Business Essentials: Wanted: television executive. Must be able to think outside the box

An independent production company needs someone who understands its culture, not just its balance sheet
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The Independent Online

"[It's] not just managing the increasing workload, but making the most of opportunities to work in different ways with new clients, exploiting formats and programmes overseas and developing complex international co-production deals," says David Strachan, the joint managing director.

The directors would also like more time to focus on new programme ideas. And if the company continues to expand at its current rate, the need to have someone else on board will become even more pressing.

The main reason Tern is predicting strong growth, says Mr Strachan, is that it has established a relationship with the BBC, which is keen to use regional production companies. Tern is responsible for two BBC2 series: Map Man and the follow-up to Coast, the forthcoming Great British Journeys. "In addition, there is all the BBC Scotland stuff we do, which has won Baftas," he adds.

But while Tern is facing the future with confidence, nothing is guaranteed. The company has a handful of high-value contracts; should it, for any reason, lose just one or two of these, revenues could suddenly start to fall away.

"We could be looking at a fall of 20 per cent," says Mr Strachan, "and if that happens, it will be harder to justify and sustain a chief operating officer."

He points to a further risk. "A couple of weeks ago, a commissioning editor from UKTV told us we were among her four favourite independent television production companies because we deliver to 'gold standard'. But would she say that if our staff sounded anything but 110 per cent committed, or the people we filmed for her looked jaded? All this kind of thing depends on staff feeling trusted and inspired by a flat [management] structure and close personal relationships with directors."

The dilemma is therefore not just about financial uncertainty. "It's also about the fear of compromising the precious company ethos."

Mr Strachan believes Tern's success so far is due to its relationships with contributors, which in turn depend on keeping staff happy. "How we treat people affects how they treat people we film, and that affects tone and performance," he says.

Mr Strachan is left wondering whether he should seize the "high" the company is on by hiring a chief operating officer, so allowing the other directors to concentrate on developing new programmes. "Or should we take the less risky option by continuing steadily as we are?"

If he does decide to go ahead with recruiting, he is keen to know how best to proceed. "It isn't just about dumping all the admin so that partners can be creative. The person would need to be multi-skilled and someone who buys into our company culture. I'm not sure there are many such people about."


Philip Wilkinson, Business Adviser, Business Link for London

"There is a need for a senior management structure to run the business as such, freeing up others to develop the creative side and to harness the energy of the people in it. If Mr Strachan feels there is a strong business demand for recruiting a chief operating officer, he needs to do it, as it will benefit the business in the long term. Hiring a headhunter may prove useful.

"However, a less risky solution would be to reorganise the management. This could involve making one of the existing directors chief operating officer and then recruiting someone at a level just below director. Or, to help take the pressure off, Mr Strachan could look at how some of their responsibilities can be delegated to others in the business."

Ben Williams, Chartered Psychologist

"The company is at a sensitive stage of its development and it is imperative that the board avoid the trap of expansion without strengthening the leadership and management skills of the team. Tern must maintain its values and culture - all it has is the quality of its work.

"In order to avoid disrupting the current flat structure, they should consider selecting members of the team for skills training to help them take on more of the managerial tasks. The three directors would probably also benefit from a bit of coaching on managing priorities and delegating, so they can still lead the team without being under such pressure.

"Should the board decide to bring new people in, selection techniques should include psychometric assessments and in-depth interviews where the candidates describe their actual behaviour in work situations. The existing team will need to be advised, listened to and consulted about the appointment."

Rebecca Clake, Organisation and Resourcing Adviser, Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development

"Tern Television may unwittingly already have a suitable candidate internally who is both knowledgeable about the company culture and has the skills to take on extra managerial responsibilities. Some training and coaching may be needed, depending on what is required in the role.

"CIPD research shows that organisations are facing major staff retention problems, and two of the main reasons why people leave their jobs are lack of development opportunity and promotion from outside the organisation.

"An alternative is hiring someone on a short-term or temporary contract with a view to going permanent. Both options will help manage the financial uncertainty.

"Whatever the decision, Tern needs to think about what it wants from the new role and write a clear job specification. This should be used throughout the recruitment process."