If you are having trouble with a decision, do what’s hardest. It’s usually the right decision. For example, in December 2017, we turned down more than $20 million in production business because our team was at capacity, and the work wasn’t a good fit for our company’s values. This sounds crazy, and was a hard choice — but it was the best decision for my people and the company at the time.
As part of my series about strong female leaders, I had the pleasure of interviewing Jennifer Twiner McCarron, the CEO of Thunderbird Entertainment Group. In the role, she overseas Thunderbird’s factual, scripted and kids’ divisions. A producer at heart, she has played significant roles in the development of popular series such as Netflix’s Beat Bugs, and in the upcoming Princesses Wear Pants, an animated television series-based on Savannah Guthrie’s and Allison Oppenheim’s #1 New York Times best-selling book.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?
From an early age, I always gravitated to creative people and environments. While I never felt like the most creative person myself, I had this deep-rooted appreciation of the arts. This was supported in my early education, because I was part of an enriched program from grades 3–9, that included a lot of alternative learning to get your brain working in different ways. Mrs. Sheila Zidenberg was our teacher, and instead of traditional math and science, we were lying on the ground for hours at a time, meditating with the understanding that if you could picture it, you could do it.
My route to animation was not a straight line — I studied fine arts, film and started as a West Coast news correspondent for YTV. I ended up doing a story on animation and was offered a job by the studio. It was like I found my community. I’ve worked in animation for 14 years, and now I am the CEO of both Thunderbird Entertainment, and its kids’ division, Atomic Cartoons.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began leading your company?
Everyday interesting things happen — and it’s my leadership practice to take one hour each day to meet with different members across all of our teams. This helps me stay connected to each employee on an individual basis, and to the work that is being produced across our company. Thunderbird has three divisions — scripted, factual and kids.
I would have to say that one of the most interesting things for me came when I started working in leadership roles on various productions. It was the total realization that film credits are real. A lot of hands touch each project, and they do so in a lot of different ways. Every production is an absolute team effort. I am inspired daily by the people I work with. They bring such incredible passion, talent and creativity to the table.
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’ll start with the lesson first. Always take note of your surroundings and pay attention to the details — or ask for directions!
When I first started in my career, I went to an important interview. After a great meeting, and goodbyes were said, I went to leave. However, I couldn’t find my way out of the office. I couldn’t find the elevator and was left creeping around the office for some time, trying to not be noticed while I tried to find my way out. It wasn’t funny to me at the time, but I bet it would have made a pretty funny YouTube clip. I got the job and the person who hired me was the one who showed me the way out — I’m still not sure if I got the job because she just felt sorry for me.
What do you think makes your company stand out?
Our People. Our passion. Our approach. Our values
One of the core values at Thunderbird Entertainment is kindness. It is ok to make mistakes. In fact, we believe in giving people permission to take risks, and accepting that they may not always pan out. I fundamentally believe this is a source of strength for us and a lightning rod for innovation. I work hard to ensure my team is not afraid to fail, and don’t work in an environment where they are fearful of repercussions. This approach has resulted in incredible work, such as Kim’s Convenience and Last Kids on Earth, and has enabled our team to grow from 14 employees to more than 1000 in three countries, in 2019.
This approach has also resulted in some extraordinary partnerships. For example, when we met with Savannah Guthrie and Allison Oppenheim to discuss their bestselling children’s book Princesses Wear Pants, we connected over the values espoused in the book and how they aligned with our company’s. We related as mothers first, but also to the empowering message of the book: that it’s okay to embrace your pink and sparkly side, but at the end of the day, what you do is more important than how you look. And sometimes you’ve got to put your pants on underneath your princess dress and get stuff done. This project is a great example of the type of work we are producing and looking to produce. I truly believe our company values are what open the door for incredible projects like this.
Are you working on any exciting new projects now?
In our kids’ division, in addition to Princesses Wear Pants, we are producing an animated series for Netflix based on the bestselling book series The Last Kids on Earth, written by Max Brallier. There’s such excitement for this franchise, and we just reached a worldwide licensing agreement with Cyber Group to develop merchandise based on the characters in the series. We’ve so enjoyed working with Max, who serves as executive producer on the Netflix series, that we recently partnered to develop another of his books, Eerie Elementary, into an animated series with live action elements. It will even include interactive components.
In our factual division, we are working on High Arctic Haulers, which will premiere later this year on CBC. The series offers a look at Canada’s resilient, vibrant northern communities and the determined men and women who help provide their lifeline to the outside world. High Artic Haulers is our newest factual series and follows in the footsteps of Highway Thru Hell and Heavy Rescue:401, which are two highly rated series that air on Discovery Canada and stream globally on Netflix.
In our scripted division, we continue to work on Kim’s Convenience, which airs on CBC in Canada and streams globally on Netflix. We are also adapting Cherie Dimaline’s award-winning novel, The Marrow Thieves, for television.
How do you think that will help people?
For us it comes down to creating quality and inspiring content. We are a studio of storytellers and we work hard to tell compelling stories with strong positive messages. Our vision is to create content that makes the world a better place, and that is aspirational.
What advice would you give to other female leaders to help their teams to thrive?
Work for your team. As a leader of the company, it is my job to help bring out the best in my team. I do this by creating clarity, allowing autonomy, and making space for mistakes to happen. I want my team to feel empowered in what they do, and I want to help my them grow and develop. I think people thrive if they feel safe in their working environment, and if they have clear expectations in conjunction with room to try new things. I may be at the forefront of the organization, but I also see my role in the background setting the stage.
What advice would you give to other female leaders about the best way to manage a large team?
As a company grows, it is important to maintain connection points for people so roles and responsibilities are still clear. I never want anyone to feel like a number and would rather be guilty of overcommunicating and establishing too many connection points than not enough. I think that is the secret sauce to success.
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful to who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?
My parents have been the biggest influences in my life. From day one, they instilled strong values in me and also the importance of having a strong work ethic. They taught me all the important stuff, like how success is rooted in the way you treat people, and that you will only get out of something what you put into it.
How have you used your success to bring goodness to the world?
I like to say, on one small level, we help parents do things like make dinner or take a shower in peace. When harried parents are trying to get ready in the morning, or come home after a long day and need to get dinner on the table, they often throw something on TV to entertain their kids. They can count on us for good messaging and quality content.
What are your “Five leadership lessons I learned from my experience” and why. (Please share a story or example for each).
1. Email is for graphs. If you want to share anything with any level of emotion, pick up the phone. Why risk tone being lost or misunderstood, when a quick conversation is in order? Early in my career, I chickened out and sent emails when actual conversations should have taken place. This approach didn’t result in the outcomes I wanted, so I started picking up the phone and noticed a big difference.
2. If you are having trouble with a decision, do what’s hardest. It’s usually the right decision. For example, in December 2017, we turned down more than $20 million in production business because our team was at capacity, and the work wasn’t a good fit for our company’s values. This sounds crazy, and was a hard choice — but it was the best decision for my people and the company at the time.
3. Don’t be late for meetings. One way to show you value people is by respecting their time. I learned this early on because I used to have a boss that would lock the door if you were late to a meeting. We quickly learned to show up early at that company.
4. Don’t keep people in jobs too long if it’s not the right fit. Anyone in a management position will have a story for this one. However, it’s always better to hit management issues head on, and early.
5. Admit when you’ve made a mistake and own it fully. As the leader, you have to accept responsibility for poor outcomes. Pushing it onto your team is unacceptable. It doesn’t matter how many times you fall down, what matters is how many times you get back up.
You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the greatest good to the most people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. :-)
My movement would build on #metoo and involve taking away barriers for women so they can step forward and rise to new leadership ranks in meaningful ways. I often get asked at events, “who are you here with, or who is your partner?”. I want to shift the conversation in these settings so women are automatically included as contributors. The more diverse leadership there is in the world, the better we will all be. Representation matters. Women need to step forward so other young women have role models to inspire their dreams. If you see it, you can be it.
Can you please give us your favorite “life lesson quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
“You are going to get out of any situation what you put into it, and the more you try, the more you will enjoy it.”
I tell myself this everyday, even on hard days — I am grateful and lucky to be doing what I am doing.
Some of the biggest names in business, VC funding, sports, and entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch, and why? He or she might just see this if we tag them :-)
Michelle Obama — I’d love to have breakfast with her. She is a classy, inspiring leader who has motivated people to do better. She is also a mom and a daughter who took care of her mother. She lives my mantra of making the world a better place.
Thank you for joining us!