Moving Up The Ranks In The Creative Industry

This was a paper that I did for my MBA regarding promotion in entertainment companies. Please note that many of the anecdotes and examples in this text have been based on my personal experiences alone, and my not reflect the entirety of the companies.

Pixar_2

By Estelle Tigani

It is often believed that in any given company, a new recruit who goes the extra mile with their work and who shines out among their peers will have no trouble in quickly climbing the ranks within the corporate structure. In the United States, we place our corporate values and work ethic so that the high achievers are awarded with more responsibility and consequence upon others and company decisions. It’s about honoring the American Dream – we perceive the model American as the leader who has earned the right to his / her position and is respected for it. Compare that to some overseas countries where comradeship or family stakes are instead the reason as to why some will always gain more control and recognition over others.

It is unusual, however, when we look at many creative studios – such as those in film and games – and how an employee on the lower spectrum of the ranks might be promoted. It is often said far too many times, “you’ll do better by leaving the studio, going to get experience elsewhere, and then coming back at a later time at a higher position.” Sure, this isn’t limited only to creative or entertainment industries, but is particularly prominent for me since I started working around the Hollywood scene. When I worked at Disney, it was a running joke that employees would have a better chance at leaving and applying to a higher position on the outside than attempting to be promoted to that same position from within. In fact, when I was at Disney some of the employees informed me that they had been trying to get promoted for above 20 years, quoting a 5-year or so waiting list for current employees to move into a higher role, or even a similar role in another department.

It begs the question, why is this so? One would think that it would be far easier for a company like Disney to promote from within, because that employee has already spent time with the company, learning its value and the way it operates, and there would be less time and money involved in orientation programs, health and safety and what not (side note: my orientation at Disney lasted 2 weeks of seminars on ‘the Disney look’ and implementing Walt’s standards which has made the company so famous).

Each company could argue its own reasons or agenda behind why they may prefer to recruit from the outside with someone who has impressive experience than from within, but from my perspective (at least in creative companies) it seems to always come down to benefiting both the company’s culture and projects by diversifying as much as possible. In a creative company, conflict and differing interests are actually welcomed more so than how well you know the company or have proven yourself. In a century where innovation and a creatively competitive edge is key to stand out from other companies, workplaces want people new and fresh to bring their ideas to the table. Arguably, someone who has been around too long and has been molded too much to the company’s ‘way’ may actually hinder future growth rather than aid it. This is an era where companies have to be flexible and up to date, as surrounding environments are more dynamic than ever. A company with as much diversity and difference as possible is more likely to survive than one with a strict foundation and employees who have been around for decades. In fact, how many people really do stay in the same job for an entire decade, these days? You’ll unlikely find that in a creative company unless that employee is getting treated and paid REALLY well (what’s up, Blizzard?)

The other important component of this is how we now value work experience in our recruiting preferences. And I’m not just talking about how many years you have worked in the industry, I’m taking about how many different places you have worked within that time frame. This is another factor that may be detrimental to inside employees. 3 decades ago, you could probably show off your shiny degree or masters and be set in a great role for the rest of your life. You may have only made one company change or career change in your lifetime. Now, it’s almost a project-to-project change, with increased recruiting competition and layoffs making this change even more prominent within the industry. So a candidate who has experienced all corners of the industry, in a number of different studios and workplaces, with exposure to all kinds of personalities and peers, and practiced and performed on a number of different projects, becomes recruiting gold.

I’m not placing my own preference on whether a company should hire or promote, nor am I advocating that a company should ignore its current employees and refuse to promote them at all – that would absolutely lower morale and the intrinsic value those employees have to their job. Ideally, a company should take steps to provide more opportunities for an employee to grow, receive extra training and education if necessary, and decentralize some autonomy to encourage innovation among decision-making. Ironically, the company itself can influence the best out of its own employees, as G. R. Jones mentions in “Organizational Theory, Design and Change”: “An employee’s motivation to perform well is often a function of the inducements (rewards and punishments) that the organization uses to influence job performance.” The question is whether the company places enough effort into honoring these inducements for employee growth. In an article entitled, “Why Diversity is the Mother of Creativity,” author Jeffrey Baumgartner goes a step further and acknowledges that ‘moving’ and ‘diversifying’ oneself should be applied to everyday life and inside the workforce in order to promote creativity. This means moving people around within their teams, and moving teams around within their company. This is obviously harder for every company to attempt, as often such teams are locked into milestones or whole projects for extended periods of time, with little opportunity to diversify over the span of production. However, there is certainly opportunity to change, or ‘move’ one’s thinking, in order to contribute creativity to the project, as Baumgartner says, “We all know that diverse teams produce more creative results than teams in which all members are from a similar background. Tests have shown that the one sure-fire way of improving your creativity is to move abroad. Not travel, but move. Living in a new culture, learning new ways of doing things and, in short, diversifying your life makes you more creative. That’s not surprising.” Ultimately, the essence of moving around is exposure. One needs to be exposed to as many different ideas and opportunities as possible in order to strengthen their value to their company. Perhaps, in turn, those potential hires with exposure to multiple workplaces and projects may be more prepared to take on new challenges and solve problems.

My advice to students is to not get caught up in the education side of your learning. Of course, you want to learn the best you can and make as many mistakes you can within the school environment. However, you don’t want to underestimate the importance of getting your work experience in early, and get as many different types of internship experience and companies under your belt as you can. With that, your resume will look like a ninja. You will also be better prepared for later on in your career when layoffs occur (which they will) or the studio you work for undergoes restructuring or acquisition by another company (which is also not uncommon).

For those already in a studio, it is important for you to recognize an opportunity to leave your studio for the better of your career when the time comes. It’s easy to feel comfortable in your role, but taking that scary step to leave in order to gain more experience elsewhere will not only benefit you and your skillset as an employee, but will also see you climb the ranks of your profession of choice a lot faster than you could’ve hoped. It’s ok for you to wake up one day and suddenly think, “my career is not moving anywhere”, and you wouldn’t be the only one to feel that way. The difference is whether you can act on that gut feeling.


References

Jones, G. R. (2013). Organizational theory, design, and change (7th ed.). Upper Saddle River,

NJ: Prentice Hall.

Baumgartner, J., (2013). Why Diversity is the Mother of Creativity. Innovator’s Accelerator. Retrieved from http://www.innovationmanagement.se/imtool-articles/why-diversity-is-the-mother-of-creativity/.

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