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Management 101

COW Blogs : Mike Cohen's Blog : Management 101
Working in production, I started out duping VHS tapes and going on shoots to setup gear and learn my craft. Years later, I found myself informally in charge of video production, while we had a sizeable multimedia department not really reporting to anyone - they were mostly hired for a couple of big projects, reported to the project manager, and then just sort of moved from project to project.

The time had come to have an actual production manager - me. Well I did not have any formal management training, and it was really trial by fire. Knowing what I know now, however, I'd like to offer some tips and tricks for others in the field who may find themselves in one or more of these situations:

1 - You are a small production business owner, and you suddenly find yourself managing a team while trying to get production work done

2 - You have a multimedia background, and find yourself in a management role, while working for someone else.

3 - Part of your job is managing others in your team, but you don't have actual management duties - you're more of a supervisor (some overlap here).

"Management" can mean lots of things, depending on the type and size of the organization:

  • Direct supervision

  • HR functions (performance reviews, discipline, etc)

  • Budgeting

  • Sales

  • Project management (like being a producer, but not always)

  • Business communication and etiquette

I'll address each of these items, and try to offer some personal experience, tips and tricks for each.

Direct Supervision

You may be managing one or more production folks - shooters, editors, artists, project managers, writers, other creatives. Regardless or job duties, you need to keep a few things in mind. These are people with lives outside work, families, etc. Be considerate of this fact when you schedule work. In our small group we tend to travel a lot. While I am supervisor I also do production myself, so when scheduling out of town productions I am careful to consider the human factors. If we have a shoot on a Monday in Cleveland, this probably means that someone needs to fly to Cleveland on a Sunday afternoon. While compensatory time is provided after the fact, we are asking someone to give up a weekend day. Then let's say we have a shoot on Thursday the same week. Best to schedule someone else, or myself. If it is a two-person job, I need to make sure to give this fact soon enough, to be considerate to my direct report, and allow him to make arrangements at home for his travel.

Push comes to shove a shoot can sometimes be rescheduled, or another resource can be used (freelance, etc). Usually we can work it out, because we respect one another. As I said above, employees are not robots, they are people with feelings.

Now supervision is more than scheduling. It also includes providing feedback - positive, constructive and occasionally negative. This again has to do with respect. The employee needs to understand that a manager's job is to critique work and provide useful comments. Better to say "this graphic is kind of bland - try using XYZ font and a gradient, or whatever" rather than "I don't like this, try something else." It takes more energy to provide creative direction.

Occasionally you may give feedback which should be obvious to the recipient, like "you have a few typos - check the script." The direct should be smart enough to check the script, or hopefully just look at it again and say "oh snap, I spelled pancreaticoduodenectomy wrong, obviously!"

Finally, it is important when supervising others to help people grow both professionally and creatively. You do this by giving people new challenges, setting goals, and letting them work independently on meeting or exceeding these goals, and helping them when they need help. Over time, a direct will know when to ask for help, but occasionally you as a supervisor need to offer a helpful manner!

HR functions (performance reviews, discipline, etc)

Another management function is human resources. Whether you are hiring freelancers, building a staff of employees or dealing with long term employees in your own or someone else's company, you sometimes need to wear the HR hat.

Annual performance reviews can take many forms. We've tried more formal numerical grading systems, but usually the best method is to write a summary of the direct's job performance, set goals and discuss the improvement plan...then revisit these goals at the next review, or sooner.

Occasionally discipline is called for. Hopefully you have made a good hire, but humans are prone to making mistakes, lapses in judgement or unpredictable behavior. If you do need to provide negative feedback, issue a warning or ultimately terminate someone, there is one key piece of advice...DOCUMENTATION.


Speaking for myself, none of the above topics were taught in communication school. Like many careers, you learn as you go. Same goes for creating budgets. Whether you are writing proposals or managing a budget for a project, you need to have an idea both how long tasks should take, and how much things cost (labor, direct costs, overhead). Perhaps smaller projects are quick 1-2 week efforts which have a finite scope. Other projects could be 6 months or longer in duration, and have the most potential to go over budget, behind schedule and as a result, further over budget. Learn to estimate costs and then review expenses as the project progresses to avoid surprises later on.


While bigger companies may have dedicated sales people, another job duty of a manager in a production environment is sales. We don't sell widgets, cold calls are not usually helpful - we sell services to companies whose managers may or may not be looking for these services. Thus sales is about building relationships, exchanging information, and keeping in touch. Some call this consultative selling.

If you are writing proposals, this connects with the budgeting topic above. You need to know how much it is going to cost to do the work, so you can accurately provide a bid. Every company costs jobs differently, so refer to your organization's methods.

Project management (like being a producer, but not always)

When you learn how to direct and/or produce a video, for example, you are essentially a project manager. When I first started doing PM work, I was more of a production guy managing my own work. This worked to a point, but the true nature of project management is managing the schedule and resources...making sure things are moving along the proscribed path, are done on time, on budget (may or may not be your responsibility to watch the budget, but if you are not watching the timeline, you'll need to answer for the budget!)...and not necessarily doing the work tasks yourself (but maybe).

Thus, project management can take many forms, from a simple spreadsheet, or elaborate work breakdown structure plans and weekly 2-hour meetings. A friend of mine used to work for a large manufacturer and he sat through, and ultimately managed, these long laundry list meetings. My style is more of a post-it note for small projects, or a 1-page word doc list of milestones.

However when a client has its own project manager, often someone with the PMP certification, it is a horse of a different color, and I always learn a lot about organization.

Be proactive - follow your plan and if you see trouble brewing, take the initiative to deal with an issue before it gets bigger. Customers appreciate honesty -- admit to a problem. Don't ever bury your head in the sand or be afraid to ask for help. Your manager is there to help you.

Learn to think on your feet, so even if you are caught off guard by some issue, you can take a deep breath and figure out some options. You can always say to a client or co-worker "allow me to talk to my team and get back to you."

Don't pay lip service - don't tell someone what they want to hear if you have no way of delivering.

Think like the customer. Manage expectations. This list of aphorisms goes on...

Business Communication and Etiquette

Finally, business communication needs to be formal enough to get the job done, but human enough to maintain productive relationships. Here in 2016 e-mail seems to be king, but you learn how each direct and customer likes to communicate. Some people will respond to an email with an encyclopedia, others give one-word answers. For the latter, best to ask yes or no questions by email, and get on a call for detail. For the former, be careful how many questions you ask per message.

Also need to be careful about copying too many people. If one person copies 5 others, and everyone hits "reply all" with every response, you can easily have hundreds of messages floating around.

Likewise, be cautious about attachments...especially things like spreadsheets. Any document with a formula is subject to corruption the more people touch it. And with Word docs, if one person fails to use track changes, it can be a long day trying to do version control. Just make sure you know who has your document and whose turn it is to work on it.

Some people love text messages. My rule is, once you pass 3 text messages back and forth, and you have not resolved the issue at hand, it is time to pick up the phone and talk by voice. Same for e-mail exchanges. Sometimes you just can't get the point across or the question phrased accurately without a ton of background information. Just pick up the phone and move things along.

Sometimes a client is on the opposite coast, or wants to talk at 8pm. I work with lots of doctors who work long days and travel a lot. An 8pm conference call is not unusual. But be honest in responding to requests - don't give up a soccer game, school play or game night for a conference call (unless the sky is falling - if the sky is falling you should ask for the call).

As for conference calls, be careful not to invite too many people, and have an agenda and a moderator. Otherwise you will find yourself in a "Who talks first? I talk? You talk" situation. If doing screen sharing such as Webex or GotoMeeting, make sure you only have the relevant applications open. That means close Facebook, Reddit and your music streaming service. If giving a Powerpoint, that should be the only thing that is open.

Finally, e-mail is not for emergencies. A few months ago I got an email at 2pm on a Saturday with the subject line "urgent, please call me" from a co-worker. Well at 2pm on a Saturday, looking at my email is not a high priority. Anything urgent, make a phone call. Or a text message (maybe) might get my attention sooner (unless I'm a mile into the woods with my dog). Anyway, I called her back and was able to help with Powerpoint pretty easily.


This article really only scratches the surface on management in the production world. Everyone's own job will be unique, and your duties may change over time. Being a creative and finding yourself assuming management duties often means you are becoming more valuable for your organization - and possibly moving beyond the technical or creative job that got you there.

A few resources that have helped me:

Manager Tools Podcast
Some of it is focused on some systems which may not be relevant to your organization, but the passion of the two hosts in discussing topics like I have discussed above is worth a few hours of your time

Accidental Creative
Todd Henry gives lots of great advice in podcast and book form about balancing creativity with on-demand work. And talks a lot about balancing work and life.

Talking with a mentor, relative or friend who does some or all of these jobs.

Creative Cow Business and Marketing Forum
A great group of regulars offer sage advice on business-related aspects of production. It was this forum, not the technical stuff, that got me hooked on the COW!

Good luck in your own career!

Thanks for reading.

Mike Cohen

Posted by: Mike Cohen on Jan 11, 2016 at 8:35:32 pm management

I have a passion for my job, which entails training for medical professionals such as surgeons, nurses and administrators, not to mention various industries.

Technology is great, but how you apply your skills is what pays the bills.

Years ago I canceled my Media 100 support contract upon discovering what a treasure trove of helpful advice can be found on the Creative COW website. I am proud to be a part of this fantastic community.

In my blog I talk a little about media production, a lot about travel and workflow, and occasionally about cooking, nature and my four-legged friends.

Follow me on Twitter: med_ed_mike

I'm also on LinkedIn if you can't get enough of me!


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