If you’re a business owner, you’ve been here before: you’ve gathered your team into the board room (or Zoom meeting), you’re looking to bounce ideas around, and you open the floor for suggestions...and you get crickets.”
“Anyone have any ideas? Or questions?” you ask. Blank stares.
As much as you may wish it, your team won’t just become a creative, eager, and self-motivated bunch overnight--or by accident.
So how can you help them get there? I’m reminded from time to time of a quote that captures leadership well: “Healthy things grow.” Like plants in a garden that has good soil, enough water, and the right amount of sunlight.
Your role as a leader is to create an environment that fosters growth in your team members. Want to know something ironic though? Many of the most common roadblocks that hinder that environment aren’t the employees...it’s us, the leaders. If we’re not intentional about fostering that creativity, we’re not likely to see it “in the wild”.
Today, we’ll tackle the two prongs of cultivating your team’s creative potential:
De facto, as a business owner, you’ve got to be willing to bet on yourself – your own intuition and business savvy. After all, it’s what draws us down the entrepreneurial path! Sometimes though, that confident, self-reliant streak runs the risk of stamping out the creative potential of our employees.
If we’re not careful, our business might look like a road trip - one person in the driver’s seat with everyone else strapped in for the ride. If you want to drive meaningful business growth, your employees need a true seat at the “creative table”.
And while that might throw off the status-quo, it’s ultimately a benefit not only to your company, but to you--because coming up with the next new idea won’t all be on your shoulders. When you have more contributors, you’ll be able to pick from more ideas, anticipate more threats, and multiply the forces that are trailblazing your company’s growth.
Here are a few ways that you can be the kind of leader that fosters more and better creative contributions from the team you have today.
Creative ideas, much like plants, don’t succeed just because they were planted - they need support. And support requires ownership and participation.
Which means, when it comes to decision making, you can’t just keep your thought process close to the chest--as tempting as it may be for the sake of speed, clarity, and efficiency. To help your team get skin in the game, there are three types of people that I always recommend business owners make space for at the table.
As a leader, you do need a measure of confidence - both for yourself and for your team. But the kind of confidence you need in order to foster creativity? It can require a little bit of humility...Here’s what “confident humility” looks like:
GIVE FREEDOM TO SPEAK CANDIDLY. When your team is scared of hurting your feelings – and facing your consequences – because of honest criticism, you’ve immediately handicapped your ability to improve. I’m not talking about actual insults and disrespect (though it might feel like it from time to time). Decide to be ok with being told you’re wrong and be willing to be corrected in the process.
DON'T IMMEDIATELY DISMISS IDEAS. One of the fastest ways to disengage your staff is to consistently dismiss their ideas. If your staff feels unappreciated or misunderstood, you chip away at their willingness to bring you their creative ideas. Give your team members the opportunity to flesh out their thinking and develop their own critical thinking skills. Don’t immediately shut down ideas.
BE WILLING TO IMPLEMENT THEIR IDEAS. As a leader, you might not always trust your team’s ideas, especially if the stakes are high. I would encourage you though, where the stakes are lower, be willing to implement their insight (even if it’s not exactly how you would have done it). As you and your employees get practice sharing and implementing ideas, their capacity for creativity will accelerate rapidly. And that’s well worth some discomfort on your part.
DON'T BE APOCALYPTIC. You often carry more weight on your shoulders than your team is aware. One of the fastest ways to crush creativity is to put the full weight of a crisis on them. If there’s an urgent situation where you need their creative juices flowing, be honest, but posture your prompts positively. Rather than blurting out, “Our lease is being cancelled and we need to find a new space right away!!” -- posture it as, “What would you want in an office space if we had to move?” Get the idea? One produces panic, the other produces insight.
Okay, I’m done picking on you as the leader. Now let’s talk about your team. Believe it or not, even “creatives” need a little TLC to get the juices flowing. Without it, they might be able to churn out the occasional clever idea--but if you want to maximize their potential as consistent, reliable innovators, you need to understand and cultivate creativity as a process. That way you can come to rely on their creativity as an asset.
Here are a few tenets of nurturing a reliable creative process.
Creative people have the need for consistent creative exercise. When you don’t provide freedom to your staff to exercise their creativity, that muscle weakens, and it might become hard to depend on it when you need it most.
Making time for creativity requires more than just turning your employees loose and telling them to “let you know” if they have an idea. It’s kind of like working out - if you say you’re going to do it but don’t block out time for it, it’s not going to be sustained.
As an example, I would recommend hosting regular collaborative sessions with your team where you work with them to innovate their work (processes, tools, etc) or even the offer you’re providing based on their client interactions. The more their innovation affects their personal work experience, the more active they will be in thinking creatively.
One of the benefits of practicing set “creative time” is that your team gets practice working creatively within clearly defined boundaries. Many creative thinkers can struggle with being perfectionists in their work--which usually translates to late or under-developed results.
By consistently carving space for the creative process, you can better structure smaller benchmarks that help pace your team members’ progress. If they have a clear view of their end goal and designated time to work towards it along the way, they can better deliver the results you need from their creativity.
If you’re like me, your “business brain” never really turns off. No matter the day of the week, I’m constantly mulling over concerns, ideas, possibilities – it’s just the way we’re wired. But of course, this usually means we’re already miles ahead of our team once our train of thought has picked up steam.
If you want to put your team in the best position to contribute their own innovative thinking, you need to give them space (when possible) to process what you’ve been thinking about. Rather than having a single team meeting to hash out an idea, you might find it more valuable to have a short team meeting to introduce the idea and clarify the goal, and then give your team time to think on it on their own.
Remember, creativity is best leveraged as a process of exploration, not an on-demand vending machine. It takes time, practice, and dedication--but will pay dividends in the long run as your team begins to generate more ideas and take more ownership of their contribution to your business.