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Trust, Transparency, and Fluency in your Creative Team with Ali McLeod

Daniel Jester
Chief evangelist at Creative Force

Full episode transcript

Daniel Jester:
From Creative Force, I'm Daniel Jester, and this is the E-commerce Content Creation Podcast. In this episode of the show, our guest Ali McLeod of Saks Fifth Avenue discusses how important trust, transparency, and fluency are when building and managing a high functioning creative team.

Ali McLeod:
Having that really open honest conversation and discussion and ability to approach people at all levels and then showing consistent behavior and action behind it, I think really helps build trust over time.

Daniel Jester:
Before we jump into the episode, a quick thank you to all of our listeners so far, and to those listeners who have left us a five star rating, it means a lot to us that you enjoy the show. Stick around to the end to learn a little bit about how you can get involved in the conversation. And also check out the show notes. Ali emailed us some great book recommendations following our recording sessions, and they can all be found in the episode notes. So let's get into it. This is the E-commerce Content Creation Podcast. I am your host Daniel Jester and joining me on the show today, I'm very excited to introduce Ali McLeod of Saks Fifth Avenue. Ali, welcome to the show and how are you?

Ali McLeod:
I'm good. Thank you for having me.

Daniel Jester:
So Ali, we asked you on the show to talk a little bit about some ideas of trust and transparency and fluency when it comes to managing your teams, can you take our audience through your work history with Saks Fifth Avenue, you've had increasing levels of responsibility and team management. And I think that that leads directly into the topic that we're talking about today.

Ali McLeod:
I started with Saks in 2010 as a freelance retoucher and joined the team full time quickly after that and over the course of the last 10 years or so with them, I've kind of just expanded my scope and taken on more responsibility, more of the team. And now I'm sitting in the role of a VP of photo studios.

Daniel Jester:
First of all, well, I commend you on your tenure with basically... I mean, you've bounced around a little bit between ownership entities, but essentially the same company over the last 10 years, which is not really common in our industry. And you shared with me also in a previous conversation that your core team that you work with has largely been a lot of the same people, which is equally as impressive because turnaround in our industry can be... Usually the rule of thumb, I think we say is like two years. So I have to assume that some of the things that we talked about previously around the idea of earning the trust of your team and your team earning your trust and developing fluency in our team members so that they understand when we need to be transparent with them on efforts or the way things are going.

Daniel Jester:
All of these are building blocks that lead to a relationship that becomes really productive. And I personally feel like this probably starts with trust. I think you need to develop and earned the trust of your team members. And for me, I think the way that I've done it in the past is just having an understanding of their functions and their roles and understanding where we stand as a studio also. Some of this boils down to KPIs, knowing what they are. Can you tell me a little bit about for you in your career, how trust specifically has developed your own management philosophy?

Ali McLeod:
You hit the nail on the head with the comment around understanding the team and their roles. So I have the luxury of having done many of the roles in the studio because of my growth in the company. So I think you kind of automatically get points there with the team, whether they're brand new or you've worked with them for a while, knowing that you're not coming at this with complete blinders on. You've either been in their chair or you've been next to them and you kind of know what it's like. So that's a really quick, easy win for me normally, in terms of gaining trust from the team. And I would say the transparency helps build the trust, but it has to be met both ways. So it can't be one-sided.

Daniel Jester:
It's really interesting and it's not always really common, Ali, that you had the opportunity to perform a lot of these roles for teams that you end up managing. I mean, it can be pretty natural for a photographer or retoucher to become a lead, but to get somebody all the way up to senior leadership, a lot of times organizations are looking at operational type people for senior leadership roles, even in the studio. And so you had the benefit of this lived experience. Would you recommend somebody who comes in maybe from outside creative production, spend time with the roles to learn really about what they do in order to develop the baseline experience that you had the benefit of actually living?

Ali McLeod:
Yeah, a hundred percent. I think whether it's starting a new role at a new company or taking on expanded scope with a team that you've never ever seen before, the first thing I would do is shadow the team, hear from them, learn from them, look at what their day to day looks like. Even if you've been around the industry and you feel pretty confident and know where you're taking this and you've been hired for all the right reasons and bringing that expertise to the table, you don't know exactly how it's being done and why it's being done by that particular team. So yeah, definitely recommending the shadowing and getting team insight is the first step in any role expansion or new role for a leader.

Daniel Jester:
You have probably several people who report into you who also have direct reports themselves. Do you do anything with them like encourage them to spend X number of hours per quarter learning from their teams, shadowing their teams?

Ali McLeod:
Yeah. I have director and manager and senior manager levels below me who are really the ones running the team in the day to day. I think there are places where I need to encourage that, but there's also places where I'm trying to discourage it a little bit and maybe there's too much of it being in the weeds. And that's what we need to lean on our more senior staff and our leads for. But yeah, I think it would be a huge misstep in any leader's toolkit to not spend time with their team on the ground. And even if that means I don't quite the time to get into the nitty-gritty and sit with them and do the same thing day to day.

Ali McLeod:
But even if that means popping over when the shoot wraps and just asking how everyone is and how was the shoot and how did their day go? Because you'd be amazed sometimes what comes up out of those organic conversations in terms of like, well, this computer... And these things might feel so minor to the team, but they're are things that they struggle with daily, that will never make its way to me and not through anybody's fault, just because they power through. And so you can solve a lot of problems that way as well by kind of just making yourself present and asking the right questions.

Daniel Jester:
An interesting thought on what you just said there is also one of the tools that we have to help foster that sense of trust in our team is solving those really minor problems. People tend to want to elevate their bigger problems, but it's like, tell me any problem and I want to fix it for you because I'm here for you. That in and of itself can be an exercise in developing that sort of level of trust. You shared with me, Ali, that one of the benefits of having a relationship with trust that runs both ways is that there are times when you need to ask your team to do difficult things, whether it's tackle a huge shoot, it could be the unfortunate reality that we live in of teams needing to be restructured, staff needing to be scaled back sometimes.

Daniel Jester:
Can you tell me a little bit about the role that... We've established that trust and now there's a difficult thing that needs to happen. Can you tell me a little bit about the nature of how that kind of unfolds when you need to go to your team and you have to ask them to do something hard?

Ali McLeod:
Well, I think that's where the transparency comes in. The trust has been established. Now it's time to tell you why, because telling you the why behind my request gives not only the context and the understanding of what that final goal is, but why it's so important that they are a part of it. If I ask you, you've got to make cuts in the budget, you can't spend as much on your supplies line. If I tell you it's because the alternative is that we need to lose the open role that we were hiring for, you might get a little bit more creative and you might get behind it a little more. So I think transparency plays into a huge part of that.

Daniel Jester:
You've got the trust and the transparency part comes into it. But the other side of that is as you know, as someone who's very senior in your organization, there are issues that are just sensitive, that can't be widespread that you can't share with everybody all the time. That's kind of, when you have to say, "You trust me, right? I can't tell you what the reason is for this. I can't go into this problem or that problem, but just trust me that this is the course that we need to take."

Ali McLeod:
Yeah, I've definitely had that experience, whether it be an org restructure or cutting payroll budget, I've certainly done that to my team. And thankfully had their trust where they have just been total sports about it. An example, we were cutting payroll in a certain area of the team and we had been doing pretty well without an open role that had been sitting open for some time. And I reached out to the manager of that and said, "Hey, I need to take your open. I can't tell you why just trust me, it's bigger picture, more beneficial to do it this way." And she said, "Absolutely no problem. I get it." I mean, that's huge.

Daniel Jester:
Yeah.

Ali McLeod:
That's huge. That made my life so much easier. And the maturity and the understanding of bigger picture certainly plays into that. But a huge portion of it was trust that we've worked together for some time. We've been through some of these things before together, and she just knew that I have the best interest of the team at heart and do whatever I can to make, even when it becomes a difficult decision, the best decision that I can all around.

Daniel Jester:
You mentioned that this idea of an understanding of the big picture, which I think maybe makes sense to take us into the idea, the third prong of this, that we sort of illuminated when we met a few weeks ago is fluency, is an understanding of concepts and translating the things that are important from senior leaders to the rest of the team in the studio. There's a little bit of fluency that's picked up from a manager or a leader who is inherently transparent, but that's not enough to make sure that your team really has this clear idea of what you just said, the big picture. The fluency, what we're talking about is developing an understanding of the big picture and how that impacts their day to day. That's the fluency that we're talking about.

Daniel Jester:
What are your thoughts on this, on cultivating a fluency so that we can help illuminate the big picture for our team so that we can get that buy-in of saying look, when we can't be transparent, you're at least fluent enough to know that I'm working in service of the big picture, which will benefit everybody.

Ali McLeod:
I think it's different depending on the level, the associate level. I would say when it comes to kind of my director, senior manager, manager roles, it's easier because I can just be a little bit more transparent and I can say things a little more bluntly without having to sugar coat or worry about how they're going to react, because they've got some more experience under their belt. Maybe they've lived through these scenarios before, or at least some of us in the room have, and we can guide each other along as we go. I find other places and ways to do it with the team level, as simply as taking a business report, sales report or best sellers report and trickling that back down to the team. And then taking language that maybe at leadership level, we're talking very fluently, and then I say simplifying, it's not because people are stupid.

Ali McLeod:
It's just that they haven't had the exposure. And so simplifying into terms that they understand, and to your point, how does it impact them, but also how are they impacting it? It's a bit of a motivator as well to see how your work every day fills into this bigger picture. And yeah, oh, I'm only taking pictures, but no, you're not only taking pictures. These items don't get on the website without these pictures and how you're presenting them and your decision to take that extra detail shot, those are all driving business. So being able to par it down to what's relevant to them as well as giving them a little bit more than that. A little bigger picture to say, not just your piece, but here's how it fits into everything, I think really goes a long way with the team.

Daniel Jester:
I think he made a great point that part of the transparency and part of developing that fluency is being transparent with the data in a way that is digestible for the team that needs to see it. Ali, so far, we've been really talking about these ideas of trust and transparency and fluency sort of on an individual level, from your perspective, as a senior leader at Saks and throughout your career or on individual interactions. The more difficult thing potentially is building a culture within a group of middle managers or leaders in the studio and on-set level teams as well. Can you share with me a little bit about some of the things that you've been able to do with your team to try to help foster a sense of trust, not between you and a direct report, but maybe others on your team individually, between them as well.

Ali McLeod:
Consistency is key I think. When someone sees that your behavior, your actions, your follow through are all consistent, and that's slowly going to build that trust. You're proving yourself to them the same way they try and prove themselves to you every day. Hearing people out, open door policy, open office hours. I want to hear from everybody at every level. I want to hear ideas. I want to hear what's working, what's not working. Discussion is always on the table and it's a little bit of empowerment, but also trust. You're the one doing it everyday, not me. I trust that you know better now. So come and talk to me about it and it shouldn't be a big, scary thing, jumping levels and having these conversations, it should be collaborative as much as possible. So having that really open, honest conversation and discussion and ability to approach people at all levels and then showing consistent behavior and action behind it, I think really helps build trust over time.

Daniel Jester:
And then by setting this example, hopefully the other people with responsibilities in the form of direct reports are seeing this as well. And so that they're developing trusting relationships between their own direct reports. One of the challenging things, maybe though can be developing that sense of trust between your directs as well that isn't really a part of your relationship with them, but trying to set an example or at least putting in place the structure that allows them to make sure that they trust each other. Can you share with me a little bit about what that kind of looks like at least in your experience?

Ali McLeod:
I'm really lucky that I have a tight knit management group. We work incredibly well together. We challenge one another. We question one another, regardless of who's in the room and what level you are, which I think is really important because again, it's that transparency and trust within the group that will help us work better together, solve problems faster, that kind of thing. As well as a team can run and it's as close as a team can get, there's always going to be situations where maybe everyone's not getting along. Maybe they think it's about trusting one another. It's not always necessarily about trusting that they know their job or that their professional opinion is valid or correct. It's sometimes more about trusting their way of working and figuring that out and finding ways to eliminate that or eradicate it as much as you can from the relationships is huge.

Ali McLeod:
So you're almost at times acting like a mediator. My team and I practice... I'll do a book plug for Kim Scott on Radical Candor. We practice radical candor. We're very open and honest with each other and in spaces where they don't feel comfortable doing that, they will use me as the mediator, but they know that I will be honest about the conversations we're having independently to each other. And it's really up to them to come together and figure things out. Maybe with a little bit of advice or guidance. We've done things in the past, like team builds where we've leveraged the DISC personality test, because I have quite a dynamic group of people who all have very different ways of working, different strengths, and different opportunities. And so what we were able to do there is really understand each other's ways of working and why we work in the way that we do and kind of help us just understand one another a little better.

Ali McLeod:
So maybe the next time you approach a problem together, some of that has already been broken down for you. You're not going into it with this mentality of, well, he's going to think about it this way, and I'm going to think about it this way. Now I know why he thinks about things like that. So maybe I'll never be able to work in that way, but at least having that understanding, we can see each other's side of the story and come together and get on the same page.

Daniel Jester:
I loved the book plug by the way, Radical Candor. I have not heard of that book, but I think a really important byproduct of building this culture of trust and the trusting relationship with your directs and having them trust each other as well, is the ability to disagree. It's a lost art, the ability to have people disagree. Because without disagreements, we can't work through the disagreements and we can't come to a consensus on the solve. And so I think that that is hugely important and I will absolutely gladly plug any book, publication, magazine article, whatever that helps get us to that point where we realized that disagreements not only are okay, but often quite necessary towards problem solving. It's how we handle those disagreements and it's how we remove emotion from it sometimes or pride, which is a big thing that I've seen and I'm certainly guilty of personally.

Daniel Jester:
That's how we enable that and removing those things, removing emotion, removing pride. Step one is trust. It all comes back to that idea that we just really have to trust each other. Thank you so much, Ali, for sharing that I really... I'm definitely going to buy that book. I'm sure that there's listeners out there who look at your career and think, that's where I want to be or that's how I want to get there. Do you have advice for people on how they can adopt some of these ideas that you had to help them grow in their careers and build these kinds of relationships?

Ali McLeod:
The number one thing I would probably tell people is to be curious, I can attribute some of my career and growth to luck and being in the right place at the right time in a time of growth in the company and being really lucky. But also maybe the reason being seen for opportunity has been my curiosity. Going out as a retoucher, why did this thing happen? It keeps happening instead of just being frustrated about it, getting out from behind the dark curtain and talking to the team on set and asking them why, how does this happen? And it wasn't to point fingers or to give anyone a red face. It's really just to understand it so we can make improvement. Which the idea of constant improvement is top of everyone's mind these days.

Ali McLeod:
So staying curious and asking questions and not being afraid to go to leadership and ask questions. I think you learn as you go, how to approach and how to ask those questions in a constructive way that gets you what you need to kind of continue your journey and maybe you're working on something and you're trying to figure out like we said earlier, what the right metric is to validate this idea. So yeah, really being curious and not being afraid to reach out and ask questions of your peers and your coworkers and your leaders.

Daniel Jester:
I love that. I love that so much. I think being curious is really important. All of these things, all feed into trust, transparency, and fluency. Ali, I am hopefully going to make you blush a little bit right now and say, thank you so much for your time and your insight. And I really do think of you as an inspiration in our industry. It is not super common for a retoucher or a photographer to work their way up in their organization to the level that you have achieved. And I think that's really special. And I appreciate you sharing some of your thoughts on these ideas with me and with our listeners. Can people connect with you on LinkedIn? Can we share your LinkedIn profile in our show notes if they want?

Ali McLeod:
Yeah, of course I'd love that.

Daniel Jester:
Awesome. And for the listener, I will also include a link to the book that Ali mentioned in the show notes, along with her LinkedIn account. And I guess I'll close it up by saying thank you so much for being here. And it was such a pleasure to talk to you.

Ali McLeod:
Thanks, I had a really good time.

Daniel Jester:
That's it for this episode, our sincere thanks to Ali for her time. If you have feedback for us or want to pitch a guest or topic idea for the show, email us at Podcast@CreativeForce.io. You can also connect with me on LinkedIn as always, I'm Daniel T Jester. This show is produced by Creative Force, edited by Calvin Lanz, special thanks to Sean O'Meara and our guest Ali McLeod. I am your host Daniel Jester, until next time friends.

About the host

Daniel Jester
Chief evangelist at Creative Force

Daniel Jester is an experienced creative production professional who has managed production teams, built and launched new studios, and produced large-scale projects. He's currently the Chief Evangelist at Creative Force but has a breadth of experience in a variety of studio environments - working in-house at brands like Amazon, Nordstrom, and Farfetch as well as commercial studios like CONVYR. Creative-minded, while able to effectively plan for and manage a complex project, he bridges the gap between spreadsheets and creative talent.