In a courtyard adjacent to a parking lot behind a low-rise building in Burbank, California, Jeff Hasler, a Gen-Xer who runs Original Productions, which produces documentaries and unscripted programs, is holding a meeting with his staff one recent morning. The employees, a decade or more his junior, sit around folding tables, some in combat boots, others in hoodies, munching on sandwiches. They’re here to give their boss something feedback. Why, they ask themselves, did Hasler feel the need to be there every pitch meeting? Could he please explain the chain of command? And what about the deal they were supposed to be pursuing that was clearly never going to happen?
“That was my fault,” says Hasler, patting his blue suede shoes. He looks pleadingly in the direction of a sane-looking woman with chunky tortoiseshell sunglasses on her head, who is there to facilitate this intergenerational negotiation. She meets his gaze, then, in marriage counselor style, turns to the group to ask, “When did we know it wasn’t going to work?”
She is Lacey Leone McLaughlin, a consultant turned underdog whisperer to bosses who are baffled by the very demanding young people who now work for them. As one showrunner who offered her services for thousands of dollars a month puts it to me, “She’s the one you call when you need to defend yourself against a city that’s canceling people out pretty quickly.”
“Sometimes I get into situations where someone has their last chance,” Leone McLaughlin tells me. “That conversation is, ‘Do you like your job? do you want to keep it Then you have to do some things differently.’ They’re usually very receptive to it.”
Photo: Maggie Shannon
After Harvey WeinsteinThe fall of Me Too sparked a purge of the entertainment industry’s notorious sex offenders, morphing into Mean Too. Abusive Titans like Scott Rudin and Joss Whedon and Ellen DeGeneres and Sharon Waxman were suddenly held accountable for apparently unreasonable, sometimes reprehensible behavior that had been an open secret for years.
At some point during the pandemic, Hollywood’s creative underclass realized they had power — on Slack, on Twitter, and in blind quotes for a trade press suddenly hungry for stories of workplace misconduct. His champion Instagram account is @assistantsvsagents. One meme combines language from a job posting — “We’re looking for thick-skinned doers who thrive in a fast-paced environment” — with six red flag emojis. Caption: “Just tell me it’s going to be toxic.” NDAs, the legal department’s once-standard shield against what used to be considered resentful gossip from people who didn’t have what it took to make it big , are seen as warning signs. Many bosses are afraid to ask about it.
Now anxious agents and producers are talking in hushed tones up and down Wilshire Boulevard as if Madame Defarge’s gen-zers were knitting at Sweetgreen. Have you heard the story about the producer whose career imploded after her assistant said she threw an iPhone charger at him? Or the one about the boss reprimanding an assistant for eating in a meeting, which was then reported by HR he had to apologize? “We used to have our assistants on the phone all the time, listening and taking notes,” says one big producer. “But now if you say something that you think might get you in trouble, or something honest, you can’t have your assistant on the phone.”
Which is where Leone McLaughlin called a Rage trainer through the hollywood reporter, come inside. “I think right now people are afraid of doing something wrong,” she says. “And from a boss’ perspective, there’s so much that can go wrong.”
Maybe it helps Leone McLaughlin that she didn’t grow up in Beverly Hills, 90210, but in San Diego County. Her father was a welder, her mother a hairdresser and her stepfather worked in a Goodyear tire shop. She began coaching executives in her 20s after earning an MBA from the University of La Verne in California and then directing a business program at USC for more than nine years. In the past two years, “my job hasn’t changed,” she says, “but I’ve had to change. I had to be more empathetic and put myself in their shoes a bit, step back and not push so hard. I needed to relax a bit.”
That’s basically her advice to her customers – people like Darren Schillace, President of Marketing for Fox Entertainment, who oversees about 150 employees. He says Leone McLaughlin taught him how to pace. “Most people are when they get Lacey,” he says, while stressing that that doesn’t describe him, “they’re waist-deep.” It’s better to spot your potential blind spots before they catch your eye .
Photo: Maggie Shannon
After completing her morning session to help Hasler, Leone McLaughlin jumps into her black Jaguar SUV and drives the 101 to the 405 to her next appointment. It’s a one-on-one with Krista Vernoff, Shonda Rhimes’ lieutenant and showrunner, who has taken over Grey’s anatomy and produces shameless and Fascinated. We’re sitting in her leafy backyard with a sea breeze blowing off the beach. Wearing rings of clear quartz and obsidian, Vernoff rubs a piece of lavender fluorite between her hands while exhaling deeply. Vernoff is the image of a stressed-out Hollywood executive. “I might be on the verge of a tiny little nervous breakdown,” she says, laughing. She used to work 100-hour weeks until Leone McLaughlin taught her how to delegate. She has about 70 hours now but urgently needs to take three days off and is scared of anything that could go wrong. “I’m a little worried about burying them in my work,” says Vernoff. “When I’m under a lot of stress – Millennials would say ‘triggered’ – I revert to old coping mechanisms, which is control, feeling like I have to do everything on my own.”
In her soothing but steady voice, Leone McLaughlin instructs Vernoff to make a list of things that need to happen on set while she’s away. “When you come back,” says Leone McLaughlin, “you’re not going to step in and just pretend you didn’t take 72 hours off. They will focus on the things that can be changed.” She reminds Vernoff that everything was fine the last time she left. “It was good,” Vernoff repeats slowly and nods. She stops nodding and says, “My eye is starting to twitch.”
Leone McLaughlin began coaching the showrunner four years ago. “Lacey walked in and said, ‘I have an MBA; I’m not a therapist,’” Vernoff recalls. “I understand sound business logic. It’s the opposite of therapy. It’s not about my feelings.” Hiring an executive coach, she says, means “testing your ego,” which is no small feat in this city. But it was worth it. “People in this industry have heart attacks in their 50s,” Vernoff points out.
“People are tired,” says Leone McLaughlin, while reaching into a plate of meatballs at an Italian eatery in Venice Beach as the sun sinks lower into the sky later that day. She ticks off the pandemic, the social justice upheaval, and now the so-called Great Resignation. “Four years ago, when I was a coach, I was like, ‘Okay, so help me understand what’s going on in this business.’ Now it’s like, “How are you?” ” She says that until recently, hiring a coach was seen as something to be kept on the rock bottom. That has changed so much that she can now interview clients on her podcast, development of leadership. “I think the staff have accepted that it’s okay. As a boss, you can say: ‘I’m not perfect,'” she says. “I think some of that could be generational.”
Vernoff says she was “confused” by the Whippersnappers for many years, but now she wonders, “What else have I been through that this generation isn’t ready to go through?”