Todd Henry joined us for a Facebook Live to discuss his latest book Herding Tigers: Be the Leader Creative People. Taylor Lowry, Innovation and Growth Strategist, led the thought-provoking hour-long chat with Todd as he answered questions about the book and gave some specific leadership advice to entrepreneurs, intrapreneurs, and creatives.
Be sure to watch the video below to view the full discussion, but here are four answers from Todd that are most applicable to Bigco leaders and teams:
Taylor: So I know this book is specifically geared towards creatives but we’ve found it to be super applicable to what we do across different business functions, so how would you speak to those who maybe aren’t in a creative position?
Todd: Well, so I think one of the challenges that we often conflate creativity with art. I hear people say, all the time, “Well, I’m not creative.” “But what do you do,” I ask. “Well, I’m a marketing manager at a company.” And I say, “What do you mean you’re not creative?” They’re like, “Oh, I’m a sales manager.” “What do you mean you’re not creative?” You have to solve problems, every single day. That’s what you do. And if you’re solving problems you’re being creative, that’s what creativity is.
“If you’re solving problems you’re being creative.” – Todd Henry
Now, a designer will solve problems by designing something. But an entrepreneur or an intrapreneur, has to solve problems by identifying an area of white space. Something to build a solution that could help solve that problem, or identify a need or a pain point or something like that— you’re solving problems, you’re being creative. And so the reality is most of us have to be creative on a daily basis, to function at a job because we have to solve problems. And so I would argue that the principles in this book apply to any group of people who are trying to largely uncertain work, trying to solve problems on a daily basis and have to sort of figure it out as they go — that’s really who the book is written for.
Taylor: There is a matrix in the book describing that as a leader, there are two key things that your people need from you, and that’s, both, stability and challenge. But as more companies are learning how to pivot quickly and encouraging quick reaction to change, I’m curious: How you would encourage leaders to still provide that stability and challenge while also being in this era of agility and pivoting?
Todd: It’s important that we understand how we’re engaging one another: what’s expected of us, and what we expect from one another. You cannot expect people, highly talented creative people to exist within an unstable process with unstable expectations where the game is constantly shifting. Creative people need freedom, but freedom within a clear set of rails, a clear philosophy that’s guiding the process.
A lot of highly creative people need to be given permission to take risks. I know that seems counterintuitive because a lot of times, we think of entrepreneurs and creative types as risk-takers — inherently, they’re risk-takers. But the reality is, many of them are somewhat risk-averse. They need to be given permission to take risks, to try and do things, to experiment, to push to the edge of the boundary.
“Creative people need freedom, but freedom within a clear set of rails.” – Todd Henry
If they don’t know where the boundary is, then they’ll shrink back and they’ll just hover close to the middle where they know it’s safe. So we have to create an environment in which people feel free to take risks or are being given permission to take risks. We see them, we know them, we understand who they are and what drives them. And we’re pushing them to venture out into those uncomfortable places but within a clear set of boundaries or within a guiding philosophy that helps them understand, clearly, what to expect from the process.
“We have to create an environment in which people feel free to take risks.” – Todd Henry
These are the two things that highly creative people need, stability and challenge. The problem is that those two things exist in tension. So as we stabilize the process, we tend to decrease the amount of challenge because things become more predictable. But as you increase the amount of challenge, you could increase the amount of stability. And different people on your team are going to need a different balance of stability and challenge so you need to understand, not just, as a whole, sort of where do we fit on that matrix, in stability and challenge? But what is it that the individuals on my team will need, in order to be able to thrive? Because it’s going to be different for different people.
Taylor: So giving permission to take risks inherently means your team is more likely to encounter failure. Can you talk about how to lead the team through failure when it inevitably happens, and make sure it’s a positive, productive experience, not a crushing one?
Todd: Sometimes, not always, in reality, failing is a crushing experience; you work and work, and put your heart and your soul into something, and when it fails it hurts. And you have to give people permission to grieve. I think there are three things we have to do as leaders. Number one, we have to talk about what happened. So let’s agree on a common story about what happened. Why did this fail?
Number two, what did we learn from this? So what are some of the things that we anticipated would happen that didn’t happen? And number three, how can we apply these learnings to what’s going to happen next? This is a big cliche but failure is never a problem. But failing twice, in the same way, that’s a huge problem. So if you fail? Fine. Learn and move on. But never fail in the same way twice because if you do, then you’re not doing a good job as a leader.
Taylor: Your book talks about how your title and role at work should not be closely tied to your own personal identity. But as we know, in many company cultures (especially big companies), incentives, authority, and your influence are very much closely tied to your title and role. So what would be your encouragement for intrapreneurs to disconnect that personal identity from their specific title in order to take on better and more calculated risks?
Todd: I think it’s a little bit reductive and maybe even naive when I hear people say, “Well, you are not your work,” or, “Your work is not your identity.”
In theory, absolutely. But I do think that it’s really difficult to parse who you are from the value that you put into the world, especially when you’re doing creative work that’s largely tied to your creative intuition, to how you perceive yourself in the world, and the value that you put out into the world. A rejection of your work, is not a rejection of you, as a human being, but it is a rejection of your perspective, of your intuition, and of your decision-making. And so, yes, you are not your work but, to some degree, it’s difficult to parse your creative intuition and how you see your role in the world from the product you put out into the world.
As we take ground, try new things, take risks, and become known for something, all of a sudden, it’s really easy for us to turn around and become very protective of that thing we’ve become known for. We stop growing and we stop taking risks because it becomes more about protecting the ground we’ve already taken than taking new ground.
And there’s a growth curve (I wrote about this in my book, “Louder Than Words”) that we follow as we progress in our career. It starts by maybe learning a new skill, trying a new thing, or taking a new job. And then, we always learn by emulating other people around us. And most of us have a manager or a mentor early in our career that kind of shows us the ropes. And then early in our career as a manager, we start emulating those people. And that’s kind of how we learn how to manage. And then, at some point, we begin to find our stride and develop our own unique voice; that’s when we begin taking risk and trying new things and following our intuition.
“As we become known for something, all of a sudden, it’s really easy for us to turn around and become very protective of it. We stop growing and we stop taking risks because it becomes more about protecting the ground we’ve already taken than taking new ground.” – Todd Henry
This is, often, where we experience tremendous career growth and we begin becoming known for a thing. Except, the moment we become known for a thing, it’s a really dangerous place for us because we inevitably hit a point where—and I call this crisis phase—we begin to top-off. What we’ve been doing is no longer sufficient to get us to where we want to go. I call it the crisis phase because, for most people, looking at our career, we’re still doing what we’ve always done, and it looks like we’re still performing at our peak, but deep down, we have the sense that we’ve begun to phone it in. We know that we’re not any longer taking the kinds of risks that excite us, that are causing us to grow, to try new things. And this applies to both companies and individuals.
And so we have two choices that we can make when we hit that stall: We can either begin a new growth curve, which means going all the way back to the discovery phase. Learning something new, trying something new, emulating other people, being willing to fail in the process. Or we can begin down the backside of the curve. Because if we’re not growing, eventually, we’re going to die. And so I think for people who feel like they’re in that place where I’m not taking risks, I’m not trying new things, it could very well be that you’re in crisis-phase.
If that’s your organization, by the way, if your organization’s in a place where you’re a one-product wonder and you’re sort of out there and you’re hammering that product,at some point, if we don’t continue to grow, and try new things, and experiment, and diversify, we’re going to begin down the backend of the curve. You need to have some kind of a Skunkworks-type of area in your life, in your career, in your organization, where you’re playing around, developing new products, trying new things, experimenting/failing — in order to begin that new curve. Because if you don’t, eventually, you’re going to die.
“Failure is a byproduct of trying difficult things.” – Todd Henry
So the key to decoupling yourself from that risk aversion is a willingness to be wrong, a willingness to fail, a willingness to decouple yourself from the thing that you’re known for and to try something, maybe, that other people think is risky but that excites you in the same way that, that early idea that got you where you are, excited you. And, to some degree, you just have to be humble enough to say, “If I fail, I fail. And I’m going to wear it as a badge of honor and I’m going to move forward.”
Failure is never the goal. It drives me crazy when I hear people saying, let’s fail. No, failure is not the goal. Failure is a byproduct of trying difficult things.If you’re trying hard enough, eventually, you’re going to fail— that’s great. But failure’s never the goal and failure is no a badge of honor to wear. It’s something you learn from and you move on. If you’re not regularly failing in your career or as an organization in some capacity, then you’re probably not pushing yourself hard enough.
Thank you to everyone who tuned into the Facebook Live and to Todd Henry for dedicating an hour and providing such sage advice. This is our first of hopefully many Facebook Live events with notable authors and thought leaders. Be sure to subscribe to our newsletter and follow us on Facebook to make sure you learn about the next one.