Find your inner Elvis: four lessons for leading a creative culture


Using the imagery of spanking paddles, Hollywood pool parties and Kiki Dee, Jim Lusty, partner at the consultancy Upping Your Elvis, provided the Advertising Week Europe 2016 audience with four important lessons in building a creative culture as part of the MEC Talent Track.

He argued that, while we work in a business focused on creative product, all too often creative leaders struggle to create the conditions that are most conducive to creativity. That they ignore the possibility that everybody in a company has a bit of Elvis in them, the capacity to contribute creatively.

Throughout the session, introduced by Marie-Claire Barker, global chief talent officer at MEC, Lusty was at pains to emphasise that leaders of businesses must first ask the question “Do we really want a creative culture?” before taking people out of their comfort zones, inflicting shock and pain before delivering the pleasure that goes with successful innovation. This was where the spanking paddle metaphor came in.

Assuming businesses are ready for some creative shock therapy, Lusty outlined four important lessons for creative leaders:

1. “Tune in” to positive energy

His big first message was that leaders must “tune in” to the energy levels in a room. He pointed out that people are at their creative best when their brains are in an “Alpha” state, encouraged by activities such as walking, taking a shower or visiting a bar with friends. “It very rare that I’m at my creative zenith when in the office, sitting at my desk thinking hard. Or in a creative brainstorm, where it just goes ‘bang’,” Lusty said.

To foster a more creative work spirit, Lusty suggested creative leaders make it easier for people to access both their “Beta” (decision-making, conscious) state and “Alpha” state, building connections between thinking and feeling. “A lot of the time we just don’t spend enough time trusting our gut, our feeling. The best creative leaders, say ‘yes, we’re a data driven organisation but there is something else to pursue and explore.”

2. Ask “What’s needed here?”

Leaders should clearly identify the energy that is required in a situation. And, if the goal is a more creative organisation, then it’s this spirit of positivity.

Lusty said that this is hard to achieve in a work environment because people revert to their “inner cave person” survival mentality and react negatively to change: “It’s so much easier to kill new ideas and suggestions, than it is to grow them. We feel much safer with this, rather than exploring to get to new territory.”

Again, Lusty emphasised the need for positivity. Pointing out that one piece of negative behaviour – a glance between colleagues even – can “suck the energy and kill creative output.” Comparing this to the impact of a “poo in the pool at a Hollywood party”, Lusty said that it’s the role of the creative leader to energise the room, react positively to new ideas, provide breaks in the norms and inject a bit of danger to change the mood in the room. To illustrate the point, he pretended to have identified two of the audience to join him on stage for a rendition of the Elton John and Kiki Dee hit “Don’t Go Breaking My Heart”. It was a ruse to raise people’s energy levels and engagement.

3. Realise the power of making things real

Lusty recommended that creative leaders focus on the value of “realness” at the heart of innovation. To not just sit back and think but learn from examples such as James Dyson, who made thousands of prototypes of a vacuum cleaner before taking it to market. “We too often sit and sweat and debate new ideas without testing them. Make it [the creative process] more ‘Blue Peter’ and more fun,” he added.

Creating physical outputs stimulates a visceral response in your team, he said. So creative leaders should be role models in “experimenting, being proactive, and bringing things to life.”

4. Grow some Cojones

The concluding part of the session focused on the need for creative leaders to be brave, to take responsibility for changing things. Lusty said: “You need to be unattached to outcomes, to explore opportunities you know might not work.” He said that leaders should exhibit role model behaviour that is infectious and creates similar energy in other people within the company. Quoting Ghandi, Lusty encouraged leaders to “be the change you want to see”, explore “crazy ideas” and “have a go” to make the magic happen.