“Smart creatives” – the new breed of employees that shine brighter than the rest

Eric Schmidt & Jonathan Rosenberg’s New York Times bestseller How Google Works (published by John Murray, 2014) purports to supply the “rules for success in the internet century”. The authors impart the many valuable lessons they have learnt while helping set up internet giant Google back in its heyday and how they took it from a small start-up to the global icon it is today.

A recurring theme in the book is the idea of the “smart creative”: a new breed of employee with huge potential and technical knowledge, who thrive in a corporate environment that offers plenty of freedom and communication between the company’s senior management and its employees, whilst avoiding dictated and unnecessary direction limiting growth and enthusiasm. But how do you identify smart creatives in your own work place?

Smart creatives are highly motivated and skilled employees. They are extremely smart professionals who are less interested in compensation and more into solving problems. They seek jobs in which they can shake up an industry, create waves and, if possible, disrupt the status quo. You will find them in any technical industry from IT to BI. They don’t normally cause problems in a workplace, rather they are interested in analysing what is and isn’t working and finding solutions to things causing upset with colleagues, leading to loss of revenue or processes that are simply out-dated.

I bet you are starting to think of a number of people you work with right now. Those zany, highly argumentative and passionate people. Kinda eccentric, they look smart yet still manage to express their individuality in the way they dress and communicate. They stay true to themselves and their values, and they never kiss up to the big boss. They’d rather sit down for a beer and scrawl notes on the back of a beer mat about how following 5 simple steps could increase your turnover by 500% in the next two years.

A visual representation of the intricacies that make up the central idea of smart creativity

Smart creatives are a fountain of ideas on how business processes can be improved, how the company’s leadership can increase confidence, or how profits can be increased while costs reduced at the same time. “It’s so simple!” they say, “all they need to do is…” and off they go on a lecture about everything you know has not been working and how to change it.

At the same time, they feel somewhat underappreciated and underpaid considering the mass of creative business ideas they have and freely share with anyone they think is on the same page as them. They are probably not in a position of great power, this could be because they are still young and don’t have the business experience. Maybe they lack the funds to set up on their own, or there is someone more senior in the business they trust and are loyal to. Which means that the second that trusted senior person leaves your business, he could take a number of smart creatives with him. This is because the smart creatives in your company are loyal to the people they look up to, not the CEO, not the brand and certainly not someone who doesn’t appreciate all of the ideas they have shared over time and that have gone ignored.

So how can the smart creatives in your life help YOU achieve your goals?

1. They are drawn to jobs where they can show off their talent

Not many employees have the ability to look at a problem both intellectually and creatively. You tend to find people who are either “geeks” who love data and number crunching, or the creative types who love problem analysis and people managing. Not so the smart creative: they are an active mind-meld of the left and right brain hemispheres in equal parts. They can analyse huge chunks of data on a spreadsheet and draw you a mind map of various creative solutions that will work in the real world. Some of it will sound downright crazy to you, but it will make a lot of sense once you throw your own archaic assumptions out of the window and start listening. Most companies search for that type of talent, yet either don’t recognise they already have them but underutilize them, or they wonder why the industry standard job adverts only attract the same type of applicant.

Tip: identify the smart creatives in your company by asking for company-wide feedback on a specific problem or by launching e.g. a coding challenge on social media to attract new talent.

2. They love a challenge

There’s nothing more satisfying to smart creatives than looking at a problem, especially one that others have struggled with, and coming up with various inventive solutions. They very much focus on the crux of the matter, ignoring others who could slow them down and go for it full throttle. They don’t tend to procrastinate and get things done much quicker than other people because they are driven by their passion to find an ingenious  solution. It’s not uncommon to see them working late into the night and not claiming overtime because they feel that they are providing something valuable both for their company and their own career. They collect solved problems like others do trophies and aren’t shy about sharing their achievements with anyone willing to listen.

Tip: throw a problem their way that you and your smartest execs have struggled with and watch them kill it.

3. They will give you a totally new perspective

The ground hardest to see is that right underneath your feet. It could be a business problem, like a high staff turnover, or a reduction in profits. Or maybe your favourite client keeps dodging your calls. A smart creative will tell you to your face that it’s your stale ideas about what your employees want and your lack of understanding of your client needs that are the cause of your worries. They will unashamedly tell you that you are wrong and genuinely not care about any offended looks you might give them. There’s no better opportunity to get a fresh new take on things than to invite a smart creative or a group of them to the pub.

Tip: ask them for their honest opinion of what they would do, sit back and take notes.

4. They are well-liked and love collaboration

Smart creatives tend to be well-liked and social, even thought they would probably describe themselves as socially awkward or introverted if asked. The criticism they have received in the past for their idiosyncracies have led them to believe that they are excentric and not all that popular. However they are usually well-respected as smart, loyal employees with great work ethics. Furthermore, when the need arises for collaboration they don’t try to claim all the glory for themselves and back-stab in order to get one over on their colleagues.

There is usually one participant on a group project that lets everyone down with their laziness or inability to do the simplest task. Smart creatives will not gloss over that, rather they will try to engage the rest of the group that they see as collaborators and make them work harder. They are open books, happy to share a great tip or new code they wrote that will help the group achieve their goal. Given the chance, they will also happily take the lead and get a project over the line, not to look good but for the satisfaction it gives them.

Tip: let them take the lead on a project or work stream whenever you need someone who will get the job done, however unconventional they may appear to be.

5. They like to get stuck in

Smart creatives know that if you want something done, you have to do it yourself. The biggest mistake you can make is to tell others about your plans, send them on their way and then complain when they fail to achieve your vision. Smart creatives know this and they are confident enough in their own abilities to know no one else can make things happen exactly in the way they want. They tend to be very technical and have knowledge superior to their peers, in everything from software to hardware and extremely complicated business processes. They know that others don’t share the same passion for achieving goals and wouldn’t dream of letting others do the hard work for them. Plus half the satisfaction of having achieved a goal is being able to say how you did it, not how you told others to do it.

Tip: let a smart creative take the reins on an idea or a new project they have, don’t hand the execution over to someone who doesn’t share their dream.

6. It’s not just about the money

Rather than using the tried and tested methods that have gotten others over the line in the past, smart creatives actively listen to those fantastic idea bubbles that pop up in their head and act on them. To them it’s all about results. If you think something is a crazy idea, the smart creative has already gone and done it 5 other more crazy ways and achieved success. They see the finish line in their mind from step 1 onwards. Strange looks from colleagues and superiors are medals they wear with pride.

Smart creatives might be industry movers, without the usual standard technical qualifications. Or they may be highly technically able but self-taught with hobbies that compliment and enrich their day jobs. Similarly they might not have been in the top percentile of their university or get the chance to let their interesting ideas shine in their current job, but they have won prizes, hackathons or are secretly members of Mensa or other geek clubs. They are not your typical pencil-pusher manager material and can end up stuck in somewhat satisfying but low-paying analyst or BA roles. They are not attracted by high paying jobs, yet they wish their potential was recognised and rewarded.

Exceptional people deserve exceptional pay and rewards. Just look at the sports world: the highest paid footballers tend to be the most technically skilled. The concept of disproportionate impact (as discussed in Schmidt & Rosenberg’s book) is a very important deciding factor when it comes to remuneration for exceptional employees. Those workers that have a disproportionately big impact on the other employees in your company are the ones you need to keep and harness, and to keep them you need to reward the impact they are having somewhat differently. When compensation is linked to status, the basis of your pyramid is always going to be unhappy. When a CEO or managing director gets a bonus simply for their job title, your smart creatives are gonna pack up and leave for pastures green.

Tip: attract and keep smart creatives by offering competitive salaries AND individually adjusted, personally relevant job perks. Your IT guy with an IQ of 170 wants to bring his dog to work? Let him. The PM flying to London or New York on the daily wants to expense his breakfasts or lunches at the airport? He just smashed his targets, so why not.

To a smart creative, your problem is nothing more than a conundrum made up of the components of its own solution

The bottom line is that if you aren’t going to appreciate and use the smart creatives in your company to their fullest potential, there’s a chance you’ll end up working for them one day. And if you recognise yourself in the paragraphs above, maybe it has given you some ideas on how to shape your career and your future, and why you are not seeing the results you want. If you feel like your industry or your company are stifling your creative genius, don’t worry – Google, Facebook and other innovative companies are falling over themselves looking for people exactly like you.

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