Five strategies (and ten tactics) for building resilient, creative teams.

As an industry, two of our toughest challenges are in keeping our people motivated in difficult economic conditions and in recruiting, given the current talent shortage in the sector.

I was privileged to host a panel session on building resilient teams at the recent MRS Conference. The discussion drew on the combined wisdom of my inspiring panellists, who represented different sides of our industry – client side, agency and recruitment.

Distilling that wisdom has led me to propose five long-term strategies to follow, together with ten short-term tactical fixes, to ensure that your teams thrive through tough times and to attract and nurture brilliant people, despite the talent shortage.

Five strategies to build resilient, creative teams

1 Create a supportive culture

If you only remember one thing from this piece, this should be it. Culture is the key differentiator between success and failure: if you can get the culture right, pretty much everything else will fall into place.

The panellists described their ideal culture as enabling people to have agency and control over the way they work, creating a sense of belonging, expecting people to be accountable and normalising saying no instead of rewarding overworking. The culture also needs to encourage risk-taking to foster creativity.

“For each of my members of staff, and for pretty much anyone at Netflix, you own your job and you’re allowed to do that  job in whatever way you want: you’re allowed to take holidays whenever you want, you’re allowed  to work the hours that you want, but you have to take responsibility for the impact of that on  what you’re doing.”

Patrick Collins, Consumer Insights Director, EMEA, Netflix

As well supporting your existing teams, culture is key when recruiting. Candidates today are much more demanding when they come to job interviews, particularly if they have experienced less supportive cultures in the past.

“[Candidates] are seeking a better culture, a more supportive working environment. They’re leaving places where they feel overworked – and many are completely at breaking point – where they are taken for  granted and they’re looking for somewhere  where they can thrive and where their individual  situation and requirements are being respected.”

Inger Christensen, Founder and Partner, Daughters of Sailors

“Now in interviews we are hearing the question ‘tell me about your culture; what is it like to work there?’ In the past we could be pretty lazy and say, ‘yeah we go to the pub, we have birthday cakes, that’s our culture’ but now we have to have an answer ready.”

Lizzy Moroney, Head of Customer Strategy, Firefish

2 Focus on the WHY

As part of creating a culture in which people have autonomy and agency, the panellists emphasised that it’s crucial for team members to understand why they are doing what they are doing the contribution they make to wider goals. Not only will this help give people a sense of purpose and value, but it will also help them to prioritise tasks and identify those to which they should say no.

“As a people manager you need to be really clear on what you’re asking people to do and why, ‘Why am I asking you to do this? What’s it going to drive? How is it going to be used?’ …If somebody’s got what I would call skin in the game, they’re far more invested to do a great job.”

Ann Constantine, Former Head of Insight, Direct Line Group

3 Be authentic

Culture comes from leaders and good leadership requires authenticity. The panellists felt strongly they are role models for their teams and that they have to live the culture they are trying to create.

“I just don’t think you can be a good people manager or a good team player if you are not authentic as an individual; it all comes back to us as individuals in terms of what we need to do and how we need to act.”

Ann Constantine

For example, a leader who takes on too much won’t be able to create a culture where work/life balance is valued and overworking is not celebrated.

“I think we as leaders have to role model being willing to say ‘no’ or ‘not yet’ to the many and various things that we get asked to do… you have to think, ‘what are my passion projects and what are my priorities as a leader?’ and make some time for those.”

Lizzy Moroney

4. Celebrate failure

Taking risks means accepting failure. There is a tension between giving people autonomy and enabling them to take risks – nobody wants to be responsible for failures. There can only be innovation and growth where there is freedom to fail. Again, leaders need to be authentic role models and create a culture where failure is celebrated.

“We’re making entertainment, we’re making programs for people to enjoy, so it should be fun but also at the same time if you do a project that fails, it doesn’t matter… I try and role model… a lot of my projects end up not being the best ones because I’m trying to go out on a limb and try something new… I’m actually trying to celebrate a culture of honourable failures.”

Patrick Collins

5 Put on your own oxygen mask first

If you aren’t taking care of yourself, you soon won’t be able to take care of your team. It may seem indulgent or self-serving, but your team look to you for guidance; if they see you giving yourself permission to take time out and recharge, they will feel able to as well.

“I do yoga every morning and recently I have joined an amazing choir and these things give me a lot of joy and I feel I can take that into my work.”

Inger Christensen

There is also a big difference between giving someone the tools to solve their own problems and taking those problems on yourself.

“It’s very easy to continually take everyone else’s problems and make them your own. That’s a situation where nobody wins… it’s like taking a heavy rock from each of your team and putting it on your own back and then being like, ‘oh shit, why have I fallen over?”

Patrick Collins

Ten quick-fix tactics to try today

The strategies above should all be long-term commitments. Building a culture takes time and requires continuous evaluation and improvement. But the panel also came up with some great ideas for things that you can do today to make a start.

  1. Create a slide that articulates your commitment to wellbeing for your staff and include it in all of your proposals.
  2. Don’t ask for deliverables at 9am on a Monday – doing so guarantees people will be working at the weekend.
  3. Normalise flexible working hours – put a signature in your email that makes it clear you don’t expect answers straight away, late at night or over the weekend.
  4. Ban meetings over the lunch hour – enable people to switch off and relax.
  5. Rotate who hosts team meetings – give everyone a chance to participate and share ideas, regardless of their role.
  6. Check in with remote people every day so they feel like they belong.
  7. Invite job candidates to team meetings to show off your culture.
  8. Remember that one-on-one meetings with your team are part of your job and prioritise them.
  9. Take one thing out of your team’s diaries to free up time next week.
  10. Invite feedback from your team at end of meetings about what they valued and what could have been done better. Then implement their suggestions.

Overall, my key takeaway from the event, as well as gratitude for the fantastic panel and delight at the feedback from the audience, was the difference that leaders can make for their teams.

At Opinium we are deeply committed to being a great place to work and to putting all of the above strategies in place.

With thanks to the MRS for inviting me to host the panel and to the panellists:

  • Patrick Collins, Consumer Insights Director, EMEA, Netflix
  • Inger Christensen, Founder and Partner, Daughters of Sailors
  • Lizzy Moroney, Head of Customer Strategy, Firefish
  • Ann Constantine, Former Head of Insight, Direct Line Group