To Follow Checklists, or, To Create Cultures: How Should We lead Creative Talent?

EcheverriaHere is a guest article by Lina Echeverría who spent twenty-five years inspiring creativity and accelerating innovation at Corning Incorporated, one of America’s leading technology companies. She led teams of scientists and researchers at Corning that developed everything from the ceramic filters for car exhausts, glasses for TV screens, dental bridges, and dinnerware. She was part of a culture that has provided the world with everything from the optical fiber that is the backbone of the Internet to the glass used as the tough but beautiful touchscreen for iPhones. Her latest book is Idea Agent: Leadership that Liberates Creativity and Accelerates Innovation.

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A recent contribution on managing creative talent by Tomás Chamorro-Premuzic in a Harvard Business Review article certainly has created controversy. There have been 741 respondents (thus far) and counting, and this reaction also went viral on the Internet and Twitter. No, it was not contagious enthusiasm that ignited the fire. Most of it would more aptly be described as vitriolic indignation. Creative talent felt patronized and disrespected whereas those managing creative talent reacted to the at times unfitting, and even peculiar advice.

Yes, the nature of a blog, meant to capture imaginations through abbreviated text, to offer actionable checklists with the illusory promise of instant relief, may have contributed to Chamorro-Pemuzic’s failure to address, responsibly, a difficult and significant issue. But the reaction was most probably kindled by his tone of condescension (for effect? To stir up a ruckus?) as well as by his list of disarticulated actionable steps. He failed to recognize the challenge for what it should be: a wholesome effort at creating a culture. What brings great results of innovation and breakthroughs is not managing talent by following a checklist, but creating a culture within which talent flourishes. Few people have understood this, and articulated it more eloquently, than has Warren Bennis. From the introduction to his 1997 book with Patricia Biederman, Organizing Genius: The Secrets of Creative Collaboration, the insights from his case studies come through loud and clear: the most successful groups resulted from a mutually respectful marriage between an able leader and an assemblage of extraordinary people. Not all of us are leading groups through the challenges faced by the Manhattan project team, or the Skunk Works, or the Disney Team, or Xerox PARC, or the rebellious MacIntosh team. But for all of our teams, our challenge represents a unique opportunity “to change the world” as Steve Jobs characterized it when challenging John Sculley to leave Pepsico to join Apple. Leadership determines whether or not a team succeeds. So let’s take a page—or, rather, a few pages—from Bennis’ analysis of Great Groups.

“Moody, erratic, eccentric and arrogant?” asks Chamorro-Premuzic. The fact is that creative talent comes in all flavors, just as human beings do. And it is not that you can’t just get rid of them, as he suggests. Rather, that you want them to come in different personalities, and expertise, and interests, and hobbies and moods. Greatness starts with superb people, and recruiting the most talented people is the first task of a leader. Recruiting more than enormous talent and intelligence, but original minds. Creatives—whether in art, science, medicine, architecture, advertising, the list goes on—see things differently; they can spot gaps; they have a knack for discovering interesting stuff. They have broad interests that give them multiple frames of reference. You want to find these, and you need to have the confidence to recruit when you find those who are better than yourself, those who will challenge you. Because it is through the interaction with great minds that a leader can forge a great group.

Chamorro-Premuzic advises that creatives be surrounded by “semi-boring people.” Collaboration is a necessity in Great Groups: most nontrivial problems require collective solutions. From the creation of the first full-length animated film to that of the first radar-evading plane, collaboration is a necessity. But not every genius works well with others. Conflict will arise as people with diverse views and different (and, yes, sometimes prickly, but not necessarily) personalities propose opposing approaches. As Oppenheimer learned well, the leader must know the personalities, understand the issues and manage the dynamics. Creating teams that work is just as important as providing creatives with freedom from constraining time, dress code and bureaucratic requirements.

Bennis reminds us that “too many companies believe that people are interchangeable. Truly gifted people never are. They have unique talents. Such people cannot be forced into roles they are not suited for.” So it is not that talented creative people should be surrounded by “semi-boring” people so as to avoid conflict. Rather, it is that (1) conflict should be embraced as a creative force and actively managed and (2) great people should be allowed to do the work they are suited for, whether inventing the future or figuring out how to implement the vision. The ability to find superb people and put each on the right niche was one of Walt Disney’s crucial leadership skills. “When the person and the task are properly matched,” we hear from Bennis, “the work can proceed with passion. Great Groups allow participants to find their workplace bliss.” And if you have hired with heart, you will find within your team all the different skills your project needs. Now, proceed to create teams with the necessary skills. And manage, do not avoid, the conflict that may ensue.

Much has been investigated and reported on the impact of pay on intrinsic motivation. Again and again, members of Bennis’ great groups reported that they would have done the work for nothing, that the reward is the creative process itself, especially the collaboration it requires. The Disney enterprise found an important exception to that view when faced with an exodus of talent moving towards the better-paid jobs offered by DreamWorks. Few places could afford the doubling in animators’ salaries that Disney offered overnight in the wake of the first few defections. The lesson would be that in a competitive world, allowing intrinsic motivation—rather than good pay—to bring food to the table of creative talents is not a wise policy. But a potential drain in talent should not be the only motivator for good pay. Recognition of excellence should. Great Groups understand and strive for excellent results in all they do. Great Groups are made up of people who have achieved mastery, at an internal level as well as the national and international levels. One of the reasons Oppenheimer was able to attract the best of the best scientists was that those yet-to-be-recruited recognized their fellow peers from the international physics world they all shared.

Members of Great Groups are highly-driven people, who respond to recognition. Externally, through publications and awards. Internally, through good pay. Yes, they are driven by their passion and love it so that they would “work for nothing.” But this does not mean that they are immune to acknowledgement and appreciation. Most are grateful for it and many thrive in credit and recognition. Leaders of Great Groups understand what sustains morale and reduces stress. Though not the only one, good pay is one of their secrets. It makes members feel important to the organization that pays them and, by so doing, recognizes their excellence.

To lead creative talent, to be the first in your endeavor, to deliver the next breakthrough, what it takes is the creation of a culture. As early as 1997 Bennis in his book exhorted us to “recognize a new paradigm: not great leaders alone, but great leaders who exist in a fertile relationship with a Great Group. In these creative alliances the leader and the team are able to achieve something together that neither could achieve alone. The leader finds greatness in the group. And he or she helps the members find in themselves.” Perhaps it is time we heed his advice.

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To read my interview of Lina, please click here.

To read my review of Idea Agent, please click here.

Lina Echeverría spent twenty-five years inspiring creativity and accelerating innovation at Corning Incorporated, one of America’s leading technology companies. She led teams of scientists and researchers at Corning that developed everything from the ceramic filters for car exhausts, glasses for TV screens, dental bridges, and dinnerware. She was part of a culture that has provided the world with everything from the optical fiber that is the backbone of the Internet to the glass used as the tough but beautiful touchscreen for iPhones.

At Corning, Echeverría created an environment where scientists were both creative and productive, where teams balanced the ability to explore the edges of possibility, while also delivering critical new technology on time and on budget. Echeverría was known not just for her ability to effectively lead and manage (and keep happy) creative scientists, she was known for her ability to teach those skills to other managers. During her career, she managed teams and led organizations both in Corning, New York, and in Fontainebleau, France.

Echeverría began challenging convention early, as a student in her native Colombia. She was the first woman to seek admission and to graduate with a degree in engineering geology from the Universidad Nacional de Colombia at Medellín, opening the door to a new field for a generation of women in a school with a tradition as the most rigorous in the country in engineering. She went on to earn a Ph.D. in geology at Stanford.

After winning a fight against aggressive breast cancer, Echeverría stepped aside from the corporate world to focus on her passions: helping create cultures of innovation inside companies and organizations, and creating wearable textile art in her studio. The mother of two children, she is fluent in English, Spanish, and French, and has lived in four different countries. She lives in upstate New York with her husband, also a research scientist, and their two greyhounds.

Lina cordially invites you to check out the resources at her website by clicking here.

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