From Creative Director to CEO

I’ve often told people that, as creative director of a large multi-disciplinary team, I had the dream job. I woke up each day and made amazing things with amazing people — from large scale monstrosities of creative force difficult to contain in an arena to small whispers of emotional depth so intimate it could only fit in the small pocket of your heart. We shared tears and laughs, highs and lows, and secrets and successes.

I recently transitioned to Founder/CEO of Black Roses, Creative. We’re a small, daring group of branding and experience architects — matchmakers for difficult to brand organizations and their unsuspecting biggest fans. Launching a business comes with its fair share of chaos, but I am bolstered by the realization that the attributes of a CEO and a good Creative Director have quite a bit of overlap. Here are four traits that every good Creative Director shares with every good CEO:

Being a Risk Taker

The benefits of risk taking are varied and well documented. Anyone who is looking to build a business, go on a date, be successful, lead well or just make your kids chuckle must be willing to take calculated risks. But what I appreciate most about being a risk taker is what I learn about myself and my team.

I’m not worried about success and failure. We’ll have plenty of each in our lives and career. I’m more interested in learning our boundaries, our collective spirit and our willingness to roll the dice. As CEO, I need to understand our tolerance for uncertainty as I plot our next steps, but it’s also my responsibility to lead our team to trust each other when taking risks.

Action and Assessment

Creativity, at it’s purest, is problem solving. Sometimes, the problem requires long stares, number crunching and slow, plotted, and precise plans. Sometimes, it just needs a swift kick in the ass. Knowing the difference between actions and assessment is essential to leadership, as each inclination is important, but the true leader knows that she can’t confuse the time for one with the need for the other.

Curiosity

I must’ve been 6 or 7 when I just couldn’t take it anymore. I had to know. After removing every screw, hose, bag, and belt, I still had no idea how the vacuum cleaner sucked stuff into the bag. Since then, curiosity has served a different purpose. It’s given me the ability to see the world from numerous angles. It’s allowed me to love research and learning. It’s driven me to ask my teammates what their dream jobs are and how can I craft that experience for them. It’s helped me understand our client’s deepest desires and contextualize our work and our place in the world.

Curiosity isn’t just a personality quirk, it’s a muscle worth exercising and a skill worth refining.

Grit

Finally, having a little sand in my gut is probably how I got into this mess in the first place. I was born and raised in Inglewood, CA — reared during the height of the so-called “War on Drugs.” Inglewood was pressed on two sides; from the drug dealers and gang terrorists on one and from the police who had declared our homes and lives war zones on the other. My parents had one wish for me — survive.

I’m a firm believer that if you mix your personal sense of survival with compassion and empathy, that is the kind of grit that moves people beyond their own ability to a place of shared sacrifice. Together, you can do things that would be impossible to achieve on your own and you and your team will do much more than survive — you’ll thrive — and you’ll prove the old saying true, “No grit, no pearl.”

I knew it was time to take the leap from Creative Director to CEO when I couldn’t see the future without our company in it. What I didn’t know was if I had it in me to make the dream a reality. I understand that these 4 simple traits can’t possibly capture everything it takes to be a good CEO. But I do know that you can’t be a good CEO, or Creative Director for that matter, without being a risk taker, understanding when to act and when to assess, cultivating curiosity and having some grit.

Dex Alexander