One of the biggest keys to my success I’d say is choosing the right people, not the right projects. The internal talent and the eventual product are so interconnected and I feel that finding the right people, and empowering them, is key. The more often I find the leaders of my team becoming my proxy, rather than my delegate, the better they perform, and the company succeeds even more.
As part of my series about the leadership lessons of accomplished business leaders, I had the pleasure of interviewing Michael Sugar.
Michael Sugar (Producer) is the CEO and Founder of Sugar23 — management, production and private equity company with a multi-year deal with Netflix — after a long stint at Anonymous Content where he was a partner for many years. He was awarded the Oscar® for Best Picture for “Spotlight.” He has produced a number of series and features, including “The Laundromat,” “Dickinson,” “Maniac,” “I Am The Night,” “The Report,” “The OA,” “The Knick,” and the hit Netflix series “13 Reasons Why.” The company represents an impressive roster of literary and talent clients in addition to their producorial duties. Sugar is a member of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, Academy of Television Arts and Sciences, the Producer’s Guild of America, the British Academy of Film and Television Arts, and lectures regularly at USC, NYU, Columbia, and the American Film Institute. He has been nominated for multiple Emmys, has received two Television Academy Honors, two AFI awards, and a Peabody Award.
Thank you so much for joining us Michael! Can you tell us the story about what brought you to this specific career path?
Hollywood is an incredible place because it attracts people from a variety of different paths and backgrounds. I went to law school at Georgetown and while all my classmates were gunning for the major firm appointments, I always knew I was never going to practice. We started on this road just following graduation by creating a production company with my brother and his college roommate. There really isn’t a clear roadmap for a career in film and television producing, so we just read every script we could get our hands on. They were written by restaurant servers, carwash attendants, film students — you name it. We met everyone we could, often showing up early for meetings so we might meet people in lobbies, eating at the hottest lunch spots in town, even though we couldn’t afford it, just to be around Hollywood’s most powerful people. I started taking chances on people and they started taking chances on me. Since I was a kid, I always wanted to tell stories and knew I would be making movies and ultimately, helping to shape the careers of other storytellers. When I’d done as much as I could for someone else, I knew it was time. Now that we’ve expanded our reach into brand development, we find endless whitespace helping brands overcome the challenge of “telling their stories”.
Can you share one of the major challenges you encountered when first leading the company? What lesson did you learn from that?
Running a company is like starting a new family. You know you’re responsible not only for yourself but for the well-being of others, their families, their livelihoods. Having a concrete vision and plan is about as sacrosanct as having one to try and get your kids off to school in the morning. No day is the same and you have to be flexible and patient enough to accept that plans change, and will continue to do so. I think the biggest challenge of starting a new business is knowing that you may have to start over a few times and need to be nimble enough to pivot along the way, while still working towards your end goal. Quite often, leaders of companies want to just hit the gas and go, but for me, taking the time to breathe is massively important while aiming to help inspire others.
What are some of the factors that you believe led to your eventual success?
One of the biggest keys to my success I’d say is choosing the right people, not the right projects. The internal talent and the eventual product are so interconnected and I feel that finding the right people, and empowering them, is key. The more often I find the leaders of my team becoming my proxy, rather than my delegate, the better they perform, and the company succeeds even more. Also, I believe in a positive work-life balance. I truly believe that a successful company is made up of people who care as much about making a life as they do making a living. I’m more impressed with efficiency than I am with long hours and always encourage our team to think about work and life holistically.
What are your “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Became CEO”? Please share a story or example for each.
I wish someone told me that knowing who to fire was more important than knowing who to hire. It easy for a founder to put off tough decisions for myriad reasons: One is the overall humanity of it all. The other is the acknowledgment to investors and colleagues that the initial plan did not work out. I wish someone had told me that cutting bait early isn’t as bad as waiting. Time management isn’t as nearly as important as activity management and how the message your telling is heard is more important that the way it’s heard. I wish someone had told me sooner that there is no such thing as multiple priorities and finally, I really wish someone had told me sooner how much office space costs!
What advice would you give to your colleagues to help them to thrive and not “burn out”?
After being in this business for a while, I’ve learned (or try as much as possible) not to stress out too much about work. I think those involved in running businesses know that the highs and lows are often experienced at the same time, and if you’re riding the wave, you’re bound to get crushed when it breaks. I try to keep myself like a bird above the waves, and not get too excited or depressed by any individual outcome. I also work hard to ensure my colleagues feel the same way by creating an environment that makes people comfortable, relaxed and fun whenever possible. I think the concept of work/life balance is impossible. How can something that occupies so much time be completely disconnected from the other? I always remind people as much as I can, and in as many ways as I can, that work, if it’s enriching and fulfilling, can seamlessly be a really great part of life, all wrapped up into one.
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story?
I am grateful to so many people. First, my wife, who lets me do what I do. My mentor and lead investor Fred Schaufeld, for being so ambitious about my ambitions, and for countless others along the way. I always promised to thank Lou Gonda when I had the chance because he gave me my first office space for free when I couldn’t afford it. Most of all, I am grateful for the mistakes I’ve made and the learning that comes. So, I guess, thanks to me, for my screw-ups along the way!
What are some of the goals you still have and are working to accomplish, both personally and professionally?
I have spent my life chasing “goals” and have realized in recent years that the chase is exhausting. I have, instead, endeavored to put happiness first, and am working to achieve that by filling my days with things that fulfill me. Baked into that cake, of course, are plans for the future of our company, for my family and for my life. I just try to remain cognitive of not spending my life chasing something down the road and ignoring what I have in the present, and what it’s all worth.
What do you hope to leave as your lasting legacy?
I want to do things that made people take notice. I’m not aiming to change the world, because I don’t think any one person can do it. I just want to leave a positive impact on people, personally and professionally.
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