You're a Young Creative Leader — Now What? (Part 1)

I felt sick in the few days after I was asked to take the role of Creative Director here at James & Matthew.  Any form of confidence I had leading up to that conversation had dissipated.

My stomach churned. In my head I imagined everyone in the agency, my immediate network, and randos on LinkedIn, hunting me down like an angry mob chanting the lyrics to Elvis Costello’s “The Imposter.” (Slight exaggeration, but that’s pretty damn close.)

Don’t get me wrong; I wanted that responsibility. I thought I knew exactly what would come with it. But as a young creative, saying yes meant confronting my insecurities and deficiencies. That’s scary shit no matter where you’re at in your career.

Fast forward to a year later... No mob, no Elvis Costello, and nobody quit. It’s a damn miracle. I owe so much to the leaders in my life who’ve helped prepare me and provided words of encouragement and wisdom along the way. While I have in no way mastered the craft, I’d like to offer up a few of the lessons I’m learning, with the hope that other young guns may benefit and fuck up a little less.

You’re Where You’re At For A Reason.

There will be moments where you feel like an imposter. It’s critical to remind yourself that you were given the responsibility of leadership for a reason. Write down whatever that reason is, and refer back to it every time self-doubt rears its ugly head.

When that gets tough, don’t hold your feelings in. Tell your direct report. Most of the time, talking through the challenges you’re facing and verbalizing your solutions out loud is all you need to regain your footing. When you have time, do some reading on Imposter Syndrome, and how to work through it.

You Don’t Know it All, And You Don’t Have To.

As a follow up to point number 1, being a creative leader does not mean you have to have all of the answers. There’s no magical creative power that you receive upon a change in title. By pretending to have an answer, you are robbing yourself or your team of a chance to learn. Plus, people can smell bullshit from a mile away. Nothing erodes the trust like being fake.

The role of a creative leader is not to have all the ideas; it’s to create a culture where everyone can have ideas and feel that they’re valued.
— Ken Robinson

Bring In, And Learn From, More Experienced Creatives.

Creatives are already prone to a good deal of insecurity given the subjective nature of what we do. Add leadership responsibility into the mix, and you get an explosive combination. For young leaders, this insecurity tends to manifest itself in avoiding work with those who are more talented and more experienced.

Do yourself, your team, and your clients a favor — cut the shit. Your job now is to build the best team to make sure your agency is producing the best work for your clients. Bringing in more experienced talent will not only help you accomplish this, but you will learn in the process.

If each of us hires people who are smaller than we are, we shall become a company of dwarfs. But if each of us hires people who are bigger than we are, we shall become a company of giants.
— David Ogilvy

Craig Birchfield is the creative director/agent of chaos at James & Matthew. He’s a transplanted Floridian in the frozen wonderland of Massachusetts and enjoys the little things in life - mostly scotch and cigars.