Sink or Swim: making more time as a creative leader, and when is it time to fire someone

—The Sink or Swim advice column from Nancy Vonk and Janet Kestin answers real questions about leadership development. To learn more about the column, and Nancy and Janet, read the introduction here.—  

Q: I was promoted to creative director six months ago, and find I literally have no time to fulfill many of the expectations my boss outlined—like giving feedback, mentoring, building client relationships. How does a creative leader already spread thin before the promotion do it all?

A: You’re living out a common scenario: it can appear there’s no time to do the leader job, especially those “softer skills” that are critical to supporting the success of your people.

Better time management is part of the answer to “doing it all,” and step one is to make a lot more time to do your job well by cutting out classic time-sucks that plague most leaders in any industry:

•Too much time spent in meetings
•Doing work others should be doing

In the past eight years of working with thousands of leaders, we see distinct patterns that may sound familiar to you. When asked how much time people spend in meetings that are a poor use of their time, the answers range from “a full day a week” to “all day, every day, with the actual job done after hours.” Ouch.

If you find many of the meetings you’re invited to aren’t where you ought to be, it’s time to set boundaries and apply good, quick judgment to which ones you attend. You could also take on a redesign of how meetings are organized and run. If not you, who?

If you often catch yourself doing work you could have delegated, it’s time to do a reset. Many CDs delegate only to a small A-team they absolutely trust to pull it off. That keeps the leader in their comfort zone—and stuck with a lot of work to do themselves, robbing them of time to work at a higher level.

The larger B-team needs to be empowered, both for your sake and theirs. Give people the training and coaching they need to step up if you think they’re truly not up to the task. It’s on you to equip them with what they need to succeed. And many leaders need to get past the fear they’ll blow it. Mistakes are how people learn and grow. You’ve been there and done that. Reframe “fails” as evidence that people are shooting high. If you won’t allow for failure, you’ll see people stay in small, safe boxes.

(Here’s a quick read on how to tackle time management. The “Eisenhower Matrix” is a particularly helpful tool when you’re inundated by asks that are all declared to be “on fire!”)

Q: I’m frustrated by my team’s “okay is good enough” output. In spite of making my standards and expectations crystal clear—I want the work to win at Cannes—if anything their work is getting weaker and often off strategy. How do you know it’s time to fire someone?

A: Many creative leaders make the mistake of thinking that directing people to win at Cannes (or wherever) is ideal direction.

In fact, for most people, it actively works against motivation and better performance. Everyone whose job is having ideas knows that only a small percentage of people will have their names inscribed on the global hardware. Telling them their merit is based on winning at a top show instills some version of fear, which can have the effect of shutting down their most creative thinking. The majority will feel they are doomed to be seen as failures.

Compounding that problem is the real possibility that people aim to impress show juries rather than persuade the consumer. This helps explain why a lot of work is off strategy and doesn’t resonate in the marketplace. If it’s sold at all.

The ultimate risk that leaders take when they direct people to create award-winning work is alienating their clients when they see that exciting idea the agency presented doesn’t solve their problem. We coach CCOs and others who have the job of inspiring people to create outstanding work to change their rallying cry from “win at Cannes” to “create solutions that solve the problem brilliantly.” When that’s the kind of work your team puts in front of you, it’s more likely to win awards as a nice side effect.

You know it’s time to fire someone when you’ve flagged gaps in their performance, heard their response, provided the support they need to close those gaps (like mentoring, coaching or training of some kind) and, after a reasonable amount of time to improve, you see no progress. Before you take this most drastic step, we hope you’ll see what a difference it can make to change how you express your expectations.

**Are you an emerging (or even experienced) leader facing a challenge in your role? Nancy and Janet have advice based on working with thousands of people from around the globe. Email your question to

Janet Kestin and Nancy Vonk are the co-founders of Swim, a “creative leadership lab” that supports the success of leaders at every level around the globe. They were co-chief creative officers of Ogilvy Toronto (1998-2012).

David Brown