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Building the right creative team in higher education

Joel G Goodman
/ 5 min read

Or pretty much any other bureaucratic mammoth organization.

Let’s say you work in higher education. And let’s say you’ve been planning for a university-wide web redesign and you’re asked what sort of resources you need to get this done. A lot of our friends and colleagues over the years have fallen into this enviable position and found that they don’t know the answer. It’s such a rare question to be asked and the chance to put together a team for a new web project is probably even rarer.

Where do you start when trying to build the right creative team for digital products?

When I worked at Trinity International University the Communications & Marketing team I was a part of went through a reorganization as we were wrapping up the redesign of our 6 major public-facing sites. The next big project I had pitched was a complete redo of our internal portal. Because we had done the legwork to show our campus leaders why internal communication was just as important as recruitment communication, we were given the opportunity to suggest an internal organization structure as things were in flux.

Here are some of the things I’ve learned over the years about hiring creative people in higher education.

People make the difference

First off, I think it’s important to identify the major categories of tasks you’ll need to accomplish not only for your next project, but for projects ahead. A giant list of tasks can be translated into the skills your team will need to have once it is complete.

  • Need to code a CMS template? Well, you need a front-end developer.
  • Need videos made, photos taken, and stories written? You probably need some sort of content producer and someone who can handle strategy.
  • Need to work with other departments across campus? You’ll need a project manager and maybe a community manager.

And the list can go on and on. By identifying the skills you need up front, you can start to make recommendations for positions.

But there’s a trap here. It’s easy to say “we need to hire a Content Strategist” and think it’ll fix all of your content problems when really all it may do is limit you to a person who can plan but cannot execute.

So, here are some thoughts on hiring the right people:

Think of positions as frameworks

When hiring I try to keep in mind the overall goals we’re trying to achieve and match people to those goals rather than to titles. What if you come across a candidate that really gets content and has an incredible eye behind the camera and is a good writer? It’s okay to change your list of positions. Or rename them. Or drop some entirely.

Remember this about getting the right people to accomplish your goals and not about filling all the positions. You might not need a content strategist anda content producer if the same person can handle both. Or you might want to create a creative director position that oversees the planning and execution. Flexibility in hiring is crucial to getting the right people on board.

Get people who are interested in a lot of different things

One of the hardest parts about building a solid creative team in higher education is that if your staff is really good at what they do, they will be tempted to start looking at other jobs when the work isn’t interesting anymore. By hiring people who are interested in a lot of different subjects and practices outside of their core responsibilities, you’re opening up ways to better manage them.

But even aside from the selfish goals of making your life easier, hiring multi-versed creatives helps you build a treasure trove of idea-making. Take advantage of that. The worst thing a manager can do in this situation is to not foster a culture of dreaming.

Some of your team will be naturally inclined to speak their minds, but most probably won’t be. Encourage discussion around big ideas and products and new ways to accomplish your institution’s goals with your entire team.

Hire someone who seems a little rebellious

I write this one knowing full-well that I am this person. Knowing my own streak, there are caveats with this one:

  1. First, if you are rebellious, it might not be a good idea to hire someone who is overly aggressive. They’ll need to complement your own streak of daring and not necessarily exacerbate it.
  2. Next, if you tend to stick to party lines, you’ll need to develop some graciousness in dealing with a rebellious employee. They will turn incredibly bitter if their efforts are stymied at every turn. Leave some space for them to push. Great things can happen.
  3. Third, no matter how brave they are, you’ll need to make sure that they are brave on behalf of the institution’s goals and not just their own ideas. Successful rebellion is borne of love for the cause.

Having a brave individual on your team is a great way to get things done, especially if you feel stuck in a bind. At TIU my brazenness definitely was met with a stern talking-to on multiple occasions, but was always followed up by agreement with what I was saying. I think every institution needs someone who is willing to talk back a little, challenge a little, and then actually put their talk into action.

Oh, and they need to have thick skin. The best rebels are the ones who don’t care if they get fired. If you’ve got one of those, consider yourself lucky.

Hire people who will get things done

Look at portfolios, talk about past projects, find out what excites your candidates. There’s nothing worse for your cause than spending a bunch of money on hires and not producing anything to show for it soon after.

There was a time when I was wrestling with this idea of bringing a startup mentality into the higher ed web office. These days I’m not so sure it’s a great idea part and parcel. But a few lessons can be pulled out of how startups are built. One of the big ones is to ship.

Ship something, ship anything. It should be visible. The first one should be good. And it should, if at all possible, surprise people. Part of this is about good management, but if you’re hiring a team to work on a web redesign project, do something small that can fit into that larger plan as a way to kick off the project. And do it quickly after the hires are made. This helps reinforce the legitimacy of what you want the team for anyway, and it helps invigorate your new hires. You’ve released something, however small it was, and your team owned it.

Remember, though, every team is different

Every college is going to need a different makeup of people. Every university has its own political battles. Every community college has its own unique goals. Tailor your team and its dynamic to your own institution. The combination is bound to be different even than your neighbor school across town. And that’s what makes the difference.

Talent Sourcing? Bravery does that.

We’ve built successful and dynamic creative and technical teams in higher education for years. Whether you want some outside perspective on your candidates or need help managing the hiring process, Bravery Media has a proven track record.

Send us a message and let’s work together.