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Bossing It: Building from the Ground Up with Martin Rodahl



Picture North founder on studying Liverpool's Jurgen Klopp, protecting the teams headspace and always being consistent in leadership

Bossing It: Building from the Ground Up with Martin Rodahl

Martin Rodahl founded Picture North in 2008. Since then, Picture North has produced content on every continent (except Antarctica), building a worldwide team of collaborators along the way. Today, they represent directors and editors of diverse backgrounds who have garnered recognition such as the Cannes Lion, Webby, Grammy, Effie, and more. Their clients span a wide range, from tech giants like Google and car brands like Ford and Nissan to non-profit organisations like Special Olympics. Picture North’s international and multilingual profile originates with their executive producers and extends throughout the entire Picture North family. Below, Martin dives into the thought process behind leading an innovative production company in a competitive field and how he built it from the ground up.

LBB> What was your first experience of leadership?

Martin> When I was in pre-school, one of the kids got hurt and I remember making my way through the crowd of students and insisting on being the one to assess the situation and take him to a teacher. In my head, I thought I had some medical advantage here because my father is a doctor, which in retrospect meant nothing of course. In fact, I probably would have caused more harm than good, but I clearly remember it being a moment where I felt compelled to take charge. 

LBB> How did you figure out what kind of leader you wanted to be – or what kind of leader you didn’t want to be?

Martin> Two things: bad clients and soccer coaches. In my early twenties, I was exposed to a string of CEOs and company founders who were in the middle of running their businesses into the ground. We were helping them on the marketing side, which gave me a good look into how these poor leaders treated their employees and most problematic of all kept interjecting themselves into situations they should leave alone. It was micromanagement at its worst. Almost as a reaction to this bottlenecking, I’ve since pursued a leadership style that’s both autonomous and collaborative. It’s an entirely trust-based model that requires each person in the organisation to be very conscientious, since we are rarely looking over each other’s shoulders. But it also requires mindfulness to know when you need help. You can’t let your ego or stubbornness get in the way of the collaborative side of this model and that is where the soccer coaches come into play. I’ve followed sports teams my entire life and picked up a lot of lessons from the managers I admire the most. Production companies consist of a lot of artists, just like athletes, who comprise a collective that’s greater than any one individual. The man-management portion of leadership—how to handle different personalities and motivations within this group—is something I’ve developed from studying coaches like Jurgen Klopp at Liverpool, for example. 

LBB> What experience or moment gave you your biggest lesson in leadership?

Martin> When you work with a core team for almost a decade as we have at Picture North, you start to see your own words and teachings in the emails and conversations, even in the behaviour of your team. This is not a singular experience or ground-breaking moment, but rather a slow realisation that everything you say and do trickles down, however consciously or unconsciously the trickle may be. What may seem like a throw-away comment to one person could stick with someone else forever, so being intentional in everything you say and do as a leader has been a massive lesson for me.

LBB> Did you know you always wanted to take on a leadership role? If so how did you work towards it and if not, when did you start realising that you had it in you?

Martin> After finishing my first corporate internship, I knew with absolute certainty that I wanted to run my own business. So, halfway through university I began building what eventually became my production company, Picture North. The financial recession of 2008 made it easier for me. There was less pressure to get a conventional job simply because there were fewer of them around. I quickly realised that I was not the most technically gifted in terms of film craft, partly because I had spent most of film school partying, but a few people took a chance on me because they trusted me to lead their projects, and once I felt that trust I was fully committed to repaying it.

LBB> When it comes to 'leadership' as a skill, how much do you think is a natural part of personality, how much can be taught and learned?

Martin> First you have to recognise that there are so many different leadership styles. No one style fits all, and even the most abrasive style can be functional from time to time. In terms of leadership, I think the greatest ‘skill’ is to recognise what each situation calls for and to be able to apply the right touch. And if the situation calls for something that’s not a natural part of your personality, can you delegate it to someone who is better equipped at handling it? There is a tremendous amount that a person can learn about leadership, but ultimately a leader will fail if there’s a mismatch between the style and the environment. 

LBB> What are the aspects of leadership that you find most personally challenging? And how do you work through them?

Martin> A leader has to be consistent and consistently lead by example. I want my reactions to be predictable. If they are, that means my team knows what I like and don’t like, which allows them to do their job better. Leaders whose preferences are inconsistent haven’t spent the time it takes to figure out what they want. They are experimenting, shooting at a moving target and wasting the time and resources of their team while doing so. But to get to that level of consistency requires a lot of introspection and examination into the company and its people. That’s hard work that some folks don’t want to do. And that level of consistency also exposes you to scrutiny. Are you the same person privately as you are publicly or professionally? Are you being hypocritical by going on that trip but denying someone else vacation days? Being a leader is an all-consuming lifestyle and upholding the consistency you set for yourself is definitely the hardest part, simply because it’s so much easier to ease off.    

LBB> Have you ever felt like you've failed whilst in charge? How did you address the issue and what did you learn from it?

Martin> Almost all my failures come from miscalculations of time and the inability to recognise that I need help. A classic example: I said yes to a project that ended up taking twice as long as expected and now the work suffers. This is why I keep drilling the importance of time management and knowing when to take something on yourself versus delegating. There’s almost nothing you can’t accomplish in a production company setting if you know your own limits and have the mindfulness, and a dash of humility, to recognise when you’re about to be in trouble. Instead of doubling down on it, allow someone to help and retrace your steps of how you got into this situation. I allow myself to have bad days. But when I tally it all up there are significantly more good days than bad ones. And if I can say the same for the rest of my team then I think we’re onto something.

LBB> In terms of leadership and openness, what’s your approach there? Do you think it’s important to be transparent as possible in the service of being authentic? Or is there a value in being careful and considered?

Martin> I try to protect the headspace of my team as much as possible. You can’t be focused on creativity and productivity if you’re constantly pulled into email threads or conversations about something else. If something isn’t relevant to you, you’re probably not going to hear about it. If something is wrong, I handle it privately and never in a blow-out, spectacle kind of way. Along those lines, the team knows they can always approach me directly if they have a question or a problem they want to solve.

LBB> As you developed your leadership skills did you have a mentor, if so who were/are they and what have you learned? And on the flip side, do you mentor any aspiring leaders and how do you approach that relationship?

Martin> Unfortunately, I did not find a mentor until about a decade into my career. Part of the issue was that as an owner of a US-based production company, my ideal mentor would be another US-based production company owner, but that obviously presented a conflict of interest. Eventually, I linked up with Geoff Cornish, owner of Suneeva in Canada, and together we have quarterly calls about the industry and recent events. It’s been tremendously helpful and something I wish I had from the very start. On the flip side, I spend a lot of time mentoring up-and-coming directors since I’ve had a parallel path as a company owner and director, so there’s a lot of information I can share about sales and how to develop a reel, for example. I want apprentices to have ownership of their own journey, so I don’t want to get in the way with my approach. A very common conversation goes like, “here’s something that’s worked for me. It may not work for you, but it will help you think about how to get to the same end state.” 

LBB> It's been a really challenging year - and that's an understatement. How do you cope with the responsibility of leading a team through such difficult waters?

Martin> When the US locked down in March of 2020, we lost six shoots basically overnight and didn’t go on set again until three months later. That period was definitely challenging, but it also brought to surface results of choices made years earlier. We didn’t have to let anyone go because of our baseline economics and when Covid-19 pushed us out of the office and into our homes and remote working situations, our team was really well equipped for that because we’re so used to working independently and being experts at managing our own time. That said, what you inevitably lose is a bit of that in-person magic that binds a group together. Compensating for that has been the biggest challenge, and I’m not sure there’s a great solution for this other than a collective recognition that we will overcome this, and we will be even stronger as a company on the other side.


LBB> This year has seen the industry confronted with its lack of action/progress on diversity and inclusion. As a leader how have you dealt with this?

Martin> As a leader, I’m trying to spread awareness about this issue. We operate in a talent-driven business, but unfortunately some talents are not given the same opportunities as others. Doing our part to level the playing field and educating decision-makers on all the options available is a central part of Picture North’s mission as evidenced by our Constellation Series, which gives professionals who represent the diversity of our industry a platform to share their work and their personality.

LBB> How important is your company culture to the success of your business? And how have you managed to keep it alive with staff working remotely in 2020?

Martin> Production companies usually consist of small core teams, rarely more than twenty individuals. So, in terms of culture, that means every individual you add or subtract will have a massive impact on that group because there’s no place to hide. This makes hiring decisions incredibly important to how you shape your culture. Yes, they are qualified for the job, but how will their personality impact the existing culture? Will the culture be improved or challenged? The true face of your company culture only surfaces under stress—when your business is either doing very well and everyone is stretched, or when the business is doing very poorly and everyone is stretched, but in a different way. The past year has provided a bit of both; we’ve had periods busier than ever and periods slower than ever. But a solid company culture will always outlast the crazy ebb and flow of production, and sometimes just a reminder of that—what we mean to each other—is enough to restore sanity during a year like 2020.

LBB> What are the most useful resources you’ve found to help you along your leadership journey?

Martin> Working with production companies in different markets, either as a director or on a servicing basis, gives me a sneak peek into how they do business, what my own company Picture North can learn from them, and what to avoid. The pitfalls of production are many. It’s also an extremely competitive business. Advice can be tough to come by and learning the hard way can be very expensive. So, any time I’m able to link up with a different production company, whether it’s in Canada or Egypt or Norway, I always relish those opportunities because it allows me to learn the easier way with much less risk.   

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Picture North, Wed, 03 Nov 2021 10:15:12 GMT