4 Important Tips for Managing Your Startup’s Creative Employees

Keith Krach
November 15, 2016

In an age marked by digital disruption, creativity plays a pivotal role in the success of a business. Recent technology developments combined with the impending effects of the Fourth Industrial Revolution require companies to be highly adaptable, innovative, and adept at problem-solving under pressure—abilities that creative employees are known for.

To find success in the digital age, startup leaders must learn how to harness the power of creative workers in order to create a company that functions comfortably in a business climate characterized by change. Listed below are four important tips that can help startup leaders manage creative employees to achieve this kind of success.

1. Hire the right team members.

You can’t harness the power of a strong creative team if you don’t have the right people in the first place, and hiring for creativity poses greater challenges than selecting employees based on more conventional skillsets. Creativity is an elusive quality that’s hard to pin down, and determining how to screen for creative ability can be difficult.

Leaders looking to bring creative talent on board should consider taking a nontraditional approach to the interview process. Rather than deploying job postings in the typical locations, begin by asking for references from your existing creative employees. Workers who have already demonstrated the strength of their creative abilities may be able to suggest people within their own professional networks with the same type of skills. Leaders should also consider looking outside of their own industries for new talent. While industry practices can typically be learned, creative abilities usually cannot, and advertising a position to creative people with a different professional perspective can bring in promising candidates.

Once the right candidates have been recruited, leaders must remember to ask interview questions that reveal a prospect’s adaptability and openness to new experiences. Scan resumes for diverse job sets or travel experiences, and ask questions that require candidates to demonstrate their ability to problem-solve. Take note if a candidate has a capacity for drawing connections between two seemingly unrelated concepts—a large part of creativity is making connections where others fail to see them.

2. Grant freedom and flexibility.

With the right people in place, it’s important for leaders to remember that the creative worker tends to thrive in an environment where freedom and flexibility are a standard part of the professional experience. From a managerial standpoint, it can be difficult to relinquish the control that comes with employees working the usual 9-to-5, but research shows that your most valuable creative employees may benefit from working in a less structured environment.

Give creative employees as much flexibility as you feel comfortable with to get the best results. To produce valuable ideas and do innovative work, your employees need both time and space. A restrictive work structure for your creative employees may lead to active disengagement and stress, limiting inspired output and rendering these workers far less effective than they have the potential to be.

3. Give the right kind of feedback.

Any accomplishments that your startup achieves will be the result of teamwork. It takes a wide range of skillsets and talents to drive companies forward, and the recognition of hard work from leadership can have a significant impact on the level of engagement that your employees feel. Used correctly, feedback can be a useful tool for guiding creatives in the right direction. Used incorrectly, it can stifle an employee’s ability to produce good work.

To use feedback effectively, leaders must focus on giving responses on an individual basis. General group praise doesn’t allow leaders to deliver the kind of constructive criticism that helps creative employees understand the frameworks within which they are expected to operate. Honest, individual critiques that address the positives and negatives are usually much more effective at bringing out the best in creative employees.

It is also important for leaders to focus on critiquing the work, rather than the individual. Creative employees tend to be highly invested in the work they put out, and may be more likely to produce satisfactory results when leaders offer more open-ended critiques. These workers likely won’t respond well to flat statements like, “You’re doing this wrong. Do this instead.”

4. Encourage risk.

Leaders rely on creative employees to think outside the box. Oftentimes, this means taking calculated risks that can lead to major, industry-changing payoffs. In other instances, it simply leads to well-thought-out failures. It’s important to keep in mind that innovation requires people to think in ways that go beyond the standard parameters of your industry. If your leadership style does not grant creative employees the freedom to make mistakes, it will be difficult for these workers to feel confident suggesting the kinds of ideas that lead to real, profitable change.

As a startup leader, it is your responsibility to model what you consider to be smart risk-taking behavior. Understand that the new business frontier has left traditional business models behind, and define responsible risk-taking by your own standards. Clarify your stance on the line between innovation and risk to give your creative employees some guidance—then step back and let them work.

Keith Krach

Keith Krach is Chairman of DocuSign, The Global Standard for Digital Transaction Management.