Leadership Lessons Live From The Movie Business

I’ve been continuing my conversational research about people and work in Lisbon. I was talking with a young Portuguese film director about employee engagement, and how he manages actors in low budget films. Throughout our long discussion he shared some insights with me about working life in the film industry, and the challenge of getting the best from people. There’s a saying in the movie business that if you have a great actor, you have a great film. And for a great actor to perform to their potential, they need to believe in the screenplay. That’s crucial, he said. If they don’t it’s very hard, very hard indeed to get good work from them.

I asked him how he motivates an actor who’s lost their love for the screenplay, and immediately he looked worried. I could just see how he dreaded walking his mind down that sinuous corridor. He scratched his neck and confessed that he’d never, thankfully, found himself in that moment, yet it still affected him. It lingered in his mind that this problem could rear its head any day.

 

“Achieving real people engagement is just like the cinema. It’s done by filling the atmosphere with plenty of things to believe in, and offering them out to your people in clear ways”

 

The unavoidable screenplay

As this film director swirled his beer and looked into the glass, it struck me how all jobs, even ones that aren’t perceived as creative, are exactly the same. There’s always a screenplay. And the questions are: how do employees believe in the screenplay in the first place; then how do they retain that belief to give them enough energy to get to the end of the film, and make their work a pleasure to watch. How best can we build a business with megaplex people qualities? The film director in front of me was sure of this much, however: that the actor is 90% of the film. Is it the same with business?

For most businesses, the percentage required for success is probably more than 90. If so, your business has even higher stakes in the people game than the movie business. People are replaceable, you may say, and that could pull the percentage lower down. That may feel comforting. But what if no one with the skills you need would agree to work with your business? It’s worst case scenario, but imagine it. Imagine, your business has been decimated on social media for being unethical in how it treats its people. These dialogues are already emerging, as are mental lists of employers to avoid. If the talent stream dries out for these enterprises, short of full automation, they’re right up and lonely in that space where business success is 100% dependent on people. Intimidating problem! I’d argue that it’s safest to assume, as your default, that your business is 100% dependent on people, and act accordingly – i.e. with actions that pull people towards you rather than repel them. But how?

 

People Leadership Lessons from The Movie Business - HR Waterfall - Martin Green

Packed with potential. Tone and time.

 

How your script defines your future

A good start is to attract people to you by writing about your business in the tone and detail of a person who’s interested in another person, rather than something overtly interested in attracting units of work. You see, carrots are still being dangled through the right windows, but less people are eating. So write a screenplay, not a satisfaction survey. Put out a film, not the same mechanical job advert. Think like a low budget film director. Worry about losing your people, or not reaching them in the first place. That way you’ll be loathe to take them for granted. And use that worry as fuel to do greater things. The big swelling risk to business, when it comes to people, is being stubborn about how you do business. Because stubbornness filters down. Subbornness ossifies the energy that fuels growth. Stubbornness has the potential to destroy a long term share price.

 

“Carrots are still being dangled through the right windows, but less people are eating. So write a screenplay, not a satisfaction survey”

 

If your messages currently feel rigid and generally always have, you are allowed to loosen up. Every day I see organisations unintentionally getting this wrong. The language of the world of work is changing, has changed, and will change even more along a reasonably foreseeable continuum. The top doesn’t talk down at the bottom like before. Yet I read many job adverts that still talk down from the top. Do you think readers of these fall in love with the message, or does their subconscious immediately learn to feel afraid of your tone? Do you want your latest hires to be subconsiously afraid of your enterprise, even before they set foot in your car park? Do you want your entire employment relationship to be built upon those dark steel foundations? Think about this nugget hard. Really hard. Someone, whose name I can’t recall, said that the last thing a person learns is their effect. Which is why outside perspectives often work in making better moves happen. Subtle organisational blindness is reversible.

Listen up then massive companies out there, your very existence is impressive in itself. Yet some people categorise you on the negative side as a nebulous conglomerate. But I believe you’re way more; I see something with infinite potential. Because the underlying truth is that your operation is a cobweb of people filming short clips that will eventually form your movie. You have precisely the same challenge as this young Portuguese film director I’m talking to here, even though your budgets are bigger. Are you doing the two key things he does? 1) Letting your heart be afraid of your actors losing belief in you, 2) Taking care of your actors, and inspiring them on to finish the film.

 

How, how, how?

Achieving real people engagement is just like the cinema. It’s done by filling the atmosphere with plenty of things to believe in, and offering them out to your people in clear ways. Not mere pool tables and beanbags, no. The smartest business investment left to make is a psychological and philosophical forward investment; in the mental stimulation, learning, and personal growth of your people. Your actors can help themselves to a point, but they also need you to help them give the best performance of their career. Direct them with elegance. Please. Lead them with understanding humanity. Light them up now, so they can wow your audience. Making a cinematic masterpiece is always difficult. The trick is to lead your actor beyond the level both you and they may have stopped at before. To produce fine work the actor must become immersed in their character. And that takes a generous time investment from their leader. Without that, your collective work stands less and less chance.

 

“The smartest business investment left to make is a psychological and philosophical forward investment; in the mental stimulation, learning, and personal growth of your people”

 

I’ll leave you with this question then. How much quality time are the leaders in your business putting into directly developing your actors? Your business is right at the start of making its film, which means now’s the time to get to work with double the energy. But promise me this: Make it devastatingly good. Because I’ll be watching you from the back of the cinema. So make me shed a tear with a simultaneous smile. Thump me in the chest while kissing me on the cheek. Do all that and I’ll stay, right there with you, until the end of the credits. And so will your inspired employees, and everyone who touches your business. That will be the moment you’ve made it in the megaplex.

 

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