Sally Henderson
Executive Mentor
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Sally Henderson

Can investing in leadership skills improve the creative sector?

The UK’s creative sector is growing rapidly, at four times the rate of the rest of the economy in fact (DCMS, 2015), making it a hugely exciting time to be in the industry. What’s more, there are big plans afoot. The Creative Industries Council has made its mission to “cement the UK’s place as a world leader for the creative industries”. Exciting times indeed!

 But I’m concerned. What I’ve witnessed tells us that a big part of the puzzle is missing – we simply don’t have the leadership equity we need, and it’s all too obvious why. Despite this extraordinary growth, only 27% of companies in the creative sector are investing in management training for their employees. That’s significantly below the average of 35% of companies, and shocking when we take into account the accelerated growth and ambitious plans that lie ahead. And it’s not just stats. Leaders themselves are recognising that their management skills are sub-par. When asked to rate their abilities in various areas, leadership is consistently labelled a weakness. Research tells us that leaders want to develop their skills, they just aren't prioritising doing it with all the other demands for their attention. But that only leads to a cycle of leadership that is no better than the blind leading the blind.

 So, if we want the UK to set the benchmark, not just reach for it, something’s got to change, and it’s got to change soon.

 What are the challenges?

It is important for the industry to understand and recognise that a ‘successful creative’, and a ‘successful manager’ are not necessarily one in the same. There is no other sector in which a HR manager would be asked to sit down and write the script for a TV advert, yet this is what’s happening to leaders in the creative sector. Creatives , Strategists and many other disciplines in a creative agency are being asked to become pragmatic, commercially-minded, empathetically gifted people managers  without training or focused support.

In addition, most people in a creative business work best in a hands-on environment, so plunging your best creative talent into a management role where they are expected to manage people and coach team members is not playing to their core strengths. Leaders need to be commercially minded and people focused but this can hamper experimentation and innovation, which is likely what made them successful in their creative role in the first place. This conflict of interest isn’t avoidable, and can be used as a strength, but it needs to be acknowledged and addressed in order to make the most of the situation.

 Lastly, many creative businesses are very protective of their intellectual property, which means there are very few external mentoring programmes. But this is a huge missed opportunity. There’s so much to be learnt when we get out of our familiar environment and teams, so running a mentoring programme with another organisation in your sector should be more than just a viable option, it should be an essential part of any management training programme. The creative sector is dominated by huge organisations at one end, and freelancers at the other. That means there are very few leaders in comparison to number of employees within the sector. All the more reason why we should be skill-sharing and mentoring externally. Ultimately, what is good for the wider UK sector is good for all the businesses within, so if we want the UK to lead the way, we need to start thinking more long-term about how we interact with our peers and competitors.

Why isn’t leadership being prioritised?

It’s ultimately down to business leaders themselves to prioritise leadership training, but that doesn’t happen for a number of reasons. For most, it is simply a lack of self-awareness. Leaders rarely have the time to reflect upon their own skillsets, and therefore often don’t realise where their weaknesses lie. I challenge my client’s to take the time to self-assess and when I do, I consistently hear that financial management, people management, leadership and business strategy are the key areas they want to develop. However, openly admitting that they don’t feel confident in their leadership ability takes courage, and even then, financial constraints and time restrictions are often touted as reasons not to invest in themselves. It is absolutely essential though. Research by the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills showed that on a five-point scale, just a one-point improvement in leadership skills would equate to a 25% increase in labour output or a 65% increase in invested capital (BIS, 2012). Now, they are figures that cannot be overlooked!

 So what can we do?

Businesses must start by recognising the issue, identifying the gaps and proactively implementing suitable programmes to bridge them with effective coaching, mentoring and training. To do this, Leaders and Managers must be given the necessary time to focus on self-development, and resources must be made available to facilitate the process. This is about savvy working practices and sound financial investment as much as it is about allocating time in the diary.

 Ultimately, business leaders themselves have got to start valuing this area of the business. Good people management has to be seen as business critical, and we need those businesses at the fore to take the lead. Investing in full, comprehensive training and development is the first step; don’t be a sheep, be smart and set the bar for excellence.

sally henderson