Hollywood writers have this insider’s secret for Leaders


What do high performing company cultures and successful television shows have in common? Just about everything – minus an Emmy and the drama… hopefully.

Both a show and a business create a product (or service), both must capture and hold the interest of their customers, both deal with frequently changing variables and both must optimize multi-functional teams. Writers and leaders know this scenario very well – they’re right in the middle of the melee, or so it must seem at times.

Both writers and leaders must be creative and often under pressure. If they don’t capture the fascination of their audience or customers then empowered viewers and consumers will change the channel or their DVR settings faster than you can skip a commercial. Same is true with respect to brand loyalty.

To ensure long-term viewership by loyal consumers, Hollywood writers must constantly consider all the elements of their characters. If characters become too static and comfortable or if they push the envelope too hard, viewers become uncertain and tune-out. It’s this same scenario that’s problematic for TV shows and organizations.

What’s the secret script writers can share with CEOs?

A “pinch of poison”, thankfully a metaphor, is when a character does something out of character. The writer, producer or director decides (sometimes inadvertently and sometimes to disguise other challenges) to have the hero or heroine do something that defies the character’s previous behaviors, therefore defying a viewer’s expectations and sense of truth. Perhaps it’s as subtle as having a character who typically wears gray pants wear khaki instead. Sometimes it’s less subtle such as having a character switch sides of the bed, or it can be a far more blatant deviation from the character’s norm often for the sole purpose of marketing hype. The result—a sense in the viewer that something isn’t quite right. An almost subliminal message that this character isn’t who we thought they were.

The anecdote for a “pinch” is simply to recognize the element and course correct as soon as possible, preferably within the next scene or the next episode. Fail to address it, and the pinch can actually poison the show. Occasionally a pinch of poison can be something a bit more dramatic. Recently, in an extraordinarily popular show, a well-established character did something radical and incongruent with his character’s nature – he murdered someone. While this was certainly a potential short-term ratings bump, the risk of losing viewers long-term was real and it happened.

What’s the parallel to a “pinch of poison” in business?

When a leadership team works tirelessly on creating a company culture of candor and openness, then suddenly keeps information from their people it’s a pinch of poison. When leaders with a reputation for their commitment to employees are seduced by the opportunity to maximize profit by moving jobs to a less expensive alternative, this is a pinch – a very painful one. And when a company decides to acquiesce to pressures for cheaper, faster, broader appeal in its products or services, this isn’t just a pinch, it’s a full dose.

Leaders face constant pressures from multiple sources, often simultaneously. Short-term gain is a powerful lure. Shareholders and boards want profitable results – quarterly; customers want low prices – daily, and employees want job security – for as long as they choose to stay. These pressures more often than not influence decisions to maximize profitability, irrespective of cost and long-term collateral damage – itself a conundrum. When the “cost” is a key element of culture or product identification, the results can be terminal for everyone.

To avoid pinching investors, customers or team members, leaders must ask, What are the most valued elements of our organization’s character we must not alter? i.e. What have our people, our investors, our customers and our marketplace come to expect and hold dear?

Leaders who identify the core character of their organization and its products or services, and persevere in honoring it, despite the pressure to do otherwise, create a company and culture that everyone values. If there does come a time when a pinch of poison leaks through, the people they’ve served will be happy to provide their own anecdote.

Join the Conversation:

What pinches of poison have you experienced either from within a company or as a consumer?


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