My First Experience Leading A Team

Above picture features the CFO of Xior (left), Matthew Dawn (right) and artwork by ‘A Squid Called Sebastian’ (the man at the very left).
This post was originally written on April 19th 2014, rewritten in 2015.

Recently I’ve finished my biggest project so far. It required 6 street artists, an assistant, a camera man, seven days and more money than I used to make in a year at my previous job. I was responsible for everything. (Images of final art works can be found HERE.)

Earlier in the year, I was approached by Xior, a Belgian project developer that specialises in student housing. They have bought an old hospital in the center of Antwerp and reshaped it to house 207 students. Besides applying the standard dorm upgrades, Xior also invested in improving the living conditions of the residing students by getting them biljart, mini soccer and ping pong tables. Even the old helipad had to make room for a roof terrace. But the white walls of the interior still made it feel like the hospital it once was, instead of a cool place for students to reside as it was supposed to. They wanted to spice it up and give it a youthful appearance. That’s where I came in.

To be honest and provide a clearer picture, I have to clarify that this project never was what the client initially asked me to do. I was invited by the Xior to check out a wall at the courtyard of their latest building. They were interested in having it decorated with a mural. When I arrived at the location and received a tour through the building I told them that it had much more potential. They were open to suggestions so I made a quick pitch there on the spot, explaining how I would invite several artists to come over for a week and paint the entire building top to bottom. My enthusiasm must have peeked their interest, I was invited to come back a week later with a detailed proposition. That was one of those moments where I felt I was getting into something I wasn’t ready for.

Surround yourself with only people who are going to lift you higher.
-Oprah Winfrey

Work with A players.

The first thing I wanted to do when preparing my pitch, was getting the best artists I could. I had spend some time at gallery openings of well known Belgian street artists and saw a lot of their work in the country or online.
I reached out to them, proposed my idea and asked them if they wanted to join me. Every one of those 5 artists that I admired (I had met only two of them once before) said yes.
Having these people on board was important for two things. One, it would guarantee a great end product for the client. Two, it would put tremendous stress on my performance. Both on my organisation of the project and on the art I would produce.
There was no way in hell that I would allow myself to slack or cut corners when I have people, that are in every way better than me, counting on me and would be judging my artwork. It was just not a possibility. Even if I did, I knew I would later see it as a failure and beat myself up for it for years to come. It was a way to force myself to deliver the best that I could in every single task.

At the same time when having those highly talented people, put weight on my shoulders, it also lifted some off. With this being my first big project, I couldn’t afford to run into unnecessary risks by taking on people that didn’t know what they were doing. The artists that I hired have done similar things before and could handle problems on their own if they were to arise. Independent and skilled was the key profile.

You can’t tackle it on your own.

Everyone that starts out with their own business or starts freelancing, will have experienced this. Thinking that you can or should do everything on your own.
Starting out with this project, I had the same thoughts. My problem was that I wasn’t giving enough attention to all the small side jobs that I was signing up for. Things like, getting breakfast, lunch and dinner for everyone. Calling up journalists and doing interviews, pushing the PR. Checking up with each individual artist to see if they had everything they needed and if necessary go into the city and buy extra supplies.
I underestimated all these things by themselves and certainly as a group.

When the start date of the project came closer and closer, it started to dawn on me that this might be too big a project for just one person to run. On top of that, I was also supposed to create the same amount of art as the other artists.
So I asked a friend, an art student, if he was interested in helping me out with those things. The benefits for him were that he got to meet the artists, learn from them, ask questions and gain some experience. Since I didn’t want to be one of those people that promises experience in exchange for free work, (lame-ass trick by the way) I also decided to pay him. At the time I was doing it more as a favor for him and not so much as a way to lighten my workload but during the project he turned out to be extremely helpful.
He was my extra set of eyes and ears on the project. Often reporting to me in the evening with all of the problems he had solved, problems that I had never even been aware off. I had given him my trust and freedom to make his own decisions and solve issues in anyway that he saw fit. I’m extremely grateful for him doing so and actively looking for ways to improve the project.

(Since this was my first time in a leading position, the only reference that I had for knowing that allowing others to make their own decisions instead of coming to me (being the leader) for solutions, is because I read about it in books. I advice you to check out my other post: Why I Read.)

A sense of achievement beats everything.

The project was pitched with a five day duration. (The time that the artists would actually be painting.) I showed up two days beforehand and left two days after it was done. Although I was the leader on this project, reeled the pitch in, hired everyone else and was responsible for everything,… I didn’t want to create a feeling as if I was better than anyone else. My purpose was to serve my client and make sure the artist had everything they needed to do their jobs properly.

In order to avoid a ‘prima donna’ vibe or running the risk of an inflated ego, I took care of the small dirty work when I could. That meant setting up the gear alongside my right-hand-man two days before the others arrived, also breaking it all down when everything was done. (Luckily everyone stuck around for the clean up and did their part!)

The five days when we were working, were exhausting! I got up at eight or nine, at that time my right-hand-man would have already taken care of breakfast. I prepared for the day, discussed with the crew what was gonna happen, whether or not press would come over for pictures and interviews that day, … Then we worked ’till eight in the evening, went out to have dinner and partied ‘till two or three in the morning.

Once friends and family saw the pictures in the papers they’d tell me how tired I looked. I can tell you that I certainly didn’t feel that way. I was energised and focussed throughout the whole day, every day except for perhaps the last one.
The entire time I couldn’t believe I was working with these amazing people. A year ago, I only knew their artworks. Now we had become friends and we had shared this amazing experience of doing what we love and having complete creative freedom. It gave me a sense of achievement. It’s what kept me motivated, focused and awake throughout the entire project. A feeling I often miss when I’m having an off day.

To close this post I want to share with you the final video we made for the project. I hope you enjoyed this post!

-Matthew Dawn

 

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