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The New Hollywood Leader

How To Tame Your TV Executives: Leadership Notes for Dan Harmon (Creator of Community)

by David Brownstein

ONE THING I WOULD HAVE TOLD DAN HARMON, IF ONLY HE’D ASKED. (OR IF I’D EVER MET HIM)

CONFESSION: I’ve never seen a complete episode of Dan Harmon’s show “Community” but so many friends, colleagues and clients have raved about it I’m pretty sure I’d have liked it if I’d given it a chance. I’m told one really must watch it from the beginning and whenever I stumbled on it in progress it didn’t immediately draw me in.

But maybe that helps me get the necessary perspective on Dan being fired from his own show.

I watch the TV industry from many perspectives - as a fan and consumer of great television, as an observer of the dynamic forces that shape the entertainment industry, and as an executive coach and leadership coach in Hollywood.

VERY FUNNY

Leadership in Hollywood is often thought of as somewhat of a joke: as if such a ridiculous thing could ever exist. Or it is simply synonymous with the big bad network president or studio head.

But what interests me is the question of how we can help creative leaders in Hollywood be better at the Leadership aspects of their job. Not just being a great writer, but a great leader as well.

Many TV showrunners may never have run a writer’s room before being anointed as creator or showrunner of their show. They can be supremely unprepared for the deluge ahead of them and alas, many do not survive in their post, while their show somehow does.

Much has been written already about Dan’s firing: by the press, online, and even by Dan himself.  But here’s what I would have suggested Dan work on if he’d asked me (or if I’d ever met him.)

LEARN HOW TO MANAGE YOUR EXECUTIVES

But not just to be nice.

The goal, in this case, would be to have worked collaboratively with them in some fashion, so that you can remain employed on the show that you toiled so long many hours to get right.

That doesn’t mean doing whatever they wanted whenever they wanted.

It does suggest, or perhaps require, a degree of professionalism and respect that may not interest you. And that’s fine, in theory. 

BUT FIRST: ARE YOU DIFFICULT?

Yet some have stated, that if Community got better ratings people would have been more willing to tolerate all sorts of “difficult behavior.”

I’m guessing that in your mind it would be articulated as something like “make the best possible show, that matches my vision, inspiration and whim as accurately as possible, regardless of the cost financially, professionally or socially.”

And I’m not saying that sort of blind dedication is bad. From what I gather you did create a show of unique vision and voice that has your fans completely devoted to your product, and possibly willing to excuse your “process.”

So regardless of what might have actually gone on behind the scenes in voicemails, emails and shouting matches on the set, in the dressing rooms or meeting rooms, let me make share a simple recipe that could potentially transform the process.

FIVE YEARS AGO

Several years ago, I was coaching Jeff Davis who created a little show called “Criminal Minds.” (Fyi: Jeff has given me permission to discuss our work together.)

Long story short, Jeff was removed from his own show, a few episodes into the first season and it was this incident that prompted the studio to suggest that Jeff work with me.

FIVE YEARS LATER

Jeff and I met for coffee during his process of working with a team of writers for the first season of Teen Wolf on MTV.

As we discussed how it’d been going he shared with me the mindset that he takes before a meeting with his network executives (at MTV.)

Before he gets on the phone with them to discuss notes Jeff reminds himself:

  • This is their time to be heard.
  • They need to be heard.
  • They want to make a good show just as much as I do.

Elegant. Simple. Collaborative.

Entering into a conversation with network executives with this (unspoken) perspective shifts the focus of the writer to being able to hear the notes, acknowledge the human beings behind the notes, and honoring the process of collaboration that is central to the expensive and powerful medium of making mass media scripted television.

His focus is on them and their best and highest intentions. Not defensive or derisive.

He doesn’t give up control, but he does enroll the execs in the process.

NEW TOOLS

This is just one tool of many that a new, or experienced showrunner or creative team leader can employ to change the interpersonal dynamic of their executive team.

And it’s not a one-way street either. My next post on the subject will be about the executives and what they can do to create a collaborative relationship with their writers and creative teams.

PS: Jeff’s Second Season of Teen Wolf is enjoying a successfull run on MTV. He must be doing something right.

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