Herding Cats to Create Community: How to Lead a Global Network

August 26th, 2019 Vern Oakley

One of the most popular Super Bowl commercials of all time ran back in 2000. Created for the technology company EDS – now a part of Hewlett Packard Enterprise – it featured grizzled cowboys on the range, talking in a casual, off-the-cuff style about what it’s like to drive a herd of felines across the open plains. With shots of tabbies fording streams and cowpokes brushing themselves with lint rollers, it relied on understated wit, deadpan performances and some special effects wizardry to playfully illustrate just how challenging the cliché of herding cats can be.

Anyone who’s ever had to lead a global team, a global project or a global department will instantly recognize the analogy. Getting widely disparate groups separated by language, culture, and time zones to rally around a singular strategy or goal can be a daunting task. My four years as President of the International Quorum of Motion Picture Producers (IQ), provided me with insights that can perhaps help alleviate some of these challenges in your own organization.

IQ – as the Quorum is known – is an invitation-only group of top film and video production companies based in 70 countries around the world. They are industry leaders in their respective regions, working in corporate films, documentaries, TV programming, web videos, feature films, and commercials. As such, they represent media forms that are continuing to merge and cross-pollinate.

IQ’s members promote best practices in film production and maintain the highest creative and technical standards. As producers and directors, they understand the power of film to educate, motivate, inspire and persuade, and they’ve harnessed this power not just in service to clients but for many pro bono and social cause initiatives in their home markets and globally.

Not surprisingly, its board is comprised of company owners and CEOs– people accustomed to giving orders, not taking them. Motivating them to move in one direction, or focus on a specific task or goal, was a process much like what those Super Bowl cowboys went through.

Despite this, what I discovered while leading IQ had a profound influence on me as a creative person, a filmmaker, a manager and a business owner. Many of these lessons are applicable to anyone who’s managing, directing, or leading a global project, team or department. Here are eight great leadership lessons that I took away from the experience:

1. Entrepreneurs Are Special People

Research shows that out of a random group of a thousand people, 20 of them have IQs high enough to get into Mensa, but only five have the aptitude to start a business. Plainly put, entrepreneurs are special. They have vision, drive, ambition, intelligence, and a willingness to accept risk that most people don’t possess. As a result, they need to be treated differently, in terms of motivating them, directing them, and managing their expectations.

Working with this in mind had a strong influence on how I went on to lead IQ. I needed to approach it differently; rather than merely directing a team or department, I was now managing a roster of all-stars. That meant I had to engage them with meaningful challenges they’d be passionate about and let them apply their best thinking to solving problems without micro-managing them. This ‘enlightened direction’ became my modus operandi, and I believe it’s a great starting point for dealing with those in your own groups.

2. Follow the 3cs.

Having a clear and simple vision everyone can easily understand and embrace is critical to solving problems. At IQ, I came up with three points of focus for my term as President, dubbed the 3C’s: Community, Content, and Cash.

Community allowed us to share the benefits of being in IQ with the production industry and prospective clients. Previously, our list of members was only shared with existing members. Membership was a competitive advantage, as you were part of a large multinational group that shared information on business practices, vendors, suppliers and key crew members. But in a society where information is instantly available and transparency is valued, this felt obsolete. We had a membership, but we did not have a community.
So we published a full list of members on our website, and created a mobile app that allowed people to search our member ranks globally. We also launched a Vimeo channel to post film work from IQ members, and created an online IQ knowledge base including surveys, white papers about new technology and techniques, meeting agendas, and other documents.
We also looked for ways members could collaborate to showcase what IQ does best, which is link best-in-class media companies in a worldwide network. Suddenly, instead of a strong membership, we had a strong community.

Once the Community is established, you’re ready for content. Having content as part of your vision encourages people to come forward with fresh ideas and opportunities. At IQ, the network rallied for a video project commemorating the 50th Anniversary of Amnesty International. Originating with an IQ member in Prague, the film was narrated by Meryl Streep and scored by Hans Zimmer and included contributions from 17 different IQ member companies. What could have been a small film opportunity with a handful of contributors became a fantastic collaboration, bringing major industry talent front and center. And what do creative people do in the aftermath of successful film partnerships? They work with people again, and they keep getting better.

Finally, Cash is the financing necessary to support the community and its content. At IQ one of our main goals was growing our own media businesses while helping each other grow through the advantages of our network. It also meant giving back to the production community that supports us, through scholarship funds to help mentor emerging filmmakers. Cash doesn’t just fuel the engine of your company; it supports content and nourishes the community.

3. Yes: You Have an Agenda

For any global team or organization to function well, tasks and topics need to be thoughtfully managed. At IQ this was particularly important, given the makeup of our board, which was comprised of company principals whose schedules were always jammed and whose entrepreneurial tendencies had to be taken into account.

Former IQ Executive Director, Arabella Hutter, and I spent many hours planning agendas that were facile, well-paced, and relevant, prioritizing the discussion in ways that supported both lively exchange and tangible results. Learning how to strike the balance between brainstorming, making recommendations, and finalizing decisions keeps meetings moving, and produces more actionable results.

4. Speak in Your Language, Listen in Theirs

Earlier in my career, I expected those that I hired to do as they were asked or directed. What I learned at IQ was that there needs to be a sense of personal and professional commitment to get the most out of people. When you think about it, every employer or manager is running a volunteer organization. Your staff or team members are looking for purpose and meaning in what they do, and the satisfaction of a job well done is universal, whether it’s for a cause or a paycheck. One of the cardinal rules in working with volunteers is that you must acknowledge their contributions in non-monetary ways. If the satisfaction of a job well done is universal, so is the reaction to a pat on the back or a well-timed show of thanks.

5. Everyone’s a Volunteer

When you think about it, every employer or manager is running a volunteer organization. Earlier in my career, I expected those that I hired to do as they were asked or directed. But what I learned at IQ was that, at almost every level, there needs to be a sense of personal and professional commitment to get the most out of people. Like everyone else, your staff or team members are looking for purpose and meaning in what they do, and the satisfaction of a job well done is universal, whether it’s for a cause or a paycheck. That changed me as a businessperson and as a leader. The belief that ‘you do this because I’m the boss’ was revealed to be short-sighted, and a stake was driven through its heart during my time running the association.

Another important lesson was to always acknowledge contributions. Again, this sounds obvious, even trite, but it was vitally important, especially since I was leading an all-volunteer group comprised of members whose time was valuable and whose schedules tight. If the satisfaction of a job well done is universal, so is the reaction to a pat on the back or a well-timed show of thanks.

6. Foster a Mix of Thinkers and Doers

Remember the lesson that entrepreneurs are special people? So is everyone on your team. This team will be more successful if you can isolate how they are special.

Being a film production association, IQ had no shortage of detail-oriented, highly creative and super-efficient managers and producers to execute plans, procedures, and strategies. The key during my tenure was deciding which plans or strategies to devote our precious time to and which to set aside. We needed vision and foresight as much as we needed execution, and keeping those functions clearly defined – and steering the right people into the right roles – was invaluable.

7. Small and Open Are Beautiful

We found lots of benefits in keeping a lid on our respective teams’ size. When assembling committees to take on specific tasks, smaller groups were more agile and self-sufficient, and were considerably more effective in arriving at recommendations and findings. It was also easier to raise points of constructive criticism in the intimacy of a small group; people felt more relaxed and less inhibited to say what was on their minds, particularly those for whom English might be a second or even third language. If you want to keep a meeting or brainstorming session on track for optimal success, keep it small.

8. Want Better Answers? Ask Better Questions

The consultant and coach Kurt Wright says that in order to reach better solutions, you need to ask better questions. At IQ, this advice was put into practice when we were challenged to prepare for a changing media landscape. Special sub-committees were formed and assigned different topics or questions.
Groups were given colorful team nicknames, which helped with the bonding process. Super-charged, our mini-squads dug deep, asking more pointed and focused questions about the topic at hand. The investigative nature of the questions they addressed made every member a fully-vested participant in formulating solutions. In navigating a complex problem, get a small group of thinkers and doers to circle around the who-what-when-where-why until they reach the center.

Want to be a better leader? Be human.
Collectively, my experiences at IQ made me not just a better leader but left me with new insights on human nature that have served me well both personally and professionally. They’ve influenced everything from how I evaluate employee performance to how I compensate people. My perceptions about what drives motivation, dedication and accountability shifted; I now see things as someone whose goal is to ensure that the people I work with, as well as those I employ, have an emotional stake in achieving some higher purpose, both for themselves and for our clients.

When my tenure as IQ president concluded, I gave members a book that wasn’t really a book at all, but a beautiful, hand-stitched leather-bound volume filled with blank pages. The message was clear: write your own future. My hope was that in posing this challenge, they’d discover their own lessons, too.

 

Vern Oakley is CEO and Founder of Tribe Pictures, a New Jersey-based production company. He’s written extensively on topics related to the power of film in creating emotion and the role of video in corporate communications and has interviewed dozens of CEOs of major corporations and presidents of top educational institutions.