Women of the C-Suite: “Be open minded and listen” with Kristen Kearns
Be open minded and listen. Someone once told me when faced with someone who had a differing opinion than yours to always ask yourself, “what if they are right?” By letting this linger in your mind, it gives you the space to question yourself and what you have always done. You can’t immediately shut down someone’s idea if you consider for a moment that they may be right. You listen, absorb, question, and then make a decision.
I had the pleasure to interview Kristen Kearns, executive producer at the video production company, ELEMENT Productions.
Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?
I grew up in a very artistic family. My father is an artist, my mother a dancer. It was natural for me to want to be in the arts or around creative people. I went to a performing arts high school since I thought I wanted to be an actress, but during my senior year I directed a show and decided I preferred to be behind the scenes instead of onstage. I liked supporting the actors and actresses to express their creativity and could see myself in a similar role professionally. That led me to choose Emerson College, where I majored in TV/Film production. There, I realized I wanted to be a producer, as I liked overseeing all the different roles and watching everyone work together to execute a collective creative vision.
One afternoon, on my way to apply for an internship, I stumbled into the wrong office and wound up at a casting company who hired me to intern on the spot. It was a great internship where I met so many amazing production companies and directors. The job introduced me to ELEMENT, who I began working for a couple years later.
Can you share the most interesting story that has happened to you since you began your executive role?
I encounter some of the oddest requests in my job, from finding lions to pigeons, magicians to boxers, shooting in the air or underwater. I’ve gotten to work with world-famous athletes and celebrities, and I’ve traveled all over the world and prepped jobs on every continent but Antartica. But some of my most interesting stories are figuring out ways to make the impossible possible.
Last year, we were approached about a project to help an advertising agency figure out how to run a tiny home entirely on recycled coffee grounds. The tiny home would then be used in a live event in New York, and later moved to a scenic location and rented out for people to stay. We found a biofuel company that could convert the natural oils in the coffee into actual burning fuel for a generator that could power a home. We documented the entire process, including the making of the biofuel, custom building the tiny home, the New York event, and finally wrap up with renting the home on Airbnb.
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?
I started in the business when commercials were still shot on film. We got the opportunity to test out some new HD cameras to film one of ELEMENT’s commercials. I was the production manager on the project and was asked to order the tape stock for this new camera. The tape stock came in either 30 minutes or 60 minutes. Of course I thought 60 minutes would be best, as it would allow us to capture more footage on 1 tape. This was very exciting, considering we typically got 8 minutes out of a roll of film. When the tapes arrived, they were practically the size of the camera! How was I supposed to know that the 60 minute tapes would be twice the size of the 30 minute tape that actually fits inside the camera?
I learned to not assume anything and ask lots and LOTS of questions. There are so many people more knowledgeable in specialty areas that there is no shame in not knowing something and gaining knowledge from their expertise. Surround yourself with experienced, knowledgeable people.
What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?
The people we work with have always been the key to our success. ELEMENT’s company culture is very important and we have very little tolerance for in-fighting, undermining, or jerks. We want people to grow, and we support them to be as successful as they can be. Their success is our success.
Are you working on any exciting new projects now? How do you think those will help people?
We recently wrapped on a 9 day shoot for Wyndham Destinations. They are in the process of launching their latest branding campaign. It is a massive undertaking with print collateral, a new website and new video footage. ELEMENT was tasked with capturing photography and video materials for this new launch. We shot in 4 cities through snow storms and flash floods, but ended up with a massive library of video content and stills that they can leverage for all their content initiatives during this massive brand launch. This project is a great example for other clients to leverage any shoot they do across multiple channels and think through their content plan for the year, so they can maximize their investment in video production.
What advice would you give to other female leaders, to help their team to thrive?
Give. Give your time and your knowledge. Learn when to listen and when to advise. Prop up your team and support them through their mistakes and their frustrations. See mistakes as learning opportunities. Allowing my team the room to grow and challenge themselves leaves them more fulfilled in their career.
What advice would you give to other female leaders about the best way to manage a large team?
As much as you can, try to always have an open door. You want to be approachable and for people to be able to ask you for help. I have 3 kids at home and sometimes feel like I have 20 kids at work. I celebrate their successes and try to give them the freedom to experience projects on their own and make their own mistakes. But I am always there to catch them if they stumble. I am always there if they ask for help. I am always there to brainstorm if they need me.
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?
My mother was an inspiration to me. She was a single mother who ran her own business, and put me to work when I was in middle school sorting mail and balancing accounting registers. I learned the value of working hard and the value of working as a team. I remember listening to hours and hours of motivational audiobooks during our car rides — I think those implanted somewhere in my brain. I was lucky to be able to witness my mother doing what she loved, as she was passionate and a breaker of glass ceilings. She was often the only female at the table. Witnessing her strength and persistence made me feel like I belonged at the table in whatever career I chose.
How have you used your success to bring goodness to the world?
Offering up our services to nonprofit organizations is a big part of our company culture. Each year I have been able to work with amazing nonprofits: Fisher House, Alzheimer’s Organization, Home for Little Wanderers, Big Brothers Big Sisters, and on and on. This is some of the most rewarding work that we do. It makes a difference for each organization and uses our experience for good.
What are 5 leadership lessons you’ve learned from your experience? (Please share a story or an example of each.)
Don’t sweat the small stuff:
I remember being on the verge of tears producing a commercial for General Mills. It was crunch time and I had so much to do before the shoot day. My head was spinning and I was frozen by all the tasks that needed to get done; I didn’t know where to start. I remember venting to my boyfriend (and now husband) and he reminded me that I was getting myself all worked up over Cheerios. It made me laugh and put what I was doing into perspective. I wasn’t curing cancer, I was producing a commercial. Once I wasn’t taking myself so seriously, I was able to chip away at everything and not sweat it. When I find the stress creeping into my shoulders and tensing up, I remember to take a deep breath and think “Cheerios.”
Ask for help:
When you are starting out in your career, it can be normal to doubt yourself and not want to let anyone know. I feared asking for help. I thought that in order to be successful, I needed to do it all myself. Eran Lobel, the CEO of ELEMENT, likes to tell this story of me when I was first starting out. We were in the process of moving furniture around in the office and I picked up the end of a very heavy sofa. He could see that I was struggling, but I refused to ask for help, even when he offered. Of course, I ended up dropping my end of the sofa. This ended up being a perfect metaphor that he would retell time and time again. It was okay to ask for help. It was not a sign of weakness. We were all there to work as a team and by relying on each other, we all had a better chance to succeed.
Be open minded and listen:
Someone once told me when faced with someone who had a differing opinion than yours to always ask yourself, “what if they are right?” By letting this linger in your mind, it gives you the space to question yourself and what you have always done. You can’t immediately shut down someone’s idea if you consider for a moment that they may be right. You listen, absorb, question, and then make a decision.
Allow yourself to fail, but be persistent:
If you don’t try something new then you can’t grow. Sometimes new attempts fail, but each one is a learning experience we can learn from and, once we are ready, try and try again. As the COO, I am always testing out new processes and systems to try and make the company more efficient. Some of these systems work and some of them definitely do not, but I can’t stop trying to improve. Our world is constantly changing, so there is always a new thing to try and test and a new way to look at the same problem.
Focus your time on what matters most:
With a busy work life and an even busier family life, I have to be efficient with my time. I review my to do list each day and prioritize. Then I sit with each task and see it through. We are in a world of multitasking, but I try to be a unitasker. I find myself more productive if I can choose one task, focus on it and bring it to completion. If I am jumping around from task to task, things fall through the cracks, or the attention to detail is lost, and in the end I am inefficient. It ends up taking me more time to complete a bunch of tasks at once rather than each task on its own. For example, touch an email once, or at the most twice. You can waste a lot of time clicking through emails that you keep saying to yourself, I’ll get to that later.
If you could perform a project that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be?
I am lucky to work in an industry with some of the most talented and creative people I have ever met. When we work together to tell stories that inspire on behalf of an organization, it can educate and motivate change in people. I would love to do more of these. It is the most rewarding part of my career.
What’s your favorite life lesson quote? How has it been relevant to your life?
“You get in life what you have courage to ask for.”
I was a shy child growing up, despite my love for performing on stage. Off stage, I kept to myself and had a very small group of friends. I was not one to speak up and often let others speak over me. In my early professional career, I remember being asked to sit in during the editing of a commercial. Everyone was giving feedback about how we could improve the commercial. I remember speaking up for the first time and I was lucky to be in a room of people that actually listened to my opinion and what I had to say. To my surprise, everyone agreed with me and my suggestions actually made the edit of the project even better. It was a pivotal moment in my life, as it was at that moment I found my voice. I gained the confidence to speak up and as a result was able to ask for more: more projects to do, more opportunities to travel and more responsibilities, which resulted in the fruitful growth of my career.
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