How can you release control and maintain high standards? Todd Henry returns to the podcast, this time to speak about this 64 million dollar question (and others!) from his newest book, Herding Tigers: Be the Leader Creative People Need. Discover the pitfalls of moving from a creative role to a leadership role, how to protect your team’s focus, and why you should make something for someone – not for just anyone.
TweetsAre you doing the work or are you developing people to do the work? @toddhenry discusses #HerdingTigers and how to manage a team of creative people
Peter: Welcome to the Bregman Leadership Podcast. I’m Peter Bregman, your host and CEO of Bregman Partners. This podcast is part of my mission to help you get massive traction on the things that matter most.
Joining us on the podcast, once again, by popular demand, is Todd Henry. He has written the book, most recently, Herding Tigers: Be the Leader that Creative People Need. He was on the show earlier for The Accidental Creative, another book that he’d written. He is the founder of The Accidental Creative, a company that helps people and teams in many different industries, with a real focus on creatives, which is what this book is about. I’m delighted to have him on. Welcome to the Bregman Leadership Podcast, Todd.
Todd: Peter, it is great to be back. Thanks for having me.
Peter: I love this book, and I think it deals with a couple of essential issues. Why don’t you give us the big picture view of the underlying big idea of this book?
Todd: Yeah, so for many years, I’ve worked with what I call create-on-demand professionals. These are people who have to go to work, solve problems, figure it out every day, basically have to be creative at a moment’s notice, which, by the way, is most of us today in the marketplace. That’s what we do.
I targeted most of my earlier work and books at individuals and helping individuals be creative and generate better ideas and build a body of work they can be proud of. People would come up to me at events. I’d be speaking at a company or a conference, and they would say, “Hey, thank you for what you’ve done for my life and for my creative process and for helping me be more productive and organized, but let me introduce you to my manager, who totally doesn’t get what it takes for me to have to do my work every day.”
I kept hearing this over and over and over again, because we can be as organized as we want to be, and we can have all of our ducks in a row as a create-on-demand professional, but if our organization doesn’t understand and value what’s necessary for creative pros to thrive, then it’s all going to be for not, and so I wanted to write a book that was targeted at those managers, people who have to lead creative people every day, who are trying to tackle difficult, complex work and somehow navigate a team of really highly talented people through this complex work toward an end that will make everybody happy. That’s really what the book is targeted toward, helping managers understand what it is creative people really need in order to thrive.
Peter: I love that. As you say, most managers are, certainly in professional services of some sort or other, are managing creatives, meaning people who are problem solving and creative. The more I read the book, the more I seemed to understand the complexity of a creative person moving from an individual contributor to a leadership role, that ultimately a lot of the managers of creatives were once creatives.
People in creative work, and you and I are both in creative work as writers and in other work that we do, but you really maintain a tremendous amount of control over your product. You have an amazing podcast. You have tremendous control over that. You’re an amazing writer. You have tremendous control.
Letting that go is psychologically incredibly challenging. When you’re passing work to other people, you have to let that go. How do you help managers get to the place where they can maintain high standards and still let go of some of the control that we’re used to having in our creative work? This might be the $64 million question.
Peter: You know, this is unfortunately a principle, which is very unfortunately named The Peter Principle, which is that people are promoted to their level of incompetence, right?
Todd: That’s right, yes.
Peter: You do something really great, so you get promoted. You do that really well. You get promoted. Suddenly, you’re not doing that so well anymore, and that’s where you stay for the rest of your career, and it builds careers of mediocrity. I hate the name, but there you have it.
Todd: That’s right. That’s right. Well, yeah, I’m sorry about that. It’s unfortunate, but it’s so-
Peter: Just to be clear to listeners, it was not named after me.
Todd: It’s so common, and the unfortunate part of that is that there are people who are really great at what they do, who only see a career path in front of them if they take that additional level of responsibility, if they move on, right? Well, what makes a great salesperson is not what makes a great sales manager. What makes a great designer is not what makes a great design director or creative director or art director, right? Those are very different things, and so what I have to help people understand, as they transition into those roles with more responsibility is it’s no longer your job to do the work. It’s your job to lead the work.
The outcome of your work, the outcome of what you do every day, isn’t necessarily that product at the end, although you’re accountable for that, as well, but it’s how you’re developing the team that you lead to be able to produce a great product in the end. It’s really about reframing the story for them, in many ways, which by the way, like you said, it’s the $64 million question. It is, because this is really where the rubber meets the road, in terms of leadership. Are you doing the work, or are you developing people to do the work? That’s a really difficult thing to parse sometimes.
Peter: You identified the very precise challenge, Todd, which is on the one hand, you are responsible for developing the people. On the other hand, you’re also accountable for the work.
Todd: You are, yes. That’s right. That’s right.
Peter: It’s not like … For me, when I’m a coach, and I’m going into an organization, I have some freedom, because I’m not actually accountable for the work.
Todd: That’s right.
Peter: I could be an amazing developer of people, without having to stress about the accountability for the work, so I could give enough time to the process to make it work. Now, it would be great if everybody had that mindset, because it works, but it’s hard to have that mindset, when you’re accountable to your manager for the project.
Todd: Right, that’s right. It is. That’s why, well, first of all, that’s why you have to change that narrative, I think, for people. I think you have to help people understand, first of all, just at least assent to the fact that my job is now different. Now that I am a leader of people, I have responsibilities I didn’t have before. It’s not just what’s in front of me, and it’s not just the work. It’s the people who are doing the work, but that also means I need to be more strategic about how I’m organizing my team and how I’m organizing the work, because there’s going to come a time in the life of any project where, right now, it really is more about the quality of the product than it is about the people doing the product, right?
I can’t turn in a subpar project to a client and say, “Well, you know, but my people really developed a lot in the course of this. Yeah, we messed up your project, but my people really developed a lot in the midst of …” No, that’s not going to work, right? There comes a time when you have to step in and control the work to make it what it needs to be. The question that I always pose to people is, is that at every point in the process? Right? Do you have any point in the process where you’re releasing control, where you’re allowing people to have their say, you’re allowing them to take risks, to try things, to develop their capacity to understand the thing systemically? Are you teaching them how to think about the work, or are you teaching them what to think about the work?
These are different things for a leader. Teaching them what to think about the work is stepping in, controlling it, telling them what to do, not explaining to them why you’re doing it, just saying, “Do it this way. Make it this way. Go do these things.” Okay, great, but what’s going to happen if you’re hit by a bus? Your team’s not going to be able to do the work anymore. Are you teaching them how to think about the work, and why, the underlying why, of the decisions you’re making? That’s a very different mindset, and that’s a mindset that people struggle to make the transition to, as those who are really, really good at what they do. Instead, we’re really tempted just to step in.
It’s like if you were trying to teach somebody how to write a book, and you just basically told them what to write. Well, your next paragraph needs to be this, and your next paragraph needs to be this, and then you’re going to go into this. Well, that’s fine. They can do that, but they’re not going to learn how to write a book that way, right?
Todd: All they’re going to learn is how Peter writes a book.
Peter: Well, and it brings me to this distinction between directiveness and coaching, and that really it’s a … When people are promoted from creatives or from individual contributor to leader, they really need to be taught how to lead, which often doesn’t happen. They have to be taught what that means. My view of a leader, which it sounds like you agree with, is their most important job is to create an independently capable team.
Peter: If their team is independently capable, they can go off and do leaderly things, but if their team is not independently capable, they’re going to be stuck doing the work. You can’t develop capability by telling people what to do. To your point, you have to coach them about how to do it.
Todd: That’s right. It’s more about leading by influence than leading by control. Control is about presence and influence is about principle. If they understand the principles by which you make decisions, and you’re teaching that, and you’re modeling it over and over and over again, well then, like you said, they’re going to be able to perform, even in your absence. If it’s about control, which means it’s about presence, then you have to be physically present in order for someone to feel like they can make decision. If that’s the case, often you’re going to hear things like, “Well, just tell me what to do,” right? “I’ll just wait until you tell me.” I don’t know how often you … I’ve heard that so often in organizations. “Listen, just tell me what to do,” because, A, you don’t understand how to offer feedback to people. You’re not on a journey with them, and instead, you’re just trying to control their work.
That’s going to work for a while. It is. Honestly, that’s the shortcut to getting good-looking work in the short term, but it’s not going to work in the long term, because it’s not a good talent retention strategy. Talented people don’t want to be in that environment for very long, and so they’re going to move on.
Peter: What are some tips that you can give leaders? One of them is focus on principles, right?
Peter: So that they learn the structure of how to approach the work. What are some other tips that you can give leaders, who are wanting to move more to this coaching approach and wanting to develop their talent more, as opposed to telling them what to do?
Todd: Yeah, I think that the most important part of that is developing a clear and consistent leadership philosophy, helping your team understand how you think about the work and your perspective on things like how do you know what a good idea is? How do you determine that? Have you defined for your team what a good idea looks like, or frankly, have you even determined that for yourself, or is it just well, I know it when I see it? Well, that’s not very helpful to the average person.
How do you define what a good idea looks like? How do you want conflict to be handled, or do you have to step in and handle conflict every time it arises? This is another big problem for leaders on a team is anytime there’s conflict, they have to step in and play referee on the team. Well, that’s not necessarily going to scale very well either. How does-
Peter: It’s interesting. To your first point … I just want to back up there for the first point, which is maybe when you’re hiring or you’re promoting a creative to a leader, one of the questions that you want to ask is can they describe what goes into their work?
Peter: Meaning, if I’m a creative person, and I can’t really tell you how I identify a good idea or the thinking that goes into it, if I just say, “Well, I don’t know. It’s a gut thing,” or et cetera, that might reflect that I wouldn’t be a very good leader.
Peter: But if I’m able to say, “I think of a good idea that brings something new to the party, that questions the way that we’ve done things, but not so much that it fights against a culture that will reject it, that …” blah, blah, blah, if I could articulate the criteria that I use to think about what a good idea is, that might reflect that I’m a better manager than if I’m just going by gut. Is that right?
Todd: I agree 100%, and I think part of that is being able to make concrete things that are typically very conceptual. If you have someone who’s able to take something that is often a matter of nuance and opinion and intuition and turn it into something very concrete and say, “Well, when I make decisions, here’s how I make a decision. Here’s how I weigh the different factors. Here’s an example of a time when I didn’t do that, and when I made a bad decision.” Frankly, also, good managers and good leaders have to be good teachers. They have to be people who can take principles and distill them into their essence and communicate them well to the people on their team.
If someone isn’t really able to articulate the reasons why they do things, then that might indicate they really don’t understand why they do things a certain way, and so out of their own insecurity, they might feel a need to control the work, because they’re not really certain why they do what they do. They just have a gut feeling. That’s one of the things you want to be looking for, when you’re promoting people, is are they a capable teacher? Have I seen them bring somebody else along and show them, show somebody else how they do what they do? Have I heard them talk about, in a very clear and coherent way, why they believe something is true, and also in a very tactical, tangible way, why they believe something is true or the best idea? If so, then they probably have some of the marks of leadership, because that’s a lot of what a leader does is teach and coach.
It sounds very cliché, because the reality is most of us, Peter, fall into a makeager role, right? We’re not purely makers or managers. We’re sort of somewhere in between. We’re sort of accountable for some of the work.
Peter: You’re trying to create a new word.
Todd: I … yes, trademark.
Peter: A makeager.
Todd: Right, but that’s really what most of us are. I mean, we’re doing some of the work, and we need to be accountable for doing some of the work, but we can’t be accountable for doing all of the work all the time, and I think that’s where we fall into a trap is when we become the bottleneck for our team, then we’re not allowing them to become the creative pros that they’re capable of being and, frankly, we’re also creating a bottleneck in the organization, because there’s not really a clear succession plan, if I get hit by a bus.
Peter: It’s interesting, because I’ve been in a few situations recently where I’ve really seen this. I’ve been with a leader and their senior team, all senior people, and there’s conflict in the room, and a couple of people aren’t getting along, or they’re disagreeing about something. I see the senior leader in the room, who’s listening for a few minutes, and then very quickly gets to what has to happen and can’t contain themselves so much. The truth is they might be the smartest person in the room. They truly might be, and their solution is usually pretty good. You look at it, and you go, okay, this could go on for another half hour, or this guy could step in and go, “Here’s what I’m seeing, and this is what I think needs to get done,” and it’s reasonable enough that everybody says okay, and we move on.
Peter: I could see why that doesn’t work, right?
Todd: Right, sure.
Peter: Because you’re just developing dependence, right? You’re basically telling everybody, “You never have to work this out on your own. Just come to me, and I’ll solve it.” That creates time issues for the leader, and it creates a lack of capability.
Peter: On the other hand, it’s hard not to solve a problem when you see it.
Todd: It’s inconvenient.
Peter: Yeah, and I guess what you’re saying is live with that inconvenience; live with the emotional tension of having a problem you know that you can answer, but you’re not going to answer; live with the possibility of a suboptimum solution that they get to on their own, even if it takes them two weeks to get there, because ultimately that’s going to teach them what they need to learn. Am I articulating that right?
Todd: Somewhat, yeah, but I would push back on the suboptimum output, right? I think, like I said, there comes a time in every … in the life arc of any project, where you have to step in, and you have to make it what it needs to be, but there also has to be some accommodation within that for people to ask their own questions, develop their own set of hypotheses about what might be best, and play around with ideas, so that they’re developing. They’re learning how to think about the work, right? They’re not just being taught what to do.
I would also say, and I’ve worked with many of those senior leadership teams, as well, and I’ve been in those rooms where those conversations are happening, and they’re never fun, by the way, right? I would say they’re also … A lot of what we’re talking about depends on the timeframe and the stakes. In the room, where you have a lot of big rocks being moved around, sometimes the stakes are so high, we don’t have time.
Peter: Got to step up.
Todd: I think in some of those circumstances, by the time people get to that level in their organizational leadership … I mean, you’re talking about C-suite people and senior VP level people. They get the game. They understand, right? They’ve been developed to the point, or hopefully they’ve been developed to the point that they understand, there are going to be things where we’re just going to go with someone’s gut, because they have the best perspective on it, or we just have to move quickly, whatever it is, but it also depends on the stakes.
I think that if a senior leader just came in and said, “All right, here’s the new vision for our organization. Let’s go. Let’s …” and there was never any conversation at the senior level about that, I would say that’s a real problem, because you have to get buy-in from people on your team, as well.
Peter: Right, right, got it. You know, a huge part of the leader’s work is to hone the focus of the people and to defend that focus, you write about this, by getting rid of any confusing or unnecessary or interfering tasks. That seems especially hard to do when you’re working in an organization with other departments and other teams that have needs for people. I would love for you to give us some tips about how a leader … because I think one of the most important roles of a leader is to block and tackle and create some space for the people, the creatives, the people that are working for you to accomplish what they need to do. How do you manage that dynamic of collaboration and protection?
Todd: Yeah, that’s a real challenge. The best advice I ever got about this, about conflicting expectations from different parts of the organization is … It came from a friend of mine, Ricardo Crespo, who was Global Creative Chief at 20th Century Fox and Mattel, and now I think he calls himself a Creative Ronin, which I love. He basically is a creative director for hire for a bunch of different companies. I think it includes Nike and a bunch of other companies, but a brilliant guy.
He said what he would do when that happened, and it inevitably happens, when somebody steps in and asks, somebody senior in the organization, steps in and asks for something from your team that’s going to conflict with work that’s already on their plate, is he would run interference, like you said, block and tackle. The question he would ask is, “Hey, we’re very excited to tackle this project that you’ve just dropped on us from out of nowhere and is completely unreasonable,” right? He wouldn’t say that part, but, “We’re really excited to tackle this project. Really, what I’m wondering is how you want me to reorganize the priorities that we already have on our plate, so that we can accommodate what we’re doing, so which of things that we’re already working on right now need to take a backseat for this season, because my team only has a certain amount of focus and time and attention and resources to spend on this?”
He said 9 times out of 10, that worked. One time out of 10 you would have the person who would say, “Do it all. You can do it,” right? Most of the time, people are very reasonable. They just aren’t aware. That’s what I try to tell people, especially, I hate to say rank and file, but rank and file people in organizations, when I’m talking to them, like, listen. There isn’t some evil person sitting in a C-suite somewhere saying, “I wonder how we can screw over the rest of the organization.” Nobody’s doing that. Nobody’s intending to make your life miserable. It’s just that people are unaware.
When you have a long lever, you move a lot of dirt. Sometimes that dirt has ill effects when it gets moved. Just understand that nobody is trying to do this to you. This is the result of all of these forces that are moving in the organization, and so the leader has to step in and has to provide clarity in the midst of that and say, “Hey, I know you probably didn’t mean to do this, but you’re really overwhelming my team right now. We can’t physically do everything you’re asking us to do and do it well, so how would you like me to reorganize our priorities for the time being?”
It’s the best advice I’ve ever heard about that, and I think it’s actually an excellent way to make sure that not only you’re advocating for the team, but you’re also advocating for the organization. This is the difficult dual role that we play as leaders, right? We think about leadership as being on top, but leadership’s about being in the middle. Leadership’s about being squarely in the middle, the pressure down and the pressure up, and you have to lead both directions. You have to advocate for the team on behalf of the organization, as well, and you have to advocate for the organization on behalf of the team. This is a really challenging thing for leaders to do, but I think that when you understand that, I think it completely changes your understanding of your responsibilities.
Peter: All right, now I’m going to ask you, what did a bear in your backyard teach you about making promises?
Todd: All right, so a couple of years ago, there was a bear spotted in Southern Ohio, which is, by the way, a very rare thing. It doesn’t happen very often. As a matter of fact, I can’t ever remember a bear being spotted in Southern Ohio, where we live, but we live in Cincinnati, in the city, pretty far away from the country. This bear was a hundred miles away, right? It was really far away.
My kids were really freaked out. They saw on the news like, oh, there’s a bear in Ohio. They’re imagining this bear climbing up the side of the wall, and coming in through their window, and eating them in their sleep. I’m like, “Listen, listen. That bear is a hundred miles from here. It’s out in the middle of the country. It wants nothing to do with us. It is totally fine. There’s not a chance in the world you’re ever going to see that bear,” right?
Peter: Zero chance.
Todd: Zero chance.
Peter: Zero chance.
Todd: My kids were completely satisfied with that answer. Two weeks later, Peter, I’m pulling out of my driveway. I turn right. I go to the bottom of our street, and there’s a news crew camped out at the bottom of our street. I’m like, “What’s going on?”
They said, “You’re not going to believe this, but remember that bear that was spotted in Southern Ohio?”
I’m like, “Yeah, I remember the bear.”
They’re like, “The bear is in the creek right now, right across the road, in the creek, and it’s walking around in the creek.”
I’m like, “Are you kidding me? The creek where my kids play on a regular basis, right at the bottom of my street! Are you kidding me?”
Over the course of the next two weeks, that bear was spotted in our backyard. It was spotted in our neighbor’s yard, in the trash. Every restaurant we’d go to, that bear somehow seemed to be following our circuit. Crazy-
Peter: That will teach you to make a commitment.
Todd: Well, let’s just say that Dad lost a little bit of credibility with the whole bear thing, right?
Todd: For probably six months after that, it was like, “Now, Dad, is this really true, or is this like the bear thing?” What I learned about that is I had declared an undeclarable. I had made a promise that I couldn’t keep. Now, chances are there’s no way we’re going to see that bear, but I couldn’t guarantee that, obviously, couldn’t guarantee that to my kids. As leaders, we do this all the time, or just as human beings. We declare undeclarables, because we want to quell the temporary insecurity that we feel from not being able to satisfy someone in that moment, and so we make a promise that we don’t know that we can keep. We can never make promises to someone else, that we can’t guarantee that we’re going to be able to keep.
Peter: It’s why I love the percentage 98. There’s a 98% chance we will not see the bear. There’s a 2% chance it’ll end up in the creek at the bottom of the [crosstalk]. There’s a 98% chance here.
Todd: Right, absolutely.
Peter: Tell me what Bella, the well-fed cat, taught you about creating predictable inspiration, in 30 seconds.
Todd: Yeah, so there’s a cat that used to stroll our neighborhood back at our old house. I would watch it through my window while I was writing, and Bella … We called her Bella. We don’t really know what her name was, but she would walk around the perimeter of this tall grass, and every day walk the exact same path, looking for prey, looking for something to pounce on.
Not every time did Bella find something, but pretty often I would see Bella discover something. Well, that taught me that it’s important to have hunting trails in your life, places of predictable inspiration that you go back to over and over and over again. By the way, they may not always yield inspiration, but you need to have some practices in your life, a place you go, a resource you go to, something that you repeat on a regular basis, to help you seek inspiration. I call these my hunting trails now.
Peter: I love that. Probably the first few times you do the practices, you may come up with nothing, but you keep going, and eventually you come up with something.
Todd: Right, that’s exactly right.
Peter: What did a weird musical pairing teach you about the importance of maintaining your rough edges?
Todd: Yeah, so in … I love this story, by the way. In July of 1967, there was a young musician who was presented with the chance to open for one of the most popular bands of the day, and so, of course, they said yes. The night came for the first show. The musician performed and got booed off stage. I mean, booed, like voraciously booed off stage.
For a young, unknown musician, this is a terrible, terrible thing. This went on the second and third and fourth and fifth and sixth, until finally the seventh, and then the eighth night of the tour, July 17, 1967, he was booed off stage and finally, I think, had had enough and decided to give the audience a little middle finger action, and walked off stage and quit the tour, looking like probably one of the biggest failures in music history.
The reality was that concert featured a young Jimi Hendrix opening for a band called The Monkees. Now, if you know anything about either of those acts, you know that The Monkees were not exactly the most innovative band in the world. Listen, they’re fine, right? It’s fine. It’s [crosstalk].
Peter: Hey, hey, we’re the Monkees.
Todd: Yeah, exactly, and it’s fine pop music, but listen. Jimi Hendrix represented something new, something fundamentally transformative. What that taught me was when a new idea is introduced into the marketplace … We tend to think that was love innovation. We love creativity. We love new ideas. The reality is the first response is often to boo. It’s to reject.
It would’ve been really easy for Hendrix to just shape his music to make it fit what The Monkees’ fans wanted or expected, but he didn’t do that. We all know that he went on to transform generations of musicians who followed. The rough edges that they decry you for now are often the very thing they’re going to celebrate you for later.
Peter: Here’s the hard question. This is another … We have a lot of $64 million questions in this conversation. For every Jimi Hendrix, there’s a billion people whose rough edges lead nowhere.
Peter: They maintain a creative principle, but they’re not necessarily connecting to the audience. I’m curious about how you figure out … Are you a Jimi Hendrix, or do you need to shift how you’re doing things a little bit, to connect more effectively with your audience, without maybe losing your essence?
Todd: I think it depends on what you’re trying to do. I think that’s the reason a lot of people struggle is they haven’t really defined what they’re trying to do. They haven’t defined what the body of work is that they’re trying to build.
If your goal is just to be massively popular, sure, whatever you want to do, just shape whatever you’re doing to make it fit the masses. I mean, anybody can do that. It doesn’t mean you’re necessarily going to be successful, but you have a better shot, right? But is that really what you’re trying to do?
One of the things that I have been trying to live by lately is this mantra of make something you love for someone who will love it. I was speaking at a conference last weekend, and Jeff Goins … It was his conference, The Tribe Conference. He said, “Are you making for someone, or are you making for anyone?” That really struck me in a profound way, because if you make for anyone, you’re probably not going to hit anyone, but if you make for someone, you’re going to find a loyal group of people who truly love what you do.
I think that what you have to do is try to figure out, is there a group of people who will love what I can do, and then is that group of people going to be able to sustain me? I think some people give up far too early because they’re booed off stage by the wrong crowd, and they never take the time to figure out, is there a group of people out there, who might actually resonate with what I’m doing?
The beauty is, we are more connected to those people than ever before. We have more opportunity to find those people than ever before, but many people give up far too soon, because they’re not, “Hey, hey, we’re the Monkees,” and so they never really find that crowd. That’s my encouragement, I guess.
Peter: Todd, that’s a $64 million answer to a $64 million question. That is really great. I really love it.
Todd Henry … His latest book is Herding Tigers: Be the Leader that Creative People Need. Todd, it was a delight to have you on. Thank you so much for being on the Bregman Leadership Podcast.
Todd: Always a joy, Peter. Thank you.
Peter: I hope you enjoyed this episode of the Bregman Leadership Podcast. If you did, it would really help us if you subscribe on iTunes and leave a review. A common problem that I see in companies is a lot of busyness, a lot of hard work, that fails to move the organization, as a whole, forward. That’s the problem that we solve with our Big Arrow Process. For more information about that, or to access all of my articles, videos, and podcasts, visit peterbregman.com. Thank you, Clare Marshall, for producing this episode, and thank you for listening.