12 Tips On Managing A Technical Team In Live Entertainment
By Jay Withee
Two months ago, I quit my job. After just over eight years with the company, I walked out with my head held high. I didn’t just have a job, I had a great job. It was a position in the theatrical entertainment industry that I had always aimed for and one that I sacrificed for, for years, while following the corporate ladder, every step of the way. When I was offered and finally accepted the opportunity to be Head of Automation, I found myself in an extremely difficult and precarious position. I was in charge of managing a technical team.
I had fellow heads of departments that were disapproving of me being placed in such a position alongside them on the organizational chart and a team of previous fellow colleagues unhappy that I had been promoted to the position of their superior. To be completely honest, none of that would normally bother me, but this was my first real middle-management position in a production of this scale and I didn’t really know how to cope with getting the department (and fellow department heads) on my side and do the job correctly at the same time. How did I succeed? I owned it. I put my head down, took the hits and relentlessly pushed through knowing I belonged there.
Were there hard times and weak points within the department? Absolutely. Did people threaten to walk out of the building because they didn’t like my management style? Sure. This will happen in most places, no matter who you are or how you manage, someone is not going to be happy, but it is how you take and learn from the negativity, threats and actual departures that matters the most. I was lucky to have lots of good things going for me.
I had a good team and over the years, I had lots of good examples of managers along the way that I could learn from to help me try and become the best manager possible. Believe it or not, I learned a lot more from the bad examples than the good examples.
Throughout my years within the company, I was asked and committed to wearing many different hats, including Head of Automation, Deputy Technical Director, Health & Safety Officer and Technical Show Manager. Each experience was the same as the last. A managerial challenge in its own right. Since my departure, I have had some time to relax, look back and reflect on my experiences, successes and failures as a manager.
As a member of the entertainment industry for almost twenty years, I have had an excellent opportunity to work with some of the greats in the field of theatrical automation. Each of us, part of a team that is not allowed real hesitation, doubt or failure; their goal every day: to get the desired end result or risk the lives of others. The job of taking that which makes most people uncomfortable and make it comfortable. A team that knows it isn’t just their job to know what to do when things go right (yes, that too), but ultimately to know what to do when things go wrong. Always being one step ahead of everyone else in that theatre or arena. They take something as complicated as pulse-width modulation and make it so simple that everyone from artists to other technicians totally understands, so that complete trust can be established. If trust cannot be established or for any reason, it is lost, then a performer flying in the show is at risk. If that was not enough pressure, then we all got the added pressure of being treated and managed like every other team in the building. Forced to follow the exact same handbook as everyone else. Fair, tough, but fair.
Don’t get it twisted. I mean the Automation and Rigging departments are no more important than any other department within the theatre, however, it is only these departments that are in full control of the x, y & z movements of a performer’s axis, while they only have control over his or her own body movements. During the flight, they have no other control: no control. Even in some cases, such as theme parks and mega-shows, they are in control of the audience members. In order to increase the audience members’ experience, audience participation within the actual performance space is becoming more of a reality with each new show or ride that enters the market. It’s quite the responsibility for the technicians, not to mention immense stress and pressure.
Yet, they still need to be treated like any other team member within the theatre. It is only fair, but then how do you continue to push a team to continuously grow under these daily stresses without damaging their trust, confidence or morale. Step one, realize that not every day is going to be successful.
One day might run completely smoothly, full of laughter and with everyone getting along. The next day might be a disaster, full of bickering, breakdowns and everyone hating life.
Take it one day at a time. Step two, don’t put too much pressure on yourself. This is only going to circumvent its way down to your team and trust me, that is not good for either party. So, what’s next? How do you get your team onboard, working together and aiming for the same end result? So in retrospect after a lot of thought and reflection, here are a few pages out of a managerial playbook that worked for me and I hope with a little bit of time, effort and practice can work for you too.
#1: Join your team in the trenches and take the hits.
Any good manager knows that they do not necessarily know exactly what is going on in the field on a day-to-day basis. The manager has a responsibility of having an overall and unlimited view of the entire department. Due to deliverables and time constraints, the department head sometimes doesn’t necessarily know the intricate ins and outs of daily business. This is why we employ and train assistants and leads to take on these day-to-day responsibilities. However, if you want your team to know that you really care and that you want to know what is going on in their world, then grab your shovel and get backstage with your team. They spend their days taking the real hits of daily life making the operation run smoothly, so unless you actually have been in the trenches prior to your promotion or have joined them in the field before, there is nothing more beneficial than actually spending time with your team on daily operations or on a few additional hands-on projects. Long hours planned during your maintenance periods or unexpected emergency works?
Get involved. It shows your team that you’re just as committed to them as they are about getting the end result day-in and day-out.
This is especially important for new department heads that have not been in the theatre very long. They don’t know you and you don’t know them. There is no better way to get comfortable with your team than getting into the field and enduring some of their daily annoyances. This way you can better understand their needs and managerial requirements and they, in return, will respect you for being present and making the effort. In the end, they get to know you, you get to know them, you see their skillsets and you get to know the theatre. This is a great experience for either the new manager or a knowledgeable manager who’s new in the building.
#2: Find the dirtiest job you can and dig in.
A decent affirmation to your team that you’re willing to get into the trenches is by actually doing the work. However, let’s be clear that there is a significant difference between getting into the field, taking hits with your team and actually doing the work. For most managers, it’s typical to get involved in the day-to-day operations, but only when it is necessary or when they find it interesting for them. This is not the time to take charge or make yourself heard. Most team members want someone that is going to lead them all the time, not just when things go wrong or when the fun stuff comes along. I am not saying that you have to get involved in every single conversation that happens in the department, this actually will become counterproductive, as your assistant or leads should be all over this.
In short, your team will not react well to a manager that only gets involved when he or she feels it is necessary. They want a manager who will get involved when they think it is necessary.
So how do you assure your team that you are actually prepared to get involved and take one for the team. One suggestion is to find the dirtiest, nastiest or physically demanding job you can and dig in. Grab a broom and ruin a shirt or two. Anyone can point fingers and ask someone to grease the bolts or change the pump, but not many managers will get in there to help. Nothing will surprise them more when they walk out on the floor and find you in the harness ready to climb the ladder yourself. Sure, that stain may not come out of your jeans and your wife may yell at you because you got those hydraulic fluid filled clothes mixed up with hers in the laundry. Trust me, she’ll forgive you (eventually), but your team won’t forget how you helped get the machine back up and running and the system back on track. And don’t be the boss, be part of the team, even better, follow the lead’s instructions. This will give confidence to the lead, the team confidence in the lead, and let’s be perfectly honest, there is a medium to fair chance that you forgot how to put that motor back together, it’s been a while. Remember, at that moment, there is nothing wrong with being one of the soldiers again and getting the job done. Crack some knuckles alongside them and they will appreciate it more than you will ever know.
#3: Get off your butt and support your team.
This idea is not hard to comprehend, but it seems like it is one of the most difficult for managers that are comfortable in their positions and their office chairs. Supporting your team physically is just as important as supporting them emotionally.
What does it mean to support them physically? It simply means do not treat them as subservient subordinates or slaves, if you need something, get off your butt and go get it.
Yes, there are going to be times when you need to use your team as bodies and necessary runners for items that are required to get the job done. However, don’t make this a habit. If you need an Allen key and you can’t be bothered to go down to the basement to get it. Suck it up buttercup. Those stairs won’t kill you. On the plus side, you will lose a little bit of that weight you have gained since becoming a part of middle management. Don’t deny it. Get off your butt, get that cart yourself and burn some calories at the same time. Unless you know for a fact someone will eventually be coming your way from that vicinity, instruct your muscles to get out of that amazingly comfy chair and go get it. Sure. There are going to be times that you are busy as hell. Budget season, breakdowns, and maintenance periods. We get it. Just don’t make it a habit of treating your team like one of the tools. It becomes so easy to pick up a radio and ask someone else to do it for you. As previously mentioned in the items above, remember, for the most part, your team is busy running the day-to-day business. Range of motions, inspections, repairs, trainings, rehearsals and performances. They don’t necessarily have the time to be at your beck and call. So, don’t treat them as such.
Not calling on your team to do trivial tasks all of the time will show them that if you do have to ask them, a highly capable and trained technician, to be a runner, then it’s completely necessary to reach the desired end result. They will respect that and will be the best runner you could ever ask for.
#4: Show them why you’re the boss.
No, I don’t mean through threats or power, but instead through training, knowledge and experience. Sure, it helps to get in the field with your team every now and then, but you didn’t come from nowhere, you must have been in the field before and if you are in middle management or have ambitions of moving up to middle or upper management, then someone must think that you have all of the skills required to take on the responsibility of being the leader of a whole department. This should come from knowing the equipment, systems, and show better than anyone. I am not saying that this is the only reason that someone is chosen for a promotion, I am just stating the fact that there needs to be some sort of previous experience with your technical system, procedures and protocols. So why not show your team every now and then why you’re there.
Now, this is not an opportunity to try and prove that you are better or smarter than everyone. This would be impracticable and almost impossible. It is important to be mindful that you don’t have to be the smartest person in the room. We hire different types of technicians for different departmental objectives: the end result.
Steve Jobs said, “We do not hire smart people to tell them what to do, instead we hire smart people to tell us what to do.”
So find a chance to get back to the basics and show the department where you came from and how you got where you are today, through training. You will be amazed at how starting from the basics and working towards the more complex parts of your systems will remind the team that we don’t know it all and that we will never know it all. However, as a team, we will all get to that end result, together. One step at a time. Your willingness to continuously spend your spare time teaching, training and leading them will go a long way with them respecting you as their manager. Just remind them that they must be willing to keep reaching and learning. It’s a two-way street.
People love the thought process of information is power and keeping the knowledge to yourself will make you important and give you job security. This way of thinking is incorrect, counterproductive, detrimental to the end result and worst of all, it is setting up our future technical leaders for failure. Training is one thing, but only a manager that has been around for a significant period of time can pass on experience and knowledge. The more of your experiences about the show and the systems that you are willing to pass on, the more your team members will respect your authority and the willingness to find the answers and become more effective leaders in the future.
#5: Hold regular team meetings.
Regular can be any arbitrary number that you can decide on your own. Every team is different and may require meetings at a different frequency. Whatever you feel that this frequency needs to be, whether it be daily, weekly, bi-weekly or monthly, don’t be that manager that doesn’t think he or she needs to hold team meetings. Everyone needs to speak at some point in time or feel like they are being heard. It is important that as a manager we find time to allow this forum for team members to get together and speak their piece. Their thoughts may be nothing or it may be crucial information. However, if no forum or no time is given to be heard, then something that could have been easily managed or resolved, can manifest into something that is no longer manageable within a timely manner. Not only that, but it is important for team members to be able to speak and be a part of leading the department to the end result. More on this in a few ticks.
As I mentioned above, it is up to you as a manager to decide how often you want to hold your meetings. Daily meetings are a great idea, however, not always available or reasonable unless your company is willing to pay overtime every single week without question. Weekly? Okay, not as difficult as daily and definitely easier on the nerves of the bean counters, but still sometimes difficult for specific teams depending on the department’s daily responsibilities and schedule. So, what do you do if you can’t find a decent time for everyone to get together and meet within a reasonable period of time? Well, get those thinking caps on and maybe see what your team thinks? They will respect that way more than just not having meetings at all due to time conflicts and personnel issues.
#6: Enjoy a participative leadership.
If you have ever been interviewed for a management position, there is one question that is inevitable. What type of leader are you? Well, this question has almost endless possibilities for answers, but no matter what type of leader you are or want to be, you might as well have fun while doing it. As a manager, it’s not just a job, if you really love what you do. Find a management style that not only you enjoy, but can also be enjoyed by your team on a more than regular basis. What type of leadership can allow your team to take part while learning to take on the responsibilities of the department in your absence? A participative leadership.
A participative leadership is management style that allows you to give individual team members an opportunity to have a voice, make suggestions and allow most decisions to be made as a team. A democracy compared to a dictatorship.
Does this take any power or responsibility away from the manager? Absolutely not. Don’t worry, there are still going to be plenty of decisions that can only be made by the manager, as the department head is ultimately responsible for the actions and decisions of the department. However, letting the team participate in a majority of the decisions will allow for autonomous actions during difficult situations at a later time and will give the team members the confidence in their decision-making skills. Not only that, but they will truly own the problems knowing that their ideas are going towards the end result.
It’s okay if you and the team have a difficult call to make. Not all decisions are always going to be the right ones, but it is more important that you make a decision with confidence. It doesn’t matter whether the response to the situation is right or wrong, as long as it was still the safest decision in terms of personnel and equipment. Precision decision making skills can only be installed through experience and knowledge of past decisions. Allowing your team to be a part of decisions will not only show them the respect that you have for them, but also take some of the pressure off of you as a manager of the department. Fourteen heads are definitely better than one. Remember, what Steve said, “We do not hire smart people to tell them what to do, instead we hire smart people to tell us what to do.” You can enjoy this, honestly. You will be astounded by the different way people think and be amazed by the outcome of a participative leadership.
#7: Give them the right tools for the right job.
I find this to be one of the most important concepts for a manager there is. Investing in the materials and tools necessary to allow your team members to do a proper job the first time. It is hard to watch technicians or team members struggle to complete a task, just because the manager or even more likely the company are too cheap to get them the right tools for the right job.
You want respect from your team? First, show them you respect them by giving them the right tools.
This doesn’t have to be a monetary application every time. I don’t mean that you have to give them a physical tool, it can be a mental tool as well. This could be on-the-job training or even external training. Some companies even go as far as reimbursing their long-term employees for college-level credits to a certain point, as long as the credits are approved and going towards a degree in the person’s field that will eventually (if not immediately) benefit the company. Granted, this doesn’t happen that much anymore in the entertainment industry, but it has existed in the past and should continue to be offered in the future for the overall benefit of the entertainment industry.
One of the biggest copouts when it comes to buying tools or giving the required training to do a job properly is that the company doesn’t do enough work in that particular field to warrant the need to purchase specialized tools for it. Well, it must be warranted if you are doing the job at least once. If you don’t want to purchase the tools, then it is best to sub-contract the work out to someone that has the specialized tools, but it can be argued that you are probably going to pay more for that than getting a few tools that can be used for other jobs in the future. I can almost guarantee that they will be used more than once, so you might as well pay now, allow your team to respect the fact that you bought them the right tools for the job so they could complete it properly, than pay more later when you have to do a job for the second time and it costs twice as much, in both monetary value and in your team’s morale. However, investing in both will get the job done twice as fast, twice as precise and at half the cost. A word to the wise. Respect will only follow when you show that the tool or training is to benefit the employee as well as the company, not just the company.
#8: Don’t just tell them what they want to hear.
One of the quickest ways to earn the respect of your team is to tell them the truth, no matter what. Within reason, of course. I am not saying that you have to break the trust boundaries or exploit hushed communications from upper management. I mean, there are some things that need to be left unsaid until either decisions have been made or a companywide memo has been released. If you run around spouting off everything happening upstairs, you’ll not only not gain the respect of your team, but you’ll easily lose the trust of your management team. A very dangerous double-edged sword, not to be played with. Not to mention, it’s just more professional and comforting for the team members to let things that need to come from the top and actually should come from the top… come from the top. At the same time, don’t allow the upper management to play you as the patsy, always passing down the bad news for them so that they don’t have to face the angry mob. Support the decision (if you can), but don’t be their newsie.
In return, one of the quickest ways to lose the respect of your team is to just tell them everything they want to hear and then not be able to follow through.
Or are a constant let down because your hopes (and gospel) cannot necessarily be the reality. Break too many promises and you’ll lose any faith or trust that the team has in your word very quickly. As the old saying goes, “Fool me once, shame on you, fool me twice, shame on me.” Just be honest. Most team members don’t care about the end decision, they just want two things from their manager. First, they don’t want to be surprised by the answer, so telling them straight up without beating around the bush is a good tactic here. Second, and most importantly, they don’t want to hear the information from other team members. No one likes being left behind, by being told too late or even worse, not being told at all by your immediate superiors hearing from other teams whom have been told by theirs. Getting the correct information to your team in a timely manner is crucial. Sure, sometimes things get busy and information falls through the cracks or you don’t think it is necessarily important information, because it doesn’t directly or even indirectly affect you or your team. Keep in mind, you may not think it is important information, but your team might.
Correctly getting and giving information to your team is key in bringing a team together and getting the end result. Everyone is human and allowed to make mistakes, but giving your team access to solid, confirmed and I’ll say it again (for good measure), timely information is the most effective way of gaining your team’s respect and trust. Play around with that information or piecemeal or manipulate it into information you think they want to hear and will make life easier for you, while other teams are getting the full story, could leave you with a few disgruntled employees and rocky weather at your next team meeting. If you want respect for the information you’re giving, then first respect the information your team is getting.
#9: Understand and know that you don’t necessarily know what is going on in your team members’ lives. Approach with caution.
Understanding your team means that you already comprehend one simple and important concept. That concept is this: you don’t really know anyone and the only person that knows what is going on in someone’s life or in their own mind is themselves. Don’t try and be a mind reader or invade a team member’s personal space by trying to figure out what is going on. There are going to be times when certain team members work extremely hard to separate social life from work life and that needs to be completely acceptable. Respect those that want that space and don’t want you in their life outside of the office and they will respect you for it.
The tricky part is knowing how to approach someone that is off their game without making it too personal.
Try calling in a team member into the office to give them a right good verbal lashing for making several operator errors in a row, just to find out that their grandmother had passed away just two days earlier. Talk about feeling sheepish. If you feel like someone is not performing up to standards that are usually consistent, don’t hesitate to see what is up, but approach with caution. Stay professional and see if they want to talk about it. If there is hesitation to want to talk about it, don’t. Their life is their life outside of work. If their outside life is bringing issues into the building that cannot be avoided, offer up another solution. One alternative is giving the team member the option to change roles. Got a role or a position in the performance that will possess a less stressful situation or focus, then utilize it. If the situation is really affecting their ability to perform then try giving them a few days off to get themselves back into the right frame of mind. But whatever you do, respect their personal lives to the best of your ability and they will reciprocate by performing to the best of theirs.
On a serious note, if you do sense something is seriously wrong with one of your fellow team members either physically or mentally and you think they need some assistance. Do not hesitate. Seek help from your Upper Management and Human Resource department, immediately. They can assist in getting any team member that requires it, the help that they need without you interfering or overstepping your boundary as a manager.
#10: Don’t think something coming from upper management is right or safe? Be the checks and balances.
In the current model of the entertainment industry, there has been a definitive turn towards safety. There has been a substantial increase in the requirement for venue safety representatives and updated risk assessments to keep incidents and even near misses to a minimum. Over just the past couple of years, there have been a few traumatic events that have had the entertainment industry in the news due to failed equipment or human error. Is this spike in incidents & bad press due to a decrease in safety procedures and protocols or an increase in social media? For someone without all of the safety records sitting in front of them, it seems to be a mixture of both. However, this unpleasant chain of events has led to a rise in the need for, safety personnel, procedures, improved inspections, and overall safety requirements. The point being that safety awareness seems to be increasing when it comes to standard procedures and protocols, but what happens when it is a one-off situation with no standard operating procedures in place? Who makes the call? In every theatre or venue, there is going to be a chain of command with someone ultimately in charge. Is that person the Production Manager? Or the Technical Director? Whomever it may be, it is their job to make a judgement that is ethical in every possible way. Even monetarily ethical.
Safety is the most important aspect of our business, but it is sometimes hard for those that do not regularly see the budget to understand that it is still a budget line that needs to be monitored and distributed properly. However, it is key that safety takes precedence over saving money, which isn’t always the case. There are two items that are the most expensive in the entertainment industry that no Department Head, Technical Director or General Manager will ever find anywhere on the annual budget. These elusive items are Standard Operating Procedures and redundancy. These two subject lines are often overlooked until it is too late for either budget requirements, installation or implementation. So, I ask again, when we have a one-off system failure, who makes the call? Easy, the person in charge, but it is extremely important that the rest of the technical departments become the responsible party’s checks and balances.
If you think a decision that is made is either not right or the safest option possible, then it is imperative that you stand up for your teams, become those checks and balances and offer a more stable solution.
A simple no is not an acceptable answer on its own as a definitive reason for no and solutions must follow.
Two things will prevail for a team that becomes those C & B’s. One, a respect for safety and their manager that accepts their opinion on the subject. Two, a much safer work environment. Safety really is everyone’s business and everyone should be aware that it is their business. The most important part of leading a team with a C & B perspective is that they will carry that perspective on for the rest of their career and over time the entire industry will slowly but surely start to increase its overall standard requirements for safety and in turn find fewer incidents through diligence and awareness. The best part of this is the win-win situation that comes out of it. A team that respects you for standing up for them and their incessant need for safety and a decrease in incidents and near misses. Everyone in the theatre is a winner!
#11: Don’t be the manager that thinks they have special privileges, just because you’re the boss.
As the saying goes, “Sometimes it’s good to be King.” There is nothing worse for a manager or the organization in which that manager works than to lose the respect of the teams through the misuse of power or privileges. If you don’t want your team to do it, then it is probably best to keep from doing it yourself, unless an emergency case requires it. A real emergency, not one that you have made up for your own convenience. If you play, do as I say, not as I do… respect will diminish at a very rapid rate. Below are a few stated examples that could easily put you in the dog house with your team if you’re not careful.
You have all rights to keep control & have an overview of your team’s particular systems and equipment, but unless you’re willing to stay compliant with those said systems, keep up your field skills and train regularly, it’s best to let your Riggers rig and your technician and operators push the buttons. You’re management, so manage.
Don’t be late just because you’re the boss. There is no one that is going to keep your schedule (except for maybe your boss), but there are way more benefits to being the first one in the building than coming in when everyone else is already firing on all cylinders at one-hundred percent. Even if it is only to give yourself ten minutes of peace and quiet before the daily chaos begins, you will begin to see how much more productive you actually are and how much work can be accomplished when you don’t have people traipsing in and out of your office. Even the quickest of hellos can easily turn into a ten-minute conversation.
Turn your phone to silent. I cannot stress this enough. Don’t be the one manager that constantly allows their nearby phone to make annoying text message noises.
There is nothing more unprofessional than your phone continuously going off in a meeting, the manager looking at it, dismissing it and then leaving the phone speaker on for further possible disturbances. Or even leaving it on the table to keep vibrating for that matter. This is just as disturbing and unprofessional. If you are one of those managers that thinks that this makes you look professional or important, it doesn’t. It really doesn’t. It makes you look unprofessional, rude and pathetic. You would lose it if you were in one of your team meetings and someone’s phone continuously went off over and over again. What makes you special? Prior to the beginning of the meeting, get everyone in the same room, welcome everyone to the start of the week, put your phone on vibrate as a sign that your attention is completely devoted to them and their concerns and then slip that phone into your pocket. It’s a win-win situation for everyone if you get my drift. All in all, you will do better by leading by example.
#12: Don’t lie or misconstrue information for corporate or personal gain.
Does it really have to be said? I think it does, as it happens every single day in every industry in the world. Telling one team member what they want to hear, what you want them to hear or giving out faux information so as to keep them happy (even just temporarily) and get them off your back and out of your office. It is seen way too often and is one of the quickest ways to lose a team. Yeah, sure. The team may put up with it, but not without damaging effects to your reputation and the team’s ability to trust you. Teams talk, even the ones that don’t get along. They will quickly figure out your initiative and game of telling everyone something different to keep each individual happy. This may sound like a good tactic, but it won’t work long and will end up being detrimental to the whole operation, especially at the most critical point. That point being when you need everyone to trust you and your leadership skills.
Telling the truth may not win you all of the favoritism points all of the time, but it will win you the trust points that matter.
Will telling the truth all of the time make you the most popular manager in the world? No. But you will have a team that will trust you 100% when the tough questions require tough answers. Those times are (hopefully) few and far between, but it is almost a guarantee that at some point in a manager’s career those days will come and when they do, it is best to have a team that trusts and respects your answers no matter how harsh they may be, than to love your answers, but come to find out they are bullshit later. The latter does not have a pretty outcome. Respect them, give it to them straight and they will reciprocate with a mutual respect for each other and the end result.
Over time, healthy management with and within your team will bring lots of benefits to the company and the department, including team morale, interdepartmental cohesion and increased employee longevity within the company. This will bring increased benefits to many other departments besides your own including, but not limited to, Technical Direction, General Management, Finance, and Human Resources. Benefits include lower recruitment costs, turnover rates, and overtime, to name just a few. In the previous sentence, the word employee was utilized for explanation purposes only. Your team members are employees, but shouldn’t be treated as such, unless they require it due to their actions or the company’s actions. Each team member also has a staff number, but are not named or summoned by that number, so we shouldn’t manage our teams as if they are numbers receiving paychecks, but instead a person. A person that makes that massive machine of yours run safe and sound day-in and day-out getting the overall end result: Everyone goes home safe and able to come back to give 100% to the paying audience members the next day.