Embedding creative leadership in your Culture: a Q&A with Holly Thorsen

man holds incandescent lightbulb

A Director at Cooper Professional Education, Holly Thorsen has worked with dozens of individuals and corporations to weave creative confidence and design thinking into the fabric of organizations. As a design education expert and seasoned improviser and actress, she’s passionate about helping designers, technologists, and diverse spectrum of industry leaders to expand their capacity for creative leadership. Holly recently had the opportunity to speak at Experience Fighters, an annual conference that explores the intersection of experience design and innovation and seeks to galvanize the Southern European design community through cutting-edge panels and immersive workshops.

What were the highlights from your time at Experience Fighters?

I found the curation of the conference fascinating. They intentionally went broad in topic, looking at organizational design, AI and mobility design, personality design, and creative leadership (my topic!). There was also an even representation of men and women on the speaking panels, which I appreciated.

The community that attended was incredibly engaged. It wasn’t one of those conferences where people simply network in the lobby. Everybody attends the sessions, and because there’s a single track, there are many shared experiences to discuss during breaks. I found this engagement to be rewarding, and I left the conference having had some profound, thought-provoking conversations.

Your talk focused on creative leadership. What does that mean, and why is it important to you?

Creative leadership has many definitions in a business context. I define it as “a mindset that inspires and empowers people to create solutions for this world.” I’m very passionate about creative leadership because this mindset enables solving problems of all kinds. If we can cultivate a society that is more creative and more willing to take creative risks, we can solve global-scale problems, from climate change to social justice issues to the energy crisis.

Right now, we have a world full of people who are afraid to take risks, and this includes designers. A lot of the issue boils down to the way people think about leadership and what it means to give direction. If we cultivate a world that embraces creative risk-taking, we’ll find new and better ways to address our problems.

A large part of creative leadership is the leadership aspect. Can you give me an example of what a creative risk from a creative leader looks like?

It’s not only about leaders taking risks, though I certainly wouldn’t exclude that. It’s about leaders giving space for others to take risks. It could be as simple as noticing a problem a customer is having with the product you’ve created and proposing unprecedented solutions rather than saying, “well, that’s how we’ve always done it.” It could mean iterating on processes within organizations, or having the courage to say, “I think we should solve that problem, and here’s a potential solution,” regardless of where one sits in the hierarchy.

So, you’ve shared what creative leadership might look like from an organizational context. What are the other contexts where we can apply creative risk-taking?

There’s an organizational component, but it can also be a societal or individual phenomenon. Creative leadership in families—learning to not stifle the natural risk-taking abilities of children—could be powerful as well.

And then, of course, there are big ethical implications of creative leadership. Part of what I explored at Experience Fighters in Madrid, and what I do in my teaching more generally, is ask participants to take responsibility for their designs and to own the externalities of those designs. We have social media platforms that are being used to bully and degrade democracy, and there are designers who are making those products. I’m sure they didn’t intend for these consequences, but implementing a design will always have consequences. As designers, we need to take the lead in anticipating those consequences and then do something about it. It’s this courage to do something that I want to encourage in the world.

So, you’ve started to touch on the fact that creative leadership can span across our personal lives, our work lives, our social lives, and really starts from childhood. When was the first time you started contemplating these questions? What was the journey toward getting to this place where you felt creative leadership was an essential topic to share with the world?

I’ve been thinking about creative leadership for many years. My first tangible interaction with it was when I began studying improv in 2005. For 13 years, I’ve been watching people learn how to take risks. The transformation in their confidence level is stunning. I see the power, joy, and analytical abilities that these people bring to the world. There’s a tightening of the social fabric that happens when we collaborate together through play.

For many years, I focused on helping individuals become more comfortable with taking risks, but I Iater realized that we also need to create societies and institutions that are more supportive of creative risk-taking and creativity. Six or seven years ago, I shifted my focus to look at creative leadership and how we might create organizations that bring out the best in people.

Is there an organization that you feel really embodies these types of principles?

I’m very impressed with the way that Mozilla is organized. Of course, they are a poster child for the open-source movement, and the way in which they engage employees and persuade them to contribute through an army of non-employee developers is powerful. The company runs through a system entirely based on community support and buy-in, and that’s impressive.

Google also encourages risk-taking. Certainly the “20% time” is one of the most famous practices in setting aside time and resources for risk-taking and innovation. A number of other Google practices, like recruiting engineers for projects rather than assigning them, really persuade people to work on pursuing their passions.

Airbnb is also doing a great job looking at the ramifications of the company’s designs. It’s a truly socially responsible company. For instance, Airbnb is working with the United Negro College Fund to give students free lodging for open houses or move-in time. When a natural disaster strikes, hosts in the affected region are encouraged to donate space for displaced persons. Of course, no company is perfect, and Airbnb has acknowledged the problem of some users engaging in racist behavior. But the organization is proactively addressing this discrimination in a transparent way.

Switching gears, could you share more about how you got started with Cooper Professional Education (CPE)?

I started with CPE in 2016 as Associate Director. From the beginning, I’ve looked at infusing creative leadership training into all of of our workshops. Creative leadership is part of the fabric of Cooper Professional Education. In fact, the first-ever Design Leadership course came out of this company. It has been incredibly powerful to see our team explore the integration of creative leadership into the organizational design consulting projects we work on.

How do you go about teaching creative leadership at CPE? 

This is a collaborative effort with our clients. When clients are ready to engage deeply with us, we set aside time to diagnose what is or isn’t working within the organization so we can understand what they need to develop their creative leadership capacity. We then work with the client to develop a transformation plan, which typically involves both training and coaching. We’ll also look beyond the traditional scope of a training; for example, we might not just train the core team but consider also training teams with whom they collaborate. We identify how to change the system within which the teams are working. We look at what kinds of behaviors are rewarded at the organization and see if they are aligned with the strategies we want to instill in the culture.

Have there been any lessons you’ve picked up along the way in leading this expansion in the consulting practice toward organizational change?

I’ve learned there is no substitute for motivation. People who are motivated grow and change, and you can’t fake that for anyone.

Another lesson is that communication is the lubricant that the change management machine runs on. The communication strategy is absolutely where these initiatives live or die, so in order to shift culture we must help our clients see what matters. Reinforcing the right principles is paramount to their success.

Could you give me an example of a time when you were able to transform an organization from one that was unreceptive to creative leadership to one that embraced it?

It does not exist. Normally, the organization needs to be in the mindset of “we need change;” we can’t make people ready. Sometimes, that mindset might derive from the leadership team, and part of our role is crafting the story to help others in the organization pivot their mindset. This is part of what I meant in my comment that motivation is irreplaceable. You have to be ready to change; you can’t force people to be change agents. It’s demanding, but worthwhile, work.

Interesting in building your capacity for creative leadership? CPE’s Design Leadership course might be perfect for you!

Holly Thorsen
Holly Thorsen

Holly Thorsen is a Director at Cooper Professional Education and a Certified Professional Co-Active Coach.

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