In my ten years working the gig-based life of a freelance TV producer, I had a front row seat to a wide variety of management styles. A typical television project runs around 3 months. Although I had the good fortune of securing back-to-back projects with a few different companies (as well as one long term staff position) I still managed to work at 15 - yes, 15 - different organizations over the course of my career. Everyone in the industry has horror stories about the worst of the worst (buy me a beer and I’ll share some doozies) but the people that left the greatest impression on me were the good ones. The leaders who, despite the stacked deck of the industry, still managed to create a culture where teamwork was encouraged, hard work was celebrated, and people felt supported and appreciated.
The television industry is an interesting backdrop for business. Most production companies are made up predominantly of contractors whose tenure at the company is project-based. This builds a revolving door mentality where people aren’t terribly invested in the company as a whole, because they know that they’ll be “on to the next” in a few short weeks. Further complicating matters is that once a production company sells a couple of shows, they have a habit of growing from 10 employees to 75+ employees overnight. Suddenly, the group of 3 friends who scraped together some cash to do a no-frills sizzle reel about an extreme fishing business is transformed into a multi-million dollar company with employees, interns, timecards, and sexual harassment policies. (And vice versa: if a show or two gets cancelled, a prod co can go from fully staffed to skeleton crew before you can say “Temptation Island.”) Many executives are creative types who may have been confident that they could make a hit show, but never set out to run a business. Combine all that with the fast-paced, tight-budgeted, long-houred nature of the industry, there just doesn’t seem to be any time, energy, or impetus for building workplace culture. So, how did the “good ones” overcome the odds to make their business a pleasant place to be - intentionally or not? And how do those qualities translate to other industries?
Be A Cheerleader (& Most Importantly: Be Yourself)
My favorite Executive Producer was an absolute wild man. Pre-production was impressively disorganized, hugely impactful changes to the filming schedule were made last-minute and on a whim, and shoot days regularly stretched well beyond the 12-hour mark in pursuit of creative perfection. But despite all this, I signed on to produce multiple projects with his company. Why? Because he was the biggest cheerleader in the group. If things went wrong, he was the first one to retreat to the trenches with us to troubleshoot and solve the problem. If things went right, he was the first one to throw down his credit card for a celebratory happy hour. He was upbeat in the face of adversity, he recognized people for their achievements, and he made work a fun place to be. He was undeniably himself, and even though there were times that his impulsive personality sent us down a wild goose chase of television madness, his authenticity, sense of humor, and genuine appreciation of hard work was refreshing. It made me want to do good work for him, because I felt like I knew him. And whether you’re a leader in tech, television, or telecommunications, what better way to bring out the best in your employees than connecting with them on a personal level?
Give the People What They Need (& Understand Why They Need It)
I spent a good chunk of my unscripted television career working in casting, an integral piece of the puzzle of creating a successful series. The casting process can be a bit of a mystery to production companies, networks, friends, family...well, ok, basically to anyone who has never worked in casting. Sometimes the ideal candidate seemingly falls into your lap; other times it can take months of investigative journalism to unearth the perfect contributor. You’re a researcher, a salesman, a contract negotiator, a magician, and above all, a creative producer. Unfortunately, budgets and timelines are usually very tight. Many executives are staring down the barrel of the gun of the development process, and - hoping to save a buck at the top (or only being given a small amount of money to “find something” before unlocking production dollars) - there is a notorious struggle to invest in the casting process. It wasn’t unusual to be doing the work of 3 people, on a deadline that was 2 weeks too short, and for half the rate that you asked for. Stating the obvious: the work often suffered for it.
That was my experience, until I took a leadership position at a company run by an executive who not only saw the impact of good casting at the development level - but, even better - understood why it was a smart investment. He consistently contributed additional funding to make sure our teams were appropriately staffed, travel budgets were available when needed, legal counsel was accessible to help with contracts, and extra editors were on hand to do quick turnarounds for the footage we were shooting. He realized that the more great characters we were finding, the greater the potential for new projects that he could sell. Because of this, our teams had the support necessary to produce their best work, the freedom to stretch creatively, and the resources to turn projects around faster. Not surprisingly, this company had a tremendous hit rate when it came to selling shows. I truly believe it was because he got it. Did he do it out of the goodness of his heart? Of course not. He identified the potential for growth within the company, he gave us the resources to make the growth happen, and he reaped the financial rewards. Regardless of the motive, it was a breath of fresh air that made us a more engaged, productive, and successful department.
Show Your Employees How It’s Done
One of my favorite experiences as a field producer was when I joined a series that had already been running for a few seasons when I came aboard. It was a well-oiled machine run by a smart, efficient leadership team. The crew was lean, but each role had been well-articulated and the work was equally balanced. For the first episode, I was able to shadow another producer to get a solid understanding of the responsibilities and expectations for the position before I jumped in on my own to produce the rest. As a result, I knew exactly what the job was that I had to do, I felt confident in my ability to execute it, and furthermore, I was eager and excited to take the reins. I knew that I was set up for success.
I realize training people and articulating their responsibilities is not a revolutionary idea. But when I look back at the “trial by fire” mentality of so many other positions I’ve started, it amazes me that more people don’t take the time or resources to get people started on the right foot. Whether that means improving the onboarding process, setting up a mentorship program, or creating a detailed handbook for each department, small changes and easily accessible support systems can go a long way to help an employee hit the ground running. And that doesn’t just improve the warm and fuzzy new employee experience - it also allows them to add their value to the business sooner, and with confidence. After all, that’s why you hired them, right?