Ann Le Cam is a Global Talent and Studio Leader. And a great one! She's also a dab hand at creating the best environments for creative empowerment, and after listening to her Talk at THU Creators Circle, we caught up with her to further the conversation on a few topics!
How should one nurture this idea-creation atmosphere where all team members can feel comfortable contributing?
As leaders, it is our role to create an environment where people have the courage, desire and ambition to volunteer creative and innovative ideas. In the book Collective Genius, The Art and Practice of Leading Innovation, Professor Linda Hill and her colleagues approach this concept
by creating an environment where people are willing and able to innovate. In his wonderful book Herding Tigers: Be the Leader That Creative People Need, Todd Henry discusses creating a balance between challenge and stability required for creatives to do their best work.
The ability to innovate comes when everyone has enough context and information to know they are solving meaningful problems and offering "useful" innovative ideas that can be scaled. This can partially be accomplished by clearly articulating the organization's purpose and what you can accomplish collectively. It also requires everyone to see the context and the bigger picture, so they know the most urgent and important problems that could/should be solved. By communicating broadly and transparently, leaders invite everyone to offer ideas. When, in their communication, they also show some vulnerability by talking about concerns, issues or problems, this will create trust and empower others in the organization to offer solutions.
To innovate with impact, it’s also essential that people solve the correct problems and not just fix the symptoms or work on pet ideas. As mentioned before, true innovation comes when the ideas offered are useful and scalable. As a result, it is essential for leaders to deeply understand the problem and get to the root of it.
This requires leaders to resist the urge to immediately go into problem-solving mode, but to remain in a phase of ambiguity and to keep an open mind, while listening actively to the ideas and perspectives of the people closest to the problem. When listening, leaders should listen to the solutions offered and the underlying problem people are trying to solve. When there is agreement on the problem, it will be easier for leaders to find the solutions and to get collective alignment so the organization can successfully move through the change.
The willingness comes when people feel safe, respected and protected when they are volunteering innovative ideas or experimenting with new ways of doing things. It requires a lot of courage to do something new and to challenge the status quo, so it is important for leaders to create an environment of trust and care so everyone knows that it is OK to try something new, to experiment and even sometimes fail.
To offer new ideas, people need to feel invited and that their suggestions or ideas are heard and valued. Therefore, leaders need to create an inclusive environment where everyone feels empowered to offer ideas and have permission to innovate regardless of their position.
Especially in a creative environment, people who aren’t in creative roles (operations, finance, HR….) don’t always feel empowered to volunteer their ideas. When that is the case, they will shut down and disengage from the innovative process. As leaders, we must constantly look for signals that ensure everyone feels part of the bigger endeavor and that all ideas are valued, regardless of where they are coming from.
For employees to feel “psychologically safe” to offer new and innovative ideas, it is important for them to feel trusted and cared for. Both “trust” and “care” are reciprocal engagements. We will not trust someone unless we feel trusted by them, and we won’t care until we feel confident that the other person also cares about us. Therefore, leaders need to ensure they don’t send signals that might imply that they don’t trust people around them or don’t care about them, even beyond work. For instance, if we have a policy for everything in the organization, we might be sending a signal that we don’t trust our employees to use their good judgment. Similarly, suppose leaders don’t ensure they are creating a healthy and safe work environment. In that case, they might signal that they don’t care about their employees beyond work.
In his book Creativity Inc., Overcoming the Unseen Forces that might stand in the Way of True Inspiration, Dr. Ed Catmull describes the sometimes-unseen obstacles that might hinder or stifle innovation. He exemplifies how it is the constant, active work of leaders to look for any signals that might disrupt the free flow of creative ideas and to do anything possible to remove them.
In your talk, you mentioned that (As a leader, you should) “Be mindful of your shadow,” meaning we should be conscious of the trace we leave behind. Can you further explain what you meant by this?
As leaders, we must be deeply aware that we (leaders) will set the tone in an organization and that everyone is closely watching our behaviors, reactions, and what we say or don’t say. As we grow from “individual contributors” to becoming “leaders,” we don’t necessarily make that transition intentionally and don’t always realize the profoundness of the shift. Suddenly, our words and deeds take on a different importance, even if we think we haven’t really changed.
During my time at Disney, I was lucky enough to participate in a leadership development class, where one of the exercises was called “The Shadow of the Leader”. Throughout the seminar, we would have leaders from different business units talk to us about their business, the purpose, the challenges and the teams. After the talk (and after the leader had left), participants were asked to reflect on the “shadow” of that leader. What did they leave behind, how did they make us feel, and how much confidence and optimism did they provide? It was a very insightful exercise.
It's crucial for leaders to actively listen to their employees but to also be mindful of what they are projecting in the organization. What do people feel or say when they aren’t in the room. There is a saying that “organizations take on the personality of their leaders”, so it’s essential to be mindful of the signals we send as they will shape our culture. If leaders are hoping to create an innovative, daring environment, they need to demonstrate these behaviors themselves and provide “aircover” for those around them who are demonstrating those behaviors.
This requires a lot of self-awareness, self-reflection and humbleness. As leaders rise in the organization, people are more reluctant to speak the truth or talk about the problems they are encountering daily. It is essential for leaders to actively seek out these conversations and to ensure that people have the space and comfort to talk to them honestly.
As a leader, ask yourself frequently when you last had a challenging, difficult, or uncomfortable conversation. If you haven’t had one of these moments recently, you might want to make an effort to actively seek them out. Especially in creative environments, leadership is an ongoing journey of discovery and self-awareness.
More of Ann Le Cam’s reads here!