Like most accomplished writers in the world of television, Shonda Rhimes, the executive producer and creator of hit shows like Grey's Anatomy and Scandal, is also the leader of large teams: She is in charge of the actors, writers, techies, and all the others who help turn an idea into a show.
When ABC picked up her first hit, Grey's Anatomy, in 2005, her life changed dramatically. She went from being a writer who "worked at home in my pajamas" to a de facto executive who "had 273 people who worked for me," she told a crowd of roughly 10,000 at the Massachusetts Conference for Women in Boston on Thursday.
The transition was startling. As a writer on her own, she told the crowd, she had trouble balancing her checkbook. Now, depending on how you counted, there were thousands depending on her: not just the 273 people who worked on the show, but everyone who depends on a show's high ratings for their livelihood.
Today, Rhimes is in charge of four programs. In addition to Grey's Anatomy and Scandal, she is leading the teams who work on How to Get Away With Murder, and the forthcoming The Catch. After 10 years in the business, she's grown as a leader of large teams--both in the way she manages people, and the way she has found work-life balance with so much on her plate. Here are three of the lessons she shared at the conference, where she was interviewed by Emily Nussbaum, television critic at The New Yorker.
1. She became happier when she learned to stick with a schedule. After Grey's Anatomy became a hit, Rhimes said, "I was doing nothing but working and coming home and had no way of understanding how to deal with success. You stop having a peer group. The pyramid of women grows smaller as you go up the ladder. You stop having contact with those who do the same job you do."
Part of the problem was that she wasn't making the time to hang out with the friends and family who could make her life better. So she imposed a schedule on herself: She would come home at 6 p.m. and not answer any emails after 7 or on weekends.
In her email signature, she put a message describing her new correspondence parameters. Initially, "People would panic and say, 'Oh my god, I can't believe you're doing this. How can you?'" she recalled. But in time, her staffers started doing it too. "It made everyone's life better," she said.
One of the biggest lessons she learned was the difference between urgency and importance. As it turned out, "nothing was so important it wouldn't wait," she said.
What's more, she has now found a group of industry peers--women who create or produce television shows--to spend time with. "There are a lot of us," said Rhimes, who added that the group holds regular meetings but is informal. "There's no motto, plaque, or secret handshake."
2. The pillars of her communications style are directness and a willingness to walk away. When she first became a leader of large teams, she admitted, one of her problems was initiating the difficult or awkward conversation with an employee or colleague. She got nervous.
Though she did not share the specifics of how or when she learned to get over her nerves, she says that she eventually realized the stress of conversational avoidance vastly exceeded any tension the conversation itself would bring about. In fact, she found that most of the time, the awkward conversation she feared only took five minutes and led to a speedy resolution. "If you just have the conversation and dive right in, the beauty is that on the other side of it lies peace," she said.
A second piece of communications wisdom she shared pertains to negotiations. She makes sure that when she enters the conversation, she always knows what her bottom-line, "walking away" point is. She mentally prepares to walk away--and she always does, no matter how painful it is. "Once [that walk-away point] is hit, I know I'm done," she said. "I've made that rule before I walked in the door. It's a rule that works with children, in relationships, in a room full of executives, in budget meetings. It works everywhere."
3. Different projects and different teams require different styles of working and creativity. Rhimes described how her approach with the Grey's Anatomy team differs from her approach with the Scandal team. The Grey's team has worked together for more than a decade. They run like clockwork. Rhimes described herself as "just the storyteller. I come in and say, 'Here's what happens next.' And the writers write. Every episode. It's like a little campfire. I've been telling it for 12 seasons."
By contrast, her crew on Scandal runs much more by the seat of their pants, with many more last-minute changes. For instance, there are times when Rhimes will change the script on the spot, based on what she sees as the actors rehearse. It could be how two actors have chemistry with one another. It could be how one actor seems inexplicably sad, as if hiding a secret, while speaking about a topic seemingly unrelated to his sorrow.
"It's really exhausting," she said.
All the more reason she's glad to be home at 6 each night.