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Management strategies for first time visual effects leads & supervisors

At this visual effects school, we teach team management skills. These skills are important to the continued success of our trainees as they gain experience and find promotion opportunities. Management can mean many different things. Management refers to top bosses, middle managers like department heads and junior managers like team leads. “Manager” is such a big, intimidating word though. All it really means is the one responsible for ensuring the team has all the stuff they need. Not everybody defines “manager” this way, to be sure. Most, if not all, of the other definitions make the workforce complain.

Some of the things you hear people complain about when they are talking about their managers is how bossy they are, how much they micromanage, how overbearing they can be and how they don’t know what the hell they’re talking about. This usually happens because a manager believes that the position provides “power” over other people, when it doesn’t. This is an illusion that comes from movies and TV. In reality, the manager is responsible to both his/her supervisor and his/her team. The decision-making authority that comes with management positions involves defining how the team will function, what resources they can have and who is assigned to which tasks. It has nothing to do with ego, whim or nepotism. It has everything to do with a professional, courteous attitude, knowledgeable decisions and providing your team with what they need to do the job.
The successful manager knows this one very important thing: That their job is to make sure each team member has everything needed to get the job done, whether that is tools, workspace, time, silence, coffee, good direction, whatever. The successful manager works with the team to ensure their needs are met. When the team’s needs are met, theoretically the work will get done on time and according to budget.

First let’s examine the complaints:
1) Bossy managers. Managers who push people around and force them to do things their way don’t understand the nature of team and have probably never worked in a “high performing” team. “High Performing” teams are like gestalt entities. They work together so efficiently, with such a good understanding of what each other is doing, that they can outperform “normal” teams two or three times their size. Bossy managers either don’t trust their team members to do the right thing, or have no control over who their team members are (or most likely both). Bossy managers are usually bossy because they are grumpy. They are usually grumpy because their team members don’t show them the respect they think is their due. The team members don’t treat them with respect because they are too bossy. It’s a nasty circle that begins and ends with the manager’s attitude of entitlement to respect. Respect does not automatically come with a promotion to a management position. Respect must be earned through the development of relationships with the team. Team members tend to have a natural suspicion of managers because they are accustomed to so many of them being so bad at their jobs. But if, as a manager, you show respect and courtesy, you’ll receive respect and courtesy. It’s one of those lessons your Mommy taught you when you were four years old, remember? Becoming a manager does not make you more powerful. If anything, it makes you more responsible to others and less powerful to get the job done, which is why you need to be good at surrounding yourself with competent people who will execute the job well for you.

2) Micromanagers. Micromanagers think they’re smarter than everyone around them. They don’t believe the team can do the job, so they feel they must intervene at every step and personally sign off on everything. Simply, they don’t trust. This can be caused by several factors. First, it is possible that every single person around them is incompetent. Not likely, but possible. Second, they might just be completely OCD about details, in which case they probably don’t make a good manager. Third, they might simply not respect the capabilities of their team. In all 3 cases the answer is the same. The manager needs to get the team members whatever they need to do a good job. In case #1, everyone in the team is incompetent. In order to do a good job, everybody in the team needs to be surrounded by others who are competent, so the manager has to get that. This can be accomplished either by training or by replacing the people who can’t do their jobs. This may sound brutal, but it is the obligation of the manager to develop a successful team environment. In case #2 where the manager is OCD, the answer is the same. If one of the things you need to do a good job is a manager who isn’t in your face all the time, you need to talk to his boss about that. His boss, after all, is also responsible for getting you the things you need to do your job. In case #3 once again, the team needs trust to get the job done well. The manager must reach a level of trust with each team member so that they can be effective. If the team is competent and the manager still does not trust them enough to stop micromanaging, then the problem is the manager. In this case, the manager needs to be trained or replaced. Or, if the manager is serious about developing a strong team, she/he will begin a process of investigation designed to understand the strengths and weaknesses of each team member so that he/she can develop a team trustworthy enough not to be micromanaged. Honestly, people, micromanaging is incredibly annoying and insulting. Not a good strategy for developing a high performing team.

3) The overbearing boss. Some bosses come in all “I’m in charge!” and “you’re just the help” and “my way or the highway” and “I’ll let you have vacation if you kiss my feet”. These again are folks who think there is power associated with a management position, when the truth is precisely the opposite. Great managers are able to get their crew to do great things for them because the crew respects the manager. Here’s a tip: you will never get the respect of your team if you treat them like dirt. They will, in fact, begin acting against you. So you see there is no benefit to managing this way. The solution is the same. The team needs a manager who will be respectful and supportive. If the team doesn’t have what they need, then someone needs to address that. And the responsibility for this goes all the way up the ladder to the very top.

4) The incompetent. Unfortunately many managers have gotten into positions way, way above their skill and experience level. There are really only two solutions and both involve getting the team what they need to be successful. One is to train the manager. Get them the skills and experience they need to effectively lead their team, in other words, to know what their team needs to get their jobs done. The other is to replace the manager with someone who already knows what the team needs to get the job done.
A great manager wants each team member to be successful. There are many managers out there who like to set people up to fail for various reasons, usually involving politics and egos. However these strategies are ultimately self-destructive. Many a manager has talked himself into the unemployment line by removing the most capable people from the staff for political or egoist reasons, surrounding themselves with “yes men” and then discovering that nobody knew how to do the job anymore. I am certain this story is familiar to you. As a manager, you don’t have to like or hang out with your team members. But you do need to be able to identify which ones contribute expertise and which do not otherwise you are ultimately doomed to failure because you will not be able to provide your team what they need to succeed.

So here’s some advice if you’re going into a visual effects or animation lead or supervisory position for the first time.
1. Treat everybody with courtesy and respect. Sometimes people will still act like jerks. Try not to let it get under your skin. Keep Calm. Respond with courtesy and respect. Everyone will appreciate it.
2. Know your team. People are not drones or clones. Each has their own strengths, weaknesses, interests and goals. If you know what these are, you can better configure your team for success.
3. Get your team the things they need to succeed. If a producer tells you there is 2 hours in the budget to build a T-Rex model from scratch, obviously you need to go and get more time for the modeling artist. If you are expected to deliver in correct colourspace, clearly your compositing team is going to need calibratable monitors. If the director’s notes are vague, you need to follow up and get clarity for your team. If the air in the room is stale and the floors are sticky, you need to find a healthier place for your team to work. These and many more are all factors in the success/failure of your team. When your team has all the things it needs to succeed, it will succeed. It is really very simple.
Beware of the management position, though. There is one common thread in animation/vfx production. If things go well, it was a team success. If things go poorly, it was YOUR FAULT. Are you still sure you want to manage a team? 