7 things I learned from leading teams as a creative communicator for social impact

I don’t believe in born leaders. Some of us grow up as leaders, others craft their way to leadership later in life and a third group walk a quite different path altogether. As the Communications Coordinator of the European Youth Energy Network, an experienced project manager and passionate creative, I want to share bits of what I learned over the past months, choosing leadership and connection above everything.

(this place is a work in progress, like all writing that happens in the time borrowed from other things; so please bear with me)

#1 – A leader shows the big picture. Be it giving insights into organisational strategy, showing connections inside our work or even tossing in inputs from the creative world seen elsewhere. To be considered when the time is ripe for them. Interdisciplinarity is key. For example, graphic design is a lot more than making things pretty. Graphic design is about breaking down complex things, creating order, storytelling and messaging, making things human, prompting curiosity. It’s about organising information, visual and text-based and emotive.

#2 – A lot of the work is literally about building confidence.I trust you to figure it out”, “I’m seeing your progress and eagerness to learn”, “If this journey is what you want, I’m confident you’ll get there” – we can all say this more often. While explaining those uses of secondary colours, element combination bingos and perfect punchlines. Or just the importance of a comms activity or result, and why it needs to happen till a certain deadline. Do not take anything for granted. Just because the puzzle pieces are layed out nicely in your head, it doesn’t mean that others see them (they might just see the puzzle, and like the result..or well, not so much). To cite Brené Brown from the Dare To Lead book: “A strong leader pulls players toward a deep belief in themselves.” And: “Clear is Kind. Unclear is Unkind”

#3A leader is also human. Between the funny parts and the „being overwhelmed or still figuring out things“ parts.” – as I wrote before in my last leadership text. It’s still equally true. I learned to not be afraid to show up, show my vulnerability also in the professional context, and thus also steer expectations back towards what is realistic. As volunteers – me, you, everyone. We can be fun and professional, confident and honest at the same time. It takes courage to speak (and also sit through moments of silence) and intentionality to say what is natural and needed. “I’m also learning” – I’ve said this before, and I will keep saying it.

#4 Give feedback. Ask for what feedback is needed, structure, be concrete, keep it brief. I’ve made good experiences with “what kind of feedback do you want?”, “why do you (not) like it?”, “what do you like about it?“, “what is your idea behind…?”. Help the other person to think and understand before rushing in with advice. Finding a balance between letting a team member work their way through (eg the admittedly hard-to-learn language of our branding) and directing towards what we know works vs doesn’t is something every creative leader needs to figure out. With every unique person they work with. Balancing the needs of the organisation, upholding the trust in the brand, with those of the humans growing inside.

#5 – 1on1 meetings are great to address questions of your team member, revisit how previous work went and talk about motivation & the future development of their role(s). I found that these meetings, even when happening a lot less regularly due to a volunteering environment, create a space beyond the operational and balance out expectations of team lead and member. A space to discuss how you want to work together. To open the floor for feedback to you as a leader, giving – but also asking.

#6Allow people to innovate (but don’t expect or force them to do it at all times). I learned that it materialized through a mix of ownership, clear responsibilities, short feedback loops (screenshots and quick message over Slack or WhatsApp? yes, that’s what I mean) and tasks that fit the passion of the person. Most importantly, it’s about breaking down complexity. Not overcomplicating things. Asking yourself “Is this simple? Can I simplify it further?”. Be it decision-making processes, feedback, literally designs or other. #simplicity #clarity

#7 You can set up a creative studio, and it’s worth it. You can have a common place with all your world of brand materials, collaborate with colleagues on designs, and then extract the essence of what works into a brand book. It takes time, but through common iteration ping-pongs, feedbacks, learning from each other and picking up creative ideas, systematizing blurbs and design templates for different occasions and processes you get far. You’re professional, and you still have fun. It’s still not easy, but I was amazed by what we built up. With the aim of setting up a best-practice for a communication team and hub, as we haven’t seen before in the youth space.

Crafting powerful designs is hard work, just as crafting human connection is. They both require care, presence and attention to detail. And they yield immense power. Many of us are both makers and leaders, and that’s exciting.