Wednesday, April 27, 2016

Leaving Hollywood and Its Tyrannical Leaders Behind

by Kyle Hebenstreit, MBA'16

The ability to write in a way that inspires and fosters teamwork is a trait of great leadership. Students in the Kelley MBA Leadership Academy, in collaboration with the Gotham Writers Workshop, have produced a series of blog posts to demonstrate these skills.

Hollywood is a weird place to work. Maybe it’s fictional characters like Ari Gold, Buddy Ackerman or Les Grossman that glorify the notion of an office tyrant, but there’s a celebrated culture of intensely demanding and, frankly, disrespectful bosses. Schadenfreude-fueled tales of misconduct drifted through the halls of talent agencies and studios where I worked.

There’s the time the agent publicly went ballistic on his assistant for not turning all of the Perrier bottles east, as requested. Or the time an executive didn’t like his assistant’s tie, so he took a pair of scissors and cut it in half to make what I’m sure was an important point. Or the time the head of the agency stood on his assistant’s desk, golf club in hand, screaming, “I don’t pay you to think!”

An explanation for why people act this way is for another blog, or cultural anthropology dissertation. What I’m trying to illustrate is that this is where I started my education on what it means to be a manager, a coach, a leader.

As much as I loved the bulk of my time in Hollywood, I’ll admit I had an internal struggle identifying what I could and should expect from my bosses. I believed that I should be empowered to produce—not coerced. I thought I should receive constructive feedback—not backhanded comments. But was I yearning to be coddled? Was I one of those whiny, self-involved millennials that I’ve read so much about? God, I hope not. Those people seem like THE WORST.

Oh, so THIS is leadership

Call me a hopeless idealist, but I always maintained a kernel of hope that there was some shining city upon a hill, where managers took responsibility for the development of their employees. What a place that must be, maybe they even had fast food restaurants that served breakfast all day.

Of course no such place exists. Most fast food restaurants stop serving breakfast at 11 a.m. But, through attending the Kelley Full-time MBA Program, I learned that there are places that invest in employee development.

During the summer after my first year of business school, I worked as a corporate strategy intern at Cummins, Inc. I was placed on a small team led by a director. At the beginning of my internship, the director held a meeting to set expectations. It was … odd. We discussed our personality types. We shared information about work habits and preferences. The director shared a PowerPoint slide in which he’d written expectations for team members, as well as expectations we could have of him. We stopped short of a drum circle. It all felt very soft.

And so was the beginning of what I’d describe as my reintegration program. Throughout the summer, the director routinely checked in on my personal development. I knew that he was in the midst of an exciting and challenging personal transition within the company, yet he took the time to actively manage my growth. At the end of the summer, I reflected on my experience and realized his efforts were far from “odd” or “soft”—they made sense and they were important.

Re-entering my second year at Kelley, I chose to join the Leadership Academy. Through lectures, readings, self-reflection and experiential learning opportunities, I learned that the pillars of the Academy aligned with my experience at Cummins.

Good leaders practice

Over the past several months, I’ve actively worked to deepen and define my personal philosophy on what it means to be an effective leader. I choose to juxtapose part of my Hollywood experience and my MBA experience to illuminate pieces of this philosophy.

It’s not the degradation or unprofessional theatrics that make the Ari Gold’s of the world bad leaders. Sure it’s a little twisted, but the real problem is an assumed one-way relationship that breeds a culture of exclusively managing up. Not only does this severely limit the potential value of junior employees who aren’t properly managed, but it limits the impact of managers who don’t practice managing down, because, as Jeff Bewkes nicely puts it, “The one skill that they’ve practiced is useless once they get where they want to go.”

Great leaders shoulder crushing demands from above and make time to practice leadership as a skill. They don’t rely on some magical, innate ability. My director at Cummins wasn’t a “born leader.” He wasn’t some well of one-liners that brought order to a chaotic world. He simply had the interest and discipline to be present and listen, which went a long way in empowering me to perform.

It’s all so obvious now but I needed to experience the obvious to truly learn it.  I leave Kelley armed with a clearer understanding of great leadership. But, just in case, I’ll keep my scissors and nine-iron close by.


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