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Bossing It: Leading Is Teaching with Sara Eolin

Bossing It 128 Add to collection

Rocket Film's managing director and co-owner on honing her craft, taking great responsibility and the importance of being open and honest in leadership

Bossing It: Leading Is Teaching with Sara Eolin

Sara Eolin is the managing director/co-owner of bi-coastal Rocket Film. Sara started in production at Castle Rock Television and HBO. She moved into advertising production working at Grey, Merkley + Partners, and eventually at Lowe Worldwide as Head of Production. She joined the vendor ranks as an Executive Producer at Aero Film and established their sister visual effects company, Parachute. In 2017, she founded Rocket with Aero alums, directors Ken Arlidge and Klaus Obermeyer. Their combined pedigree of revolutionizing the industry from production to creative has proven to be unique and powerful when coupled with their business philosophy of creative empowerment. Rocket is focused on long-term investments versus the pursuit of short-term profit with bylaws of the company enforcing a reinvestment of 40 percent of all profits back into the company to fund passion projects and especially those that ignite social change. Rocket boasts a roster of 10 A-list directors with a strong emphasis on female talent. Sara is a member of NY Women in Film & Television, Free the Work, and the International Radio and Television Society. She lives in NYC with her husband, son, and two very lazy dogs.

 

LBB> What was your first experience of leadership?

Sara> I was always the one who took charge in school projects, like I was the ‘CEO’ of my Young Astronauts team in 4th grade. I organised the school play in 5th grade. (Sooooo glad YouTube didn’t exist then!) Those little things all led up to having the confidence to be Drum Major for my high school Marching Band. I have heard every band camp and nerd joke around, but drum major is no joke. You’re leading a group of kids on a field in front of the entire school and community. You mess up, everyone messes up. I really thrived in that responsibility and took it very seriously. 


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?

Sara> I’ve learned many of my most valuable lessons from terrible leaders, mainly leaders who rely on fear as a motivation. Ironically, I think they really pushed me to be better, but at the detriment of my mental health. Being locked in a cage is good motivation for learning to pick a lock, but it’s not a great situation! 

My favourite leaders were often great teachers. Marty Orzio at Merkley and Gary Goldsmith at Lowe were two standouts to me. They guided and inspired our teams to do great work. You never wanted to disappoint them. They wouldn’t yell, but the face of disappointment was crushing in the most healthy way. That’s also how my parents were, so it doesn’t take Dr. Freud to figure out why I hope I always emulate that style. 


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

Sara> When I became head of production at Lowe Worldwide, I was 29 years old. It happened fairly suddenly and was as much a surprise to me as it was to others in the department. Many were older than me and made it very apparent that they weren’t pleased with this decision. I was equally terrified and excited for the challenge. I had to tune out the naysayers and just do my job. I fought for the people who didn’t like me. If they were good at their job, that’s all that mattered. I learned quickly to transcend above my personal feelings and put the good of the department first. 


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?

Sara> Always. Some may call it a touch of ‘control freak,’ but I don’t like leading as a way to tell people what to do, but rather making sure there’s someone pushing the ball towards the goal. I didn’t necessarily see this in myself until I applied to be an Orientation Leader in college. It was a pretty long process and the last interview was a round table with other applicants. There was a pile of cards in the middle of the table with ‘what if’ scenarios on them. We were given no instructions. Everyone sat there for a minute, and then I stood up, grabbed the cards and said, “Let’s go through it!” I took notes and moderated the discussion. I got the job and they said that was the moment that they knew. I’ve always stood up. I always volunteer. Which, coincidently, is also one of my biggest downfalls! But it’s in me. It’s what I naturally like to do. 

 

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?

Sara> Any skill can be taught. I could learn the skill of drawing, but I’ll never be gifted at it. I think the same is for leadership, great leaders are naturally gifted. You can hone your craft or your process and learn what works best. Sounds trite, but part of being a good leader is to always be open to learning. You need to know you don’t know it all.

 

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

Sara> I take things personally and failures feel like FAILURES!!!! If we don’t win a job we’re bidding on, I beat myself up. A lot. I feel bad that I let down the director, my producing team, the crew we were going to hire. Work days for crew members that were needed to be qualified for health insurance... I feel it ALL. I know this is completely unsustainable, and that there are a million reasons beyond what me and my team has done that is involved in decision making... But it’s hard. The responsibility I feel to support my team can be my greatest motivation and my greatest demon. At these times, I lean on my business partners, Ken Arlidge and Klaus Obermeyer, who are the best therapists and cheerleaders on Earth. They help me see the forest for the trees and realign my focus…. And they make me laugh a LOT. 

 

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?

Sara> See above! Yes for sure. Not to get philosophical, but failure is a spectrum. One day I might see something as a giant failure, and the next I see the opportunity and the bright nugget of inspiration from that same event. For me, it’s really a matter of keeping a calm head and taking care of my own sanity. I’ve gotten much better about giving myself a moment to wallow and then moving on. I go for a run. I go for a walk. Then give myself that quintessential Cher-in-Moonstruck “snap out of it!” slap to redirect my energy to good. Today’s disaster is tomorrow’s punchline or totally forgotten. 


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

Sara> OPEN. Transparent and open and honest. Careful and considered can easily become cagey and manipulative. It’s truly just a matter of the golden rule. I treat others the way I want them to treat me. Give it to me straight and give me all the information, and I’ll do the same. 

 

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?

Sara> I had many people I looked up to in the business. Stephanie Apt from Final Cut has been a wonderful North Star for me. She’s always been honest and given fantastic advice… even when I didn’t realise she was doing it. (Let’s just say she has a very sneaky way of recommending books!) When I was an intern at Grey NY, Buzz Warren was my mentor and I think I learned more from him than anyone on the planet. He was like my work dad. I adored every moment with him and distinctly remember the first project I shadowed him on (Canon Elph camera launch!). I will always think “what would Buzz do?” I am now a part of the AICP mentorship program and I was blown away by my mentee. I hope she’ll hire ME one day. I hope that I’ve been someone’s Stephanie or Buzz.

 

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?

Sara> Oh, I drink a lot. KIDDING. I drink modestly… but my dogs get free treats from the liquor store, so… Honestly, this has been a difficult year. It’s hard to be creative when worrying about your family, friends, the human race, and the state of democracy. I mean, pick one or two, not all the above. The best outlet has been to start exercising creative muscles that were going dormant. Digging deep into the “why are we filmmakers?” has generated some wonderful film projects that a few years ago we wouldn’t have thought to do… or had that extra time to do it. 


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?

Sara> Our company is fairly diverse and as we grow, diversity is one of our many objectives. We are all stronger when we come together with different backgrounds, perspectives and viewpoints. Part of my job isn’t just to build my own company, but to encourage our clients to see the value in giving directors of underrepresented backgrounds a fair shake at a job. The key to diversity and inclusion is reaching out and giving opportunities. I can knock on doors. I can help shape a reel and coach through how the world of commercials work, but encouraging agencies and clients to look at budding reels with a new lens is where the change will happen. 

 

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?

Sara> Rocket isn’t a company, it’s a culture. That was the founding reason for creating Rocket. We want all the directors to know each other and learn from one another-- having a creative workspace where they can share ideas and not feel isolated. We have a video call once a month with everyone on the roster, and have since day one. When Covid hit, this happened every week and it’s kept us close, even though many of us haven’t seen each other in person for over 18 months. We have a strict no-asshole policy and our directors know that when they're on set, they’re representing all the directors of Rocket and their actions reflect upon everyone. This has made it very easy for us to choose who’s a Rocket director and who is not. 


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

Sara> Honestly, it’s not a what, it’s a who. My parents. They taught me my work ethic, encouraged my ambitions, always listened to my worries and concerns, and have a treasure trove of great advice. They have truly given me everything I’ve needed along the way. They were small business owners, and while 13-year old Sara rolled her eyes at having to work at their radio station, I learned so much I don’t even know where to begin. I first learned that I hate filing and filing cabinets… But I learned that the best boss sets up their employees for success and is their biggest cheerleader. If people aren’t cutting it, you owe them feedback on how to grow and change. That’s YOUR job. If after that, it’s not a good fit, so be it, but a good leader gives that opportunity. I saw that from them constantly. When my dad passed away, the thing I heard over and over at his funeral was, “Bob was the best boss I ever had.” He and my mom gave people true opportunities and were excited to see people grow and thrive. I’m so proud of them and what they achieved, and I’m so incredibly lucky that they gave me the privilege to grow up seeing that this is what I could do. They were hard on me so that I could navigate on my own. I still hear my dad’s advice in my head. My mom still waves little red flags (and gives great hugs). I’m forever grateful. 


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Rocket Film, Thu, 09 Sep 2021 10:19:50 GMT