John A Letham: reflecting on This Way Up 2017

John Letham delivered one-to-one mentoring sessions at This Way Up 17, we caught up with him to reflect on the conference and his advice for cinemas and venues.

John A Letham has had a successful career spanning several industries. As an engineer he worked within digital technology at Motorola, moving on to co-found Park Circus, a film distribution company that has offices in Glasgow, London, LA and Paris; it was sold to the Arts Alliance in 2014, with John returning to the company in 2016 as co-CEO.

As founder and director of his company, Considered Thinking, which specializes in executive coaching and mentoring, he works as an executive coach at the company with this breadth of experience. This Way Up were lucky to have him take part in TWU Festival 2017 as a coach, giving rare, personal, one to one, coaching sessions in Hull back in November. We catch up with John to get some his insights on the festival, the industry in general, and some of his top tips.

Could you tell us about your experience at TWU, and your thoughts about it as an initiative?

There is an extra layer, without doubt, about operating regionally […] I think the danger of taking a national event and just having it in London is that those delicate situations of operating regionally aren’t able to come up to the surface. And what I think is important about TWU and about where it is, where it’s choosing as its venues, and being centric in those venues – for example, we were in Hull, the city of culture, we had representatives from the city – the city is very much there, a strong presence, like an attendee at the event, it makes its presence known, which I think is really important because it gives that sense of place […] The vital importance of the event is being able to talk about global issues, international issues, national issues, national considerations, but always having that regional slant, that regional focus – because it is different and there are extra considerations, and pleasures, which is why I think it’s very much a vital addition to the industry calendar.

Could you tell us a little about the differing experiences in regards to the people you consulted with at TWU?

I worked with eight individuals, on a sort of one to one coaching surgery; it’s not something I would normally do, typically I would coach over 6-8 sessions, over a period of time, so I did warn people I would operate at a pace. But from the responses I’ve had, I do think people found benefit from it, and I do think even a brief intervention can have an advantage, an effect, and is certainly worth considering.

It was a great mix of eight people: everything from fairly new in their career path — perhaps in their first role looking to explore where to go in their next transition – right through to management, and beyond into board level. So the diversity of experience and resulting physical age and knowledge was vast; there was also a nice gender balance, which was super.

A lot of different issues were talked about and it was interesting how quickly in every case we got into the issue and finding a solution […] and trying to move forward, even by one degree. I did actually get an email the other day from one of the individuals I saw who has recently made a major change, successfully moving to a new and challenging role, and contributed some of it to the session we had.

Who were the kinds of people in your sessions? Was there a breadth of vocation or a pattern there?

It was a real breadth: covering venues, film festivals, contributors who are organising events within the film space – a real mix, and within that everyone from board members to programmers and administrator type roles.

In your opinion, was there a common theme, a commonality within the challenges people were facing?

Yes, there was. It was quite interesting, there were a number of themes that came through: the first was about confidence and the ability to be able to sell oneself appropriately […] there was a sort of apologetic nature, which I think is a fine balance, but the danger there is if you’re not celebrating what you have achieved and what you are able to do then it can eat away at your confidence generally.

Linked to that there is a phrase that’s used out there: imposter syndrome. People who find themselves in a position and they can’t quite believe that they’re there, and often it’s because people love their jobs […] they aspired to a role and they got it, and all of a sudden they’re like, “Oh my goodness!” Because sometimes when people are learning and performing, that buzz of being out of their comfort zone can make people feel a bit giddy. That doesn’t mean you are an imposter by any means, it’s just a combination of being able to sit back and say, “Well done, I’ve got here, and yes I am learning, and yes I may feel I’m privileged to be in this position; however, I’m working hard, I’m contributing and I’m performing.” Celebrate that.

“Well done, I’ve got here, and yes I am learning, and yes I may feel I’m privileged to be in this position; however, I’m working hard, I’m contributing and I’m performing.”

In regards to operating regionally a couple of issues did come up: if people decide they do want to stay in a particular region or city, or equally, are happy to move from Scotland to Wales for example, there is more limited opportunity […] and people in the industry tend to love the industry, so when people in more senior roles like the industry they’re in, they might stay in that role for twenty-plus years and they’re not likely to be leaving anytime soon […] So it does mean that there’s, not even a glass ceiling, it’s a ceiling of progression, it’s a pipeline ceiling, and often there’s a blockage. So sometimes it’s about thinking, “Maybe I need to go up another pipe.”

A final point that did come up, particularly a mid-career thing, is that when people are younger, generally speaking, people are fairly happy — and I’ll choose these words carefully – with a relatively low level of remuneration as a norm in this sector as opposed to other industries […] That passion and love doesn’t die, but as life throws responsibility at you, such as partnerships and family and property and children and whatever, that low level of remuneration that may have been acceptable when you were younger […] later on, there is a sense sometimes of people feeling that they’re not being paid what they’re worth and that can have impact on peoples own self-worth and value and its just an awareness of that.

Those last two issues — opportunity and remuneration — are more acute regionally, in my opinion, than they are in London.

Could you give us your three top bits of advice?

1. Let Go. When you let go you create space, and much more interesting things can come in to that space. Linked to that, let go of what other people think.

2. Be authentic. Be your own person. Your contribution will probably be richer because of that. Don’t say you like movie, per se, just because everyone does or it’s the ‘thing to do’, be your true person. If you listen to your inner being, no one can argue against you if you say, “In my opinion …” And linked to that: don’t judge other people if they have their own opinion as well. Other opinions are vital. Everyone doesn’t have to agree, and that’s what makes the diversity of the world so rich.

3. Grow and develop confidently. We’re living in fast-paced world right now, and if the world is changing so quickly, you have to change at least the same pace, otherwise, you’ll fall behind […] It is hard work. It does take effort. Staying in your comfort zone and doing the same old same old is easy. But learning new things and trying new techniques, listening intently and trying to understand and empathise with other people’s point of view has major benefits.