Category: leadership

Redefining success

So I am listening to Tim Ferris’ interview with Walter Isaacson about his new book on Leonardo DaVinci while walking the dog. There are a number of excellent takeaways and I strongly encourage you to give it a listen.

The most important takeaway was this: How do you go from success to significance?



What a bold question to ask yourself. If you work hard, practice, get good at what you do, you will be successful. It will happen.

But what’s next? How much success do you need? You can always challenge yourself to do more. You can always repeat earlier success – there’s nothing wrong with that. But after you’ve been at it for a while, there has to be more. More than another brass ring to grab. Something more than success for yourself or the people you work for.

Significance is so much bigger than yourself. It’s way beyond you. It’s something that might take years, or a lifetime, to attain. You may never achieve it. But it is a noble goal.

I wish I had the answer to this question. It’s been stewing in my mind for days and will probably for some time to come.

Think about it yourself. Think about significance in the context of what you are doing today. Are you do the kinds of things that will propel you beyond success? If not, how can you make adjustments?

As Isaacson pointed out, Franklin and Leonardo did lots of small things, any one of which might have made him famous. But both held such a larger perspective on the world that they saw the significance of their work.

Although it is of little significance, my dog loved the nice long walk.

Baseball, Stoicism & Being a Professional

One of my favorite classes in college was “Design Philosophy”. It was a mishmash of history, typography, production and techniques. It was not a portfolio class, but more like an art class, where we made more design that was like art.

The funny thing about Design Philosophy is that I was never quite sure what I was supposed to have taken away from it. Even 25+ years later, I’m still not sure.

But philosophy has never left my mind.

Life is hard and without getting to gooey, studying philosophy can help you find your way. A couple of years ago I read Walter Isaacson’s biography of Steve Jobs. I thought Isaacson was a little too close to his subject and a bit too much of a fanboy. But there were plenty of excellent take-aways with a surprisingly large number that are of a philosophical nature.

After reading the book, I immediately went out and picked up one of Job’s favorite books, Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind, a book that had been recommended to me years ago but I had never broken down to read it. Finally did.

Although a beautiful, thoughtful book, Buddhist philosophy is not for me. I do meditate on occasion, but just cannot wrap my head around Eastern thought.

The Western equivalent, Stoicism, I do practice. Daily in fact. Of late, it has become the trendy thing to do largely in part to Ryan Holiday’s book The Obstacle is the Way and it’s subsequent adoption by the NFL as a manual for success. Hey, whatever works.

Sports offer such a great metaphors for life. Especially baseball.

My all-time favorite player has been and will always be the Astros’ first baseman throughout the 90s, Jeff Bagwell. He epitomizes Stoic philosophy.

I’ll never forget a post-game interview he gave. He just came off a monster game — a home run, stolen bases, great defense and base running. An All-Star caliber performance. A reporter comes up to him in the locker room afterwards and starts rattling off everything he had done. Bags just looks at him and says “You know they pay me to hit home runs, steal bases and field the ball. I was just doing my job.” Not an ounce of sarcasm, just pure Stoicism.

I’ve always tried my best to carry myself with a similar stance. Put your head down and do the work. That’s what being a professional is all about.  Don’t go out looking for glory, do the work and let it find you.

For the same amount of effort

I took this class that Disney offered about customer service. The first thing the instructor asked is for everyone to raise their hand. Everyone did. With all the hands still in the air, he asked the class to raise them a little more. Hands rose slightly higher. Now how hard was that? The class collectively reached just a bit higher with a minimal amount of extra effort.

This is a core concept Disney practices to ensure all their guests have the best experience visiting their parks.

That lesson has stuck with me for years.

When you get into your day-to-day work, often you want to rush through, not expend any more energy on a project than you have to, or want to get on with something else. But how big of a difference can you make if you would try 1 or 2% harder?

Conversely, back about 20 years ago I read an article in MacWorld that said if you do not open all the windows in the Finder, you save seconds of processing time every day. You’re making your Mac faster. In fact, over the course of a day you might even safe as much as a couple of minutes. Those minutes add up to hours, days and so on over the course of a year.

When you apply this principle to everything in life, how big of a difference can you make? How much change? Make things better?

Little things can be powerful forces.


Thoughts on Creative Direction: Be Invisible

I was with a number of executives recently reviewing a huge project. They were presenting to their boss while I played the role of fly-on-the-wall, observing and taking notes. The review went extraordinarily well.

As we were leaving the meeting, a thought occurred to me: I was invisible. Not just during the review, but throughout the entire process. The executives I worked for were the heroes here, as were members of my team who contributed to the project. But I was completely invisible. This got me thinking.

As a Creative Director, you should be invisible. The last thing a presentation, or just about anything for that matter, should be about is you. The work should be the center of attention. Your client should shine. Your boss should be the hero. Your team should get the credit. If everyone around you is getting the accolades, you did something right.

This is a foreign concept for many CDs to grasp. So much of the creative business is fueled by ego, often times the bigger the better. You may be familiar with “Imposter Syndrome”, there also exists “Creators Syndrome” and the myth of the lone creative genius. I’ve even been overheard declaring “if your ideas are good enough, you can be as big an asshole as you want.” That may be true, but being an asshole does not make you a good leader. Getting the best out of people and making certain the work is excellent does.

Do you run a risk by being invisible? Sure. Everyone wants to be seen as being valuable and contributing to the success of a project. When you’re invisible it is hard to quantify what you did; your role as the leader may not become apparent for weeks, months or ever. If all goes well, your success comes later on down the road, like when you are chosen for another plum assignment, or repeat business keeps coming in the door, or you retain employees who are happy, healthy and productive.

It may be hard to put your finger on it, but that is when your success becomes tangible. People around you feel and understand why they are successful. Your role then becomes all too apparent.

What is a Creative Director?

No one outside the advertising industry had ever heard of a Creative Director until Mad Men came out, than Don Draper became that iconic figure and suddenly the role became crystal clear. When I introduce myself as a CD people often ask me if I am like like Don. My stock reply is that we’re exactly alike but I don’t smoke. To know me is to understand the humour in that statement.

I would like to say that the job is all about 3 martini lunches, naps in the afternoon, brainstorming all night and all those things that sound so glamorous to young people in the business. It’s all about leadership.

dondraper-lessons-1024x428Despite what you read here, I identify with Don Draper on many levels. Perhaps another post for another time.

It took me a while to understand what a CD actually is, though. For the longest time I thought the job was the next rung on a tall career ladder. Back in my days at Unleaded, I definitely had that mindset. I felt I had to be the quarterback, much like Don Draper, pushing myself and the team across the field to score. But that is hardly what the job is about, and a large part of what makes me laugh when I see some 25 year old telling me they are a CD. You’re barely out of diapers at that point kid; there’s no way you’re a leader.

The Creative Director is not the quarterback. Furthering the football analogy, the CD is actually the coach, and if you’re lucky you have a good solid quarterback working for you. Your role as CD is to get the team ready and set them in motion to score. (A little more irony: I don’t really like football that much, but like most sports, games often help tell stories.) Being the CD is all about putting the right people in the right place at the right time to achieve a goal. Sounds simple, but when you’re team is comprised of creative folks, here is where it gets interesting.

Simon Sinek said it best in the title of his book, “Leaders Eat Last”. That one sentiment captures the very essence of a Creative Director. There’s very few Don Drapers out there who swoop in to save the account, or be the mighty creative force who everyone relies on to win. Rather, if you’re doing your job right, you are often invisible because the machine is humming along smoothly. No one will see the inner workings. Or at least they shouldn’t, especially your boss. The downside is that you don’t get all the glory, and you will get the blame should things go south. It ain’t easy, but I find it all strangely rewarding.

My team entered 15 pieces into the BMA Houston Lantern Awards and eight were accepted into the show for the presentation on 16 Nov. I could not be more proud. The younger version of me would have been jealous. Most of my creative efforts this year are still on the proverbial cutting room floor, or buried deep on the archive drive never to see the light of day again. Not to say I did not do anything this year, that is just how the year shaped up. Instead, I look at the current environment of the oil and gas industry, which I’m in the middle of, and I see what my team was able to accomplish despite these challenging times. Let me reiterate: Put the right people in the right place in the right time. And defend them, shield them for outside forces. Give them the room to succeed. I’m lucky that I have some good quarterbacks, and running backs and linemen, etc. I had to do my job so that they could do theirs, and it worked.

That’s being a Creative Director.

For other’s insights into the job:
A primer on creative direction as compared to art direction and design… and what they all mean in a digital context.

How to be a great creative director
What qualities do you need to become a top creative director? Five leading creative directors offer their views.

Managing Designers on Two Different Tracks