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Getting Hired

The Top 5 Qualities of Productive Creatives (And How to Identify Them!)

Want to make ideas happen? Or hire someone who can? We shortlist the key traits for putting ideas into action, and tell you how to identify them.

A recent BusinessWeek article reported that, “According to a new survey of 1,500 chief executives conducted by IBM’s Institute for Business Value, CEOs identify ‘creativity’ as the most important leadership competency for the successful enterprise of the future.”

While the study’s results will come as no surprise to hard-working creative professionals, they do raise an important question: How do we identify – and hire for – the qualities that add up to creativity?  By our lights, the notion of “creativity” can’t be separated from the skills required for creative execution. So our analysis of the characteristics crucial to creativity focuses particularly on the skills that facilitate putting ideas into action.
Below, we outline five key qualities of particularly productive creatives, followed by some recommendations for how to uncover them in potential hires, co-workers, and collaborators.

1. Communication skills.

As Albert Einstein said, “If you can’t explain it simply, you don’t understand it well enough.” Whether you’re leading a team, managing clients, or training a new hire, the ability to communicate clearly and concisely is an absolutely essential skill. We must all develop the capacity to efficiently manage our communication channels (email, Twitter, Facebook, etc), to rally people around our ideas, and to play well with others – our coworkers and our clients.

How to test for it:
One easy way to test this ability is by having a candidate explain a simple task. If you were hiring a Systems Administrator, for instance, you might ask something like, “Walk me through the process of setting up a web server.” It doesn’t have to be a hard question; the point is to get insight into their ability to communicate clearly.

2. Pro-activeness.

We tend to judge people based on their experience. This is, of course,  the whole basis of the resumé. Yet, while on-the-job experience is valuable, we must dig deeper. A better indicator of productive creativity is one’s willingness to act, to take the initiative to put an idea in motion. As we’ve written elsewhere on 99%, “Those who take initiative possess tenacity and a healthy degree of impatience with idleness.

How to test for it:
Inquire about past instances where the candidate was proactive. Have them explain how and why they started that club, magazine, or film series listed on their resumé. You can also get a glimpse into their future willingness to take initiative by asking questions like: “If I put you in charge of the company today, what would you do differently?” or “What are some things that you would change about the product (or sales process, or website, etc.) if you had the chance?”

3. Problem-solving.

“Thinking outside of the box” is really nothing more than creative problem solving – the ability to arrive at new solutions by looking beyond obvious or traditional approaches. As designer Michael Beirut taught us at the inaugural 99U Conference: “The problem contains the solution.” In this way, successful creatives don’t see problems as problems at all – they see them as opportunities.
How to test for it:
Aside from using Karl Duncker’s classic “candle task” to test problem-solving abilities, there are a few other options. When interviewing candidates for your creative team, don’t focus on leading questions. Instead, ask questions that emphasize shades of grey, and offer insight into the candidate’s thinking. For a Community Manager position, a good question might be, “How would you deal with an irate customer who won’t stop posting negative comments on message boards?”

4. Curiosity.

“Judge a man by his questions rather than by his answers.” So said French philosopher Voltaire. As anyone who’s had a “Eureka!” moment knows, daring to ask a new question goes a long way toward finding the right solution. What’s more, a high level of curiosity – the hallmark of an inquiring mind – is typically indicative of other good qualities, such as inventiveness, resourcefulness, and fearlessness. It also tends to ward off boredom and apathy – sentiments that will poison any creative endeavor.

How to test for it:
When interviewing a potential hire, note how many unprompted questions they ask, and how much they’ve already learned about your company. You can also ask simple questions like, “Tell me about something outside of your area of expertise that you recently learned about?” or “What was the last book you read, and why?”

5. Risk-taking.

Being open to risk (and thus failure) is crucial. We can only truly learn and develop when we push ourselves outside of our comfort zones. According to choreographer Twyla Tharp, “If you only do what you know and do it very, very well, chances are that you won’t fail. You’ll just stagnate, and your work will get less and less interesting, and that’s failure by erosion.” For Tharp, inventor James Dyson, and innumerable others, failure is a badge of accomplishment because it means that you took a risk, that you tried something new.

How to test for it:

Chief executive of The Limited, Linda Heasley, likes to ask, “Give me an example of a situation where you think you took a risk or took a controversial point of view.” Or, for a sneakier approach, you can inquire if there’s anything the candidate regrets not doing at their previous job. As psychologist Daniel Gilbert points out in this article on risk, people usually regret the things they didn’t do, more than those they did. Thus, regret and risk-taking usually work (loosely) in inverse proportion to one another.

What Do You Hire For?

Any important characteristics that we missed? What’s key for you when you’re hiring a member of a creative team?

More Posts by Jocelyn K. Glei

A writer and the founding editor of 99U, Jocelyn K. Glei is obsessed with how to make great creative work in the Age of Distraction. Her latest book is Unsubscribe: How to Kill Email Anxiety, Avoid Distraction, and Get Real Work Done. Her previous works include the 99U’s own bestselling book series: Manage Your Day-to-Day, Maximize Your Potential, and Make Your Mark. Follow her @jkglei.

Comments (41)
  • John Ladd

    And yet how many schools are educating kids to develop these skills, these mindsets that will help them succeed in the new world? Very few.
    And for the few schools that do educate to these skills (such as my school, Carolina Friends School, in Durham, NC) we still face a challenge convincing parents that these skills–not taking standardized tests–are what will allow their kids to thrive in the world on their own terms, finding work they enjoy being challenged by every day.
    The Quaker principles that are at the heart of our education serve very well to guide us along the path outlined in your article. For example, the tenet that “the truth is continually revealed” encourages our teachers and students to take risks, to be curious, and to be proactive in finding the truth.

  • Nathaniel Brown

    What an amazing post. Very well written. Thank you very much for sharing your thoughts on this, as it will certainly help in positions I interview candidates for as well as relationships in business, such as clients.

  • Simon Delf

    I’m not sure it’s a distinctive characteristic, but I think it’s worth identifying – Resilience.

    We are all familiar with the illustrious list of achievements and highlights that are the staple diet of a traditional CV – but I am suggesting we need the Mr Hyde to this Dr Jekyll. The CV of Harsh Lessons Diligently Learned. A portrait of the lived experience of disappointment, frustration, calamity and betrayal. It is surely the scars that reveal our true worth, not the manicured nails and coiffured hair.

    We need a CV of Resilience in which we tell the story of how we have responded to, survived, and learned from the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune.

    This story is very important if we are seeking people that can both bring a personal depth and sense of greater purpose to our organistions and projects, but also embolden and inspire others with the fact that they have lived through the difficult times and are now wiser (we hope) and more attuned to the rigors of translating ambition into achievement.

  • Richard

    Curious to know why you specified a Systems Administrator as an example in an article about hiring creatives.

  • Jocelyn

    @Richard – Good question. It’s natural to limit our purview of “creatives” to artists, designers, filmmakers, writers, etc — the traditional sort of creatives who make visual (or readable) work. Things that are tangible. But I would argue that a “creative” is anyone who is doing creative problem solving, who is questioning the traditional approach to find something new. A “system administrator” can sound like a rather mundane example of a “creative,” but there are innovative solutions yet to be discovered in every field and in every position — and this article is about finding those people.

    Particularly with the rise of the Internet, there is a whole army of creatives — web developers, Internet entrepreneurs, and yes even system administrators — who are changing the way we get information, the way we work, and the way we play. They are not traditionally recognized as creatives largely because there work is “invisible” to those of us who do not share their expertise. But that does not mean their work is not drawing on creativity in the same way as those who create more “external” creative products.

  • Lloyd Penningotn

    When looking to hire your super tallented, experianced, communicative, pro-active, problem-solving, curiosi, risk-taking designer, just ask yourself first, “do I know what |I’m letting myself in for?”

    Such people in thepast were refered to as ‘mavericks’ or even’trouble makers’.

    I have been fired from far to many jobs than I care to mention for such behavioral patterns. At least these days only my own clients can fire me now, and some say still how much I test their patience.

    Unless you are happy with an employee who will light a fire of envy, bitterness and an unseatling fire under the rest of your staff, your management team and perhaps even the CEO, then you may find more comfort with the mediocrity that’s churned out of the educational establishments.

    To be really comfortable with such a person, you really need to be like this yourself, but rarely do two or more such people happily co-exist.

    The benifits however are something truly special.

    I would advise also that you try to seek out clients with the same outlook. Sadly far too many are more than happy with mundane, mediocre design and would much rather ‘play it safe’ than push the boat out. Not that you/they won’t be sucsessfull, it’s jsut that much harder to rise above the crowd

  • Jocelyn

    @Simon – I completely agree about the necessity of Resilience. I would say it’s very often (though not always) a tacit complement to risk-taking. If you are going to take risks, you inevitably fail at some point — and have to dust yourself off and get back up again.

  • michelle

    As a creative myself I was very intrigued and interested to read what you had to say on this matter! I agree with all of the above pointers..and as mentioned below the trait Resilience.
    Having been a designer for 12 years (another addition to the creative list below…Lingerie designer) I use art and design within lingerie creating hand drawn intricate prints and combining colour in imaginative ways on lingerie.
    A challenging task. I am however also an entrepreneur and have started my own own company. The general behaviour and emotion that a creative mind goes through ensures for a less than easy ride. It is often a roller coaster of elation, pride, frustration, drive, tenacity, hope, belief and something downright despair that the creative will go through to achieve their vision. I would as an experienced start up business and creative advise that every creative needs a strong team around them (to do all of the stuff that they find restraining and tedious (excel sheets etc!!) yet someone else sees as their bible and absolutely necessary. To work with a creative requires understanding and compassion with a huge dollop of trust.
    Thanks for your wonderful article. Thought provoking for a Tuesday!!

  • M. Dana

    Community Manager and System Administrator are now considered creative roles? The fact that someone works on the Internets doesn’t make them creative. Creative is an adjective, not a noun.

  • Jocelyn

    @M. Dana – See my lengthier response @Richard below. The non-traditional “creative” examples are deliberate. We all regard designers, artists, etc as creative people, but I think there are possibilities for creative work within every profession. As you say, “creative” is originally an adjective – it can be applied to any position. You can be a creative Community Manager or a creative Designer. The “creativity” is not embedded the job description; rather, it comes with how the work is done.

  • Scott

    @M.Dana – I know some teachers, administrators, and others that are especially creative.
    I also know some artists that aren’t.

    To me, “Creative” has always related to generating ideas – and ideas are often created as a response to problems or opportunities. The greatest advances across any industry (or job function) are made by those that identify/understand a problem and then generate (and implement) ideas for solutions. They have the gift of vision/imagination and the energy to channel it. This article was all about the qualities for great implementation of ideas. I would suggest that debating what is a “creative role” misses the point. Perhaps that’s another article… 😉

  • Tracy Gold

    Great article! As per John Ladd’s comment on creativity in school, there was a really fascinating article in Newsweek about how creativity scores were gradually rising until 1990, but have since been sinking.

    I can totally see it, as a recent graduate from college. The whole “scoring” ideology in schools may be at fault. I volunteered at a struggling elementary school in Durham, NC, and the third grade kids I worked with didn’t even know what a “skit” was, and struggled to come up with a simple story. But they loved trying.

  • Tracy Gold

    Great article! As per John Ladd’s comment on creativity in school, there was a really fascinating article in Newsweek about how creativity scores were gradually rising until 1990, but have since been sinking.

    I can totally see it, as a recent graduate from college. The whole “scoring” ideology in schools may be at fault. I volunteered at a struggling elementary school in Durham, NC, and the third grade kids I worked with didn’t even know what a “skit” was, and struggled to come up with a simple story. But they loved trying.

  • Joseph Sorensen

    This is great. I appreciate that communication skills are first. Many talented creatives I’ve worked with professionally lack either the self confidence or ability to clearly rationalize creative decisions to non-creatives. Beyond the other traits listed, I find true self motivation to be equally essential. The pure creative visionaries that are going to launch projects to unseen heights are aflame with a passion to both create and compete. It’s hard to objectively measure or isolate, but you can sense it when you come in contact with someone who has “the fire”.

  • Ted Smirt

    Boring corporate dross. I feel sad and sick just thinking about the image of the batter cage hen person who might feels this copy lives up to the headline. I am sorry but this is the useless saccharine dumbed down dribble that challenges nothing, expands the mind no place and does not work.

    Studies have shown – The interview process has no relevance to the success of the employee /ment.

    To truly find the right creative person or any person to fill a role – the persons responsible for the employee should be made accountable for their choices. That means if wiggins doesn’t work out and turns out to be a time waster and a one joke wonder…the person who recommended them should be held responsible. Just the same if wiggins does work out well then the person who chose them should be rewarded. But the employees would would get that if they had incentives, profit share a reason..

    But in this model it’s just factory hens waiting to have their bodies mashed up and fed back with their excrement to the next victim.
    I am going to delete the bore who sent me this. If he thinks this is an incite into how to spot creative then he not creative at all.

  • Jocelyn

    @Ted – You are certainly correct that the hiring process is only the BEGINNING. I’m not arguing that any employer can “test” for the above qualities and then rest on his/her laurels assuming everything will go perfectly. To retain and motivate creatives, they must be constantly challenged, given free rein to “own” projects, and incentivized with positive feedback and meaningful goals.

    The point of this piece is about how to focus on the right qualities for identifying people who can really be an asset to a creative team. But the only guarantee that they will thrive depends on good management. A topic for another article. Speaking of, Behance founder Scott Belsky actually just wrote a great piece on long-term, or MACRO, management over at OPEN Forum:

  • Berthold

    All I want for christmas is a list of employers who ask these questions, and an opportunity to interview with them.

  • Maryam Alhafidh

    amazing work ! keep it UP

  • Marytfox

    #6 ability to build, lead and inspire a team

  • Jacob Andros

    Great article!


     Another great article. It’s great that you even told us how to test potential employees for the traits 🙂

  • stop foreclosure

    Kudos, good stuff!

  • Carl Morris

    I hate the term ‘pro-active’. What can it mean?

    It doesn’t harm a fascinating article though.

  • B. Jackson

    I think it’s quite ridiculous that many people still today won’t give young graduates a chance because they lack “experience”. In the pretty good book “how would you move Mount Fuji?” the author explains that Microsoft don’t consider past experiences but are focused on problem solving. This is how it should be I think, those who can think creatively and are capable of dealing with difficult challenges are the ones who deserve to be hired. 

    Thank you for the great post!

  • Sudhakar Narra

    Five key qualities of particularly productive creatives, followed
    by some recommendations for how to uncover them in potential hires,
    co-workers, and collaborators.

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