Last week at the 10th annual Adobe 99U Conference—a two-day event packed with lectures and workshops on creativity and innovation—industry leaders took the stage at Alice Tully Hall in New York’s Lincoln Center to address an audience of creative professionals. They shared their strategies for being effective leaders and for nurturing innovative teams. Below, we share key takeaways from five of the most dynamic presentations.
Tina Roth Eisenberg
CEO & Founder, CreativeMornings, Tattly, and Swissmiss
Tina Roth Eisenberg at the 10th annual Adobe 99U Conference, New York, 2018. Courtesy of Adobe 99U.
Set the tone and hire accordingly
When she first started her design studio Swissmiss, Tina Roth Eisenberg read books on leadership in search of a blueprint for how to run a unique company; she wanted to build a professional business that could be silly and playful. “It took me a long time to understand there is not a right way to do things,” she explained. Roth Eisenberg went on to develop businesses that reflect her values and personality—to be joyful, generous, outgoing, loud, and colorful.
At the office of CreativeMornings—which organizes talks to spotlight inspiring creatives across the U.S. each month—you might see people working in costumes or setting off confetti cannons (there’s even a designated drawer filled with confetti).
“As a founder or as a manager of a team, you set the tone of the company,” Roth Eisenberg said. “You have to be really aware of what that is and then you have to do everything under the sun to hire accordingly—to hire people that will thrive in that very environment.”
As the head of several creative companies, she prioritizes people over growth, and purpose over profits. “I truly believe that leadership is not something you read in a book, but it basically comes down to bringing your personal experiences and beliefs to the table at all times,” she said. “I look at my employees as an army of good.”
Ask the right questions
“As I’m trying to find these heart-forward, purpose-driven, fun people, I’ve gotten quite obsessed with finding the right interview questions,” Roth Eisenberg said. Her go-tos—like “Why are you here?” “What do you do when you’re not working?” or “Tell me about a difficult time in your life. What did you learn?”—get at a person’s authenticity, passions, compassion, and what they can contribute to the team.
Across all of her companies, prospective applicants are asked to tell a joke—she says it’s “the best filtering tool.” From that one response, she can learn a lot. If a person leaves it out, they’re not diligent; if it’s highly inappropriate, that’s a red flag. But if it’s a good joke, one that aligns with the tone of the company and has clearly required some research, that’s a green light. “Those people have what we call, in German, Fingerspitzengefühl,” Roth Eisenberg noted. “It describes great situational awareness and the ability to respond most appropriately and tactfully.”
Certain applicants have gone above and beyond—creating full-blown websites stocked with fun facts, or embedding their entire application within a View-Master.
Roth Eisenberg’s final question, contributed by her eight-year-old son, can indicate a person’s ability to thrive in her exuberant environment: “Would you rather fart confetti or burp glitter?”
“If you can’t handle this question—if this makes you uncomfortable—you cannot work for me. I really believe in running a joyful work environment,” she explained. “I’m convinced that when people are having fun, they are doing better work.”
VP of Product, Netflix
Todd Yellin at the 10th annual Adobe 99U Conference, New York, 2018. Courtesy of Adobe 99U.
Build a team of iconoclasts
“I fancy myself an iconoclast and an enabler of iconoclasts,” explained Todd Yellin. He aims to build a team that’s not afraid to challenge convention, and values innovation over consensus. “Innovation relies on smashing idols, but to smash those idols, what you need is passion and logic.”
He recalled arriving at Netflix back in 2006, when the online streaming service relied on a five-star rating tool that gave users personalized recommendations for shows and movies. Yellin realized that what people rated highly and what they actually watched were not the same.
“Back in those days, people were going, ‘Yes, I’m gonna give five stars to An Inconvenient Truthand Hotel Rwanda or Schindler’s List, but I’m really going home and watching Billy Madison and Paul Blart Mall Cop.’” He brought this to the attention of his managers, and it reshaped the company’s approach to personalization.
Empower your team
Yellin said that, in 2015, the then-CPO at Netflix had stated in an interview that the company would never allow users to download shows—believing that internet accessibility would become ubiquitous, and the feature would just be a distraction. Yellin was approached by a relatively junior contributor on the consumer insights team, who told him that customers were asking for downloading options. “Toss away hierarchy when it comes to good ideas,” Yellin said. “I felt his passion and I heard his logic, and I thought to myself, ‘Yeah, let’s find out, do some research.’”
It turned out the consumer insights employee was right. Especially in places where the internet is unreliable, users were keen to download shows. Yellin brought the research to his superiors and they started building the feature within a few months.
More recently, when his team was keen to shake things up and re-order of the rows of recommendations that appear for users based on their interests, Yellin was skeptical. But he let his team test the new feature, and found that they were right. “I was thrilled that I was wrong,” he recalled. “Me being wrong in that case means that it was a great example for others to pick up their baseball bats and become iconoclasts, to try new things and drive innovation.”
Drive decision-making down
Rather than making decisions at the highest tiers of the company, Yellin has found that innovation happens when more junior employees can voice their opinions.
At Netflix, he explained, meetings once resembled Jeopardy, where team members were hard-pressed to get a word in (as though they had to be the first to hit a buzzer to speak). They adopted a new format where people have to raise their hands, lending some leverage to more reserved team members. To help those who feel intimidated by speaking aloud at a large meeting, they began to circulate a memo in a Google Doc prior to meetings, where everyone can make comments and share opinions.
This idea is also embraced by Netflix CEO Reed Hastings, who, every year or so, asks employees: “What would you do differently if you were CEO?” He then shares a Google Doc where employees can add their responses to the question. “There’s not a fear of putting your ideas out there, even if they’re outrageous—it’s encouraged,” Yellin said.
Experimental Person in Charge, Google Creative Lab Sydney
Tea Uglowat the 10th annual Adobe 99U Conference, New York, 2018. Courtesy of Adobe 99U.
Nurture your team like a garden
Formerly a creative director, Tea Uglow gave herself the title “Experimental Person in Charge” on LinkedIn after translating a Chinese profile that had described her role that way—she felt it better described the way she works and leads a team. Her team’s projects include a smartphone app that enlivens 2,000-year-old Buddhist stone carvings at the British Museum, and an immersive video installation that captured the stories of refugees worldwide through the objects they treasure the most. She described building a team of great thinkers, developers, artists, and writers at Google Creative Lab, then letting them grow, rather than directing their every move.
“I like the idea that I find these beautiful plants and seeds, and I find a garden, and I put the beautiful plants in the garden,” Uglow said. “Then I talk to them and I water them—that’s pretty much what I do. And then they grow up into this beautiful garden.”
Focus on objectives, not goals
“If you’re a creative person, knowing exactly what you’re going to do is a really bad idea,” Uglow explained. Rather than giving her team numbers to hit or a list of projects and action items to complete, she sets a north star objective, then gives her team room to play, experiment, and eventually, innovate.
She makes a point to set objectives for her team, not goals. A goal is fixed, Uglow said, whereas an objective allows for exploration and the freedom to work without being tethered to a single idea or outcome. She aims to foster curiosity and risk-taking.
Author of Drop the Ball: Achieving More by Doing Less; founder & CEO, The CRU; formerly Chief Leadership Officer, Levo
Tiffany Dufu at the 10th annual Adobe 99U Conference, New York, 2018. Courtesy of Adobe 99U.
Don’t be afraid to drop the ball
With a professional mission intent on advancing the lives of women and girls (which included helping Sheryl Sandberg launch the Lean In initiative), Tiffany Dufu realized she needed to let go of the pressure to “do it all,” personally and professionally. She let go of her obsessive approach to keeping her home orderly. Dufu started getting parking tickets and missing birthday parties, and despite that, she realized, “Armageddon never really hit.”
“For me now, dropping the ball means I have let go of these unrealistic expectations of having to do it all to begin with, and I’ve let go of the unrealistic expectation that it should be done my way,” she explained.
Ditch your to-do list
Dufu recalled giving a time-management workshop to a group of women and asked everyone to list all of the things they’d like to get done on an ideal day, then add up the hours it would take to get all of those things done. “Not one woman in the room had a sum that was less than the 24 hours all of us are given in a day,” she said, adding that some hadn’t even listed sleep.
Dufu advises focusing on your “highest and best use.” This means doing the things that you can do extraordinarily well with little effort, and the things that only you can do—things that “would be callous or irresponsible to delegate to other people.”
Chief Product Officer & EVP, Creative Cloud, Adobe; co-creator, Behance
Scott Belsky at the 10th annual Adobe 99U Conference, New York, 2018. Courtesy of Adobe 99U.
Endure and optimize
“A chronic condition of creativity is having to manage uncertainty,” said Scott Belsky. In his new book, The Messy Middle: Finding Your Way Through the Hardest and Most Crucial Part of Any Bold Venture (out this October), Belsky focuses on the period of uncertainty that he calls “the messy middle”—the stages in a company’s growth between the major milestones. He spoke to the leaders of dozens of companies to better understand what happens during this time, and how best to lead a team during it.
Looking back on his own experience building Behance and the company that would later be acquired by Adobe and become 99U, Belsky realized the middle period was the most difficult, with the most low points and the least rewards.
He noted that one of the most important things a leader can do is focus on things that are actually within their influence. Two main strategies for this growth stage, Belsky noted, are to foster both endurance and optimization. By endurance, he means “enduring the lows, learning from them, making every low a little less low,” and then “optimizing the hell out of everything that works, and asking at every high point, ‘Why did this work?’—and then doing more of it.”
Cut down on “insecurity work” and take time to disconnect
“Insecurity work,” Belsky explained, is the stuff you do, often repeatedly throughout the day, “to reassure yourself that everything is okay, but it doesn’t move the ball forward in any way.” This might be looking at traffic on Google Analytics or checking Twitter for mentions of your company. “The amount of time that this eats up and the hit it takes on productivity is real.”
In addition to keeping that behavior at bay, he recommends blocking out time to disconnect from work. “I really feel like now, in some ways, the shower is the final frontier, a place where you’re not being bombarded by stuff,” he quipped. It’s during these moments, away from your desk or your computer, that you can take time to be proactive, to think and plan.
Resourcefulness > resources
“It’s important to value resourcefulness over resources and to embrace the constraints,” Belsky said, nodding to the silver lining of having a less-than-ideal budget. “Constraints keep us uncomfortable, and it’s critical, because comfort breeds complacency.”
He compares resourcefulness to building a helpful muscle, and continues the analogy by describing resources as carbs: “You burn through it, it’s nice, but it doesn’t make you better, in terms of being more swift, agile, and powerful as a leader.”
Innovation happens at the edge of reason
Belsky points to Airbnb as a classic example of a company built on an idea—to sublet a spare room to strangers—that initially seemed unreasonable to many investors. “Reasonable thinking keeps us where we’ve been,” he said. To break out of these ruts, he stressed the need to hire a diverse team of “extraordinarily different extraordinary people.” The more diverse a team—in terms of ethnicity and background, as well as expertise and experience—the more chance you have for ideas that might seem unreasonable.