Creative Cultures: A Breeding Ground For Contemporary Leaders

Written by Holtby Turner

Global shifts, political turmoil, and rapidly changing technologies have put the built environment in a continuous state of flux. No wonder there’s a desperate need for the types of leaders who can handle it, and even thrive on disruption. As I see it though, the problem is many in our industry seem to think that leaders emerge fully formed and can simply be hired.  Companies who see things this way miss a central component of leadership development – namely building a culture that encourages creativity and nurtures the next generation of “home grown” leaders.

The fact is, companies with strong creative cultures outperform their competition in leadership development (and there are too many studies to list which back this up). So one of the most important things real estate companies should be doing today is developing a strong creative culture.

What exactly do we mean by a creative culture? “Generally, it’s one that supports creativity by creating a safe space for a number of diverse viewpoints. They foster a multitude of novel ideas and respectful challengers, and are characterised by a continuous critical engagement with ideas”, according to creativity expert and author of Dangerous Ideas, Professor Alf Rehn. “Traditional cultures only discuss ideas that fit within the corporate framework, but a creative culture will be open to discussing far-fetched and challenging ideas – the uncomfortable ones that break moulds and break new ground”.

You may be wondering why such a culture would be a breeding ground for leaders – don’t creative cultures breed thinkers and ideas rather than solid leaders? Actually, they absolutely develop great leaders, and here’s how.

Leaders Are Forged From Friction

Creative cultures are often quite confrontational, as people within them care greatly about ideas and are prepared to fight for their viewpoints. This creative friction can scare away more traditional leaders, but it also enables thought leadership to develop. By learning to stand up for different, fresh ideas, and seeing critique and questioning as opportunities to develop and grow, creative leaders are skilled in diplomacy and idea development, along with the resilience and humility that such constructive argument demands. Leaders who grow from creative cultures will not assume that ideas are born fully formed, but instead value the process of questioning and development. This curiosity and love of learning is a pre-requisite for innovation and transformation.

Creative Cultures Care For Carers

In a creative culture, leader don’t bully. They are the one who can identify a fledgling idea, and care and support it while it develops. This experience is highly valuable not only for idea development, but for spotting other kinds of value as well – no matter how early its potential. With experience in creative development, this leader is more likely to spot underused talents, novel business models (that can become the next big thing), and relationships that might be leveraged for greater value creation. Caring leadership is all about seeing something of value in a new, not yet developed possibility. Airy fairy as some may think this sounds, this will become increasingly important throughout the rapid transformation we’re experiencing in the built environment.

Creative Cultures Breed Diverse Leaders

The greatest challenge in contemporary leadership in real estate is that so many seen as leaders are “male, pale, and stale”. This lack of diversity is often due to corporate cultures rewarding similarity and sticking to notions of “best practice” (whatever that actually means!). In creative cultures, this process is turned on its head. Here, support is given to those who question the status quo, and why creative cultures are proven testing grounds for more diverse leadership development. By embracing a wider range of accepted leadership types, creative cultures allow individuals who might otherwise be held back to fly, and thus generate a robust set of diverse leaders for their business. The value of this should be obvious, but if it is not then read The Power of Real Balance by PWC, an excellent report from 2017.

Creative cultures support informal leaders

The process of creativity cares little for titles or hierarchy, that’s why they’re known as fields where informal leaders can be found. Creative culture’s long standing disregard for org-chart hierarchies are proven to identify and nurture challenging leaders. By giving more time to a capacity to create, as opposed to fitting with a leadership type per se, creative cultures have always fostered idiosyncratic leaders who believe in moon-shots (and if you think about Elon Musk, those moon-shots are very real, although he is an engineer and not technically a creative). This disruptive kind of leader are the ones who can quietly begin a revolution.

True Leaders Experiment

There cannot be creativity without experimentation. That’s why creative cultures are hotbeds of experimentation, and the leaders that emerge in them will be naturals at testing, experiments, and leading through data rather than with tradition. Real experimentation is a skill that is only learnt by direct experience. The future of real estate will require far, far more experiments than traditional leaders are used to. Creative leaders are born experimenters, and have the innate understanding of testing and data that a company living through tumultuous times needs.

So here is a suggestion: if you want to develop the kind of leaders that can navigate successfully in amid geopolitical change and technological disruption, pay attention to creative cultures. Stop judging them for their ping pong tables and weekly yoga classes, and start learning from them. The kinds of leaders that real estate needs in the future are creative.

 Thank God It’s Friday! 

One of the ways Google keeps its culture growing is with something called “TGIF”. Since its very earliest days, Google has run TGIF or “Thank God it’s Friday” – a weekly all-hands where the founders Larry Page and Sergei Brin bring the whole company together in an informal way. Back in the day it was on Fridays, but today it’s Thursday, in order to accommodate Googlers all over the world). If you are at Google HQ in Silicon Valley, you’d gather in the big cafeteria hang out spaces, or if you work remotely, you watch on a live stream at your desk, or with your colleagues. The How doesn’t matter – it’s the connection that does.

During TGIF, Larry, Sergei and many senior leaders show transparency as they openly share what they are working on, when new initiatives are presented, and wins from all divisions celebrated.  A big welcome goes to all new Googlers, known as Nooglers. Most importantly, open and direct questions are asked to all senior leaders for which they provide candid feedback.

It is incredibly impressive for a publicly traded, multi-billion dollar, global behemoth like Google to do (especially as transparency is less than abundant when it comes to the data they hold on their customers).  That a company be so open, transparent and profoundly trusting of their employees is proof of its robust culture: barely ever does anything from TGIF ever leak. Of equal note, Google’s founders Larry and Sergei make it a priority to be at the meeting every single week. TGIF creates trust and alignment. It is incredibly powerful.

What’s your organisation’s TGIF?

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