6 management lessons from an Oscar-nominated filmmaker

As the first black female director to be nominated for an Oscar and the first woman of color to direct a $100 million movie, Ava DuVernay is a pioneer of her industry, who is clearing the path for those who will come after her. On Sunday, she shared an email to a new filmmaker seeking her advice on Twitter on how she could succeed like DuVernay has.

Her bulleted list of tips was directed toward a colleague but her practical advice is useful for any first-time manager.

Here’s how we can apply these lessons to our own careers, even if we’re not working in Hollywood:

Leaders set the tone 

DuVernay’s advice begins with an etiquette lesson:

  • Know your crew members by name. They are the lifeblood of your film.
  • Remember that actors and crew are the same. Grown-ups. Treat them all with the same grown folks respect. No one is better than anyone else just because they’re in front of the camera.

By treating every person under her management with respect, DuVernay sets the tone of what kind of workplace her movie sets will be. Part of transitioning into a boss role is recognizing that everyone’s eyes are on you. What you permit to pass under your watch sets a precedent for the employees you lead of how they should behave.

If you want to promote a positive workplace of mutual respect and collaboration, you must make sure your actions are consistent with that message — down to the fundamental detail of knowing each of your many employees’ names. It shows them you don’t see them as nameless cogs in your machine, but as equal collaborators who can give meaningful contributions.

Take care of your body

  • Change your socks at lunch, makes you feel like a new woman.
  • Hydrate throughout the day

Although drinking water and changing one’s socks may not seem relevant to the task of making movies, what DuVernay is saying is that to be a leader, you need to put as much thought into taking care of your body as you do your work. Leading others begins with leading yourself. Your mind can only go as far as the body that houses it.

There’s only one boss

  • Don’t let your actors watch playback. Your job is to watch them so that they don’t watch themselves. Their job is to portray real life.

Even if you’re not an eager actor who wants to get real-time feedback, DuVernay’s advice applies to any manager dealing with an employee who is overstepping his or her role. Your job as a manager is to put your employees in the best position possible to succeed. When managers delineate roles clearly about who will do what when, it helps everyone stay focused on the work they were hired to do.

Be honest with feedback

  • Never tell an actor it was good when it wasn’t.

Don’t make promises you can’t keep as a leader. One major trustbuster between employees and managers is when words don’t follow actions. That includes not giving honest feedback about an employee’s performance. No manager likes giving bad feedback to an employee, but hiding your feedback in false compliments won’t help the employee grow and won’t solve the problem of work not getting done correctly.

Be transparent about what you know and what you don’t

  • Be prepared for hundreds of questions per day. You are now Question Answerer and Chief.
  • Don’t be afraid to say you don’t know the answer. You don’t have to know all the answers to everything. More than half of people’s job is to help you find the answers.

As a leader, your job is to be the person people can turn to in a crisis. Preparing for this role means anticipating problems and questions before they happen. Know as much as you can and delegate the rest, DuVernay is saying.

Put your work in perspective

  • Laugh and keep a warm atmosphere. We’re making movies not splitting the atom.
  • Remind yourself why you’re telling this story every morning on the way to set. Why it’s important to you. What you want to say. Every morning.

During a long-term project, it’s easy to get lost in the nitty gritty of office squabbles and daily deadlines. DuVernay’s advice is to remind yourself to take a step back and remind yourself what motivates you to wake up in the morning. Why are you doing this in the first place? What got you into this business?

Reminding yourself of your values and inspiration will keep you focused and calm even when people and crises threaten to distract and derail you.