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  • Writer's pictureScott Russell

Bridging the Creative Divide: Mastering the Art of “Multilingual” Leadership

When you’re asked if you speak multiple languages, you probably think of that in its most literal sense, like when I try to order a burrito at Tio’s Tacos in my broken Spanish (generally met with patience, if not appreciation). But in writing classes, I often have students read “Speaking in Tongues" by Zadie Smith and Amy Tan’s "Mother Tongue," where we see that language is also about the different ways we communicate depending on our audience. Smith coined the term code-switching, while Tan explores the variations of English she uses with her mother compared to her professional interactions. Similarly, we all switch between different modes of communication without always realizing it — like the casual tone we use when texting a friend versus the formal style in an email to a boss.


In a professional setting, especially when leading a creative team, the ability to navigate these different "languages" is crucial. We need to effectively communicate with executives, clients, artists, writers, engineers, and technicians, each of whom has their own preferred communication style and priorities. And sometimes a bigger challenge, we also have to bridge generational gaps, relating to team members of all ages and backgrounds. This adaptability can significantly impact the success and cohesion of your team.


Speaking Multiple "Languages"

In a creative environment, you'll often find yourself at the intersection of various professional worlds. It’s important to remember that everyone is different, and you’ll have to get to know each individual to know the best way to communicate with them, but there are some stereotypes that are there for a reason. While none of these tips are universally true (and some may seem obvious), they might be a handy shorthand. Here are some tips for navigating these different "languages":


1. Executives and Clients:

  • Clear Communication: Executives and clients are often focused on results, ROI, and strategic goals. Often, they’re very busy, and a creative briefing can only take up so much time of their day. Communicate in clear, concise terms, emphasizing how your creative work aligns with their business objectives.

  • Data and Metrics: Support your ideas with data and metrics. Many creatives forget about the tangible effects of their choices, relying on gut feelings (often very valid gut feelings, especially if based on years of experience). But supporting your claim with hard evidence can help make your case with the suits. Whether it's engagement rates, conversion statistics, or other KPIs, providing tangible evidence helps build trust and credibility.

  • Visual Aids: Use visual aids like infographics, charts, and presentations to illustrate your points. Executives appreciate visual representations that make complex information easier to digest.


2. Artists and Writers:

  • Creative Freedom: Give artists and writers the space to explore and express their ideas. Encourage experimentation and be open to unconventional approaches. As the boss, you’ll need to know when to curb their enthusiasm, and when to gently steer the boat in a different direction, but in general, giving artists some latitude can increase creative productivity and help generate all sorts of new ideas.

  • Emotional Connection: Understand that creative professionals often have a deep emotional connection to their work. Provide constructive feedback that acknowledges their effort and respects their vision. Many leaders rely on the “Compliment Sandwich” (praise, criticism, praise). But creatives are smart people, and they’ll see through that in a minute. Instead, be honest and direct with them, put yourself on a level paying field (speak with humility), and deliver feedback in a way that illustrates why the criticism is important.  As Adam Grant explains, starting with these 19 words can boost openness to feedback by 40%: “I’m giving you these comments because I have very high expectations and I know that you can reach them.”

  • Inspirational Leadership: Share your vision and goals in a way that inspires. Artists and writers are motivated by passion and creativity, so connect their work to a larger purpose. Show them that you care, appreciate, and understand their work. You hired these artists and writers for a reason. Make sure they know what you see in them, and maintain your own creative nature, even when bogged down in managerial responsibilities.


3. Engineers and Technicians:

  • Technical Understanding: While you don't need to be an expert in their field, having a basic understanding of the technical aspects of their work can go a long way. This shows respect for their expertise and facilitates better communication. Sort of the way the person taking the order at Tio’s Tacos appreciates the effort I put in when I say “sin cebolla” (even if I get it wrong), having a basic understanding of what goes in to their work can create connection.

  • Logical and Structured Communication: Engineers and technicians tend to appreciate logical, structured communication. Be clear about project requirements, timelines, and technical constraints. This does not at all mean you can’t have fun, or that your communication has to be formal. But

  • Collaboration and Problem-Solving: Foster a collaborative environment where creative ideas are translated into practical solutions. Encourage problem-solving and innovation by integrating technical expertise with creative concepts. Allow the creative team to gently push what the technical team thinks is possible, and allow the technical team a voice in the creative process. They’re not oil and water. More like oil and vinegar.


Relating Across Generations

Today's creative teams are often multi-generational, bringing together people of all ages and backgrounds. While it can be tempting to rely on generational stereotypes to understand team dynamics, it's essential to approach each person as an individual with unique experiences and motivations. Here’s how to bridge the generational gap without falling into the trap of overgeneralization:


1. Understanding Motivations:

  • Younger Team Members (Gen Z and Millennials): While it's true that many younger professionals value purpose-driven work, flexibility, and growth opportunities, it's crucial to recognize that these traits are not exclusive to any age group. Focus on understanding each individual's personal goals and motivations rather than assuming they align with generational trends.

  • More Experienced Team Members (Gen X and Boomers): Older colleagues often bring a wealth of experience and historical context to the table. They may have different communication preferences, such as valuing face-to-face interactions more than digital communication. However, this isn't always the case. Many seasoned professionals are just as tech-savvy and adaptable as their younger counterparts. The key is to appreciate the depth of their experience and seek their mentorship while remaining open to their adaptability and desire for innovation.


2. Adapting Your Leadership Style:

  • Flexibility and Inclusivity: Be adaptable in your leadership style to meet the needs of different team members. Create an inclusive environment where everyone feels valued and heard.

  • Mentorship and Learning: Encourage cross-generational mentorship. Younger team members can benefit from the experience and wisdom of older colleagues, while older team members can learn new technologies and trends from younger colleagues. This mutual exchange fosters a more cohesive and innovative team, and helps make sure everyone is speaking each other’s languages.

  • Communication Preferences: Be mindful of different communication preferences, which may not always align with generational stereotypes. Some younger team members may prefer direct, in-person conversations, while some older team members might be comfortable with digital communication. The goal is to find a balance that respects individual preferences.

  • Communication Content: Being flexible means being able to switch between formal and casual tone, between straightforward logic to creative brainstorming, and between criticism, praise, encouragement and inspiration. We have to be flexible about what we say, how we say it, and on what platform we use to say it.


3. Avoiding Stereotypes:

  • Individual Approaches: Treat each team member as an individual rather than a representative of their generation. Understand that motivations, work styles, and communication preferences can vary widely within any age group.

  • Building Relationships: Take the time to build genuine relationships with your team members. Learn about their personal and professional backgrounds, interests, and career aspirations. This deeper understanding will enable you to communicate more effectively and lead more inclusively.

  • Encouraging Dialogue: Promote open dialogue within your team about communication styles and preferences. Encourage team members to share what works best for them and be willing to adapt your approach based on this feedback.


Adapting Communication Styles Based on Cultural Background

Cultural diversity is an important aspect to any creative team, and another factor to consider when adapting communication styles, expectations, and interactions.


1. Understanding Cultural Contexts:

  • Awareness: Educate yourself about the cultural backgrounds of your team members. Understanding cultural norms, values, and communication styles can help you navigate interactions more effectively.

  • Respect: Show respect for cultural differences by being open to learning and adapting your communication style. This can include being mindful of non-verbal cues, listening actively, and avoiding assumptions.


2. Flexibility in Communication:

  • Code-Switching: Recognize that team members from minority backgrounds may code-switch to fit into the dominant culture, which can be psychologically taxing. Encourage an environment where team members feel comfortable being their authentic selves without the need to constantly adjust their communication style.

  • Inclusive Language: Use inclusive language that acknowledges and respects diverse cultural backgrounds. Avoid idiomatic expressions or colloquialisms that may not be understood by everyone.


3. Building an Inclusive Environment:

  • Safe Spaces: Create safe spaces where team members can express their cultural identities without fear of judgment or repercussions. This can be facilitated through Employee Resource Groups (ERGs) and open forums for discussion.

  • Diverse Leadership: Promote diverse leadership within your team to ensure that different cultural perspectives are represented and valued. This helps in making all team members feel included and understood.

  • Feedback: Encourage feedback from team members about how communication can be improved to be more culturally sensitive. Use this feedback to make continuous improvements in your leadership approach.


By focusing on the unique attributes and needs of each individual, rather than relying on cultural stereotypes, you can create a more dynamic, productive, and harmonious team environment. This approach not only respects the diversity of your team but also leverages the full range of skills and perspectives that each member brings to the table.


Leading a creative team requires a nuanced approach that respects the diverse skills and perspectives within your team. By learning to speak multiple "languages" and relating to team members across generations and cultural backgrounds, you can create a dynamic, productive, and innovative environment where everyone can thrive. And you’re more likely to get your burrito the way you want it.

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