Five lessons for managers of creative teams from my career as a university tutor

From 2015 to 2018 I helped over 100 final year students complete their final major project. I also supervised dissertations, organised careers events and programmes, provided pastoral care and became a Fellow of the Higher Education Academy.

Here are five lessons I learnt from my experience that managers of creative teams might find useful.

1. Most people just want you to see them

The greatest lesson I’ve learnt from teaching is that most people want something very simple: for you to truly see them.

It’s easy to work somewhere, be in a relationship with someone, or spend time with friends without truly seeing them. To see someone means to see them for who they are as an individual, wholly and imperfectly; not as a reflection of you, or in relation to you, or as a daughter/brother/partner, or as a manager, or an employee, but as who they are.

My students, aged around 18 to 21, were used to classification. They were used to being ‘so-and-so’s daughter’ or ‘an A grade student’ or ‘the talkative one’. They were used to being labelled as ‘millennial consumers’ or ‘undergraduate students’. They were used to being seen in relation to other people.

They were not used to being seen as individuals, wholly and imperfectly. Many of them wanted this, many were terrified, but all of them who could accept it improved in their work and personal confidence.

Being seen means someone values you as an independent and individual being, unique but understandable. It helps you develop agency – the knowledge that you are able to, and responsible for, your own life. It also brings to the surface all those terrifying weaknesses that get erased when you’re seen as part of a general classification, whose identification is essential for moving onwards and upwards in life.

2. Most people also just want you to listen

Listening comes a very close second to seeing. I love helping people, solving problems, helping them fulfil their potential. Through teaching I learnt that you can’t do that unless you listen first.

Teachers of all kinds (including parents) are quick to impart knowledge, because they want to help, they think they can, and because they want to prevent suffering in their students.

People will not listen to you if you don’t listen to them.

You can give the best advice in the world, but if you haven’t listened, fully and empathically to start with, it won’t sink in.

That’s because real listening isn’t about an exchange: it’s not, “I listen to you, then formulate advice based on your problems”. Listening is pure absorption. It’s taking everything that comes out of the other person and absorbing it, putting it away, accepting it. You can respond if you want to, but that’s not the purpose of listening.

I found many of my students wanted someone to be a sponge for their thoughts. They wanted to say something out loud so it didn’t have to rattle around in their heads anymore, frustrating them. They wanted someone to nod, and make noises, and not give any advice. After that, they were very receptive to advice and actioned it straight away.

3. Lots of stuff about Millennials is rubbish

When I started teaching, I believed a lot of what marketers and business people say about Millennials; they’re prone to anxiety, narcissism, feelings of entitlement, lack of respect for authority, etc. They think they’re special snowflakes who need constant reassurance, etc. Aren’t they just so not like us? etc. etc.

What I learnt from teaching is that lots of stuff written about Millennials is rubbish. No, worse than that: it’s damaging.

They are a generation more connected than any before them. They have access to more information, are told more about themselves and catered to by more brands in very targeted ways than ever before. But the act of classifying them is turning them into these archetypal Millennials; it’s not some inherent feature they all share.

They’re told university is stressful, so they get stressed. They’re told they can do ‘anything they want’, so they’re paralysed by choice. They’re treated like fragile creatures, so they become fragile. They’re told they are consumers, so they see everything as an act of consumption

But as individuals, truly seen and listened to and valued, they aren’t these things. I have seen them: they are strong, independent, complex people – just like every other generation. They are people, with a few more years of life to experience and a whole weight of statistical generational ‘evidence’ weighing them down.

4. Trust is a gift you can give to your team

Just like my students, your team are adults; they could vote, move house, get married, get a job and do all number of things without asking anyone’s permission. Yet we’re quick to treat those we’re educating or managing as ‘untrustworthy’.

We might not think they’re going to nick staplers out of the cupboard, but we might not trust them to get something finished in time, so we step in. Or we don’t trust them to present their work properly, so we over compensate our teaching and advice in this area.

Trust is a gift that every manager can give their team, and I see it as an essential gift for them to move their life onwards and upward.

Stephen Covey talks about trust in his descriptions of delegation; ‘gopher’ delegation is the menial tasks given to workers and shouted instructions, which results in everyone being unhappy and either over- or under-worked. Sometimes this happens in work. It’s pointless. Team members don’t learn nor do they feel as if they are valued.

Trusting someone to do the job (or complete the project) gives them agency. Covey outlines ways the work can be ‘framed’ to ensure as good a result as possible. But there will always be the first leap of faith; to trust your team.

5. Defensive management is a waste of time

University education in the UK is subject to the whims of many different people and organisations. There are funding bodies, quality boards, frameworks, government policies, inspectors and student satisfaction surveys.

Because these whims are so apparent in university life, and because we’ve been sucked into the rhetoric of students-as-customers, people get fearful. Horror stories abound of tutors who’ve been sacked for swearing, or courses pulled for poor student satisfaction results. Folk get frightened of doing something ‘wrong’ in teaching, and so defensive practice begins.

It’s the same in creative agencies: as leaders or managers, we’re frightened of getting it wrong, getting shit from our boss, losing money or losing clients, so we begin a defensive practice.

Defensive practice is just as it sounds: practising your work on the defensive, the ‘just in case’, the risk-avoidance path, to avoid doing something ‘wrong’.

In creativity, this is a complete waste of time.

A creative worker who is risk-averse, fearful, prefers the status quo, won’t try new things and afraid of getting it ‘wrong’ will not be any good at their job. A human being who is afraid of change, and making mistakes, won’t be very good at being a happy human being.

Like teaching, management is modelling behaviour. If you’re on the defensive, your team will be too. They will think that defensive practice is normal, they’ll take that with them into every project, and they’ll be unhappy and rubbish.

The key is to model the behaviours you expect your team to have. They are watching you, and following what you do. Be the model they will emulate when they become leaders.

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