The Power of Assertion

Jaime Bancroft Gennaro

March 01, 2016

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The New York Times published an incredibly enlightening article last week entitled, What It's Really Like to Work in Hollywood (*If you're not a straight white man). The article focuses on the experiences of minorities in the industry. The stories are both disheartening and inspiring. Although the featured filmmakers, producers, writers, actors and actresses have faced difficulties, they have also overcome and have had successful careers because of their determination.

The comment that touched home the most for me was a comment made by Mindy Kaling of The Mindy Project.

"My personality and [that of other women] I know is to want to please. It can sometimes feel alien to just say, “I need this to happen, because it's my show," and not feel afterward that you've been unprofessional simply by stating the thing that you want. I struggle with it all the time. When you are a minority, and it's the first time you've done something, you're like, this could all be taken away from me. I think the presumption with women is that they will be team players, and that is not the presumption of men. Especially show runners. When women push back, they [are perceived as] bitches or divas. I just made a slight demand that wasn't even that bad. And at the end of it, I'll send bagels [to the staff]. Please forgive me for asserting myself in a small way."

I learned the same lesson the hard way when I first started my business. We were working on a video project. We produce many different types of creative, and I typically lean on my staff to be the experts in graphic design, user-experience design, and programming. But I went to film school and am extremely qualified to comment on, and to produce, film projects. The team delivered a piece of creative for my review, and although I didn't love it, I didn't speak up. I didn't feel comfortable asserting my authority. I let the creative go to the client without pushing for the changes I thought would make the work better. The client hated it. Of course, they did, I hated it. I knew we only needed to make two small tweaks to make it amazing. But now I had to persuade the client to give us another chance, and I had to rebuild the team's morale after the client's negative comments. The team made the changes, and I remember watching the final video over and over, feeling chills because I knew we had nailed it. It was a good feeling. At the end of the day, I wasn't as concerned with the client's feedback because I knew it was good work. The client ended up loving it.

In my new position, and as a minority who had never been the final authority, I needed to retrain myself. I needed to unlearn the bad habit I had developed at my past jobs of staying silent. In jobs where you work for other people, you stay silent for many reasons. You may be afraid of losing your job, or disrupting the status quo; you may be in a room full of good ol' boys who don't take you seriously, or worry that you'll be seen as a bitch, even though you are trying to make things better. In many work environments, speaking up might force people to work harder or to put more effort into things. Most of the time, people want to do their work and go home, they don't want to push harder or put a piece of themselves into the work. In the first few months in this new role, I had to remind myself to speak up, even if my idea seemed obvious. As the authority, others are asking and expecting me to come to the table with game-changing ideas, I was the only person holding me back because of years of bad training.

It feels good to have broken that habit. I've learned to speak up and to share my ideas. And even if we don't go with my idea, or if we collectively decide not to push forward my changes, at least, I know I haven't lost an opportunity to push the work and to push the team to deliver their best; and that's a good feeling. And I don't apologize for pushing. I'm not bitchy, nor do I feel the need to buy people bagels. I want to push people to be better, to put more thought and energy behind their work. That's not bad, that's the role of a good leader, and I'm getting better at the role every day.

Jaime Bancroft Gennaro is the CEO of Neologic, a digital experience agency with an imagination lab. Neologic is proud of their two in-house projects: Cornbread App and Poetry for Robots @jaimegennaro @neologicpdx

Opinions expressed by the author are not necessarily those of WITI.

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