Executive Director as Creative Magician?

Grant Faulkner

As the leader of a creative organization, many expect Grant Faulkner, executive director of National Novel Writing Month and our guest blogger this week, to be a natural when it comes to conjuring a magical workplace. How is he doing? Read on to learn some ideas from Grant and the NaNoWriMo team that you can use to lighten up your workplace—and suggest some ideas of your own. Making the world a better place is hard work—shouldn’t we make the trip as fun as possible?

I was recently on a panel of executive directors, and I was asked, "How do you bring magic into the workplace?"

I might have blushed with embarrassment. My first thought, was, "Um, I'm not sure if I do bring magic into the workplace." I'm not necessarily a geyser of inspiration, at least not on an ordinary workday. I don't preach, swagger, or sing. I occasionally read a motivational quote or two, but only occasionally.

My next thought was that I don't think my staff—or my colleagues and friends, as I'd prefer to think of them—necessarily look to me to bring any magic into the workplace. Who appointed me the bestower of motivational spells, after all?  

Just because I'm ED, did I go to some Academy of Wizardly Inspiration for Nonprofit Leaders? Am I supposed to force feed them my "leader" notion of what creativity is all about?

I do, however, work for one of the most creative nonprofits in the world: National Novel Writing Month. The "national" and the "month" are misleading. We put on programs year-round that help people around the world realize their creative dreams. Nearly 500,000 people, including 100,000 kids and teens in our Young Writers Program, sign up every year to write novels, explore their imaginations, and find a unique community of encouragement and whimsical chutzpah.

Because we are evangelizers of creativity at heart, I believe that we should not only spin magic in our workplace, but we should be one of the most inspirational and fun workplaces on the planet.

The Power in "We"

But how does a small, over-worked staff with an ED who doesn't swing around an inspirational wand do it? I think the answer is in the "we," not the "me." Fortunately, the NaNo staff craves creativity*, and they've generated a number of casual creative happenings (or traditions) that have become part of the fabric of our work.

For example, we have a series called "Creative Lunches," which occur about every six weeks. Each lunch features one person presenting a creative project they're working on outside of work. People have presented podcast series, video games, publications, academic work, home-made kayaks, and talking toasters ("Hey, good looking!"). It's an opportunity to explore our non-work sides, even in an office as close and small as ours, and give updates on projects as they progress.

We also host a series called "The Office of Lectures and Light" (mirroring our former name, "The Office of Letters and Light"). Anyone can invite a speaker in for a brown bag lunch to talk about anything they might think is inspirational, or just interesting. Our speakers have included an educational leader, a publisher, an acupuncturist, and executive directors from other nonprofits, among others. We've also taken field trips to other organizations, such as Facebook and Google.

Recently, we hired a new IT Director, and he immediately instituted a monthly game night. The gaming extends beyond our work borders as family and friends have joined in.

Other events aren't necessarily regular, but they add a frisson of magic to our work. For example, we once took off an afternoon to watch TV shows that our community tends to like, so that we can better connect to their interests. And then we receive frequent visits from writers who take part in National Novel Writing Month, so we often break to have pie with them (pie = magic = connection).

Magic .... and hard work

I don't want to give the false impression that we play all the time. Quite the opposite. NaNoWriMo is one of the hardest working offices I've been a part of. Even though our workplace is generally a buoyant, creative place, we're still at work.

It's my goal this year to have an open conversation about some of the things that people have recognized as pain points. They don't create energy; they suck energy. For example:

  • Does the linear sprawl of our cheap desks and chairs reflect the creativity we're trying to impart, or should we blow apart the notion of desks and chairs and little work quadrants (we're not going to look like Pixar, but what does a creative workspace look like for eight people in 1,000 square feet)?
  • Do we have too many meetings? What does creative collaboration look like? How can it be more fluid, less structured? How can we balance planning with pantsing?
  • How can we redefine the horrid structure of the traditional staff meeting where everyone reads through the list of things they're doing (in part because they feel the pressure to make sure everyone knows they’re working hard).

Work, life, and creativity can go together

The walls of our office are lined with posters from each year's theme for National Novel Writing Month. "It’s time to write," one says. It's always time to be creative, I believe.

We are in service to others' inspiration, which is inspiring unto itself. And I hope that's what our workplace becomes to us. I hope we're all in service to each other's creativity, in the workplace and beyond.

Creativity is the pulse we feel from those around us. Creativity is life. That's the magic.

*All staffs crave creativity. Because they're human.

How does your organization stir up magic? Share your examples and thoughts in the comments section below.


Grant Faulkner is the executive director of National Novel Writing Month and the founder and editor of the lit journal 100 Word Story. He believes quite simply that everyone is a writer—that we create our world through the stories we tell—so he enthusiastically prods everyone he meets to write a novel and discover how life can be transformed through a daring creative act. You can reach Grant by email or on Twitter at @grantfaulkner.


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