• Jo

Slingback heels and torn talent


“This is terrible” she sneered, ripping the promo script up into tiny pieces and throwing it into the air. The pieces wafted down like confetti, swirling and then landing at the feet of my exhausted scriptwriters. After a few moments, the fragments lay motionless (much like our TV promo); a sacrifice of useless paper and wasted talent. “You need to learn how English works and you need to be more creative,” our boss told one of my team members. “Jo – this is your job,” she continued “Get them up to scratch.” With that, she spun on the heel of her designer slingback and marched out of my team’s scriptwriting room, with a clickety-clack, clickety-clack. I’d been in my shiny new role as Head of Scriptwriting at a TV production studio (many career decisions ago) for about two weeks before I realised I’d joined a truly horrendous working culture. I thought I’d gone into it with my eyes open – I knew TV was fast-paced, low-paid and cut-throat. I knew I’d be working long days, late nights and occasional weekends. I knew it would mean heaps of hard work. I’d made the decision with all that in mind, thinking that it would pay off in unparalleled experience. I’d joined a production studio with a reputation for creating ground-breaking work. I was enthusiastic and energised at the thought of writing outstanding TV productions which I’d bring to life in one of the most advanced edit suites in the country. I dreamed of late nights sitting with directors and editors, reworking things and watching my ideas light up the screen. While I was rose-tinted glasses about the process, I wasn’t naïve about the company itself. I knew they had a reputation for hiring people early in their careers and working them into the ground. I was planning a short stint, of a year or so, for the greater good of my career. On day one, I enjoyed a surprisingly relaxed day. One of our two managing directors spent the day filling me in on who’s who and what was where and told me that in my first week my objectives were to get to know people and to familiarise myself with their work. I was given a desk, a fancy computer and access to their most prized productions to enjoy. To my delight I discovered that they had breakfast, lunch and dinner delivered in-house – all complimentary. So I helped myself to some snacks and watched TV all day - for three days. Maybe they were more people-focussed than I’d been led to believe? On day four, I noticed that many colleagues I greeted around 8am each morning had typically been there for some time before me (they’d had breakfast and were very much in the swing of things). I also noticed that when I left around 7pm (which was when the first leavers seemed to go) that these same colleagues seemed nowhere near ready to pack up. And when I finally started working on my first project in my second week, my editor asked if I could come in on Saturday for a first viewing. He wanted to make changes and render them on Sunday to be ready on Monday morning for ‘first phase approval’ and further comments. I thought he was kidding – he wasn’t. While chomping on a sandwich at my desk mid-week-two wondering when I’d ever see daylight again, I began to understand the feeding strategy – the meals weren’t an employee value-add, they were a tactic to keep people glued to their desks. While they divided up the day in a ritualistic way, they also helped keep us from partaking in any normal daytime activities. I started to realise what I’d got myself into. I’d accepted a role in an award-winning team, in an environment that really didn’t match my values. I’d given up my copywriting job at a decent agency with wonderful colleagues, for a dream job that was actually a nightmare. At the beginning of week three I shook myself a bit and tried to find the positive side of things. They’d hired me – and me they’d get. I would attempt to affect change from the inside. I’d come from a team with strong leadership where we worked damn hard, but we had fun too. I was sure I could bring some of those lessons with me, as I stepped into my first moments of leading others. I got straight to work with morning pep talk sessions with my team. I encouraged them to share the great stuff they’d done and then we’d troubleshoot some of our challenges together in a judge-free space. We started to bring examples of great writing along, which we shared and discussed with great enthusiasm. Pulling the team together and finding shared inspiration would help us succeed – I was certain of it. A few days later I was called into a meeting with the two managing directors. One of them carefully spoke to me about being mindful of our heavy workload. She explained that, while they understood what I was trying to do, that they’d hired the best candidates from top film schools across the city – my team didn’t need inspiration, they needed to get their jobs done. I tried to share my view but was quickly pulled back and sent out. I felt deflated and powerless, but I decided to keep trying. In week four, I chose to tackle the office-bound culture. Studios are dark places by nature, and I knew that a break in the sunshine would lift my team’s spirits and help their creativity. I invited everyone outside for lunch. They were very nervous to follow my lead initially. In fact, I had to buy everyone take away lunch to kick things off. Day by day, across the week, I managed to get up to three out at a time, bringing packed lunches along. We’d sit on the grass under the trees and chat about our favourite films. I felt so much better, and I was sure those few did too. Week five was when it all truly unravelled. It was a Tuesday morning and I’d just gone through a script with one of the recent graduates on my team. She was terrified of getting her script approved, as she’d apparently had many negative reactions from the managing directors previously. As a non-native English speaker (who was impressively fluent in five languages!) she’d asked me to double-check her grammar. I had – it was fine. In fact, her script was great! When the quieter of the two managing directors came in that morning, I offered up the script and shared how good I thought it was. She read a few lines and then pulled the script to pieces – quite literally. As I scooped up her torn words, I wondered how I’d put my writer back together again – and if it was right to even try. I went home with a busy brain and didn’t sleep. In the morning I went in and handed in my resignation. I offered to work a further six weeks, even though contractually I only needed to give two weeks’ notice. I felt tremendously guilty for leaving my talented team behind and for being yet another person to abandon them (unsurprisingly, I discovered I was the sixth person to quit the role). But I had to do what was right for me. Tough situations often teach us brilliant lessons. I came out of that role with solid boundaries, a better sense of self and an understanding of the kind of working culture I wanted to be part of. Despite my concerns, the blip on my CV didn’t hurt my career either – I ended up getting hired back at the agency I’d worked at before, with a significant promotion. Times are hard for many at the moment and keeping going is necessary to get through. But it’s important to know that sometimes giving up is the right thing to do - particularly when your values are compromised or you’re being mistreated. Knowing when to try harder and when to give up remains one of the trickiest lessons I continue to learn. As Jeremy Goldberg wrote: “Courage is knowing it might hurt and doing it anyway. Stupidity is the same. And that’s why life is hard.”


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