma Seppälä, Ph.D., is author of The Happiness Track, Co-Director of the Yale College Emotional Intelligence Project and Faculty Director of the Women’s Leadership Program at the Yale School of Management. She is also Science Director of Stanford University’s Center for Compassion and Altruism Research and Education. Follow her on Twitter @emmaseppala or her website



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