Wednesday, October 1, 2008
I learned one thing from working in Walt Disney World attractions: “kill ‘em with kindness”. When dealing with a sun burnt, overweight, frustrated father who has a kid that wanted to hug Mickey, but was denied because Mickey’s 20 minute set ended and the kid was left disappointed with a pen and autograph book in one hand and a frown that lead to tears and then to wailing – that father is inevitably going to take it out on someone. Sometimes, that someone was me. I used to work as a greeter and tour guide at one of the Disney MGM Studios attractions, and when the father in question approached me, I usually got an earful of how much Walt Disney World sucked. Who was I to disagree? It was 100 degrees, there were 50,000 tourists elbowing for space, and Mickey Mouse – as animated as his cartoon alter ego may be – needed water just like every other living thing on the planet. So I stood there, listened to the father’s gripes, apologized, and listened some more. It was in the listening that the change happened. Listening sometimes extinguished the flames. None of it was my fault. I didn’t build the insane marketing machine that caused this father to cough up his Christmas bonus and his credit card to drag his mid-western family to Orlando for a shred of pixie dust and over priced Coke. I didn’t under-design the queue lines to hold hundreds of sweaty, out of shape, underpaid, and annoyed visitors who just wanted a go around on a tram ride so they could look at rotting set pieces in a bone yard no one really cared about. However, I was the man, standing there in a tomato red button down shirt, with a plastic, personalized name tag that read “Constantin”. So it was my problem. And listening, like it was my problem only seemed to make the situation less volatile than if I were to tell this guy to go drop dead on the Tower of Terror. Listening is an act of kindness.
Listening has helped me in production and not listening has only hurt me. A mistake I see some students make in production is: they don’t take the time to listen to each other. Sure, some students are melodramatic. Some students are egotistical. Some students are anxious. Sometimes, some students just want to be heard, taken seriously, and considered knowledgeable about their trade. And sometimes, these traits can be annoying. However, when we allow idiosyncrasies to annoy us, we miss out on the opportunity to hear the root cause of a production related issue and therefore, we miss the chance for collaboration and movement in the right direction. Here is an example of what I am talking about: I was working as the production coordinator on a Nickelodeon job in 2003. Nickelodeon wanted to go down in the Guinness Book of World Records for having the most people slimed at once. (Yes, there is a record for that. It was held by a Japanese company). A new production manager had been brought in to over see the project. I immediately felt like my territory was being invaded. After all, I had coordinated that particular Nickelodeon crew for over 3 years. These were my people and now someone else was coming in to tell them what to do. Hold up. My immediate desire to not listen led to a lack of collaboration. That only caused her to not want to listen to me. Finally, after weeks of pre-production – after hundreds of hours of coordinating the construction of an absurd device made of fountains that would spout slime – we arrived at the big day. I think we invited 1000 people to get slimed. It was summer and the temperature was well past 90 degrees. Flash backs of working at Disney.
In the throws of trying to get everyone under the sprayers and with the clock ticking, this female production manager yelled at me to get inside of the giant slimmer (we only had around 700 people under it). I yelled back that “I can’t do twenty things at once!” Then an angry father grabbed me. He was furious because there was no water, because it was hot, because his kid wasn’t happy, because Nickelodeon didn’t meet his expectations. And in that moment, I thought I was going to knock him out cold…until one of my executives – a guy I had known for years – intervened, told me to move on, and spoke to the guy in a calm, and professional voice. Production gets out of hand sometimes. Production gets unprofessional sometimes. But still, in the worst moments, in the worst heat – cool heads prevail. We all have our horrible days and it’s up to each of us to back each other up, accept each other’s idiosyncrasies, and help each other be the most professional we can be. Perhaps if I have been a better listener and simply nicer to the new production manager, she would have been kinder to me. Then, yelling would probably not have been part of the equation. Then, perhaps I would have seen the angry father coming at me before he grabbed me. Perhaps I would have been able to diffuse the situation. In the end, someone else with a cool head was there to listen, while I got to walk away from the tension and take a moment to breathe. In the end, I got under the giant sprayers, got sprinkled with slime, and made a little history.