How to manage other creatives

Managing creatives has always been a challenge. We hire for creativity only to ask designers to colour between the lines of a client brief. We educate and nurture a generation of independent thinkers and then wonder why they struggle to collaborate and negotiate. It’s no wonder design management is referred to as herding cats.

Many of us are managers by default. To grow a design business we need more hands. That means hiring either employees or sub contractors. Both/either need to managed: they need to be briefed, debriefed, coordinated, paid… the larger the project, the more people, the more management is needed.

Problem is, designers are not taught management techniques and nor are we introduced to management tools or methodologies. Added to this, most designer don’t stop to assess whether they have the characteristics a manager needs to not only survive but thrive.

Management styles

A quick Google search finds hundreds of online references on how best to manage and lead. In a Harvard Business Review article Leadership that gets results, Daniel Goleman outlines six basic leadership styles:

  1. Coercive: managers who demand compliance
  2. Authoritative: like a military leader, these managers mobilise people towards a vision
  3. Affiliative: a caring-sharing manager that builds relationships and promotes harmony
  4. Democratic: a manager that promotes democracy through participation
  5. Pacesetting: those that lead by example, setting a standard and pace for others to follow
  6. Coaching: managers that identify what needs to be done, delegate responsibility and develop others for success.

Goleman identified authoritative leaders as visionary. In his view, people who work for authoritative leaders understand their role. Authoritative leaders mobilise people toward a vision — it’s arguable all managers need to be authoritative.

Affiliative leaders create emotional bonds and harmony within their team. They have strong soft (or human) skills and take people with them.

Democratic leaders build consensus through harvesting everyone’s opinion and participation before a final decision.

Coaching leaders develop the skills in other people. They are future-focussed.

That said, it’s the management styles Goleman doesn’t like I find interesting:

Goleman identified coercive and pacesetting leadership as negatively effecting culture and workplace performance. Coercive is self explanatory: it’s hard to imagine any worker would like to be led by a coercive manager. Coercive leaders demand immediate compliance.

Pacesetters don’t nurture talent in others, they aim to produce clones

He thinks the problem with pacesetting is it’s a form of egomania. Pacesetters don’t nurture talent in others, they work to produce cookie-cutter replicas. Since successful, sustainable creative teams need to include a mixture of technical and creative skill-sets and diverse backgrounds and personalities, pacesetters often don’t build great teams.

All this is interesting but in reality, research shows leaders who get the best results often don’t rely on just one of these leadership styles. They are adept at assessing the situation, and the team, and choosing the appropriate style. And leaders able to switch among leadership styles can produce the best results.

How this is relevant to managing creatives

There is no magical solution to successfully managing creatives because each project and client is so different. What worked yesterday may not work today, and what works with one team may not work with another. Management is often juggling many conflicting needs. Sometimes it’s like herding cats, sometimes it’s showing leadership in a sticky situation.

What this research found is setting an incredible pace for others to follow isn’t management, nor is it leadership.

When you’re infront leading the charge all your team can see is your back.

Leading from the front is not motivating, it’s not nurturing and nor is it collaborative. It’s just a group of people in a race to the finish.

Take away

Managing people is not easy.
Managing creatives is hard and management skills don’t come naturally to all creatives and nor should we assume it does.

The good news is there is no need to struggle, there’s plenty of help available if you need leadership mentoring.
DBC, of course, should be your first point of call 😉

Got a comment/question? As always, happy to discuss further, just email.

Carol Mackay
Co-founder Design Business Council.

We help designers build a more profitable design business

We do that by
• supporting creatives to learn management skills
• helping business owners identify and target better clients
• introducing tools and systems to increase a studio’s productivity, and
• focusing on a sustainable work/life balance.
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About Carol Mackay

After 30+ years running a graphic design firm, Carol pivoted from client-focused projects to consult to the design industry.

Carol’s special power has always been an ability to use design to translate difficult to understand or complex messages. She believes design brings clarity to complex issues. From clarity comes understanding, and understanding leads to knowledge.

As a designer she used those skills with clients like The Magistrates, County and Supreme Courts; Ombudsman schemes and Emergency Service agencies. At DBC she uses the same skills … she helps designers de-mystify the complexities of managing a small business.

Outside of DBC Carol mentors graduates and is a Board member at Never Not Creative, a community of creatives pushing for change in the creative industry.


An archive of Carol’s previous career is at
Current work can be viewed at and

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