From Creative to CEO — what lessons I (hopefully) learned

The Creative Executive Officer?

Let me be clear. As a young boy, I didn’t harbour any dreams of one day running a company and getting a three-letter, capitalized acronym slapped in front of my name. In my young mind, my destiny was purely creative and that is pretty much how it panned out for many years. Until 2007.

I recently announced my decision to step down as CEO of the company I founded that year: Copenhagenize Design Company. We are urban designers and planners working with cities around the world. I have found myself taking stock of the journey and the experience. At its inception, Copenhagenize Design Company was an idea, a seed — one with powerful potential for change in cities. I recognized this early on and the fact that I had already hammered copenhagenize as a catchphrase and a brand made it easier to establish a company. Brand to business is always easier than business to brand.

I am proud of what I built but now it is time to move on to bigger and better things. I look forward, as ever, but I need to glance back just a bit.

The challenges came early in the process. I have spent most of my working life as a creative. As the typical creative type hunkered down and working solo on projects whether they were written or graphic design. Perhaps a bit moody and insular as I buried myself in the content. But I’ve also worked as a creative leader of larger, dynamic project teams and enjoyed that thoroughly. Nevertheless, there was a gap to bridge between what I had been doing and running a company. But I had to do it and I did. There was a company to build and good work to be done.

The first catalyst showed up back in 2008, when I received an email from an American woman who wanted to intern with me because of the work I was doing in urbanism and cities. At that point I hadn’t contemplated an intern — or anyone else. We had a coffee and hit it off and suddenly we were two people across the table from each other and that created a great dynamic as well as the need to establish goals. Jobs started coming in. From that point, teams of international interns started rotating through the office and the client list started growing fast.

Ten years on, the company is now well-established and has a strong brand. From our offices in Copenhagen, Brussels, Montreal and Barcelona we do great work for cities around the world. Now it’s time for me to seek new creative challenges and let the team I have assembled carry on the work. So what did this creative guy learn in a decade of being a CEO? Let me try to figure that out.

Horizontalism

Creating a workplace and work environment that has a solid, horizontal structure was — and is — incredibly important to me. This isn’t really a stretch when you live in Denmark and the entire country is on a first-name basis. Most workplaces have an inherent horizontalism to them. Nevertheless, I sought to unstack the hierarchy and lay it flat. I might have enjoyed the initial nervousness of new interns when meeting me for the first time, but I didn’t let it last for long. I interacted wherever possible on the same level with everyone around the work table.

Evangelize and inspire

This is the core of my work when travelling and giving keynotes — evangelizing and inspiring audiences about urban design and the future of our cities. To be honest, it’s nice to get back to the office and withdraw a bit. I noticed I would sometimes withdraw a bit too much into a creative cocoon and I needed to remember to be “that guy” around the table for the team. Sometimes it was hard but being the motivator was important — as was finding the right balance. I mean, come on — you can’t bounce off the walls with energy and enthusiasm day in day out. I don’t know if I ever succeeded in finding the perfect balance or the ideal on/off switch. I was acutely aware that my mood — whatever it was — was contagious. It was hard to accept that reality, especially when I was moody. We all shared an open office space but on occasion I wished I had a closed office to retreat into.

Football manager

As the company grew, the brand reputation preceded it and we had hundreds of applications for interns each year. I had the pleasure of working with over 150 international interns over the past decade. We had certain needs for specific skillsets depending on the projects we were working on but when you try to run a horizontal workplace with a lot of social interaction — both curricular and extracurricular — personalities become incredibly important. When screening potential people for a season, I really needed to figure out if they were not only skilled but also a good fit for the team. Like a football manager, I couldn’t just hire three great attackers if their personalities clashed. They had to get along. The dominant personalities had to be able to help the quieter personalities not only in work but social situations and in the daily life at the office. The international aspect made it tricky, what with different perceptions of humour but generally it worked well.

Let someone else do the math

It is important to know your limitations and to know where best to place your efforts. I hate numbers, finances, receipts, taxes. My god I despise even having to write those words in that last sentence. Early on and for far too long in the journey I had to deal with the business end of the stick. I should have outsourced that earlier and allowed myself to focus on what I love doing. Creating and leading.

Hire people better than you

I learned this many years ago and it proved to be an important cornerstone. It applies primarily to permanent staff members in which you hope to instill a feeling of investment and ownership in the vision and the work. I tried to find people who were better than me in various areas of our work but also, I discovered, a balance for various parts of my personality. Being a scatterbrained creative at times, having key staff who are more balanced and down to earth than me was important. I wouldn’t want to work with five of my doppelgangers — what a nightmare. But listening to a calm personality who can talk me down from crazy or — preferably — who can take my crazy and build a solid framework around it to make it happen is golden. Watching them edge over into crazy sometimes, out of their comfort zone, is a joy.

This also applies to transient staff like interns. The tireless work of an amazing army of international interns through the years helped build the company. As I wrote, personality was vital to the formation of cohesive teams but I wasn’t shy to have skilled interns who could kick my ass in Illustrator, InDesign or Photoshop let alone GIS programs and the like. Sure, there were some who improved their skills with help from me and the team but it was important to have people better than me whenever possible. I was the Keeper of the Culture, Brand and the direction of the company and being sure in that role gave confidence to have brilliant people working for me.

This may sound like basic stuff, but in my work experience I have seen many examples of bosses wanting to show off on some subliminal level and who fear talent. Embrace it and let them show off for you.‘

Having skilled interns is a gift to the company. It is normal in some industries like architecture in Denmark to offer unpaid internships and as the fledgling company grew it was impossible to offer even internship pay. I was always as amazed that interns wanted to come and work with us as they were to be there. I made it a policy to give them as much responsibility as possible on projects. Stuff they would never be allowed to do if interning at other companies. Compensating for lack of pay by offering them work experience that would boost them later on. So many of them have gone on to great jobs and that makes me happy.

Stop for Lunch

It took one French colleague to abruptly change our lunch culture. She insisted that we all stop for lunch instead of eating at our table in front of our computers. It was a steep learning curve but it was short. Now we have lunch together and the team take turns making it. I can’t imagine doing it the old way.

Find and listen to good advisors

At times it was difficult to separate myself from being a part of the team AND the guy making the calls. Find yourself some good external advisors to talk to about business development and all the things you don’t find appropriate to discuss with your staff or even your board if you have one.

Fun to drink with

Sure, we all think we’re fun to drink with but I found that including this on the internship page as a “requirement” sent a signal that I was running a relaxed ship. It applies to everyone working with you. Sure, it’s not always easy to guarantee but it sure is fun to test it frequently.

Jump

It’s a workplace, yes. But it should also be a playground, an espace libre. Our office in Copenhagen has been located on the harbour for a few years. Someone got the idea to jump in on a regular basis, year round. Winter bathing is a thing in Scandinavia so year round means year round. We had a dart board and table football. I encouraged people to play and played with them. One staff member got the idea to go for a quick walk with the team in the afternoon — especially on sunny days in the dark winter months. Or to toss a football around outside. The Danish artist Olafur Eliasson has an archery range in his studio in Berlin. Whatever the case, I found it important to encourage the team to take a break, do something fun or relaxing.

Room for Improvement

I think generally it all went well. Nevertheless, there were things I feel I could have done better.

1. I hired people that I believed in and granted them a good level of independence. I sometimes forgot that they still need leadership. Even in a horizontal workplace there is still the need for a creative hierarchy. I could have kept tabs on various projects better. It’s important to feel invested in the company’s work and maintain that creative dialogue between you and the staff.

2. I should have established more short-term goals and devised a business strategy earlier. Structure is important even — or especially — in creative work. Things are working out okay, but there might have been some missed potential.

3. I should have praised staff members more often. You can never do it enough. As a self-critical creative type, I don’t tackle praise well when receiving it but I should have dished it out far more.

4. That balance between being a moody creative and being the motivator that I wrote about… I never really nailed it. It still bugs me.

5. I have never liked meetings or skype calls. I probably never will. I constantly think about how to make them more time-effective and what could have been said in an email. Totally over-analytical. I need to figure out a way to tolerate them better.

I am now heading off towards new horizons. Probably in the same field — urbanism and bicycle urbanism — but it is important to reflect, take stock, contemplate.

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