Sunday, January 05, 2014

The Problem with Post

Beautiful But Deadly
Great creative, a shelf of awards, a stream of clients – Gee, what could possibly be wrong with this picture?

The fact is that when you're riding a rocket fueled by creative success or innovation, it's easy to miss, ignore or deny mistakes until the whole thing blows up under your ass.

In this regard, organizational accomplishments and industry recognition can actually produce a dangerous mindset if either is leveraged to conceal individual shortcomings at the leadership level.

One reason this attitude might prevail in the post production community is that principal stakeholders in such organizations are often promoted to a leadership position by first demonstrating excellent creative judgement in an artistic role, without exhibiting an equivalent aptitude for management. Compound this with the all too common reality that even top tier companies do not always make the effort to train such producers or creative directors with the management tools that they need to be effective leaders of those organizations.

Unfortunately, the Cannes Gold for pushing pixels, slicing video or sampling sound, does not automatically make one a capable leader of people. While clients may still come for star talent, the internal culture suffers until everyone, including those in charge, wake up each morning dreading work.

Or as is also commonly the case, organizations may deploy business strategists or office administrators  to leadership roles where they may not fully understand the creative and technical processes required to properly execute a media project. The result is a lot of 'why isn't it done' or 'get it done' directed by someone who doesn't actually know how or want to know how to get it done.

This is not to suggest that flame artists acquire an MBA in order to lead a post shop, or that agency producers who lack proficiency in design take an art class. It does indicate, however, that once promoted from design or project coordination roles to one that involves talent management, that one then simply ask themselves the following questions, and then commit to resolving those answers on an ongoing basis:

  • "How will I learn to be an effective manager and communicator?"  
  • "How can I become an inspirational leader of this community?"
  • "What measure can I use to know if I'm actually doing my job well?"

For many creative boutiques, sales and happy clients are the only scorecard that matters, –and bonuses, commissions and inflated job titles are accepted as proof of professional excellence. But the fact of the matter is that one can possess a pretty amazing sales record,  capably push projects through sound and editorial suites, earn accolades and awards, service and sustain a very happy group of clients, and yet still be a flaky boss fully responsible for cultivating an angry and dysfunctional organization.

Armed with only the maxim of Concept-Develop-Execute-Finish, many serve long careers without ever understanding that this framework maximizes media production and creative performance to an exponential degree only when it's also fueled by Strategy, linked by Communication, and directed with both Purpose and Empathy. The latter two are fundamental to creating a strong cohesive culture, and when combined with great work, they are what truly creates for a sustainable business.

In Primal Leadership: The Hidden Driver of Great Performance, by Daniel Goleman, Richard Boyatzis, and Annie McKee, the authors argue that:

 “A cranky and ruthless boss creates a toxic organization filled with negative underachievers who ignore opportunities; (whereas) an inspirational, inclusive leader spawns acolytes for whom any challenge is surmountable.”
So, is that the dirty little secret about the post production industry? Cranky bosses?

It would be more accurate to suggest that outdated management practices and behaviors are the issue here, compounded by the fact that an amalgam of talents might consider other staff members replaceable. This is typically exemplified when a member of one part of the organization begins to consider members of another part of the organization wholly replaceable, and then treat his or her colleagues as chess pieces rather than professionals.

Short term, things get done; long term, the faces change, because no one can stand working with a person they don't like for very long. Eventually, the last person who remains standing will complain to an empty room that the world lacks good, talented or committed people. But are good people hard to find because they don't exist, or are they difficult to hire because they don't want to work with you?

By way of example, one owner of a multimillion dollar production company once told me, his award winning staff notwithstanding: “I am the only person in this company that matters; everyone else is expendable.”

Similarly, the Executive Producer for another highly successful shop once revealed that her philosophy, regarding full-time employees, was to “hire them until you fire them” and “use them till you lose them.”  

Wouldn't it be much more rewarding, I thought, if instead of creating an autocracy botched together by coercion and hazing, that both these post pro principals focused on building great companies?

So, what exactly does make a great post production company?

Is it the work? Is it the foosball table in the lobby? Or the beer and bagels in the kitchen?

Those things alone will not guarantee a happy and productive staff.  More important is cohesive culture where everyone feels validated, valued and no one comes to work expecting that the politics will distract from the pixels.

And why is that important? Because happy staffers become evangelists for your company; bitter employees do not, and if they don't leave, you will be forced to fire them before they become a drain on resources, thereby incurring additional costs for the organization as you attempt to fill the void for which you are fundamentally responsible. Each subsequent employee then becomes a temporary patch, only meant to last until the next break or breach in what will eventually become, if it isn't already, a very leaky vessel with little confidence in its crew of every reaching its destination with all of its original members aboard.

Certainly, these outliers aside, there are also many, many positive examples to be found throughout the industry.

In the meantime,  it continues to be an open secret in Adland that the problem with many post production companies is the inadequate value held for emotional intelligence or modern leadership abilities by many primary stakeholders of many such companies. Creative, it seems all too often, is often mistaken as a free pass for social and professional incompetency, and one can very easily become a professional artist without exhibiting an ounce of empathy.

However, while this may be  sufficient for the proverbial artist painting landscapes in the countryside, it describes high risk behavior when expressed by the lead designer of a modern organization who hopes to continue attracting and managing multiple projects with diverse in-house teams at an elite level in the media industry.


Articles in this series:

Professionalism and the Post Production Paradigm
Crisis Management and the Emotionally Intelligent Producer
The Problem with Post