Now that the torch has been passed on by my newest mentor Mary Johnson, I’d like to take this opportunity as the next writer of “Breaking Glass” to introduce another mentor of mine who had faith in me when I was often overlooked.Barbara Hennessy hired me when I didn’t have enough experience. She promoted me quickly and often, trusting me with bigger and bigger projects along the way. She helped me jumpstart my career and often connected me with high-profile producers in the film and television industry. And once, when I had cornered myself into a job that wasn’t right for me, Barbara took me out for coffee and instilled in me the strength to make a change for the better. Barbara has always led me in the right direction, and for that I could not be more thankful.
Please enjoy this Q&A with my mentor Barbara Hennessy, vice president of production at Tribe Pictures in Chatham.
MF: What did you do before you worked for Tribe Pictures?
BH: I was a full-time stay-at-home mom, temporarily retired from my life in film production. I am very grateful that I could afford that time with my children while they were young. However, I also wanted to get back to my career as a production company executive.
Prior to having children I was executive producer at SBK Pictures, a commercial production company in Pennsylvania. I loved producing television commercials because every project brought new challenges. My role as executive producer afforded me the opportunity to work closely with directors and creative teams from agencies shaping the ideas as well as the production plans.
When my husband was offered a job at the New York Times, we moved to northern New Jersey from Philadelphia. I stayed on, but the commuting and long hours took a toll. I left that role and continued to produce commercials freelance until the birth of my oldest child.
I have been back in the saddle here at Tribe Pictures for three years now and truly love the work we do. The humanizing “docu-mercial” approach to corporate films that we have is authentic, honest and a great way of connecting with our audiences to communicate messages that have lasting impact.
MF: Where did you attend school and what did you major in?
BH: I graduated Magna Cum Laude from Temple University in 1984 with a Bachelor of Arts in Communications, Radio, Television and Film. Temple has a renowned film and television production department and as a Pennsylvania resident the tuition cost was impossible to beat.
MF: What was the most important thing you learned during your education?
BH: It’s hard to pick the most important lesson from my college education, but one thing I definitely came away with that still echoes to this day is that filmmaking is a collective effort. It is really fun, but very demanding — like most things in life, you need to be passionate about it to succeed. I feel blessed to have a job that I truly love and think that passion makes the difficult challenges of filmmaking all the more rewarding.
MF: I know having worked with you that family is incredibly important to you.
BH: I am married to a truly terrific man and together we are raising a 14-year-old daughter and 11-year-old son.
MF: So you must know the best advice to give regarding work-life-family balance.
BH: The best advice I have is that there is no clear equilibrium when it comes to juggling the responsibilities of a family and your job. It’s more like being on a see-saw with ever-changing ups and downs.
A huge part of being a parent is teaching our children how to be responsible adults. You just need to do the best you can, rely on your support network and help your children to understand that the dedication you have to your career does not detract from their place in your heart.
Having said that, you need to be careful that making a living doesn’t get in the way of your life. When that happens it’s time to reevaluate your priorities and dedicate some effort to spending your time on what is really important to you.
I always say, “This isn’t a dress rehearsal. You don’t get to come back and do it again.” If you keep that perspective and embrace the idea that life is never perfectly balanced you can make the right choices for you, for today. Tomorrow you will do it all again.
MF: What are the top three most important things to you in your life?
BH: Myself, my family and my legacy.
MF: What are your hobbies and interests outside of work?
BH: Honestly, I find it hard to find time for hobbies outside of work. I love to practice yoga. I like swimming, especially in the ocean. I like spending time outdoors, either gardening or just walking.
MF: I know how working in a creative field can sometimes make people feel like their entire lives are dedicated to their work. Do aspects of your job carry into your personal interests and hobbies?
BH: I think what’s common among my personal interests is that they all require finding time to do something that is at once calming and invigorating. Perhaps that’s why I’m known for grace under pressure.
MF: No kidding. Everyone around you would be losing their heads and you would always say, “It will all get done.” But with only 24 hours in a day, I find that nearly impossible. If you were to break up your average 24-hour weekday into a pie chart, what percentage do you devote to work?
BH: 43.75 percent.
MF: What mistakes do women often make at the workplace?
BH: I think a big mistake that women (and some men) make is assuming that their opinion doesn’t matter and keeping their ideas to themselves. The way to get noticed is to speak up. Naturally, it’s not always the right time to speak up. But if you can figure out how and when to bring your ideas forward and get credit for solving a problem or contributing to a discussion — why not?
MF: What were the attitudes toward women in your industry when you first started?
BH: My first full-time job in the industry was as a production “secretary.” I had very little training in secretarial skills, but I would not have been given that opportunity if I was a young man. A few years later, the Anita Hill scandal had a pretty big impact on the way business men acted around women in the workplace. Sexual innuendo was so much more common then. What I see now is that women are much more respected for their intellect than they were 30 years ago. I am grateful that I’ve worked for companies where as a woman I didn’t need to struggle with chauvinism in the workplace as much as others. Some of my mentors early on were also terrific women who forged the way for me. Today, seeing women in powerful positions is not nearly as unlikely as it was in the mid-80s.
MF: What’s the best advice you’ve ever received?
BH: Years ago I remember being quite upset by a mistake I’d made and being near tears. The person I was talking to at the time took notice and stopped to explain to me that “50 years from now no one will know or care. It’s not like someone’s life was at risk here.” I remember that conversation often. Not to say one should be cavalier about their responsibilities, but it helps to keep things in proper perspective. Mistakes can be addressed if you own up to them.
MF: And the worst advice?
BH: When I was in college more than a few professors emphasized the need to start looking for jobs in a market smaller than Philadelphia. I’m glad I ignored that advice.
MF: And what advice would you give?
BH: I give advice to young working people all the time — both women and men. I think the best advice I can offer is to be truthful, fair and respectful. And, most of all, if you love what you do and are passionate about it you will be fine. It’s when you’re doing a job that you don’t care for that you get into trouble.
I think college is an important time to work hard to gain knowledge. Your schoolwork is important, of course, but you should also be gaining experience in the workplace and in possible career paths through internships, informational interviews or shadowing professionals in your field. This is a time to try on what you might be doing when you graduate. It’s OK to learn that it doesn’t fit. Be open to that option.
I think high school is the time to be the best all-around student you can be. Soak up knowledge like a sponge and have fun being a kid in high school. There’s time to be serious and career-minded as you grow older.
MF: What’s one thing about you that most of your co-workers would be surprised to hear?
BH: I get really nervous when I need to present to a group of people, even if it’s a small group and I know most of them. I feel like it’s very obvious to the people I’m speaking to because my voice gets shaky and my palms sweat. This has gotten marginally better over the years, but I still feel it inside. People are shocked to know that I’m not at all as calm and collected as I appear.
MF: What is your favorite source of entertainment?
BH: Well, first of all, I’m a sucker for all forms of pure entertainment. I love the circus, magic acts, music and dance performances and theater — all of it. But I guess my favorite is to see a great performance by an actor. It’s transformational. I love that another human being can take you on a journey like that. I have tremendous respect for actors and their craft.
MF: Last question — what did you want to be when you were 8 years old?
BH: I remember wanting to be a social worker and then at one point saying I wanted to be in politics and run for the U.S. Senate. Those ideas are long gone now. It wasn’t until I was in a play in 7th grade that I discovered the joy of putting on a show. That was the beginning of what became a love of producing for me.
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