Career Advice

8 Leadership Tips from an Oscar Winner

Olympia and BonnieMovie awards season is here and busy actors have much to teach those of us not in the spotlight.

Oscar-winning actress Olympia Dukakis (Moonstruck) is my mentor and friend, and I worked as her personal executive assistant for 25 years. I resigned from this dream job in 2011 to pursue another. I am now training executive and personal assistants to be the best in the business.

Olympia taught me a great deal and as I teach others, I carry Olympia’s words and philosophies with me to help others be “the ultimate” in whatever they do. She had one of the strongest and most disciplined work ethics I have ever experienced. We half-jokingly called Olympia “the thespian nun” as she hunkered down to make her work look oh so effortless.

OlympiawithOscarI felt very lucky to have a front row seat for the Oscar machine of 1988. As exciting and glamorous as it was, it was also an organizational challenge of the highest order. There is one main thing to know about winning an Oscar: You need to get nominated for one first and the six weeks between the nominations and the ceremony are jam-packed with endless publicity and events related to the Oscars. Envision your busiest day ever and then multiply that by five and give it a triple shot of espresso. That kind of busy. Plus, since actors are still human beings, they do need to eat and sleep occasionally.

Here are eight tips from Olympia’s straight-shooter playbook which helped us before, during and long after the Oscars.

1. Do one thing well, not two things badly.  Olympia had an impossibly heavy schedule on most days of our 25 years together so we learned this lesson the hard way. We are all tempted to multitask and schedule just one more meeting in the day, but most of the time, it just isn’t worth it. Here’s the rub: no matter how famous you are, you still only get those pesky 24 hours.

2. Speak to the elephant in the room. What a time-waster and energy suck it is to not say the thing that everyone is thinking but no one has the guts to say because it might hurt someone’s feelings or might make a difficult project a little bit harder. Say it anyway. Speaking up is absolutely vital in work and in life, and if you are the one who says the hard thing – with compassion – you will be viewed as a trusted leader.

3. When in doubt, ask. Still in doubt? Ask again. Ask until you are clear what is needed. Better to ask than to make what might be a very expensive and wrong decision. Attention to detail and clarification builds respect and motivates others to be clearer the next time.

4. “No one is going to theatre jail over this.” This sentence helped us keep perspective over the inevitable mistakes and their level of seriousness. Keep and use your sense of humor as you work past the things that go wrong. Then move on. Really. Move on.

5. Everything is negotiable. Everything. Even the Department of Motor Vehicles offers VIP services and secret doors and not just for movie stars. Did you know that bankers make house calls? Airports will even open extra security lines upon request. The trick? Finding the right phone number and asking nicely.

6. Don’t allow small disagreements to escalate info insurmountable mountains. Tolerating short-term discomfort is far better than long-term misery, distraction, and resentment. There is too much good work to do for that and too many great movies to watch.

7. Keep yourself physically comfortable. Long days for weeks on end can take a very big toll, especially when you are traveling and needing to sleep in different time zones.  Ask for quiet locations in hotels and keep healthy snacks with you at all times. Use a sound machine for soothing white noise like the ocean or wind. Do you need a quick meditation? Here.

8. Show gratitude. Theatre is a collaborative art so Olympia knows that everyone plays a part in the success of every project. Saying thank you to everyone involved in your work is simply the right thing to do.  No one wins an Oscar alone.

Bonus Tip:  Communicate! After the Oscars, Olympia put the statue in the middle of my desk with a note under it – “Find a place for him.” I did.

Learning from Olympia Dukakis was one of the joys of my career. You probably won’t win an Oscar and neither will I, but we can all be winners in our workplace by taking Olympia’s lead. And…If you haven’t seen Moonstruck, it is a terrific film. Enjoy the Oscars!