In the March 5 edition of the New York Times, Marjorie Kaplan, who is president of the Animal Planet and Science networks, states something so simple yet so misunderstood about managing:  “It’s lateral.”  That means that while a manager may have effective authority to manage underneath him or her, the management function necessitates managing people and resources across an organization, including individuals who have no reason to do what you want them to do, other than simply wanting to do it. 

Reflecting upon her experience working at ad agency Ogilvy & Mather, Kaplan shares these insights:  “In the agency business, so much of the job is about engaging with people who don’t report to you, but you have to manage them anyway.  As an account manager, you were kind of the monkey-in-the-middle who had to manage everybody without having authority.  I think that, on some level, managing without authority is a life skill.  People do it in other parts of their lives.  I think the ability to manage really comes from being true to yourself, and treating people respectfully.”

As the CEO of a PR agency with organizational dynamics similar to Ogilvy, I see management without authority in action all the time; sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t.  Here are my own insights on how to create an organizational culture that respects authority but cultivates an environment of getting things done through collaborative and persuasive management:

  • Make collaboration a value – Creative organizations thrive on collaboration; and I mean TRUE collaboration.  Proclaim collaboration to be an organizational value and don’t take for granted that it’s going to magically happen.  Reinforce positive behaviors; ignore negative behaviors.  Celebrate acts and moments of collaboration and relate them to business outcomes. 
  • Hire collaborative managers; fire those who are not – A manager that can only get things done by virtue of his or her title only works in the military.  Don’t hire these types of managers for your creative business.  And if you happen to have already made that mistake, take steps now to retrain that person before their futile management-by-authority wreaks havoc on your culture.
  • Celebrate the subtle –Managers who can get important work done by virtue of their patience, propensity for learning, and good listening skills are the unsung heroes of your culture.  Seek out these often-underrated unsung heroes and share their success and role model their behavior – in formal and informal ways.  Spread their management style virally across your organization.
  • Assess your own management style – Ask yourself as frequently as possible:  Are things getting done because people want to help me get them done, or because they have to because of my title?  Be honest with yourself.  Ask others to assess your management style.  If your personality (like mine) tends to be dominant, collaboration may come less naturally for you.  Experiment.  Change up your approach.  Give your direct reports the authority they need to give you feedback.

Working in a creative environment can be chaotic and challenging.  It requires a special kind of manager who thrives on what is sometimes a complete lack of process.  

—Lisa Vallee-Smith is co-founder and CEO of Airfoil Public Relations, a high tech PR agency with offices in Detroit and Silicon Valley.