Webinar Q&A | Managing the Creative When you Can’t Hang Their Work on the Fridge

There are thousands of books focused on managing people, but typically the focus is on industry, region, or demographic. Rarely do we address one of the most challenging populations to manage: the creative.

In the training industry, the creatives on your team are the lifeblood of your organization. They keep your product fresh; they solve the most difficult problems, often inventing something that never existed; and inject energy into an environment that can be fraught with challenges.

The issue you face is how to manage the creative while not impeding creativity. This includes the following key aspects:

  • the importance of praise and recognition
  • the balance of freedom with accountability
  • finding the key to motivation
  • choosing the important battles
  • embracing differences while establishing consistency

How do we encourage this creativity while simultaneously running a business? We need to get creative in our approach. During a recent ATD webcast, we threw out those old leadership books and started the conversation together. If you missed the session, a recording is now available online. However, if you are looking for the abbreviated version, here are some of the key takeaways I shared:

  • The importance of constructive feedback grounded in examples – this prevents hurt feelings when there are differences of opinions
  • The importance of honest conversation with regards to time management – timeline games rarely work in the long run
  • Giving senior leadership the space to voice feedback and opinions, but then giving the creative team space to process that feedback independently and generate solutions
  • The ever changing balance between autonomy versus support – something that is different for everyone

After the presentation, several great questions came up from the audience and I wanted to share them with you. Below are those questions and my best answers. This is an ongoing conversation, and I encourage you to keep the questions coming in via the comments section at the bottom of this page. ­

Q: How do you assess the value of a creative employee? Most creative employees provide intangibles that are not measured by most company reviews.

A: That is an incredibly tricky question as there is no real concrete way to measure performance or outcomes. Structuring value based on results is my best recommendation. Are the solutions created in the scope and timeline for the customer? Was the result of value to the customer? These are the ways to determine a creative’s value – their output and results.

Q: How do you balance fairness with treating individual flexibility differently?

A: Everyone’s solution many look different but the basics should be consistent. Everyone should have the same expectations of the number of hours worked (as per contract), the level of effort, communication (although means of communication may differ), and flexibility. Ensuring that each employee receives motivation and support is key, too.

Q: Do you have any suggestions for making organizational culture change around what makes creatives most productive and successful? In other words, how do we get the people who are furthest from thinking this way to get closer to thinking this way?

A: This is tricky as well. I spoke a lot about return on investment. Grounding creative approaches in the results they will drive is a key to helping the “not-as-creatives” adapt to a new way of thinking.  Also go easy on them – it may take them time. Take metered doses.

Q: Do you find these creative precepts are applicable to millennials?

A: Absolutely. However, creatives show no generational bounds but yes, these are applicable to millennials as well. Millennials will definitely have challenges with traditional office components like hours, location, and forms of communication.

Q: What was the name of the book you mentioned during your presentation?

A: Managing Humans: Biting and Humorous Tales of a Software Engineering Manager.

Q: What are some simple and cheap ways to motivate and recognize employees?

A: Some simple ideas we discussed were printing some screenshots of their work product and framing them to hang around the office, sending simple emails and written praise, and words.

Q: Regarding freedom with accountability, is there a common denominator for performance and accountability, or is the employee with some flexibility and performance of “7” going to be under more scrutiny than a 9-5er in the office who also has a performance of “7?”

A: I think it is natural for the flexible person to be under scrutiny because we naturally have trouble believing the things that we cannot see. However, that is one of the stereotypes that we need to work hard to break. Just because someone is sitting in an office does not mean they are more productive.

Q: I run into the situation where management has an expectation to be included, but are unable to contribute any creativity…they tend to be critical as opposed to being open. What can a creative person do to assist management to participate in the conversation versus criticizing it?

A: Give them their defined space to offer feedback, and then give the creatives defined space (without them) to process it and create solutions. Senior leadership needs to have their time to provide feedback just as much as the creatives need to have their time to vent and be frustrated before they come up with solutions.

Q: Are there any ways creative employees can make things easier for their managers?

A: Open and honest communication. I could go on, but that is another webinar for another time. 🙂


Sheri Weppel

Sheri Weppel started her career as an art teacher covered in finger paint, clearly teaching people about out-of-the-box thinking (or at least off-the-construction-paper thinking). While working on her master’s degree in Instructional Design and Development at Lehigh University, she realized that we could learn a lot from the public-school classroom. Concepts like micro-learning, learning styles, gaming, and training on demand were common in grade school, but were considered new concepts in the corporate sector.

Because one degree is never enough, Sheri continued her studies at Lehigh with a focus on Gaming for Instruction. In her spare time, she spent her evenings losing to her husband in Scrabble and wanting to throw the letter Q across the room, making her realize the emotional attachments we can have to games. If we could harness that desire to succeed, compete, or win to a learning environment, what impact could we have on learner motivation?

Countless games of Scrabble later, Sheri started at GP Strategies as an Instructional Designer and was able to inject those concepts into solutions for her customers. This is often a challenge for customers that want to use gaming but often don’t believe they have the time or budget required to successfully launch into the gaming space. Sheri is driven to help these clients find a balance in embedding gaming elements into instruction in a practical manner.

In the past nine years, Sheri has held many roles within the organization, from instructional designer to sales lead for blended learning, and is now focusing on the off-the-shelf product GPiLEARN+, growing the product into a true blended learning solution. Regardless of her role, Sheri is always focused on working with customers to help build impactful training solutions that focus on the needs of all populations. She helps clients determine specifically when to incorporate gaming versus using hands-on, traditional approaches.

When she is not working, Sheri enjoys having adventures with her dog Olivia, attending barre classes, and learning new three-letter words that begin with the letter Q.

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