Recruiting Humans First: A Better Way to Build Your Team
Lo Martin / Creative Director & Strategist
By the point in my career where I found myself managing teams, I could only gauge what a good boss was on what I wish I had experienced and not what I did. It gnawed at me. I think the most important thing for any creative — whether we’re at the beginning of our career or well-established — is to work for someone who listens to us and supports our character.
We spend SO MUCH of our time working. We should be doing more to make these environments ideal. I suggest we start by tailoring teams in a different way.
I whittle it down to a handful of traits that can transform work environments, particularly creative teams, where we put our ideas on the wall to be examined and improved upon by our colleagues. Imposter syndrome is real — I think we all have it. We want to be accepted. A simple form of showing acceptance is knowing how to collaborate with other people.
If you approach team communication as openly as possible, people generally enjoy working together. It’s a lot easier to do that as a leader when you admire what each team member brings to the table. Even when there are aesthetic disagreements, it would be wise to weigh other opinions as heavily as our own. At least, this is how it should be. If you hire great humans.
HIRE THE HUMAN
Needless to say, team building gets a lot of my mind space these days and I’m always tinkering with how I can make the recruiting process better. I have encountered enough disjointed, unhappy teams to know that I wish that on no one. There’s a better way.
Of course, talent and experience will always have a part to play in my hiring funnel. But I would argue that successful recruiting is rooted in something more enduring: understanding people. As a theory, this isn’t anything new; the same traits that I look for when hiring team members — curiosity, empathy, flexibility, honesty, humility, kindness, resourcefulness, sincerity, energy, effort — are universals that we look for in all healthy human relationships.
If you want to go deep with me for a moment, consider Aristotle’s POV on friendship. In a nutshell, Aristotle’s telling us that you can group friends into three categories; two imperfect and one perfect. The imperfect are friends of utility (they’re there, it’s easy, why not) and friends of pleasure (they make you laugh, they always know where to eat, that sort of thing). In the perfect category, meanwhile, are friends of virtue.
Aristotle argues that the first two are inherently selfish friendships — they’re based on the benefit that we get from the relationship. The latter —friends of virtue — sprouts from what psychology professor Angela Knobel calls “reciprocated goodwill.” I’m investing in you as a friend because I value your character. Unlike utility or pleasure, which might change or fade, a friendship based on virtue endures.
If we’re building teams for the long run, I argue that we should examine enduring character traits when hiring. The utility factor (they can spit out a logo in under an hour) or pleasure factor (their minimalist aesthetic fits the current brand perfectly) might not align with the business six months from now. That sort of a shift could cause huge stress on an employee and how they define their value to the team. It’s a recipe for burnout, uninspired work, and high team turnover.
If you’re able to look beyond the immediate value to yourself, your team, or your organization when hiring, and to think more strategically about the character of the hire, the success for both sides will likely be longer-lasting and more rewarding.
To take it one step further: in this world where people can too often feel commoditized for their utility or aesthetic value, let’s focus on hiring against virtue and enduring qualities instead. I don’t believe that can fail us. It has yet to fail me.
THE CREATIVE CHARACTER
So, here’s where we piece it together. Our argument is: beyond a certain threshold of entry —portfolio and experience — hire for character. But, creatives and character? That’s where it all gets quite complicated.
Creatives are unconventional and often misunderstood. You need to be willing to look past your preconceptions. We turn to creatives to bring outside-of-the-box ideas and innovation to a company. Who they are, what they do, and how they express themselves might be foreign to our own definition of good vs. questionable character. A traditional hiring philosophy might fail if you’re trying to figure out the inner workings of a designer or illustrator or haiku writer. Which university they attended, languages they speak, organizations they’re part of, awards they’ve won — these might not be benchmarks your perfect creative hire values or even had the luxury of accumulating. But they also don’t necessarily reflect on their qualification for the job. It might be a good time to flip the script.
For me, that starts with the first outreach. No matter what level I’m hiring for, these candidates are my colleagues. A junior designer might be a best-in-class specialist in a skill I could only ever dream of having. My relationship to my team needs to start with respect for their craft and how they’re different than me. Because of that, I approach the recruiting process as a dialogue, not an interview.
I do my homework. I dig into their work, their resume, and try to understand where they are on their creative path. When I reach out, I keep it short: “I love your work, here’s the role I’m looking to fill (so fun!), come on in and chat it through with me.” In a way, this is a first clue. Are they curious?
For the in-person, this is an opportunity to get a sense of several other traits. After the standard hellos, I shift focus and dive into a portfolio review. Tell me about your favorite project. Which one really sucked to work on? What if you had built that design this way instead of that way? Do you like working alone or with a team?
From these cues, I can start to see if a candidate reacts well to an opposing point of view (flexibility), if they are comfortable identifying weakness in a project and if something could have gone more smoothly (humility), what piece of their skillset they like to use the most (energy), and how they collaborate with others (empathy). By tailoring the interview into a conversation that I might have with anyone, we can get right into authentic dialogue.
In the end, my hope is to understand, not judge. Skills can be learned and processes can change, but someone’s character is something that I can only influence, support, and find room for in my own creative teams. A new hire’s success — and happiness — will depend on my understanding of who they are inasmuch as the brilliance of what they create.
Lo Martin is a creative director & strategist with 15 years experience building brands and leading businesses in the lifestyle, travel, and media spaces. When she's not nerding out on data-driven design or building happy creative teams, you can find her and her 7-year-old son Henri running amok in Williamsburg, Brooklyn.
Uli Knörzer studied Visual Communication in Offenbach and Paris prior to moving to Berlin to begin his illustration career. A sought-after portraitist, Uli gives life to his subjects, capturing their nuanced, fleeting emotions with his deft pencil work. His illustrations quietly celebrate the beauty of transient moments of everyday life. He is a frequent contributor to Die Zeit and has a history of collaborations with VICE, WSJ, Esquire, Highsnobiety and Travel + Leisure.