Key Person Risk and Creative Professions

I’m coming to the conclusion that creative professions inevitably come with a “key person risk”. And this is due to the way teams in such professions are usually built.

I’ll start with a tweet that I put out today.

(I had NOT planned this post at the time when I put out this tweet)

I’ll not go into defining creative professions here, but I will leave it to say that you typically know it when you see one.

The thing with teams in such professions is that people who are good and creative are highly unlikely to get along with each other. Going into the animal kingdom for an analogy, we can think of dividing everyone in any such professions into “alphas” and “betas”. Alphas are the massively creative people who usually rise to lead their teams. Betas are the rest.

And given that any kind of creativity is due to some amount of lateral thinking, people good at creative professions are likely to hallucinate a bit (hallucination is basically lateral thinking taken to an extreme). And stretching it a bit more, you can say that people who are good at creative tasks are usually mad in one way or another.

As I had written briefly this morning, it is not usual for mad people (especially of a similar nature of madness) to get along with each other. So if you have a creative alpha leading the team, it is highly unlikely that he/she will have similar alphas in the next line of leadership. It is more likely that the next line of leadership will have people who are good complements to the alpha leader.

For example, in the ongoing World Cup, I’ve seen several tactical videos that have all said one thing – that Rodrigo De Paul’s primary role in the Argentinian team is to “cover for Messi”. Messi doesn’t track back, but De Paul will do the defending for him. Messi largely switches off, but De Paul is industrious enough to cover for Messi. When Messi goes forward, De Paul goes back. When Messi drops deep, De Paul makes a forward run.

This is the most typical creative partnership that you can get – one very obviously alpha creative supported by one or more steady performers who enable the creative person to do the creative work.

The question is – what happens when the creative head (the alpha) leaves? And the answer to this are going to be different in elite sport and the corporate world (and I’m mostly talking about the latter in this post).

In elite sport, when Messi retires (which he is likely to do after tomorrow’s final, irrespective of the result), it is virtually inconceivable that Argentina will ask De Paul to play in his position. Instead, they will look into others who are already playing in a sort of Messi role, maybe (or likely) at an inferior level and bring them up. De Paul will continue to play his role of central midfielder and continue to support whoever comes into Messi’s role.

In corporate setups, though, when one employee leaves, the obvious thing to do is to promote that person’s second in command. Sometimes there might be a battle for succession among various seconds in command, and the losers also leave the company. For most teams, where seconds in command are usually similar in style to the leader, this kind of succession planning works.

For creative teams, however, this usually leads to a disaster. More often than not, the second in command’s skills will be very different from that of the leader. If the leader had been an alpha creative (that’s the case we’re largely discussing here), the second in command is more likely to be a steady “water carrier” (a pejorative term used to describe France’s current coach Didier Deschamps).

And if this “water carrier” (no offence meant to anyone by this, but it is a convenient description) stays in the job for a long time, it is likely that the creative team will stop being creative. The thing that made it creative in the first place was the alpha’s leadership (this is especially true of small teams), and unless the new boss has recognised this and brings in a new set of alphas (or identifies potential alphas in the org and quickly promotes them), the team will start specialising in what was the new boss’s specialisation – which is to hold things steady and do all the right things and cover for someone who doesn’t exist any more.

So teams in creative professions have a key man risk in that if a particularly successful alpha leaves, the team as it remains is likely to stagnate and stop being creative. The only potential solutions I can think of are:

  • Bring in a new creative from outside to lead the team. The second in command remains just that
  • Coach the second in command to identify diverse (and creative alpha) talents within the team and recognise that there are alphas and betas. And the second in command basically leads the team but not the creative work
  • Organise the team more as a sports team where each person has a specific role. So if the attacking midfielder leaves, replace with a new attacking midfielder (or promote a junior attacking midfielder into a senior attacking midfielder). Don’t ask your defensive midfielders to suddenly become an attacking midfielder
  • Put pressure from above for alphas to have a sufficient number of other alphas as the next line of command. Retaining this team is easier said than done, and without betas the team can collapse.

Of course, if you look at all this from the perspective of the beta, there is an obvious question mark about career prospects. Unless you suddenly change your style (easier said than done), you will never be the alpha, and this puts in place a sort of glass ceiling for your career.

One thought on “Key Person Risk and Creative Professions”

  1. A great manager(that we both know) used to explicitly think and speak of his (tech) team in terms of defenders-midfielders-strikers. He thought strikers should be free from managing people though.

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