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Bossing It: Neha Schultz on Embracing Problem Solving Opportunities


Picture North's EP and head of development explains why culture is key and how leadership is a skill that can be refined and improved

Bossing It: Neha Schultz on Embracing Problem Solving Opportunities

Neha Schultz joined Picture North in 2014 as executive producer after a successful career at Harpo Studios and CAA. Her role involves overseeing operations, cultivating and developing our director roster, and generating new business across all platforms. With a penchant for travel, culture, language and food, she and Martin Rodahl often race to see who can log more airline miles.

LBB> What was your first experience of leadership?

Neha> In college, I was summoned for jury duty. My natural enthusiasm for jumping into group situations made me a prime candidate to be named Foreman for a fender bender trial. It wasn’t necessarily the trial – which was stereotypically boring – but the deliberation room where I earned my stripes. The jury came from all walks of life, and you could tell some held preconceived notions about who was at fault while others just wanted to wrap up their civic duty as quickly as possible and get back to their everyday lives.

As discussions heated up and emotions clouded procedure, we found ourselves at a standstill. I knew the key was giving everyone in the room an opportunity to speak and truly listen. So, I suggested we start over and establish a process to organise everyone’s opinions then address the directive we were given and how were we going to accomplish it. It was important to analyse what was presented in the courtroom and nothing beyond that. My takeaways: give people a chance to share their perspective, validate each person’s contribution and use process to help organize a game plan and execute. 

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?

Neha> This has been and continues to be an evolution. Having cut my teeth in the corporate entertainment world, I found areas of leadership culture that can be toxic. Simply put, there are a lot of young people vying for a small pool of elite opportunities. But in my role with Picture North, I came to realise that style didn’t align with my personal goals and vision for the company. So, balancing elite performance with a more people centric approach is a style I consistently work to implement. Without the hardworking directors, producers and crew that support Picture North, large creative concepts can’t come to life. Picture North is more boutique than a Creative Artists Agency or Harpo where teammates can be replaced with the snap of a finger. Cultivating good people with strong talent is the name of the game now. With each addition to the team, you get a mind and that’s a powerful resource. I believe – and have found – utilizing and empowering brilliant and creative people from various backgrounds leads to better outcomes. Plus, giving people a stake in the company’s success allows them to think beyond the immediate task at hand or a specific line item and instead focus the whole team’s eyes on the bigger picture. 

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

Neha> Throughout Harpo’s transition from the Oprah Winfrey Show to OWN, I was on the team charged with pitching, developing and creating ideas for the cable network. In its early days, it didn’t skyrocket to success as many had anticipated anything with Oprah’s name would, and that felt like a moment of reckoning for the entire OWN team. In that moment, I observed senior leadership recalibrate.

Instead of digging in their heels, they pivoted, re-evaluated, and re-focused on what Oprah does best: connecting with viewers and giving the stories and creators that made her heart sing a spot in the limelight. They developed key partnerships with premier directors like Ava DuVernay and focused on a demographic substantially underrepresented, under served, and often overlooked in cable: black women. From there, everything shifted. My takeaway: when faced with an unprecedented or unexpected challenge pause, reassess, remember the original intention and chart a new course. Being a leader means being agile and humble enough to be like water and flow with the changes and challenges you face. 

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?

Neha> I’ve always embraced opportunities to problem solve and I love developing processes to establish order in complex situations. As a teen, I MC’ed talent shows, directed student plays, and pursued service opportunities through student council. I competed in Speech and Theater at the national level, and starting at 14, I put myself into situations where I had to show up ready to stand up in front of hundreds of people and sell myself. In my time at Harpo working for one of the most empathetic and powerful leaders in the world, I learned to set intention above all else. Now, as the Executive Producer and Head of Development at Picture North, I want to evolve beyond the lessons I learned in my early career to implement new ways of inspiring others. Over the past few years, I’ve taken MBA courses on values-based leadership and diversity, and I’ve established relationships with mentors who not only embody my shared values but also successfully built strong teams in their respective industries despite the toxicity present in highly competitive environments. The early portions of my career were about perfection and personal performance; as a leader, I realize my success centers on the performance of teams I assemble and oversee, all the while personally prioritizing balance, empathy, self-reflection, and creativity. If I can walk that talk, I believe I have a greater opportunity to inspire them individually and ultimately bring out the best in them as a group. 

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?

Neha> Leadership is a skill that can be refined and improved. While it comes to some more naturally than others, I think that leaders are forged over time through experiences, education, trials and tribulations, and, above all, brutally honest self-reflection. The best leaders constantly strive to refine their style and new ways to have the greatest impact on as many people as they can. I’ve learned that I’ll never be done learning, growing and refining the way I lead. 

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

Neha> Delegation and trust. The only way to work through these challenges is by building teams with individuals who feel equally responsible and passionate about the company as if it was theirs. The core of Picture North is our roster of talented directors and their laser focus and creative vision. We work with a lot of freelancers, which adds another challenge, because, frankly, how do you convince a freelancer to assume the same laser focus to bring a director’s vision to life and uphold our company’s values? I think generating a network of partners that doesn’t just believe but trusts you value them and have their back is essential. Plus, I think Picture North’s dedication to the highest quality deliverables helps. People seem to be more passionate about working on something insanely beautiful or inspiring or that showcases a new technique. 

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?

Neha> Of course. I’ve had to learn to overcome the inevitable negative self-talk that comes when something goes wrong, especially in a business built on people and trust. I can’t do the job of everyone on a set, and there are times when miscommunication or assumptions result in negative outcomes. The best way to deal with these issues is to sit down with the responsible party, walk through the problem step by step, and develop solutions together to avoid the same outcome in the future. The key is to create processes that empower people to access their fullest expression while feeling like they have a stake in our company’s success. 

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?

Neha> I think a leader should be mindful and thoughtful about transparency, but I think there is value to being open and honest, but selectively. I think it’s important to share my personal goals for development as a leader, but again picking my spots. It makes a difference for my teams to see me as a peer and a human. My hope is that openness allows teammates to be willing to admit their own challenges and allows us to tackle them together. Change is constant and growth comes from embracing the challenges that come with change. Finding the beauty of failing spectacularly is a challenge, but those experiences are something I value and something I invite my team to share in. This is especially true for my new role as Head of Development. 

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?

Neha> Candi Carter is a beloved leader and great example for me. She’s broken barriers for herself, she’s constantly evolving, she’s always finding ways to make a difference. Whether founding a service organization or encouraging a corporate shift, she’s always moving forward and lifting those around her. She’s an absolute joy to work with and learn from, and she’s always been an inspiration to me as an ambitious woman and mother. 

I’m also developing a new relationship with Suzanne Allan at Sequoia in Toronto. As the EP of a successful commercial production company and a veteran at developing directors, she knows first-hand the day-to-day challenges I face at Picture North, and it feels good to be able to bounce ideas off of and gain some perspective from her, especially after a year like 2020 when we had to find a way to thrive in tough times. 

No mentees yet, but I love the idea of helping lift other women and people of colour in our creative industry. As the daughter of Indian immigrants, my parents couldn’t have imagined in their wildest dreams that I would be working in film, tv and commercials. They always thought I would be a doctor. So, being able to show others that there is a path to success is something I want to pay forward. 

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

Neha> 2020 and 2021 were years where it was extremely important to be prepared to pivot at a moment’s notice, trying to anticipate how our company might solve problems in new ways. We moved quickly to find solutions because we had to. Fortunately, we were able to establish safe modes of working in the uncertainty of early Covid, and since June 2020, we’ve has been as busy as ever. 

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?

Neha> A year ago, I launched an initiative with our brand team called Constellations where we feature a female or BIPOC creator in our industry on our social media to shine the light on the diverse talent out there. My goal is to find organic and authentic ways to uplift underrepresented creators around me. It works out nicely because our Picture North EP team loves to mentor and support young directors and creators. 

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?

Neha> For a boutique production company, culture is key. We are a director and creative led company, so I am focused on putting that first while also managing agency and client needs and expectations. People are valuable, and our freelance crew members have been putting their literal health and lives on the line each day of the last two years working on production sets during a global pandemic. We have employed hundreds of individuals across the country thanks to keeping our sights set on safety above all else. Honestly, none of our success would have been possible without all the crew that supported our productions across the country and world. In the end, it’s about expressing that gratitude and validating every person that helped create magic in the toughest of times. 

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

Neha> Constantly exploring opportunities to learn, seeking leaders I admire, auditing MBA courses in leadership, business development and diversity, prioritizing a meditation practice, reading (Jim Collins’ Good to Great, Harry Kraemer’s Values Based Leadership, Adam Grant’s Give and Take to name a few), and consistently welcoming brutally honest feedback. The greatest resource is the gift of feedback. It can be painful, but there is no better way to identify your blind spots and work towards progress with someone who has your back. 

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Picture North, Thu, 13 Jan 2022 09:31:00 GMT