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Let Creative Juices Flow

WS talks to former CBS News Chief Van Gordon Sauter

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in Leaders & Managers

After more than 30 years as a journalist and broadcast executive, including serving as president of CBS News, Van Gordon Sauter has worked with his share of creative people. And he knows how to treat them.

In this interview with Working Smart, Sauter discusses how to manage and motivate people in a creative environment.

WS: Most managers want their employees to be more imaginative, to “think outside the box.” But rather than just tell them, are there better steps bosses can take to unleash workers’ creativity?

Sauter: You can’t expect creativity on demand. It’s better to change your mind-set so that you cultivate the creative energy of all your employees without putting undue pressure on them.

WS: How do you do that?

Sauter: You have to accept the fact that all people must be viewed as creative people. Traditionally, creative people are identified as those who write things, conceive new concepts, etc. The individual in charge of, say, building maintenance must be encouraged in the same way as the head of marketing. The maintenance manager may have a great idea—who knows? You can’t automatically assume certain people can’t come up with creative solutions.

WS: Don’t you have to coddle creative types to some degree? If you view everyone as equally creative, then won’t some naturally imaginative people feel less special?

Sauter: Just because you view everyone as creative doesn’t mean you treat them all the same. When you discover that someone delivers the bright ideas you’re looking for, treat her individually. She’s blessed. She has a gift most of us don’t share, so provide a work environment that lets her be her most creative. I’ve had people who wanted to work in the middle of the night or who wanted to dress a certain way. Let them. You’re dealing with different people here.

WS: When you grant that kind of special treatment to some employees, won’t the rest get jealous?

Sauter: Creative people hate to be muddled up with the masses. They like to think they’re different. You have to spend as much time treating them as individuals as you do convincing everyone else that this kind of treatment is warranted. That way, the others won’t grow resentful.

In journalism, some low-level jobs have a fairly high drudge potential. It quickly becomes apparent when you manage creative people that they won’t stay unless you single them out and give them liberties. And it may be necessary to explain that to everyone so they understand what you’re trying to do. Make it clear that the special treatment is earned.

WS: After receiving special treatment, is there a danger that these people will get too complacent or arrogant in their jobs and lose their creative edge?

Sauter: That can happen. Life is made up of phases. Just because someone’s creative now doesn’t mean she’ll always have the magic. Don’t hesitate to fire someone who’s no longer creative. She can’t presume she’ll be paid for past performance. In my field, at least, you’re only as good as your most recent project.

WS: How can you tell your people that their ideas are way off base? It must be difficult to be diplomatic when they’ve put a lot of themselves into a project.

Sauter: As they say in Hollywood, the most difficult word is “no.” Be as direct as you can be. Never flinch from it. In the long run, you and your organization will be enhanced if you can look your employees in the eyes and be totally frank. Now, that doesn’t preclude you from being supportive and sensitive to their situation. But you’ve got to lay it on the line and tell them bluntly when their work needs to improve.

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