Recruiting for Creativity with Ben Johnson

Recruiting for Creativity with Ben Johnson

We’d all like creative candidates to fall from the sky. But we need a creative recruitment process if we’re going to find these unique employees – those that can embrace change and find new solutions to old problems.

Ben Johnson, Managing Director and Head of Insurance, Sheffield Haworth, searches across all functions and industries for clients. This is important for developing an overarching approach to creative recruitment.

“Companies are looking for more problem solving. But the first problem to solve is often the recruitment process itself. If you’re looking in the wrong place for creative people, you won’t find them. And if you don’t know how to spot creative people and bring out their best as part of your process, you won’t see their potential. Even if it’s right in front of your nose.”

What should we know about creative people before hiring them?

Creatives are usually very agile thinkers and doers. They need to solve problems, think about the future and delve into issues others wouldn’t think to. In fact, to be a good creative often means asking awkward questions.

“Look at diversity and inclusion. If less than 5% of a company’s employees are from BAME backgrounds and it’s been like that for over a decade, you’re not going to increase that number without asking some awkward questions about why that is, are you?”

The University of Arts London (UAL)’s Creative Attributes Framework (CAF) looks at creativity and what it means – it states that creative people are essentially storytellers with an in-built curiosity. It’s why they are good at spotting and describing problems and opportunities, and it’s why they are so good at solving them.

“Certain firms need to look more at why they arrived at a certain point and what can be done to move out of it. That’s what creative people do. They’re essentially the people you need when your traditional, linear logic has painted you into a corner that you can’t see your way out of.”

The UAL Creative Attributes Framework (CAF) for Enterprise and Employability

Ben talks about the UAL’s CAF as a good barometer for spotting and nurturing creative individuals. The CAF is all about developing a wide range of qualities, abilities and behaviours in students and graduates that prepares them for their future. The CAF helps to articulate and connect what art students study to gain professional employment, whether within the creative industries or not.

The CEF framework sets out three capacities each underpinned by three attributes:

  1. Making things happen – proactivity, enterprise and agility
  2. Showcasing abilities – Communication, connectivity and storytelling
  3. Navigating choice – curiosity, self-efficacy and resilience

Find out more about the UAL’s CAF, its underlying capabilities and how its ideas might help you spot the best creative talent for your business here.

Anyone can say they are creative, but how do we spot this during the interview process?

Ben explains that identifying creativity in a candidate can be quite simple – if you ask the right questions.

“We ask how they have come up with creative solutions to problems, which is, in large part, how creative people add value in the workplace. If they can’t explain or get excited about their thought process, they’re probably not truly creative.”

Ben says the thought processes behind how candidates solve problems is the key – the problem itself is less important. Many people with an arts background are used to questioning and challenging assumptions. This is key for businesses that want to do things differently. After all, the first CAF is Making Things Happen. And it’s closely followed by showcasing abilities – the ability to tell a compelling story and communicate ideas. Essentially, winning people round.

And Ben believes people who are creative will want and be able to tell you everything, because with creative people, ideas flow.


Why is creativity becoming more important?

To provide an example, Ben talks about a company that specifically sought a transformational CFO who could approach issues from different angles – that non-linear approach again.

Often, we need people who think more in the round. A new CFO needs to see every part of a business and must be able to tell a story about how problems can be fixed and how things can be done better. If you think a role requires a creative candidate, ask yourself, ‘Are we approaching this role in a transformational way?’

“You don’t just want to find out whether people can complete a task at hand. The task itself needs to be challenged. We want creatives who can transform our businesses. You want to know how they think. How do they identify problems? How do they come up with solutions? How do they influence others to adopt those solutions?”

This kind of creativity – creative thinking – can apply as much to finance and compliance as marketing and design.

“Employers need people who are bold and daring and think differently about how business works. Knowing the specific functions of an industry is becoming less relevant, because these are the functions that are becoming more digitised.”

As digitisation takes hold, creative traits are going to be ever more sought after. Increasingly, companies stand out by having people with innovative ideas to push them forward and tell a compelling story.


Can we teach creativity?

Ben doesn’t believe creativity is always needed in a role, but, where it is, the skills are often more instinctive. There’s a limit to how much this kind of thinking can be taught.  

“You can learn to challenge more and approach certain issues from different angles, but you can’t become fully creative if you’re not wired that way. It’s a different kind of thinking that many people find uncomfortable. So in that sense it’s either in you or it’s not.”

This puts creative candidates in a very strong position. There are also important behavioural traits in creatives they have built up over the years that set them apart based on their experience.

Creative people are resilient. They are used to facing challenges, getting knocked down and getting back up. When you create something, you open yourself up to criticism and you need to be tough if you’re going to deal with that.”

Ten different people can have ten different opinions on the same thing. As a creative, you need to communicate with the naysayers and take on board their viewpoints. Flexible messaging – knowing what to say to very different people with very different opinions – is another key creative skill.


Where can we find creative people?

We all have to broaden our thinking if we are to hire creative people, especially if we’re looking to recruit for a role that we want to make transformational.

“Clients need to start looking in different places, as well as all of the normal avenues. Creatives are drawn to other creative people, so network with all of those marketing and digital specialists, even if you’re recruiting for a very different job. Remember, hiring a creative person is not just about technical skill, it’s about transforming a role, team and company.”

Remember that creativity is not a ‘nice to have’. Not any more. You have to use that creativity to really shake things up, because creatives want to be creative. So, if that’s what you’re looking for, make sure your interviewees:

  • Can’t wait to get their ideas across
  • Demonstrate resilience
  • Can win the doubters round by telling a compelling story
  • Have creative passions
  • Think differently when solving problems

As Ben says:

“Most of all, be prepared to be challenged. After all, if a candidate can’t bring up the problems they see at an early stage – or if you’re too uncomfortable to hear them – you’re probably not really ready to let them loose on your business.”

To find out more about our creativity series in partnership with the University of Arts London, please click here.  To understand how you can harness creativity in your own organisation please contact Tim McEwan or Ben Johnson.

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