How To Identify And Retain Fantastic Talent with Colin Beadle of Atomic Cartoons

Kage Spatz
Mar 3 · 12 min read
Colin Beadle

Of course, nobody wants to harm anything intentionally. So, it’s important to ask ourselves if the decision we are about to make could end up doing exactly that.

As a part of my HR Strategy Series, I’m talking to top experts in the field to teach prospects what hiring managers are actually looking for, while also supporting business leaders in their hiring and retention strategies. Today I had the pleasure of talking with Colin Beadle.

Colin Beadle is an internationally recognized animator turned HR professional. He is currently the HR Director for Atomic Cartoons, which he joined four years ago. Atomic is the kids and family division of Thunderbird Entertainment Group, a global entertainment company that produces scripted, factual and animated content for the world’s leading platforms. Colin’s career began in 1999 when he started working in animation, later moving into television and video game production. His passion for this work has given him opportunities to work at major studios like Disney Interactive, Titmouse Inc. and Lucasfilm Animation. At Atomic, Colin and his team take making cartoons very seriously, but nothing is more important than cultivating a work environment that encourages artists to challenge themselves and push boundaries. Colin plays a pivotal leadership role in fostering this environment across Atomic’s three studios — Vancouver, Ottawa and now Los Angeles. With the addition of the LA studio, the company has the capacity to house 880 animators across all locations, and is scaling up to meet the incredible demand for premium content as the result of the streaming wars. All Atomic studios mix a laidback, artist-friendly environment with serious creative chops, and strive to be places where artists create the best work of their life. This is demonstrated across their productions, including the multiple Emmy Award-winning series Beat Bugs, the widely popular series Last Kids on Earth, and the groundbreaking new hit Molly of Denali, which continues to receive rave reviews for its authentic representation of Alaska Native culture. Most recently, Molly of Denali was named to the New York Times’ list of The Best TV Episodes of 2019.

Thank you so much for doing this with us! First, please tell us what brought you to this specific career path?

I began my career as a studio runner fetching coffee for animation executives, racing videotapes to the airport for FedEx deliveries, and begging directors to let me animate shots on their shows. It was a wild and crazy time, and I was lucky to meet some incredibly talented people in the industry; most of whom I still work with today. From there I moved into a creative role as a 3D animator. I definitely enjoyed doing this work, but my heart was pulling me towards the production side. After I shifted into a production coordinator role, it quickly led to opportunities as a production manager, line producer, and producer. While working with my production teams on multiple projects, I discovered that I have a passion for helping and supporting artists. This led to the greater realization that if I moved into human resources, I would be able to support an entire studio of artists, not just one team. This is what prompted me to make the move I did, and shift my career within an industry that I was already passionate about.

Can you share the most interesting or funny story that happened to you since you started this career and what lesson you learned from that?

My father worked in HR for his entire career, and I wasn’t initially sure I was making the right decision by following in his footsteps. But once I asked to make the move, the leadership team at Atomic was extremely supportive. So, I went back to school and took a course in HR Fundamentals at the UBC Sauder School of Business. I remember the first thing an instructor told us to do was get onto the floor of your workplace and find out what everyone does. It was that moment when I realized I’d made the right decision. As someone who had worked in a wide variety of roles within the industry, I already had a good understanding of how the art that we produce is created. And, with my existing creative and production knowledge, combined with the support of Atomic’s leadership team, I was set up for success as I moved into an HR role.

Are you working on any exciting new projects at your company? How is this helping people?

Atomic has gained a reputation for being a very safe place to work in a highly competitive industry. This has helped us develop and maintain a diverse workforce of artists as we’ve rapidly grown from 200 crew in 2015, to approximately 880 today. Atomic’s inclusive nature, combined with Thunderbird’s (our parent company) diversity goals, are also some of the many reasons I love what I do and enjoy coming to work every day. In 2020, we have chosen to further deepen our practice, and are currently working with KITH+common to help make our company an even better place to be.

Thunderbird is a Company that is dedicated to producing high quality, innovative, and socially responsible content that makes the world a better place. We also look to promote diversity through the content we produce and distribute around the world. Be it Kim’s Convenience, Queen of the Oil Patch, Molly of Denali, or the upcoming Princesses Wear Pants, Thunderbird is dedicated to producing quality stories with positive messages. These are stories people love being a part of because of what they represent. They carry strong messages and positively impact our world.

Wonderful. Now let’s jump into the main focus of our series. Hiring can be very time consuming and difficult. Can you share 5 techniques that you use to identify the talent that would be best suited for the job you want to fill? Please share an example of each idea.

1. Hiring from outside your industry: You don’t always have to look within your industry for talent. This is especially true when searching for new members to join production teams. The hardest working and most organized people could be the barista at your local coffee shop, or server at your favorite lunch spot. All they need is for someone to recognize the value they bring to the table and open the door to a new opportunity. When waiting in line for a coffee, I often find myself thinking “I bet that person would be an amazing production coordinator.” In fact, multiple members of our team came directly from the service industry, and their multi-tasking and co-ordinating abilities are in a league of their own.

2. Demo reels and portfolios: In the animation industry, it’s all about how strong your portfolio or demo reel is. It is about what you have produced, and the quality of your work. What your resume looks like is not that important — because often that isn’t a reflection of what a person actually does. I have learned throughout the years that self-promotion doesn’t come easily for everybody, and I don’t want to miss out on incredible talent because someone can’t toot their own horn. Our recruiting team always says they just need to be able to easily find your contact info, and when we make the decision to bring an artist in for an interview, most of the time we’ve already decided they’re technically able to do the job.

3. Personal work: When looking at a reel or portfolio it’s obviously important to see professional work, but it’s equally important to see personal work and understand what makes a person tick. In our industry, doing great work and being passionate about producing it go hand-in-hand.

4. Past experience in unrelated fields: Everyone’s past experiences outside of their current industry have helped shape them into the person they are today. Whenever we see resumes with past experience in the service industry, it’s usually a good sign the candidate has a strong work ethic, ability to multi-task, and can handle feedback.

5. Casual interview process (getting to really know candidates): Interviews at Atomic are more of a freeform conversation than a predetermined list of questions. We’ve brought you in to meet you because we know you can draw or animate. What we don’t know is whether you’re the right fit for the studio and if we’re the right fit for you. The more casual the conversation, the easier it is to get a sense of what it would be like to work together. Do we think you’re cool? Do you think we’re cool? Can we make something awesome together? Cultural fit is really important at Thunderbird and Atomic, just as it should be for all organizations. It contributes to workplace happiness and employee retention. It also results in a passionate team of artists producing incredible work that they are extremely proud of.

With so much noise and competition out there, what are your top 3 ways to attract and engage the best talent in an industry when they haven’t already reached out to you?

1. Kindness: I’ve never forgotten what it’s like to attend a career fair with your demo reel in hand hoping you’ll land a job. It can be really scary, and for some people, it takes a lot of energy and strength to put themselves out there. With this in mind, it’s so important to be kind and compassionate to anyone that’s interested in working with you. The first conversation you have with someone is often the one they never forget.

2. Connecting with the next generation(s): The animation industry in North America is expanding and there aren’t currently enough schools to fill the demand for talent. It’s a long game, but if you can get into the high schools and middle schools in your area, there’s a great opportunity to inspire the next generation of artists to join your industry.

3. Networking and community engagement: Attending job fairs and industry expos are important, but in these venues, you’re up against every other competitor. It can be tough to stand out. One of the most effective ways to meet new talent is to invite them into your studio to see first hand what a typical day looks like. We regularly invite classes and individuals to Atomic to connect with in-house artists and answer any questions they may have about the industry. This is a great way to start conversations about future opportunities.

What are the 3 most effective strategies you use to retain employees?

1. Empathy and respect: Everyone has good days and everyone has bad days. Life is complicated and full of twists and turns. I’m lucky to work with a leadership team that all truly understands this. When anyone in the studio is struggling or needs someone to talk to, there is always a door open for them. And when someone has a bad day, nobody holds a grudge.

2. Communication and transparency: You can’t always explain every decision, but the more your employees know about what is going on around them, the better. Nobody likes to be left in the dark or the last to find something out. Transparency across the organization is key.

3. Employee surveys and providing opportunities to give feedback: Twice a year, we ask our employees a series of questions and give them the opportunity to anonymously respond. We want to know how we’re doing and what we can do to improve. Once we gather this information, we then present it back to the entire studio in order to hold ourselves accountable. The good, the bad, and the ugly. It’s not always easy to read the feedback, but this is one of the best ways to find out what matters most to our employees.

In your experience, is it important for HR to keep up with the latest trends? If so, please share an example of what this might look like.

Yes, this is important in order to remain competitive, but it’s easy to get caught up in buzz words and software that can overcomplicate HR processes instead of helping simplify them. At the end of the day what’s most important is that you listen to your people and you have the right tools to support them. There’s a lot of very expensive HR-related tools and software out there, but that might not have what your organization needs. It is also important to have your finger on the pulse of what is going on in your industry as a whole, because this can help you determine what future talent and new hires may be looking for in a working environment. For example, the entertainment industry has been hit with many stories of toxic workplaces and management, all pointing to a lack of diversity and equality. As an HR professional, it’s our job to be cued into this industry feedback so we can address it in within our own companies. I’m proud to be a part of an inclusive leadership team, but I also know we can always be better.

What are some creative ways to increase the value provided to employees without breaking the bank?

Our twice-yearly Employee Survey is not just a great way to find out what’s working and not working in the company. It’s also a very affordable thing to do. The results we get are absolutely vital to identify any problems that may be brewing within the studio. Whether it’s something big we need to look at Company-wide, a specific project that needs more support, or even something simple to fix — like better coffee — the value of getting this information cannot be overstated.

We also regularly have lunch and learn sessions hosted by local experts and charities that our employees bring forward to us. Some of our best sessions have actually been hosted by our own internal artists, which is very exciting to me. Having regular opportunities to deliver presentations on their specific areas of expertise is an important way to help inspire and keep staff engaged. These types of sessions are also usually the most well attended.

Another way that we have created intrinsic value to our team members is through the content we produce. Our leadership actively seeks out content that has powerful and positive messages. For example, we are developing a new animated series alongside Drew Barrymore’s production company Flower Films, based on the #1 New York Times best-selling book series Princesses Wear Pants, written by Savannah Guthrie and Allison Oppenheim. It shares the adventures of Princess Penelope Pineapple and her friends, and encourages young girls to be brave, ambitious, and unafraid to make a difference, all while wearing dresses and tiaras — or pants — if that’s what they want to wear. The series aims to empower young girls and young boys by celebrating that you can be pink and sparkly, while still being a strong woman and ally who gets things done. It’s the type of project people feel good about working on, because of what it stands for and puts out in the world. I believe this production greatly demonstrates the strong values of our company, which are complemented by the type of productions we get behind. In doing so, we can attract and retain talent because there is a strong sense of pride in doing work that does good in the world.

If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be?

Kindness and respect have been two of the key factors in our studio’s success. No matter who you speak to on our management team, everyone is there to listen and their doors are always open. I’ve never worked at a studio where an entire senior management team was this aligned, from the CEO down. Atomic’s culture has changed as we’ve grown, but because our entire leadership team believes in treating people with kindness and respect, we’ve remained a highly sought-after place to work. It’s amazing how something so simple can be so powerful, and I think my movement would be centered on this — just trying to make the world a kinder place.

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote” and how that was relevant to you in your life?

A few years back I had the privilege of attending a talk given by Gene Baur, President and co-founder of Farm Sanctuary. In his presentation, he said, “If we can live well without causing unnecessary harm, why wouldn’t we?” That stuck with me, as I think it’s the perfect response to so many decisions in life. Of course, nobody wants to harm anything intentionally. So, it’s important to ask ourselves if the decision we are about to make could end up doing exactly that.

We are blessed to have some of the biggest names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world whom you would love to have a private lunch with, and why?

Erin Ireland is the owner of To Die For Fine Foods and is based in Vancouver, where Thunderbird and Atomic’s head offices are. She’s also the creator of the best banana bread on planet earth (the lemon poppy seed bread is amazing too). Since we are content creators and she is an amazing chef, business owner, and public speaker…. maybe there’s a way we could work together on something? And I’d be more than thrilled to discuss this over banana bread.

Thank you so much for these fantastic insights!

About the Author: Kage Spatz went from Teacher to Forbes-ft 3x Entrepreneur — now giving your marketing team greater support with the same Fortune 500 SEO/SEM/SMM Specialists used to scale some of the largest companies in the world (without the same overhead). Apply to leverage Spacetwin today to rescue more clients (and talent) from your competitors tomorrow. Connect with Kage on Linkedin to strengthen your network anytime.

Kage Spatz

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