Wendy McKernan: “Seek out authentic leaders”

…build relationships around trust. Over the years, I’ve definitely learned that my own success — in life or at work — has been based on the relationships I’ve built with people around me. Don’t be afraid to reach out to others to share ideas, collaborate or ask for help when you need it. When you show your willingness to […]

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…build relationships around trust. Over the years, I’ve definitely learned that my own success — in life or at work — has been based on the relationships I’ve built with people around me. Don’t be afraid to reach out to others to share ideas, collaborate or ask for help when you need it. When you show your willingness to connect with others honestly and transparently, you’ll inspire them to do the same in return. That’s when the magic can truly happen — when you are on a team that respects one another, all working together in pursuit of a shared goal.

As a part of our series about “Filmmakers Making A Social Impact”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Wendy McKernan, Chief Operating Officer, Thunderbird Entertainment’s Factual Division (Great Pacific Media).

Wendy McKernan is one of Canada’s most experienced and respected unscripted producers. Her leadership has been instrumental in creating some of Canada’s biggest hits, many of which are also popular on streamers, VOD and broadcasters around the world. Wendy was recently appointed the Chief Operating Officer of Thunderbird Entertainment’s factual arm, Great Pacific Media, where she has undertaken the task of building up a scripted unit that will focus on productions inspired by true events. The social impact of creating content that is based on factual events cannot be understated, especially when these types of series are in demand more than ever.

Wendy’s goal is to seek out powerful ‘true stories’, which are often under represented and overlooked by mainstream media. One example is Queen of the Oil Patch, a ground-breaking documentary series which tells the story of a Two-Spirited entrepreneur and drag queen in rural Alberta. Another is the long-running Highway Thru Hell, a series for Discovery that originated from a desire to change perceptions about trucking and the heavy rescue towing industry. Highway Thru Hell has been on the air for nine seasons (and counting), and has also spawned two spin-off series to date.

With more than 25 credits to her name, Wendy is committed to fostering new talent, and producing content that will ultimately make the world a better place. She has a true eye for discovering hidden gems that will make a major social impact when their stories are finally brought to life on screen.

Thank you so much for doing this interview with us! Before we dive in, our readers would love to get to know you a bit. Can you share your “backstory” that brought you to this career?

I was always interested in television production but, growing up in a small town, I didn’t know anyone who worked in the industry. I therefore did what I thought was a safe choice and went to University to get my degree in teaching. After teaching overseas for a few years, I returned to Vancouver and took an entry level position at a production company where I served as the receptionist, office manager, business affairs coordinator and producer’s assistant.

I don’t think I can adequately describe how intense the first few months were in that job. I was answering phones, creating business deliverables for broadcasters, negotiating with agents and filling out contracts, to name just a few responsibilities. It was an incredible first job in the industry that resulted in a few tears, but also gave me a lot of exposure and opportunity. It was an education like no other, and it propelled me forward in a profession I love.

Can you share the funniest or most interesting story that occurred to you in the course of your filmmaking career?

One of my first tasks as a producer’s assistant was to get sign-off from two fairly well-known actors to allow us to use their likeness in a movie that was cut together using footage bought from a bankrupt video game house. Here I was, a very junior production assistant, cold calling agents trying to convince them it was a good idea for their clients to appear in a very indie, low budget movie. I still laugh when I think about doing that. I felt like Steve Martin’s character in Bowfinger. And yes, the movie did get made!

Who are some of the most interesting people you have interacted with? What was that like? Do you have any stories?

I find everyone in this industry to be interesting in some way. Anyone who gets into this business has a real passion for storytelling. I have moments every day where I realize how fortunate I am to be surrounded by people who are so engaged and passionate about their work, and about making a difference in the world.

What are some of the most interesting or exciting projects you are working on now?

I am very excited about a project we are working on that focuses on the life of Wernher von Braun, the Nazi rocket scientist who escaped WWII prosecution to help NASA build the moon program. We have had amazing interest in the project from the very beginning and have attached a top-level showrunner to it. The fifties and sixties were such an interesting time in history and they tell us so much about who we have become today. I can’t wait to see it on screen, and to see how audiences around the world respond to it.

We are also producing the first season of a new factual series called Mud Mountain. It is a story about logging truck drivers working in the most incredibly challenging conditions. The “mountain” serves as a metaphor for life and all of its challenges, while the “mud” represents the different things in life that can hang us up. It is an exciting series about real people trying to make a go of it in difficult times. It will air in Canada in early 2021 and will also be distributed worldwide. Stay tuned!

Which people in history inspire you the most? Why?

I recently heard a story about Winston Churchill that I found very inspirational. It was in an interview with Ryan Holiday, the author of Stillness is the Key. He told the story of how Churchill was ostracized by his peers during WWII. But when he was elected to replace Chamberlain, he rolled up his sleeves and worked with everyone who had treated him so badly. I admire someone who can put all that aside for an important common goal.

Let’s now shift to the main focus of our interview, how are you using your success to bring goodness to the world? Can you share with us the meaningful or exciting social impact causes you are working on right now?

Thunderbird has a mandate to tell positive and uplifting stories that make the world a better place. These stories are important because they remind us all of what we have in common. We all want similar things in life, and we are all connected. This is true whether it be a scene in High Arctic Haulers where kids are excited to get a new chemistry set for school, or where a son simply wants to make his family proud. It’s also true on Highway Thru Hell, where we witness the sacrifices heavy duty operators make every day to ensure we can get home safely. And it’s absolutely the case on Queen of the Oil Patch, where we are captivated by the openness and courage of someone who has overcome bullying to become a champion for the next generation.

We all have the power to inspire audiences through storytelling, and also to transform opinions about the world. I love that part of my job. And I’m always humbled by people who are willing to put themselves out there and let us tell their stories.

Many of us have ideas, dreams, and passions, but never manifest it. But you did. Was there an “Aha Moment” that made you decide that you were actually going to step up and take action for this cause? What was that final trigger?

At Thunderbird, I found a company that is driven to make great content with positive, affirming messages. I am very much aligned with this. None of us want to make a living by exploiting people or by engaging in destructive “gotcha journalism.” We all want to work together to help and support each other to be our best.

I love going to work. I love it because of the content we create and the people who have embraced our vision. I think finding a team of people with similar goals and values is key.

Can you tell us a story about a particular individual who was impacted or helped by your cause?

Absolutely. There are countless unsung heroes in the world, working behind the scenes, and we don’t have the opportunity to see and understand how important what they do is.

Heavy equipment operators are a great example of this type of hero, which is why we are so proud to be producing Highway Thru Hell and Heavy Rescue: 401. Every single day, men and women risk their lives to keep some of the world’s most treacherous roads clear from extreme weather events, accidents and so much more. Without these vital workers, our highways would shut down, people couldn’t travel to see their families and local economies would be paralyzed.

Every episode provides audiences with an opportunity to witness the struggle of humans against nature, working against all odds to do what needs to be done — often putting their own lives at risk in the process.

Now that audiences have gotten the chance to see these workers for the heroes they truly are, there’s no question that perceptions about heavy equipment operators have fundamentally changed. And when perceptions begin to change for one group, people also develop a greater insight to think differently about other people as well. This isn’t just true in Canada where Highway and Heavy Rescue: 401 are made. It’s also true in the 200+ countries and territories where they air around the world.

This is the power of storytelling — you can inspire people and change perceptions.

Are there three things that individuals, society or the government can do to support you in this effort?

I think we need to put much more weight on authenticity. We need to encourage people to be themselves and not worry about what other people think.

I also want to encourage people to take risks. Risk encourages creativity. And creativity is what makes work innovative and interesting.

As far as government support, the Canadian government has already done an amazing job of supporting our industry through tax credits and other programs. This has allowed us to get a foothold internationally and often is key to making our productions some of the most popular in the world. We absolutely need to keep those programs in place because they ensure people in our industry can keep working and be able to take risks with confidence.

What are your “5 things I wish someone told me when I first started” and why. Please share a story or example for each.

There are so many things I know today that I wish I’d known when I first got started. But that’s the beauty of growing as a professional. It takes time to learn, and it often takes making mistakes along the way to truly understand why those things matter.

The first I’d say is don’t be afraid to take risks. I also said this earlier in our interview, but I believe it’s THAT important. I don’t mean for people to act rashly without thinking. I mean to act without being afraid of failing. Sometimes taking a risk might not work out. But, even if it doesn’t, you’ve probably learned something valuable in the process. And if your risk does work out, not only will you reap its rewards, you’ll also learn to better trust your gut in the future.

The second thing I’d say is to build relationships around trust. Over the years, I’ve definitely learned that my own success — in life or at work — has been based on the relationships I’ve built with people around me. Don’t be afraid to reach out to others to share ideas, collaborate or ask for help when you need it. When you show your willingness to connect with others honestly and transparently, you’ll inspire them to do the same in return. That’s when the magic can truly happen — when you are on a team that respects one another, all working together in pursuit of a shared goal.

Number three is to seek out authentic leaders. If you look at some of the world’s most successful people, authenticity is something you’ll find in common for most of them. Authentic leaders are genuine, self-aware and transparent, and they are able to inspire loyalty and trust in their teams by displaying who they really are as people. Not only are authentic leaders the best type of people to work for, they are also the best type of people to emulate as you grow in your own career.

It’s also important to always take the time to listen. That’s my fourth piece of advice. Even if you think you have all the answers, you probably don’t. It’s simply not possible. So, don’t be afraid of what others have to say — even if they don’t agree with you. By taking time to listen, you give yourself the opportunity to learn new things. You also give yourself a strong foundation to build new relationships that are based on honesty and respect.

Hand in hand with the importance of listening, it’s also very important to keep an open perspective and be open to new things. This doesn’t mean you should believe or accept everything that comes at you. But I do believe it’s important to welcome, observe and at least try to understand what is behind perspectives that are different than yours. You’ve got a lot to potentially gain, and nothing much to lose.

If you could tell other young people one thing about why they should consider making a positive impact on our environment or society, like you, what would you tell them?

It’s everyone’s responsibility to do what they can to make the world a better place. We need to do this every single day.

We are very blessed that many other Social Impact Heroes read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US, whom you would like to collaborate with, and why? He or she might see this. 🙂

I would love to work with Malcom Gladwell. He is a risk taker and a visionary. Most importantly I think he really listens to people. I heard him on CBC radio the other day and was taken by how he was able to turn the interview around and draw information from the person asking the questions. Then he was able to interpret their answers back in a unique and insightful way. To work with him on a project would be a real honour for me.

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

My favorite adage is timeless and simple: Treat others how you want to be treated.

How can our readers follow you online?

You can find our shows on platforms around the world and check us out online at thunderbird.tv!

This was great, thank you so much for sharing your story and doing this with us. We wish you continued success!

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