2-1: "The Sensitive Leader" - Alain Sylvain

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"The Sensitive Leader"

This week I’m talking to Alain Sylvain - the founder of Sylvain Labs - an innovation and brand design consultancy. Sylvain Labs is 8 years old and describe their tools as science and whimsy. Their client roster is diverse, from Google to Nike. From Chobani to GM. 

Alain creates and invests in new products, works closely with HELP, a merit- and needs-based scholarship program, the Global Poverty Project and the Lower East Side Girls Club. And sits on the board of VCU’s Brandcenter.

And he thinks deeply about how the work he does affects the people that make it and the people that experience it.


Three Takeaways

  • Self-awareness

  • Values-oriented

  • Challenging yourself & those around you


"FEARLESS CREATIVE LEADERSHIP" PODCAST - TRANSCRIPT

Episode 2-1: "The Sensitive Leader" - Alain Sylvain

Hello. I’m Charles Day. And welcome to the second season of ‘Fearless’.

We took a break for the last few weeks and we’ve had a chance to think about what we’ve learned from Fearless so far, and how we want it to evolve.

When I started ‘Fearless’ early last year, I said this. 

“My hope, as this podcast begins its own journey, is that Fearless will become a place where the people that are best at unlocking creativity in their business, and in themselves - leaders I’ve known for some time, and leaders that I’ve never met before - will come and share their stories, their hopes and their fears. My goal is to have them tell us what inspires them, what they’ve learned and what gets in the way.”

Looking back, I think we’ve done that pretty well. I’m grateful to my guests who’ve come on the show so far, for their willingness to be open and revealing about their journey, and what they’ve learned along the way - about their business and about themselves.

What’s also struck me, is that there is so much to learn from these conversations that I want to find a way to make that knowledge more accessible. To put enough structure around it that you can challenge it, test it, adapt it and use it.

So, we’ve gone through the 67 episodes so far and identified thirteen themes that stand out. Thirteen themes that provide the framework in which the most creative leaders live.  These themes show up all the time. And they make a difference.

So starting with this episode, we’re going to focus on one theme each week. We’ll drop a new episode of ‘Fearless’ each Monday, and from that conversation we’ll highlight one of the 13 themes. These themes have many components, and there will still be a very organic and candid nature to the conversations. I’m not hunting for these themes, just acknowledging them when they emerge. I’m not pursuing a thesis. I’m interested in curating what’s happening in the real world of leading and unlocking creativity in the world’s most disruptive businesses.

We’ll also post a short article on the website that adds more thinking about that particular theme from my other conversations,  so you can hear what others have learned about those ideas, and expand your own understanding of what they mean to you.

If you have comments or thoughts on this approach and whether there are ways to make it more useful, feel free to email me at charles@fearlesscreativeleadership.com.

So with that as context, here is the first episode of season 2 - my conversation with Alain Sylvain.


I’m Charles Day - and this is Fearless.

This week I’m talking to Alain Sylvain - the founder of Sylvain Labs - an innovation and brand design consultancy.

Sylvain Labs is 8 years old and describe their tools as science and whimsy. Their client roster is diverse, from Google to Nike. From Chobani to GM. 

Before starting his own company,  Alain was the managing director of Redscout and a lead strategist at Mother New York.

He creates and invests in new products, works closely with HELP, a merit- and needs-based scholarship program, the Global Poverty Project and the Lower East Side Girls Club. And sits on the board of VCU’s Brandcenter.

And he thinks deeply about how the work he does affects the people that make it and the people that experience it.

So this episode is called, The Sensitive Leader.

“But, yeah, empathy, I'm not crazy about the term. The funny thing is that I use it a lot and it's in a lot of my work. But it is a term that's a bit cliché. A lot of people talk about it. But it's such a profound idea, to be sensitive to other people's feelings and to channel someone else's experience is such a profound idea. It shouldn't be used too flippantly in the work I do or on a podcast.” 

Empathy is one of those terms that’s thrown about when it comes to modern leadership. And with good reason.  Today, the best leaders have learned they can no longer depend - and don’t want to depend - on bureaucratic power. They build authority based on influence. Walk into a conference room and strip away the titles. Who are you listening to? And who are you following when you walk out? That’s the leader.

Influence is based directly on understanding what matters to the people around you. 

Which is where empathy comes in. Or doesn’t depending on what matters to you.

It is perfectly possible to identify what maters to others and use those insights to gain power. We see it in our politics today. Make America Great identifies the fact that millions of people feel unheard, and left behind, and gives them a belief that someone cares and will take care of them. Is Make America Great empathetic? Or is it cynical. We can have an opinion but only one person truly knows. 

If you want to lead because you crave power, you can manipulate the feelings of others to gain influence.

If you want to lead because you want to unlock the potential of others, empathy becomes critical. The ability - and the interest - to really understand and share the feelings of others. 

It’s important to add that being an empathetic leader does not mean putting the feelings of others ahead of all other considerations. In fact, one of the weaknesses I see most often is a reluctance on the part of the leader to fire people who aren’t able to contribute at the level the business needs to be successful. In those situations, the leader sacrifices their responsibility to the whole organization out of an excess of empathy for the individual. 

My advice in those situations is to see the organization as a living, breathing organism for which the leader is responsible and to find empathy for its needs. It’s a sideways thought, to care about an organization as though it were a person. But then leading and unlocking creativity often depends on our ability to see the world - and especially our corner of it - sideways.

You’ll find a link to an article on empathy in the podcast description or on the Fearless podcast website under this episode.

Here’s Alain Sylvain.




Charles:

Alain, welcome to Fearless. Thank you for being here.

Alain Sylvain:

Thank you for having me.

Charles:

I start every episode with the same question; when did creativity first show up in your life?

Alain Sylvain:

What a good question. I mean, it's a new-age-y question. I think what is my life is my response to it. Is it the years I've been alive?

Charles:

That's a great answer. No one has come back to me with that yet.

Alain Sylvain:

No. I mean, since I came out of the womb, it's popped up many times, but I do think my life is part of a bigger life story, my ancestors and so on, where I think creativity's been omnipresent, as it is for everybody. So for a very philosophical kind of answer, but if I'm being more realistic, I'd say creativity's always been a part of my life. I was a highly creative child, but I didn't really understand that as a language and as a strategic advantage for me, until well after school. So in my late 20s.

Charles:

How did it manifest to you as a kid?

Alain Sylvain:

A number of ways. I wrote a lot of stories. I drew. I did a lot of fantasy play. I was really into building things and inventing things. I watched a lot of movies. I grew up in Queens, New York, and in a way, we were really limited in what we could do. We had blocks and public buses and trains there were very limited spaces, little kids can be. So we played a lot, but in very kind of confined spaces. In our basement, maybe right outside our home, but not much further than that. It wasn't as though we had this expansive playground. In fact, we didn't have playgrounds, as I think about it. But, yeah, it came up in a lot of different ways. My parents played a lot of music around the house. I grew up around a lot of music.

Charles:

So you were a renaissance child, essentially? Multiple expressions?

Alain Sylvain:

Basically, I'm a better version of everybody else. That's the, if there's any takeaway for this interview, it's that. No, I'm just kidding. Completely. No. No, no. I did grow up feeling like I was a failure at school. I did well. I did a lot of school. But because of how I grew up and where I was, I always felt like I wasn't completely achieved at school, and that was somehow a disadvantage. But like I said, it wasn't until later that I realized that creativity, in a way, it was a skill, almost, or an advantage for me in my life.

Charles:

Yeah. I think the academic system, as I experienced it, has a hard time dealing with people who think originally or think expressively or creatively, to use the word. Certainly, the education I had was very much about regimented testing and scoring and pushing you through to the next level and the next phase, and I realized I don't learn that way. And I don't absorb ... I'm not interested in information through that lens. And so spent a lot of my childhood and adolescence in the same way. And took me a long time to kind of get through that process and realize that I brought different things to the table that were okay, despite the fact I couldn't pass a history exam to save my life, and still couldn't.

Alain Sylvain:

Did you ever understand ... This is something I think about myself, relative to what you just said, because I relate. I felt that the traditional academic tools didn't sync with how I learned. But I've always wondered how do I learn? What is the right medium and format for me to learn? Did you ever figure that out for yourself, or?

Charles:

Yeah. I think actually, in many ways, this podcast is kind of an expression of that, because I think learning through the questioning of others and through the experience of others is ... I mean the human part of it. Hearing about what, and about to hear what you've gone through and how that experience has formed you I think is ... I think that's probably true for many creative people, don't you? That the interaction on a human level, and then being conscious of the problems and the challenges, the opportunities that these life experiences create, inspires you to think about, okay, well, how could we solve that problem? What can I contribute to that? Does that ... Right?

Alain Sylvain:

Absolutely. I think interactivity, exercising empathy, all those things are yet another way to understand information, and I think I relate to that. I think there are others that a creative person also indulges in. Things like practice. Through doing is obviously a great way to learn. I think risk, in itself, is something. And so it's funny how there are all these sort of languages of learning, but yet we're really taught one. Not only are we really taught one as kids, we value and reward really one. And I think about this a lot because both my brothers are academics, and as I said, I did okay in school. I didn't do poorly. I did okay. By most standards, you'd be like, you're a great student, but I think the point is I never really related to that sort of achievement. And even when I got the high scores didn't really feel like success to me. I think about success growing up, I think it's many other things. I think it's moments of creative energy throughout my childhood.

Charles:

I'm curious, actually, you just used the word empathy, and I think in the traditional view of the creative person, often in the way they manifest, empathy would not be seen to be one of the characteristics that they generally bring, right? They tend to bring ego, confidence-

Alain Sylvain:

Right.

Charles:

... arrogance, all of those kinds of things. But in fact, I think one of the things that's become more and more apparent to me is that empathy is a fundamental component of being creative. That Steve Jobs, who by many people's accounts, was a very hard man to work for and with, and very dismissive on a human level to most people, actually had clearly enormous empathy for the kinds of everyday problems that he thought people should want to try and solve or would want to try and solve. Do you see empathy as a foundation of creativity?

Alain Sylvain:

Absolutely. And I think it's important to distinguish inputs from outputs. Empathy is very much an input for me. It's a way for me to be creative. It's a tool I use in being creative. The output could be things like my behavior or my personality or how I come across. In the case of Steve Jobs, I think he was highly empathetic, but maybe dictatorial is a behavior that comes out of it. So I think you can be both, and it's actually fine to be both. And some might argue they're related. That the highly ... Because someone is so empathetic, for whatever reason, they are socially engaged, to put it one way.

But, yeah, empathy, I'm not crazy about the term. The funny thing is that I use it a lot and it's in a lot of my work. But it is a term that's a bit cliché. A lot of people talk about it. But it's such a profound idea, to be sensitive to other people's feelings and to channel someone else's experience is such a profound idea. It shouldn't be used too flippantly in the work I do or on a podcast. It's a deeply important part of being human. And when you understand it, and when you can channel it, it's also very useful as a human being in your interactions, but also professionally in virtually every line of work.

Charles:

Well, and if we take a giant, massive step back, empathy is actually a foundation of self-actualization, right? You can't self-actualize, which most of us I think aspire to, in some way or another.

Alain Sylvain:

We better. We better, yeah, that's-

Charles:

It's not clear that everybody does, but-

Alain Sylvain:

Totally. And I think people define ... A lot of people think they're more empathetic than they are. A lot of people would say, "Oh, I'm incredibly empathetic. I really do care about what people feel." The few times where I've felt a real flash of ... Where I personally felt I was empathetic, were deeply personal moments. I had a call this weekend with a friend of mine who lost her mom, and it was, oh, profoundly personal for me, not because she was my friend. It was because I felt like what could that ... For a second, for a millisecond, I felt what would it be for me to lose my mom. And that, to me, was empathy. What's interesting about empathy, we talk a lot about it as a sort of social awakening, but it's actually quite self-centered, I would say, because you are really thinking about what would you feel in this particular moment. And how would your survival instincts come into play at that particular moment. That's the interesting thing about empathy is that I think it's not a selfless virtue.

Charles:

And essentially, we'll get back on track about creative leadership in a second, but I actually think that this is both a fascinating and an important question about an important area. Do you think empathy is actually about how would I feel if that were true, or do you think it's the capacity to understand how somebody else feels?

Alain Sylvain:

Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Charles:

Right? There being a subtle but I think important distinction, right? I mean, the moments where I have felt strange to say proud of my empathy is that moment where regardless of my experience, I can feel-

Alain Sylvain:

Exactly.

Charles:

... that.

Alain Sylvain:

Right.

Charles:

I can care, I can hurt as much as you do about that thing.

Alain Sylvain:

Right. Yeah. I mean, I think they're the same. I would say that they're two of the same thing. That yes, I draw on having a mother to relate to that experience, but I think it could still happen. It could very easily happen in isolation. Malcolm Gladwell's collection of essays, What the Dog Saw, I always loved that title. And it's about a piece where he tries to understand a dog whisperer, but realizes that the actual story is about the dog and what does the dog see and want, and that, in his argument, is that that's empathy. And he's not a dog, to answer your point. So I do see what you mean. You don't need to be of the mindset to empathize with a mindset, but I think, yeah, I think it can live independent of that.

Charles:

Yeah. Yeah. It is such an important component, I think, of unlocking creativity in yourself and in others, because the ability to actually frame the problem, to see what the problem is, through a lens that isn't just sort of your own, necessarily.

Alain Sylvain:

You know what's interesting is we did work with a social media content platform, and we were trying to think of what the core idea of what that company was, and we realized it was about empathy. That social media behavior, sharing content with others, was a lot about empathy and being part of culture at large and being part of subcultures, understanding yourself. Empathy was sort of the idea. And then we did work for a big financial institution, and it was about hearing people and what their visions of the future can be, and we realized, oh, that's about empathy. And there was this moment where I was doing all this work and I was like, empathy is sort of everywhere, and in a way, integral to everything and every brand. To your point about self-actualization, it's omnipresent.

Charles:

Yeah. I mean, the best brands are those that we feel have an understanding of who we are, right? And show up that way on a regular basis. You mentioned earlier that you didn't see yourself as successful through an academic lens.

Alain Sylvain:

Right.

Charles:

What did you learn success felt like as you grew up? What made you feel like you were succeeding?

Alain Sylvain:

Yeah. I mean, it really started with writing, for me. It occurred to me that somehow through language I was taking creative liberties and stringing things together, and I was getting rewarded for that in professional settings. And that's when I started realizing there's this whole other world. My parents are immigrants.

Charles:

From where?

Alain Sylvain:

From Haiti.

Charles:

Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Alain Sylvain:

And the ambition for me and my brothers in the US was really about success in a traditional way, and there wasn't an intuitive understanding of creativity as a skill or certainly as a professional pursuit. And so it wasn't until I left home and I left traditional school that that kind of exposed itself. And it was through these written moments it kind of came together for me. And then I started looking at the other parts of my life, like music and fantasy, and that's when I kind of fully embraced it and I was like, "Oh my god, I'm more of a creative person than I thought," and I don't like saying that out loud, actually. I cringe as I say that, but-

Charles:

You say you cringe today?

Alain Sylvain:

Yeah. Because I ... It's one of these ... It's a little narcissistic to be like ... To think about what makes me so special. But yeah, no, it became an unlock for me, and I started working at creative companies and creative places, and I realized there's something here. The good news is I had a bit of a traditional and rigorous academic background, and so I was able to combine, for lack of a better word, business and creativity, which, of course, is something everyone talks about. But it gave me an advantage.

Charles:

How did you combine them?

Alain Sylvain:

Yeah. I mean, how do we combine them? I think invention. I think empathy is a way, as we just finished talking about, is a way to combine them. So how can you ... How does the public or how does a consumer insight benefit an organization? That's a creative business exercise. It's actually one exercise that's an alchemy of those two things. Again, I think the power of the written word in inspiring and motivating decisions within companies and beyond, that's about combining creativity and business.

Charles:

What kind of writing were you doing when you started to realize that you were good at this?

Alain Sylvain:

Yeah, what a good question. At the time, I was work ... I mean, to be real practical about it, I was working at a political consulting company, and we were writing messaging and political messages on behalf of candidates. And so which says something about the creative liberties that politicians take or make. And so, yeah, I mean, it was really ... I found it a really artful exercise to express something really dry and somewhat political in a compelling way, an inspiring way. I found it really fun. In five words, what can you really do? And of course, that's what poetry is. That's what copywriting is. But I didn't realize that's what I was doing until much later.

Charles:

Yeah. That's an extraordinary reference point, actually, that five words, four words. Make America great again. One word. Hope. I mean, can take populations, worlds, into such different directions when used at the right time. We're gonna talk about timing, because I know it's an important subject for you, and I was fascinated just in doing some background reading and research on you.

Alain Sylvain:

Did I blow your mind?

Charles:

Your point of reference. No, but it was interesting, actually, because the day I watched part of your video on your optimist timing talk, and for some reason, I had been struck earlier in the day, candidly in the middle of a phone call, by the notion of ... I'm not sure it's something ... A client said something to me about time or timing or time, I can't remember. But I was struck by the notion of this sort of living in the present. I think somebody said something like living in the present. And I realized that it's almost impossible to do because the present is so instantaneous. You're either in the past or in the future, essentially.

Alain Sylvain:

Right.

Charles:

The present just isn't long enough to actually do anything in, other than deal with the ramifications of the things you did in the past, or prepare for the things you're about hopefully to do in the future.

Alain Sylvain:

Right, exactly.

Charles:

So I think this notion of timing, and as I said, I want to talk about that, but the power of the spoken word and the written word to create this kind of change, as you described, is so extraordinary. And we both appreciate it on one hand, and I think to some extent, underestimate it in many ways.

Alain Sylvain:

Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Charles:

As you learned that skill, how did you start to apply it to your own journey?

Alain Sylvain:

Well, for one, I ... It starts with the written word, but it's ended up in a very abstract place that includes many things like photography and film and music. And so I don't want to reduce my sort of language of creativity through only the written word because it can be many things. And to make the point, I think what we've seen over millennia is sort of a collapsing of language. What I mean is ideas were spread through books and testaments and volumes and volumes, and we've gone to shorter and shorter of pieces of content. Articles down to blogs down to 140 characters down to four or five word taglines. I don't know. Emojis. And from beyond that, there are images that are coming to life in many different ways in stories and Snapchats and ... But, yeah. I think you're absolutely right that there's through concise communication of words or images, that's the hard part is how can you get more and more concise where you totally tap into something that's so true for people and inspiring. And I never think it's the world alone. I don't think hope alone is what made that concept so powerful 10 years ago. I think it's hope with the character that was associated with it. With the images.

Charles:

And coming out of the time we'd already lived throughout the previous eight years.

Alain Sylvain:

Exactly. That's there optimist time is relevant. And make America great again is an excellent example of-

Charles:

Which wouldn't have happened without the previous eight years to that.

Alain Sylvain:

Exactly. And if you said that 30 years ago, it wouldn't have happened because someone else had just said it. So it's all about timing. It's all about context. But, yeah. I mean, I don't want to stray from the conversation around words, but I do think timing is ... Your point about always being aware of what time you're in, which is different than being present, being in the present is about awareness, I think is interesting.

Charles:

You went to college where?

Alain Sylvain:

I went to Vassar College.

Charles:

Studying?

Alain Sylvain:

I majored in Political Science and Africana Studies.

Charles:

Really?

Alain Sylvain:

Yeah.

Charles:

Tell my why you picked those two?

Alain Sylvain:

Well, Vassar, I don't know how much you know about Vassar, Vassar's a very liberal multidisciplinary college, it's very chill. I really didn't major in many other things.

Charles:

We actually have ... Coincidentally, we actually live very close to Vassar, about 15 miles from Vassar, so-

Alain Sylvain:

Yeah.

Charles:

... I know it a little bit. Not very well.

Alain Sylvain:

Yeah.

Charles:

But I know of it.

Alain Sylvain:

Well, it was ... I grew up in New York City, and Vassar was not that far away. And I picked political science because I was really into philosophy and I'd done some of that study in high school. And I related to some of the concepts. I cared a lot about justice, about racial justice, about civil rights, and so that was a natural fit. And then Africana Studies is related. It was a great, again, a multidisciplinary major that allowed me to explore a lot of different aspects of a lot of different fields. So you could study literature and you could study history, and I did that through the lens of what we called Africana Studies, which was about Africa and the African diaspora, and it was fascinating.

Charles:

And not to consolidate centuries, right, of learning and years of your own academic study, but what was your takeaway?

Alain Sylvain:

From what? From-

Charles:

Africana Studies. I lived in South Africa for six months at a very young age, and so it actually had a very formative effect of me, and even at the age of four, I have vivid memories of what that experience was like, both-

Alain Sylvain:

Yeah. I'm very curious-

Charles:

... positive and negative.

Alain Sylvain:

... about that. I'm curious about where you were and all of that.

Charles:

Yeah. I was down in Durban. But so I'm curious, through the lens of academia and your own sort of life journey-

Alain Sylvain:

Well, I think it's impossible to answer that, to what I got from that experience-

Charles:

You can't boil that down into one sentence (laughter).

Alain Sylvain:

No. If I'm being truthful, I think it's impossible. And I do think my experience as an African-American man-

Charles:

Yeah.

Alain Sylvain:

... also is something that's profoundly part of me. So some things I learned through that experience versus the major, but I can tell you that what I learned about Vassar and the Africana Studies department at Vassar was really about progress, and how this field of study was kid of fought for over generations, and now it was part of the mainstream academic institution. That was incredibly inspiring. And I learned about a lot of pieces of work that would otherwise not get the attention or the light of day.

Charles:

There can't be that many universities that offer that.

Alain Sylvain:

It's quite common, actually.

Charles:

Is it really?

Alain Sylvain:

Yeah. It's quite common in liberal arts schools. Vassar, of course, is probably more extreme in that way. But there was also Women's Studies or I guess they called it Gender Studies.

Charles:

And I'm curious, what was the ... Because clearly, I have a massively uninformed perspective, now which actually speaks to both the opportunity and the problem, but what was the makeup of the class? What was the ethnic makeup of the class?

Alain Sylvain:

It was diverse.

Charles:

Yeah?

Alain Sylvain:

It was diverse. Vassar was pretty diverse, I mean, relative to other private liberal arts schools, it was pretty diverse. But it was primarily people of color, but you absolutely saw a lot of white students that had an interest, and some of them had real right to be in the room. I took a class with the daughter of a white civil rights pioneer, and she sort of belonged in that class because of where she came from. But yeah, I mean, it was a really diverse makeup of students and professors. And again, I don't think it's that unusual for liberal arts schools. You have that in other places. And what's interesting is academia is changing a lot. It's weaving a lot of that into the other fields of interest. So history is having more and more of a multicultural part to the experience in schools, political science, and others. I took French at the university level, and there was a whole exercise around understanding or reading French literature from West Africa. So the world is changing, and academia is changing with it. And I think it's not only changing with these departments that are popping up, but within the universities, every corner of the university.

Charles:

So it sounds like you come out of university with both a powerful capacity to communicate and a powerful awareness and ability to understand other people's points of views, and what have brought them to the points in life, moments in life.

Alain Sylvain:

Right.

Charles:

How did you decide to take all of that and apply it on a professional level?

Alain Sylvain:

Yeah. What a good question. Well political ... I ended up working for a political consulting company. That's how I ended up applying it from a professional level. And this is before, really, I identified as a creative person, so to speak. And, what I found working at that political consulting company ... I triggered a lot that I really loved, so I actually was working on African political candidates for some of the time. I wonder when you were there. I worked on the election of Thabo Mbeki, who was the first president of South Africa after Nelson Mandela, who's now a controversial figure. At the time, he wasn't.

We worked on many other politicians around the world and governments, but also worked on corporations and some of their political questions. And as I worked on more and more of these kind of corporations and their political challenges, I realized I was flirting with this concept of advertising, because it's really ... Political consulting and advertising are really hand in hand. And after working at that political consulting, working on corporate challenges that were more and more like advertising, I realized I was sort of working in advertising. And when I ... I started to question whether I wanted to be at that company anymore and I started to interview for jobs, it was the advertising agencies that were really interested in me. I ended up working in advertising, at a few different stints at a few different agencies. That's an obviously highly-creative environment. And that's when I ... I think what you're getting at, that's when it started to click like, "Oh." It's not these are my people, but it was more these are the concepts like I like to play with.

And so I always played more of like the strategy voice in those creative environments, and because I could kind of hang with the creative aspects of stuff, and I could write and I could ... I felt quite at home. But I was different than everybody else, you know?

Charles:

I think one of the most powerful parts of great strategy and great strategists is the ability to brief, to actually absorb the problem, interpret the problem, frame the problem for other people so that they can bring their work, class, skill, their superpower, to solving it.

Alain Sylvain:

Yep.

Charles:

What did you learn about writing briefs to help other people unlock?

Alain Sylvain:

For one ... Because I came at it from a atypical way, the advertising circle as an atypical way, I never really learned proper brief writing or briefing.

Charles:

Probably a massive benefit that you didn't.

Alain Sylvain:

Yeah, no that's-

Charles:

Right?

Alain Sylvain:

... exactly what I'm getting at. It's ... I was, you know ... Speaking of empathy, and it ... I was able to brief in my own way, in a way that was a little bit more intuitive for the counterpart, for the quote/unquote creatives. And I was ... It came easy for me and I enjoyed it, and it started producing results, so I would do things like I would take people on trips and make things more immersive and experiential. Or, I would tell stories, and I did not reduce things to a piece of paper, ever. Anyone who knows me knows just knows I didn't do it that way.

But I'll tell you this. It didn't take long for me to realize that I didn't want to be the person that framed other people's ideas, that I had ideas, and maybe they didn't articulate themselves in a traditional craft or art direction or writing, but it didn't take me long to appreciate the fact that ... I mean, I loved working with that, and I loved contributing to it and I had great relationships. But I think it was a false myth ... It's a myth that, you know, obviously some people are creative and others are not. And, you know, I worked at places where if the creative director walked in the room, everyone got quiet and you didn't look at him in the eye 'cause it was always a guy, too, by the way. And it was just problematic-

Charles:

And almost always white.

Alain Sylvain:

And almost white. Exactly. So, it didn't take long for me to say ... To just not want to be part of that environment, so I made a decision I'd never work at an advertising agency again.

Charles:

How old were you when you decided that?

Alain Sylvain:

I was probably 31-ish. I'd worked, you know, at some amazing creative agencies with amazing creative people who've won awards and done all sorts of stuff, and it was hard to say, you know ... But the world has changed, and advertising isn't what it is in-

Charles:

Did you feel that you were taking a risk?

Alain Sylvain:

I don't know. I don't think so.

Charles:

Doesn't feel like that?

Alain Sylvain:

It felt much more intuitive to me. It felt like something I just had to do. I also knew it was smart to make sure my value was recognized the right way.

Charles:

It's interesting isn't it, because I think, you know, obviously the podcast is called "Fearless," and the notion of what stops us from doing things ... Sometimes the thing that makes us do things is the fear of continuing to do what we're already doing.

Alain Sylvain:

Exactly. Exactly. Yeah, I mean fear, to me, is a ubiquitous motivator.

Charles:

Mm-hmm (affirmative) Fundamental, actually.

Alain Sylvain:

It's fundamental, right. I don't know ... When the moments where I'm fear I truly am totally comfortable and not fearful, those are uncomfortable moments for me. It's very natural for me to feel like I'm under the gun and you used the word risk, and maybe that's what I'm saying is there needs to be risk at all times around me to make, to do stuff, to create stuff, for sure. Urgency, time constraints-

Charles:

Potential of failure.

Alain Sylvain:

Potential failure, right.

Charles:

I do think it's a big unlock actually, for creativity in general, though there has to be something at stake. Otherwise, ... I think creativity demands intention. It demands ambition. I've probably mentioned this on a previous episode, but I'm increasingly struck by seeing or being with people and dealing with people and companies for whom creativity is this sort of compartmentalized capability that you stick off to the side and you put a fence around it and you put people in there that are quote creative, and then, you know, you kind of turn your back and hope like crazy that something great or magical comes out of it. But, you do so with a degree of trepidation because you don't really understand it. And to your other point ... I want to talk about Sylvain Labs. There are increasingly, I'm glad to say, more and more companies for whom creativity just pours out of every aspect of the business, and they not only embrace it, but they challenge it, they demand it, they put expectations on it. They believe that everybody contributes to it. They believe that everybody is creative in some fashion or another.

Alain Sylvain:

Right. Yeah, you know, we get briefs sometimes where companies say, "Help us be more creative." And it's ... And we deliver on those briefs. But what's funny is we never deliberately decided to make Sylvain Labs a creative place. We never went through that exercise of like, "We need to be creative." It's just, as you said, it just oozes out of the walls.

Charles:

It just is. I know.

Alain Sylvain:

It just is, and it's very natural. With it, come problems. I don't want to paint a rosy picture 'cause it's not perfect and there are challenges. I run into challenges a lot, but I can tell you that ... I can run a list through a lot of decisions we've made that speak to this idea of being a creative organization. What does it mean to be a creative organization? I can give you tons of examples of things we do that feel very natural to us, that are, you know, could be in a toolkit almost for what makes for a creative organization, knowing, by the way, that that comes with problems. I think it's important to say that. This comes with problems. My father helped me start the company.

Charles:

How old were you when you started?

Alain Sylvain:

I was ... How old was I? I was 33.

Charles:

So, you stepped out of the agency business and stepped into starting your own business?

Alain Sylvain:

I worked for another consulting company really briefly and then started my own business, right. And it was obvious what I was good at, and it was obvious what I was not good at. Maybe I had creativity and vision and the work, but I was not an operator. I didn't understand how to grow a business business, and that's what my father had done, you know. From an operational point-of-view, that's what he had done for years and years, and he had been doing entrepreneurial projects here and there.

So, he joined me as a sort of COO/CFO, helped me do legal, HR, and finance, so it was kind of the perfect balance. And I say that to say, there are times where we are confronted with, "Are we doing the right thing? Are we doing the disciplined thing?" And people like my father, their voices, their job is to keep us balanced. Because if we were purely a creative organization, we would not exist. We'd be in jail right now. We wouldn't be profitable. We wouldn't ... We've been profitable every year, and it's because we have that voice in the room. So, while I often applaud the pure creative organization in the decisions we make, it's not easy and it comes with sacrifice and it comes with balance, I think.

Charles:

Yeah, you have to put borders around it, right? There have to be practices in place. There have to be behaviors in place. There have to be rules in place.

Alain Sylvain:

Mm-hmm (affirmative)

Charles:

I mean, I was ... When we built a film editing company that was founded on, driven towards the most powerful expression of creativity within that discipline possible and, I think, met those standards and in many cases redefined them. But, I was always clear that there needed to be built around practices and tools actually, that had real rigor and real structure and real consistency. And that when you get those right, they seem invisible because they are kind of in, not kind of, they're intuitive, and they work the way that creative people need them to work and the way that ... Now, I'll just fall into my own trap, right, but they work the way that the art, the people who are presented as artists, work. But they also work the way that people who are responsible for counting the money, dealing with the clients need them to work, as well. And they satisfy both sides.

And so I think you're right. I talk a lot about profitable creativity 'cause I think that's the only kind in a business environment that's sustainable, if you focus on profit to the exclusion of or the expense of creativity, I don't think that's sustainable. I think if you focus on creativity, as you've just said, to the exclusion of profitability, that's clearly not sustainable, unless you're already independently wealthy. And so you have to be able to combine both, and I think the best businesses very much are able to unlock creativity in a scalable way. They actually, I think, they make it as reliable as electricity especially. You flick on the switch in the morning, and it's there. If they ever go to bed even. And so there are things that I think those business do that I think are absolutely consistent with each other, whether they identify them as you decided to do, or they just do it out of instinct.

Alain Sylvain:

Mm-hmm (affirmative) Right. And what's interesting about that is that it changes, kind of like your point about time. It's what those requirements are, what those boundaries are, or what the rigor needs to be changes as the creativity ... Because creativity is dynamic. It's fluid, and so things change. We're certainly going through that through scale.

You know, I used to have a very high-touch culture, and we knew what everyone was feeling at any given time because we were small. It was very easy. We were very connected, and now we're getting to a place where we have multiple offices and we have a lot of new people, and it's ... That high touch is very, very difficult to achieve. The high touch is part of the recipe for creativity, so how do we achieve that, or achieve what that's aspiring to achieve through scale? So, yeah, I mean, as ... It's another type of creativity I think. How do you create a sustainable, rigorous, disciplined organization? Is it a different sort of creative skill? And, you know, if you talk to my father, and you talk to him about preparing our taxes, or you talk to him about scoping projects or whatever, that requires a great amount of creativity. My father wouldn't identify as a creative person, but, you know. Tax evasion? Highly creative.

Charles:

That's right. I think that's true. I think that's ... I think it's hard to actually find ... If you sit down and get to know somebody even a little but, it becomes pretty obvious pretty quickly where their creativity, how their creativity is expressed, even if they sit there denying to their dying day that they are creative.

Alain Sylvain:

I agree with you. I agree with you. I met someone that worked in procurement, and she insisted that she's in no way creative. She was like, "No that's not ..." And she said, "I hire creative people. I'm just not creative," which is a creative way to offload something. It's pretty funny how people, some people just shed that moniker, and I-

Charles:

And sad actually, right, because it's so self-limiting.

Alain Sylvain:

Well, yeah-

Charles:

It denies you the possibility of being yourself, actually. I think that's what it is.

Alain Sylvain:

Well, I wonder if that denial, in a way, frees them to be creative. She's like, "That's the business of someone else, so I can do whatever I want," which doing whatever you want is, in a way, exercising a sense of creativity. But yeah, the problem with this term is it's, you know, it can be a noun, it can be a verb, and it could be a status. It could be many things. It's a lot to explore.

Charles:

It can also be derogatory, right, under the, in the wrong hands.

Alain Sylvain:

Oh yeah.

Charles:

What ... I got any number of questions. There was one I wanted to ask you before I walked in here, which I'm going to almost as a technical exploration. And then I actually want ... And then I want to ask you about ... You were talking about some of the problems you've identified although you're experiencing and building around business. I'm curious to know those. Do you ... What do you think is the difference between creativity and innovation? Somebody asked me this in Cannes a month ago. I'll tell you what I said after you tell me what you said.

Alain Sylvain:

Okay. Yeah, no ... I think creativity sits above innovation in the sense that creativity's about imagination and infinite possibility. Innovation, to me, is really about novelty and creating something, building on something to create something new and useful. That, to me, if I'm speaking abstractly, I think that's the difference. Both terms suck, and are not useful necessarily, but I do think of them as very different people, different concepts. I think innovation applies to things, and when I say things, I mean it could be products, but it certainly also can be music and it can be art, and it could be ... It's about invention. Creativity, to me, is ... It's just much bigger than that, and it's about infinite possibility to me, and the power of the imagination. It's not really a service.

Charles:

So, it's a raw, it's a raw sort of energy source.

Alain Sylvain:

Exactly. It's very raw, and it's not necessarily tied to any one thing. It's not tied to any end. It's just is, sort of, as an abstraction. But innovation too is still quite generic.

Charles:

I wonder whether in a business environment, the biggest benefit to worrying about what each of the words means to anybody is that one is slightly more predictable and safer and almost has a kind of corporate aspect to it, right. You see innovation as consultancy decks all the time, whereas they tend to run away from the word creativity for all the reasons you've described, that it's amorphous and unpredictable and uncertain. They don't really know what causes it or what doesn't.

Alain Sylvain:

Right.

Charles:

Somebody asked me the question in Cannes. My rather flip answer, and I don't know that I've actually changed my mind about this, was I'm not sure I care anymore what the difference is because I don't really know why it matters in any particular sense. But I think the ... I believe that creativity is the most valuable fuel for any modern business. I don't think a business can be successful without it, and I think the best businesses unlock it more reliably and predictably than any others. If that businesses needs to use the word innovation to your point as the funnel by which creativity turns into something, then fine, then use that word. But I think as a, as a kind of an almost an intellectual debate, it starts to become restrictive just by trying to put meaning around each of those terms.

Alain Sylvain:

And I don't think it's a coincidence you had that conversation at Cannes. Right? Because that's really what that forum is about-

Charles:

Right.

Alain Sylvain:

... is putting definitions and limits to concepts, and not necessarily about action and influence and real people on the ground, you know? And so, ... But I will say that the term innovation, while it's entangled in the sort of semantic conversation, it does also mean ... In certain contexts, it means something quite literal around product development.

Charles:

Mm-hmm (affirmative) You're right. I think that's true.

Alain Sylvain:

And that's important to say.

Charles:

It's a piece of code, right, in fact in some companies.

Alain Sylvain:

Exactly. Exactly. So, when we say "innovation consulting," we're speaking very directly about product development.

Charles:

I didn't mean to undermine your brand products, by the way.

Alain Sylvain:

No, I know. I know. No, I undermine my own brand all the time. Don't worry about it. No, no, innovation consulting is really about product development, the future of product experiences, and that's ... You know, there are managers of innovation at companies, that's what they do.

Charles:

Yep.

Alain Sylvain:

So, but yeah, I mean, it's ... I cringe when I see that work on my own website. And when I use it, I cringe. But it is the language of our clients and what they want to see. You know it's interesting about our decks and our site and stuff is we use the code. I think you just said code, right?

Charles:

Mm-hmm (affirmative)

Alain Sylvain:

Yeah, we speak in a code for potential clients and people that want to work with those clients. That's it. And so some people, you know, like my in-laws, will go to my site and say, "What is innovation? What are you doing?" They see it on the cover or Fast Company-

Charles:

I don't understand. People pay you for this?

Alain Sylvain:

But, you know, if you're a chief marketing officer at a company, and you're building out an innovation group and you see that, it means something to you. So, it's really about understanding our audience-

Charles:

Yep. I think that's well put.

Alain Sylvain:

... unapologetically.

Charles:

Talk to me about the problems you've encountered in unlocking creativity, innovation in a business environment, as you've grown the business.

Alain Sylvain:

Well, there are many examples. Are you thinking within my business or within the business of my clients?

Charles:

Well actually, that's a great question. Let's talk about your business first, and then let's talk about some of the clients.

Alain Sylvain:

Yeah, I mean, like I said, this is not a challenge I struggle with. You know, are we creative enough? That's not something I think about. I think we can always be more creative. I think ... Interestingly, I think we spend a lot of time working on our clients work, and those are the moments I think we are actually hurting our creativity. You know, if we spend more time working on our own side hustles or our own ventures or going out in the world and experiencing something new, those are the mo ... So, for me, time is a real challenge internally, and providing people the space to be creative and rewarding that the right way, making sure that we have the right reward mechanisms in place so that we have the space for people to be creative.

I think it ... It's interesting monetizing creativity, you know. I think ... That's something I think a lot about. How can we monetize our ability to be creative, without sacrificing any natural part of who we are? And I've had challenges in doing that, but that's sort of the lens that I look at your question around what are the challenges. The challenges are when we can't really monetize, or we can't make it work for us in a real way. So, my goal is to allow us to be as ... It's kind of related to what we just finished talking about. My goal is to allow us to be as creative as possible in a way that's inherent and fuels the organization. That's my job, is to like look for moments where it just belongs here. This is who we are and this is how we're making money and it's natural. I can give you examples of when that works and when it doesn't.

Charles:

And what have you found is critical to that? Obviously the kind of people you hire, but-

Alain Sylvain:

Yes. The kind of people, but also the permission you give them to do things. And I'll give you a great example of creativity at its best at my organization, and it just happened recently. So we just recently became a certified B corporation, which means we put social purpose at the core of the company. We also celebrate side hustles, so we let everyone in the company have their own businesses or side projects. We try to encourage that and be transparent about it and reward it. People have made products and made music. And we also create a lot of content on behalf of art and design. We've written books and documentaries and stuff like that.

And there's a woman who works with me, who had been making ceramic earrings on the side as a therapeutic exercise, just to relieve any stress and give herself a space. And she also wanted to do something socially mindful from her home country. She's from Eastern Europe. She wanted to do something that was socially good related to her home, and she also wanted to create content and do something cool. And she, great example of creativity, knowing where she works, she kind of knit all of those interests together and had an idea. And the idea was, let me create earrings, give the profits to a non-profit, tell the story, create content that fuels it, and if appropriate, bring in Sylvain Labs to help me do it. That's creativity.

Charles:

Yeah.

Alain Sylvain:

That, to me, is beautiful.

Charles:

Yeah. That's fantastic.

Alain Sylvain:

Her earrings are beautiful. That is create ... Her earrings are inherently creative and all that, but the idea of knitting all of these motivations together is a creative exercise, and those are the things I love. You know, you may call it the win-win or whatever it is. We have someone else ... I'll give you two other examples if you don't mind.

Charles:

No, of course.

Alain Sylvain:

We had hired a guy who was a chef actually. In a prior life, he was a proper chef, and he had a hot sauce that he used to bring me all the time, and I loved. It was a delicious hot sauce. And one day he told me ... And it had a great story. It was like 50 different ingredients, exotic chilies, and all that. And one day he told me he has more hot sauce than he needs. He had gallons of it, and I basically said, "Well, let me buy it from you." We bought it, and we bottled it. We named it, and we tried to commercialize it and failed. We failed hardly. But the point is, we tapped into something that was natural and it was a fun exercise and we learned a lot about food manufacturing. And now when we talk to food companies, we can speak, we can empathize a little bit more.

There's another example ... There was a guy that worked with me who actually was a contestant on The Voice. He was on the TV show The Voice. He was a singer, and he had been working on an album on the side, and we had given him space and talked to him about it every now and then. And he wanted to make a video, and we made the video for him. We brought in a production team and created video for him, and created the space for him to do that.

Those moments tick off a lot of boxes, creativity on behalf of the individual, creativity as an organization, developing content, creating businesses, internal projects that unite people. Those little efforts do a lot. I can tell you that the two thousand or three thousand dollars we've used to make the hot sauce is far less than a bonus than a bonus that I could have given somebody or than an offsite or forced fun in Vermont. It's the power of these sort of internal projects in giving people spaces to be creative were we provide such a sense of reward for people personally, that people still ride high on it. And I could use them in moments like this, by the way. It's part of our reputation now. So a long way of saying that I think that's how we are creative at our best, is when we create those moments.

Charles:

Which provides you fuel to be able to walk into a client and, to your point, help them, even in an environment which sometimes dilutes the impact of creativity.

Alain Sylvain:

Exactly.

Charles:

When you walk into a client, don't be specific about which one, but as you walk into a client, and you're trying to help them unlock creative thinking on the possibility that exists within every business, what are the biggest obstacles you're faced with there?

Alain Sylvain:

Well, it wouldn't be a surprise to you, I mean, it's a sort of a resistance on the part of clients, a reluctance to explore new things. Also a sense of hubris, that we've done this before, and fear. Fear is the thing that we face with clients.

Charles:

How do you help them break it down?

Alain Sylvain:

To me, it's really about trust.

Charles:

Trust in you?

Alain Sylvain:

Trust in us, ultimately, to prove it out. It's about truth and it's about possibility. And actually, truth and possibility is how I think about my company and creativity. Playing back truth and showing them it's possible. But to the point about trust in us, we work really hard for that. We actually don't have many clients. We have very few clients, but we're very deep in those clients. And we have 100% client retention, so every time we have a client, they come back, right? And so because of that, there's not a lot of convincing we have to do. And we can talk on a human level, and they know what we've done. And so that's what I try to do. That's my goal is to develop a real sense of trust, a real relationship where people can trust us and trust us to tell them what is, but also to demonstrate what's possible.

Charles:

What's the biggest threat to trust?

Alain Sylvain:

Yeah. Biggest threat to trust is unreliability, is letting people down, or letting people to question what's real and what isn't. That's hard, is just making sure that 100% of the time, we're being as trustworthy as possible. That's a commitment that I've made recently, is to make sure, in every decision, in every way, we're not promising something we can't deliver on or we're not selling things that we don't believe in. That's important, because people smell it out, and as soon as they see that, you'll never hear from them again.

Charles:

And what prompted you to make that a recent declaration?

Alain Sylvain:

What I meant, I mean recently within the past 20 years. It feels recent to me, because as a child, you take liberties and you don't really understand the power of your word and you kind of slip between the cracks and let it be. But now that I have a company with my name on it, and we get checks with my name on it, and then I'm understanding that's actually what people hire us for is because they trust us. I take it much more seriously.

Charles:

What is the role of honesty in that? I mean, a lot of people say, and if I ask somebody, "Let's define your leadership philosophy," which most people don't to start with, which I think is a huge mistake, right?

Alain Sylvain:

Yeah.

Charles:

I think if you're a leader, you better have a philosophy about how you lead. You'd better have some reference point to guide you.

Alain Sylvain:

Exactly.

Charles:

And if you said, "Okay, let's talk about what your values would be within that context," almost everybody says in the first three, honesty.

Alain Sylvain:

Yes, right.

Charles:

And you go, "Okay, but really?" Really. Like honesty in every ... Yeah, absolutely. You say okay. So let me give you two simple scenarios, either one of the which you will absolutely turn to me and say, "No, I can't be honest in that situation," right?

Alain Sylvain:

Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Charles:

We can think of a hundred here. You're going to have to fire the employee who you know is going to sue you, right. You're going to fire them on Friday. You've got the HR team, you've got the legal team around it. All of that's been put together. They're all out Wednesday and Thursday. That employee walks into your office on Wednesday and says, "I want to talk about my future right now."

Alain Sylvain:

Right, yeah.

Charles:

You're going to be honest with them in that moment, "You're being fired on Friday. Can you just hold on until I get my team back together?" You're not going to do it, right?

Alain Sylvain:

Yeah, yeah.

Charles:

It would be irresponsible-

Alain Sylvain:

Right.

Charles:

... to do it. So within that kind of it's easy to say but hard to do, what's the role of honesty in building trust?

Alain Sylvain:

Yeah. Well, I think ... I put a big burden on myself in those situations, and I try to be as truthful as possible even in those situations. And if I have a real relationship with people the way I ... You're talking about leadership philosophy. My leadership philosophy is to have real relationships with the people that work with me, so much so that to that point, I can get through that without being dishonest. I do think it means deferring to Friday, but I think I can be honest about it.

So the role ... I mean, it's not something I think I struggle with is can I be honest at work and is it possible to be honest at work. It's just integrity to me is critical and people need to feel that and see it. And with that said, it's interesting. I think honesty is a heavy word because I think people are not honest annoyingly. There are things that happen in the world, things shift or things happen and people are human, and people are imperfect.

But with that said, I think integrity is the key point. The integrity is the core idea, and honesty is part of that. But there are other things that are part of that, too. At least for me. This is my way to run a creative organization. I think there are other people that have different approaches where maybe they're more forgiving of things like honesty or other things, but my organization, honesty is critical. Integrity is really critical. Compassion is really important. Caring. The idea of being a caring person, not only for others but for the work, is important. You can't be at our place if you don't care. We smell that out in a second and people never last. We go through that exercise of writing what are our values. It's interesting to see what's on that list. It's interesting to see what's not on that list. Honesty is on our list, but-

Charles:

How often do you challenge them?

Alain Sylvain:

Every day. Every day. And that's the fun part about having your own business is you can change things all the time. I just talked to you about truth and possibility. I wrote that yesterday. That's something that I only realized now, that's what we do. I wrote that. I mean, I don't know how poetic that is or how profound that is. Probably not-

Charles:

No, it struck me when you said it, actually. Actually, when you said it, I thought that might be the pull quote for this [inaudible]. No, I did, because it resonates.

Alain Sylvain:

No, but it's true. Truth and possibility. That's what we do. And it just occurred to me. We help clients analyze what is, and we help theme explore what's possible. And now, we're beginning to think about impact. And so now I'm thinking about truth, possibility, and impact. Helping clients make these things more tangible, create things more material.

But, yeah. The great thing about starting your own business or having your own business is you can be really ... You can change things every day. You have no idea how often I change little things on our site, nor would you care, by the way. Nor would most people care.

Charles:

No, I've lived through that reality. I know-

Alain Sylvain:

Yeah?

Charles:

... exactly what you mean.

Alain Sylvain:

Yeah, yeah. There'd be the times where-

Charles:

I change things on your site ... No, [inaudible] (laughter).

Alain Sylvain:

No, the times where I'm like, "We need to change the color of that period, or we need to move this here. We need to add this here."

Charles:

That's a terrible word. Who wrote that? You did?

Alain Sylvain:

I did.

Charles:

I did? Oh, I didn't mean that. I mean, what was I thinking when I wrote that word? Yeah. So I know exactly what it feels like.

Alain Sylvain:

Well, you know what the challenge is is getting others to understand why that's important. This idea of constantly challenging your values and your language and how you show up and what you believe about yourself. And also, giving yourself the permission to change, and that's a very, very hard thing to do. But I love change, and we've constantly changed every day. And we like posing new challenges to ourselves all the time.

Charles:

Yeah. It sounds like it. I said earlier I wanted to talk about timing. I'm conscious that we don't have a lot left, but I do, because I'm fascinated by your perspective on it, want to have you just talk to us for a little bit, just for a couple of seconds or a couple of minutes about your experience with your perspective on timing. As I said, I watched part of your video. You talked about optimist time. Tell us what optimist time is.

Alain Sylvain:

Optimist time is a philosophy we use in thinking about the recommendations we make and everything else that happens in culture and society at large. And it's basically the idea that ingenuity and originality and invention is important, but not nearly as important as the appetite at a particular time. The cultural and consumer appetite at a particular time. That's actually the most important, and understanding that appetite sits above the invention. A lot of companies like mine pride themselves on the amount of patents they have, or the amount of things that they invented. We invented this. We invented that. And we don't really do that. For us, that's not nearly as important as the moment that we're in.

Spotify was created 10, 15 years before Spotify was created through other companies like Napster and Rhapsody and Yahoo Music and every category has a first mover that was actually much, much earlier. And so what made Spotify work, actually, was a window of time around the record industry, music industry was under duress, digital music had reached a certain proliferation. People were used to digital music. iTunes had educated people around what that was, and there was a window of time you couldn't launch Spotify at any other time. That was the moment it needed to happen. In fact, there were streaming services that launched immediately before, and there were streaming services that launched immediately afterwards, but there was something about that execution at that time that made it work.

And I think the same is true, as you alluded to, about politics. Trump needed the last eight years to be president, as did Obama need the previous years. The same is true for music. If you look at pop music, we go through waves of different types of music, and it's really responsive to the time and the appetite of a very, very specific time. You look at television. If you think about 15 years ago, it was The Apprentice. The Apprentice was the big show on TV, because we really celebrated the entrepreneur and the CEO. And then the recession happened and it was things like Undercover Boss and Secret Millionaire, and there was this contrition voice on the part of big business was apologizing for being so big. And then Shark Tank is big now, and we celebrate the entrepreneur now. The entrepreneur is the person is popular. So optimist time is just a philosophy we use in the work that we do.

Charles:

Mm-hmm (affirmative). I think it's very powerful. I really do. I think that interesting, as you said earlier, that you equated context and timing, and I'm a big believer in context. I think part of a leader's responsibility is to provide context in every situation. I think context empowers other people. And I think adding to that, as you did today, the added reference point that timing is part of context is actually a very provocative and interesting thought.

Two last questions for you. How do you lead?

Alain Sylvain:

I think I lead through sensitivity, empathy, inspiration, progress. These are sort of the things that I think about when I lead. I'm not a micromanager, a dictatorial person. It's really more about ... I also lead through freedom, by the way. I also give people space. That's one thing that I do maybe to a fault is to the point about trust. I trust people. When you put a responsibility on someone who's never done it before and you look them in the eye and you look around the room you're like, "I made this. It's small. We're trying to put this together. But I'm putting this in your hands because I trust you, and it's okay if you fail. But this is really important. We need this to work." People step up when they see that. People show up. You see the best of people in these moments of maybe it's fear, these moments of risk. And so that's a big part of my leadership philosophy is providing freedom. And humility is also really important, is making sure I'm listening to everybody and giving other people a voice, in spite of being an egomaniac and naming the company after me. In the right circumstance, you have to listen to others and give them space. I think those are sort of the ways I lead.

Charles:

And what are you afraid of?

Alain Sylvain:

What am I afraid of? I'm afraid of being bored. I'm afraid of being unable or incapacitated. That's what I'm afraid of. I'm afraid of being limited. I'm afraid of many things. I'm afraid of being alone. I'm afraid of ... It's funny, I went through this whole thing, I didn't talk about my family, which is ... And it's trite to say, and everyone says it, but it's sort of the thing. When I think about fear, I start thinking about my family. That's what I value most, and anything that puts that at risk makes me very afraid. But, yeah. The title of this is really interesting, and the concept of fear and the way you've brought in fear as it connects to creativity I find really interesting. Fear is something, it's such a delicate concept not many people talk about or understand, and they fear fear. Some people welcome fear and are inspired by fear. Fear is a military tactic. Fear can be an inspiring thing, too. So it's just very interesting how you did that together.

Charles:

Yeah. I think, to your point, it's a very complex subject, because as I'm sure you know, there are studies that show that fear shuts down the part of the brain that creates or that is responsible for and produced original thinking. And so on one level, it is absolutely creativity kryptonite, but on the other hand, as we were saying earlier, it is the motivator that forces you to solve the problem, right? And the more visceral the feeling of oh my god if I don't, I think that, in many ways, creates the environment and the opportunity to actually bring extraordinary outside lateral thoughts [inaudible] actually figure out how do we solve this problem. Desperation to some extent [inaudible]-

Alain Sylvain:

Exactly.

Charles:

... all of those cliches.

Alain Sylvain:

Right.

Charles:

That is creativity at work, as well.

Alain Sylvain:

Is that true for everyone?

Charles:

No, I don't think it is. And I think that, yeah, I think it's a great question. I think that, actually, to go back to the other point, it is contextual, right? That's why I've been challenged a number of times by some people who listen to this podcast that say, "Why do you ask that as the first question?" And I ask it for a couple of reasons. One, because I'm interested in knowing how somebody thinks about creativity, but also because it takes people back early in their life. And I've found in my work, my leadership coaching and advisory work, that if you don't understand where somebody came from, you cannot possibly begin to help them because you can't understand.

I was working with somebody a few years ago, actually, who was talking about the fact that they did not want to tell the people that worked for them what to do, to a point where it was damaging to the organization, to the leader, and to the people, because you need to provide some framework, right? However you do it, leadership has responsibilities to it. You can do it in a flat organization. There still has to be some degree of this is the direction we need to go in. And it wasn't until I asked them about where they came from, they grew up in the Middle East. They grew up in a part of the world in which their father and mother took the kids, moved their kids away from the family home because they were being bombed every day. And I said, "Is it possible that people who are grown up, that you grew up in an environment in which other people were trying to impose their will on you all the time through dropping bombs on you, that would make you instinctively unwilling to impose your will on somebody else." Those two things are related, but they need to be separated because you can't develop in your career with that absolutely human instinct, but misapplied in this situation. They're not analogous.

And so I think that the understanding about where somebody comes from is how you can help them understand which part of fear is affecting you positively, because some of it is, and which part of it is affecting you negatively, because some of it is.

Alain Sylvain:

Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Charles:

And we're all different in that regard.

Alain Sylvain:

No, I love that. And it's ... I love that on a personal, on an individual basis. It's also really inspiring when you think about institutions and organizations, because institutions and organizations also have a legacy that holds them back or nurtures creativity for them. And it's passed on through generations at the organization and practices and stuff. And when you think about your permission to be creative is tied to your history, I think it's actually quite freeing when you think of it. And it is therapy. I mean, it is psychotherapy, if you think about it.

Charles:

Sure.

Alain Sylvain:

My relationship with my parents, you should see my wife. It totally connected to what my parents are. But it's freeing when you draw that connection, and we often do that on the organizational level. I don't confront the challenge, but it's your life work, which is helping people understand their relationship to creativity. That must be fascinating, because it is about understanding their history.

Charles:

No, I think it is, and I think just to kind of put a piece of punctuation on it, as well, we've actually ... I'm fascinated by how it works individually. I'm also fascinated by how it works and doesn't work organizationally. Over the course of 30 of doing this in one form or another, I've seen inside so many different creative businesses at a really intimate level. I think in a way that probably nobody else has. And coming out of that work or as a result of that work, I've seen that there are consistent characteristics and practices that the most creative companies exhibit. Sometimes, they're conscious and I have identified them. Sometimes they're doing it [inaudible] out of instinct. Coming out of all of that, we built a diagnostic tool that measures an organization's creativity, because it can be done, and no one has ever tried to do that before.

Alain Sylvain:

Interesting.

Charles:

And so we're actually just launching that now. But it is already clear, based on the work we've done in taking the tool through various companies, how easy it is ... Easy is the wrong word, but how consistent it is that certain characteristics and practices are always present in the most creative businesses, and certain characteristics and practices are always not present. They have either never been built in, or they have been eliminated if they were. And so being able to see that through the lens of data, now, so it is really powerful. Really-

Alain Sylvain:

Can I ask you a question about that?

Charles:

Yeah, yeah.

Alain Sylvain:

We often look to companies like Apple for being the most creative. If they went through your diagnostic, would the companies that we think of as creative really shine as creative, or not? The reason I ask is I don't think that's true. I think the companies that are creative are surprising.

Charles:

I think many of them are surprising. I think not all. I think some of the ones that we think are show up that way, and they show up and the reason ... They are creative for the reasons we think they are and probably some others, as well. [inaudible] for some others, as well. But I think you're right. I think that A, part of it, it depends on how you define creativity. We choose to define it as original thinking that solves business problems, because you need a lens because it can mean a lot of things for a lot of different people. When you apply that lens onto a business, then I think your answer is right. Some companies that we think are being creative are brilliant at that. Some companies that we would think of in a completely different perspective are also brilliant at that, surprisingly, so.

Alain Sylvain:

Right.

Charles:

Because they have been built-

Alain Sylvain:

Exactly.

Charles:

... mostly instinctively.

Alain Sylvain:

Right.

Charles:

By people, by key people who had the right instincts.

Alain Sylvain:

And I know we're way over time, but I think also, the companies that we often consider as creative are actually not at all.

Charles:

Yeah, not at all. No, a lot of them tend to be rather egocentric-driven, voyages of personal hubris, and fantasy, to some extent, right?

Alain Sylvain:

Right.

Charles:

With very, very singularly talented people-

Alain Sylvain:

Exactly.

Charles:

... denying like crazy the creativity of everybody else that works for them.

Alain Sylvain:

Exactly. I have so many examples [inaudible]. I want to rattle them off, but I'll never ... They'll never be clients.

Charles:

That's right. That's right. I wrap every episode with three takeaways. So let me see how these sit with you. Things that I think are contributing to your success as a creative leader. One is very, very high level of self-awareness. Constantly thinking about challenging yourself on who you are and how you want to show up and how that works, I think. Two is values-oriented. I mean, in a very clear and specific way. And it's always interesting when that area comes up and when I challenge it to see how robust somebody's thinking is, and clearly you've done a lot of thinking around it, and action it and behave against it. And then three, I think to pick up on that theme, the willingness, not just the willingness, but I think almost the need to challenge yourself and those around on are we doing things that are important, that are right, that are actually contributing to who we want to be, that are actually taking us further down the right path, or are they taking us further down the wrong path? And I think when you put those three together, you end up with a leader who is able to inspire others towards creating change in the world that is actually valuable, and are using creativity to do that. Do those three resonate?

Alain Sylvain:

They absolutely do. If I can say, I mean, to me, it's about meaning and giving my life meaning, and that's what we look for. We look for happiness and wellbeing and all of that. But to have a greater sense of meaning and use my work as a vehicle to provide meaning is pretty profound. That's where self-awareness, values, and I forgot the last one. That's where that all comes together.

Charles:

A challenge.

Alain Sylvain:

Challenge, got it.

Charles:

And I thank you so much ... We could have continued forever. Thank you-

Alain Sylvain:

Yeah, let's do it.

Charles:

Thank you so much for this.

Alain Sylvain:

Yeah, thanks. Thank you so much, Charles.

Charles:

Pleasure.


Empathy

https://www.thelookinglass.com/pcblog/fearlesspodcast/empathy1