In his Creative Managers series, Steve Smallman, CEO and co-founder, shares what it means to start hiring people that are “better” than you and why it’s crucial for the success of your team.

Who’s More Talented Than You?

“Hire people who are more talented than you.” It’s the right advice, so how do you qualify “more talented?” There are different kinds of talent, and talent will evolve over the course of a career. And besides, you’re great at your job–that’s why you’re in a position to hire. What does it really mean to hire someone “better” than you?

I like to keep it simple: Hire people and work you really admire. Look for a “wow” factor when you’re evaluating a prospect’s career and portfolio–even if they’re fresh out of school. And please…don’t ignore their personality. Something about them should really impress you, move you, spark joy (thx Marie Kondo). You should be able to identify work or a skillset that you imagine exceeding your own. To state the obvious: this should be someone you would like to work with.

And to be blunt: If you’re threatened by outstanding talent, you’ll never scale. Worse–you’ll be a terrible leader.

If you’re threatened by outstanding talent, you’ll never scale. Worse–you’ll be a terrible leader.

Don’t be a jerk. There, I said it. But it’s worth unpacking because I think our industry is riddled with threatened creative leaders.

Leave the Culture of Jerkdom

Is anyone else surprised that being a jerk seems to be the accepted norm in creative services? Perhaps high-sensing, creative types like us tend to be unusually temperamental and insecure about our own talent. So many creatives feel the need to remind others of their own wealth of experience and knowledge, especially when their ideas are challenged.

To be fair, what we do is highly subjective. Personal taste and client preferences create imbalances in how creative gets evaluated. But if you get too precious about your own ideas, you will be tempted to justify those ideas with your experience, your success, and your track record. And by doing this, you will diminish your colleagues and reduce their effectiveness in creating the great work your clients need.

In addition, this attitude will keep your team from ever surpassing you.

There’s a Better Way to Lead

Instead of tooting your horn and donning the beret, you can be direct by explaining your understanding of the brief, your client’s brand, and their creative threshold. Then make suggestions that re-focus your team and move ideas closer to the mark. Give solid, specific feedback that progresses the work, instead of knocking people backward. You’ll also be investing in the future expertise of your own team. Don’t tout your own experience to justify asking for someone’s attention. Apply your experience to the solution. I’m sure you have interesting stories, just don’t use them to passive-aggressively remind everyone in the room that you know more than they do (even if you do.)

There are few things that thrill me more than watching talented experts do their work. Seeing Fifteen4 create work that I know I could never have done myself is what keeps me excited about this business.

Seeing [my team] create work that I know I could never have done myself is what keeps me excited about this business.

That doesn’t mean I bury my opinions or my taste. By now, I’m pretty secure in my expertise. I can spot good work, and I know what won’t fly with our clients. Our outstanding creatives sometimes depend on me to provide that insight. But letting them run with their talent feels frickin’ awesome. So I try not to create any speed bumps unless I think they’re heading toward a rock that I know our client won’t move.

Hire Greatness and Grow

If you hire the right people and nurture their development, you’ll see talent advance through your own ranks. Sure, many of them will move on with skills they’ve acquired in your organization. Get comfortable with that and bless them when they leave. But if you can get the climate right, some will stick around. When it’s time to promote, they’ll already know your system and will be a vital part of your culture. It’s a win/win.

To become a leader in the creative space, you have to surround yourself with people who are better than you.

Remember, you can only make it so far by depending on your own talent. To become a leader in the creative space, you have to surround yourself with people who are better than you. Does that make you feel threatened? It shouldn’t.

Confession: I’ve made plenty of mistakes over the years. That’s why I mostly know what I’m talking about.

Steve Smallman

Steve Smallman

Founder & CEO

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