First-Class Coach

I work in a creative industry, managing a team of talented, enthusiastic and bright people. There is a great atmosphere in the office, which feeds into our award-wining work. However, I now report to someone who doesn't care about the creative merit of our output and is interested only in the bottom line.

by Miranda Kennett, an independent coach. If you have an issueyou'd like her to cover, e-mail:
Last Updated: 31 Aug 2010

We're doing OK financially, yet he overrides my decisions and cuts corners that compromise the integrity of our client work. My team is being demoralised, and so am I.

A: The struggle you describe is a familiar one for many of my clients in media, advertising and design and, I suspect, is endemic to most organisations with a creative output.

At its most destructive, the tension between creativity and commercialism involves the creative faction accusing those charged with making the enterprise pay (or, in the public sector, keeping within budget) of being Philistines who know the price of everything and the value of nothing. The commercial faction retaliates by accusing the creatives of being self-indulgent and wasteful of resources, naive about the realities of life and more interested in winning awards than producing what their clients, customers or audiences want. There may be grains of truth in both stereotypes, but these well-worn accusations do nothing to improve the quality of output or the finances of the organisation.

If you want to avoid perpetuating the stereotype and do what's best for your team and the company, you must get to the bottom of your new boss's behaviour in order to make an informed decision as to your best way forward.

As manager of a creative team, you're right to be concerned about changes in management style that have a detrimental effect on morale. At the same time, even if your company is doing well financially now, you must be wary of the assumption that all creative expenditure is justified and should not be questioned. With accountability and effectiveness high on every senior manager's agenda, it's not unreasonable for your new boss to query how time and money is spent. Having a good level of profit helps ensure employment for you and your team in the future, when income may not be so plentiful.

However, as well as keeping hold of the purse-strings, your manager has a responsibility to behave in a way that maximises the performance of his people. If you and your team are depressed by the feeling that neither you nor your work is respected, then you probably won't be working at your energetic best. It's therefore in the interest of both of you to sort out the issues.

Try to establish a relationship with this man whereby, even if you don't like him, you can work sufficiently well together to allow both of you to do a good job. Start by making it clear what's getting in the way.

Have an assertive (not aggressive, judgmental or self-righteous) conversation with your boss where you choose a specific, recent example of a time when he undermined your authority by overruling your decision, and make it clear how this made you feel.

Tell him you want to avoid a recurrence, and ask him to suggest how you might work together to achieve this. Listen to his response carefully: he may apologise, being genuinely unaware of the effect of his actions.

He may try to justify his behaviour and, in doing so, reveal what his attitude and agenda is for your team. Whatever he says, you can pick up clues as to whether you can modify his approach and how you might do it.

If cost-cutting is his priority - perhaps as the result of pressures from above - you could volunteer to do your own audit of current processes to see whether money or time is being wasted anywhere, and also ways in which, with a little investment, the team could improve their productivity. Taking responsibility to help him fulfil his goals is likely to be seen as evidence that you can be trusted and to lead to greater autonomy in your decisions for resource allocation.

But don't mention that some of your team are thinking of leaving till you know his view of them. If your new boss recognises you have some talented people who represent a competitive advantage to the business, he'll want to keep them. If, on the other hand, he thinks they're all profligate and idle, he'd be glad to see them go.

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