I've always been one to learn a job, and then find the most effective way to perform it to achieve the best result, both in terms of quality, efficiency and cost-effectiveness.
I'm sure most of us, once given an assignment, are taught to perform it, and then over time, develop our unique style of getting the job done. And I'll bet lots of us have gotten in trouble because we dared to "do our own thing". I know I have.
I want to illustrate the absurdity of getting in trouble for doing a good job in a manner different from the way the boss would do it himself by telling you two stories from my career.
Many years ago, when I was in my mid-20's and working at WCBS-TV, I was considered by successive managements as an ace producer/writer. Often I was assigned to function as what was known as an "associate producer" (newsroom titles were determined in contract negotiations with the Writers Guild of America). What it meant at WCBS-TV was that on a 3pm to 11pm shift, for example, when reporters would come in with raw footage for the 6 and later the 11, I would work with them to shape the pieces for air.
In those days, things were very different. Average story length was 2:30 to 3:00. Stories were shot on 16 millimeter film. The footage had to be processed when it came into the shop, which took about half an hour. You would then be assigned a film editor, and he would rack up the footage on a projector, and screen it for you. You viewed it in real time. No stopping, or going back and forth. You sat there with a stopwatch and made notes. I was very good at this. My notes contained in- and out-cues of every potential sound bite, the essence of every sound bite, the quality of the sound bite (I rated them using a star system), and detailed descriptions of all the b-roll. As soon as I was done screening, I would outline the script, putting the sound bites in order of appearance. I would then type the outline and give it to the reporter. We'd review it, and the reporter would sit down to write the script. While the reporter was writing the script, I would make notes for the film editor on what b-roll would be going between and over what sound bites. I would then discuss the look and flow of the piece with the editor. The editor was thus able to get started cutting the piece while the reporter was still writing it. This system was unusually efficient at the time, and it enabled me to turn out at least two pieces for each broadcast. While the editor was cutting, I would leave him alone in the edit room, and only stop in to see how things were going every 15 minutes or so. My specialty was feature pieces, and mine always had a special flair.
Here was the problem. While the editors were working, I would spend periods of time going down to the cafeteria getting coffee, hanging out at my desk, and schmoozing with my colleagues in the newsroom. I'd read the paper or a magazine, or chat on the phone. This infuriated the news director, although I wasn't aware of it. One of the assistant news directors was Marty Haag, a legendary name in local news, and a wonderful man. Marty felt one day it was time to warn me that I was being watched, and stopped by my desk. "Look busy!" he told me. "What do you mean?" I responded. "Ed can't stand it," Marty continued, "that you're just sitting around not doing anything." Ed was the news director, Ed Joyce. I replied, "Marty, I have two pieces in production right now. I don't believe in breathing down the editor's neck. I'm plenty busy." Marty closed: "Danny, just look like you're working on something."
Marty warned me several times. As far as I was concerned, my productivity was close to double that of everyone else doing the same job. And the news director knew it. I chose to ignore the warning. In my case, nothing happened. That's story one.
Story two is many years later. I'm not going to mention the name of my boss, because it would be politically stupid, and because I actually hold him in high regard and don't want this story taken out of context. I will say that this boss is now the executive producer of a prime time newsmagazine, and in my opinion turns out an excellent show.
In this particular unit I was a senior, and my boss was executive producer. My job was to generate story ideas for a prime time news magazine.
By this time I had had a great deal of experience with news magazines, network, syndicated (as executive producer) and more. And I was trained as a prime time senior producer at 20/20 by the brilliant Av Westin. I was good.
I'm a neatnik. I'm very organized. I keep databases, neat storyboards on my wall that are kept fresh by my PA, and I hang artwork and keep sculpture in my offices. No mess. No clutter. If you need to know what's up on a given story, show or idea, I just call it up on my computer and I can give you whatever you need to know. Timelines, budgets, scripts, the works.
At this particular show, I was happy to have a huge office with wraparound windows that overlooked 6th Avenue in Manhattan (the Avenue of the Americas). It was a very pleasant space.
The appearance of my office drove the executive producer up the wall. In retrospect, I think I understand why, and it had to do with how we came up in the business. It's so simple. I came up as a producer. My boss came up on the assignment desk.
My idea of how you develop ideas for a news magazine is you want the segment producers to "own" the ideas, so you structure a process whereby as many stories as possible are generated by the producers. This is hardly controversial. Producers submitting "blue sheets" with story ideas at 60 Minutes dates back 3 decades. It worked for Don Hewitt. It worked for Av Westin. And it never failed me. That's not to say all stories come from producers, but if they don't, you have to "sell" the story to the producer, because if they don't "own" it, it won't be good.
My boss believed that the guy in charge of story ideas generated the story ideas and assigned them. Very different approach.
One day I got a call from my agent. "So-and-so (the executive producer) is up in flames because you hardly have any stories on the story list." This was prior to the scheduled premiere of the show. What? I told my agent, "What is he talking about? There are 65 stories on the list and about 17 are in production." My agent replied, "Are you serious?" I said, "He's got the list on his desk. Is he out of his fucking mind?" My agent: "Well, whatever, your ass is in trouble, you better fix it now."
I thought I had stepped through the looking glass. I had to figure out how to strategize this. But I didn't have much time, because about 10 minutes later the executive producer stormed into my office. This was his first visit to my office since I had moved in.
He was in a rage. I knew him well enough by this time to know that he tended to stew over a problem a bit too long, then erupt.
He immediately began to wave his arms around, pointing at my desk and floor and walls, and shouted "Why isn't your office a mess? Where are the piles of newspapers? There should be newspapers piled everywhere! You should be sitting there going through papers from every small town all over the country, as fast as you can, looking for stories to assign to producers! Why don't we have anything on the story list?"
"We have 65 stories on the list," I replied. "We're in great shape. The AP's are going through the papers. The producers are submitting ideas. You and I have been going over them. That's how I like to work. I think we're doing great. Do you want to sit down and run through the list now? Let's throw out everything weak and I'll find replacements."
He wheeled around and shouted over his shoulder, "This office better be a mess, and fast!"
Well. The chief finance guy stopped in and said "Why don't you just put some old papers around here and there?" He had obviously been clued in.
So that's what I did. I viewed it as part of my overall artistic environment. I collected some local newspapers, and made some designer-y piles, and placed them on the floor and on one of my wall units. On my desk I kept a neat pile of that day's papers.
And you know what? It made no difference. This particular executive producer decided for himself that I was a powerhouse operations and administrative senior producer, but not tiptop when it came to editorial matters. Of course I played along to keep what was a very well paying job. And he lost a major editorial resource because he couldn't imagine that there might be more than one way to do a job.
And when he lost his job, I was kept on by the next management group.
So what's the lesson? What do you do when you have your own best way of doing your job?
Here's what I think. First, keep in mind that this is a very delicate matter. Do your job exactly the way your boss wants it done until you are certain you have a more efficient, more creative, more whatever, plan. Test the plan in a manner such that your boss cannot possibly discover you're not doing things just his way. Then sit down with him or her, and pitch your new technique. Begin by complimenting your boss until just after it seems you sound like the town's biggest kiss-ass. Praise how well you've developed your skill set under your boss's tutelage. Then, tell him you have developed an idea or two of how you can do the job not better than his way, but more effective for you, that will be more efficient, generate a better product and heighten your productivity. Please understand that you must not convey the impression that your way is better than the boss's way. It's just your way, and the boss will get what he wants, plus.
But be careful. This issue is a minefield. Determine in advance if your boss is open to new ideas. Most are not. I said, most are not. If your boss rejects your idea, you can be like me, and risk your job and reputation, and do it your way anyway. You can do things the boss's way and work while feeling resentful, or you can strategize a move out of that shop.