Managing creative teams often seems to be a struggle between left brain thinking and right brain thinking, says Emily Cohen, consultant to creative professionals.

“The business models of many design firms and in-house creative groups are often heavily driven by right-brain approaches, based on intuitive, emotional staffing decisions,” says Cohen. But any team, even one that is filled with creative people, must have right brain structure as well. While left brain thinking “can have immediate success in the short run, it often comes at the risk of long-term sustainability and growth,” she says.

Cohen, along with Moira Cullen, group director of strategic design for Coca Cola, will be the guest speakers at a day-long seminar, “Management Strategies for In-House Creative Managers: The Tools You Need to Tear Down the Silos and Build a Successful In-House Creative Team,” on Wednesday, November 12. Sponsored by inSource, the event begins at 10 a.m. at Fairleigh Dickinson University in Madison. Cost: $150. For more information and to register, visit

Cohen has been a consultant to creative professionals for more than 20 years. She attended Purchase College in New York in the mid-1980s and then found work at design firms and corporate in-house creative departments, including Pottery Barn. “While I loved the design aspect of what I was doing, I wasn’t passionate about it. I was passionate about managing and leading a team.”

She became an independent consultant, based in East Brunswick, so that she could bring her knowledge of working with creatives to other in-house managers. Cohen takes issue with what she calls “the misconceived notion” that left-brain organizational techniques, such as logical thinking, planning, and analysis, have no place in the creative world.

“With the right amount of planning, a creative team with left brain skills can function more efficiently and produce innovative solutions,” she says, suggesting that creative departments able to customize these skills will function at a higher level, improving employee morale and creativity.

Leadership and management is just as important for a creative team as for any other department in a business, says Cohen. She identifies several styles of leadership, from the least formal to the most structured.

Ad hoc leadership. This is the least formal style of leadership, and often occurs, says Cohen, when the manager “is not able or willing to remove himself or herself from hands-on design development.” This type of leader finds it difficult to delegate tasks, or let go of control.

Managers vs. leaders. In any team it is important to have both a manager and a leader, explains Cohen, and is also important that the members of the team understand the different role that each play.

While leaders and managers should lead by example, a leader creates the vision for the team, and acts as a mentor for the team members. He must also “be a politician who can develop strong relationships with the client, continually showing the client the value of the team and exerting his influence.”

The manager’s task is to “take the leader’s vision and implement it,” as well as to support and guide change, measure results, and assess performance. “They teach, educate and mentor the team,” she says. Certain roles that in smaller groups are often shared by the manager and leader include account and client management, business and new business development, and project management.

“At the optimized level of management, each of these functions is assigned to full-time staff dedicated to these roles; and, at least formal level attention to these functions is sporadic and unstructured,” she says, leading to a less effective team.

Excellent leaders and managers are necessary in every type of team, no matter what its role in an organization, and the attributes of good managers and leaders are similar in all teams, whether it is the accounting or sales group or the creative department. But Cohen also identifies several other roles that are particularly necessary to help a creative group run smoothly and efficiently.

Rah, rah. The cheerleader is the person who “brings humor, energy and an engaging presence to the office, keeping everyone creative and excited,” says Cohen, while the industry activist stays current with the latest trends, often by attending industry events. “He or she disseminates the information and keeps the rest of the team informed and passionate about their jobs.”

Tech gurus. As the name implies, the tech guru can assist with problems and keeps the group informed of the latest in technology trends. He or she may work with other company IT staff or fill that role alone.

Enforcer and quarterback. “A strong team usually has at least one individual, the bad guy/enforcer, who is able to make the tough decisions,” adds Cohen. “This is an important role, and one best assigned to the person in charge of staff and client management.”

But Cohen sees the most difficult and most important role in a creative team as that of emotional quarterback. This is the mom of the group, the person who minimizes internal conflicts and diffuses and manages the drama that is often associated with managing creative personalities.

“Once a creative organization has defined its management model and assessed its strengths and weaknesses, development of an organizational structure is the next step,” says Cohen. A successful team will assign the right people to the right tasks, based on experience, talent, personality and passion, rather than in a “reactionary, deadline-and client-driven work environment.

The marriage of left and right brain thinking will, in the end, prove to be the most effective strategy for any department, says Cohen, bringing structure and discipline that allows staff to perform at their highest creative level.

Facebook Comments