In 2001, the Screen Actors Guild realized it needed a CEO with business and organizational expertise.Bob Pisano, an articulate, skilled lawyer and studio exec, was recruited after a bizarre search that included another candidate taking the job for a couple of days then pulling out. The fractiousness of SAG was well displayed. Pisano departed his guild post earlier this year by mutual agreement. In his first published interview since, Pisano spoke about the highs and lows of his tenure. He also offered an insider’s perspective on the differences between managing a union and managing an entertainment concern. “A classic business — and I’m not using the term pejoratively, is kind of autocratic,” Pisano said. “A union, especially a union like the Screen Actors Guild, is a grassroots democracy.” At SAG, that means a townhall style of decision-making, with much time spent discussing issues in committee and board meetings. “The good news is it’s a democracy in a true democratic sense,” the ex-exec said. “The bad news is sometimes it’s very difficult to get decisions, because people disagree and they continue to debate. Once you think you’ve got a decision, then you turn around and someone is objecting, and you don’t have a decision.” Pisano’s business background proved an asset and a liability. Valerie Harper, a leading dissident and member of SAG’s national board of directors, was quoted in the press praising Pisano’s personality and proficiency, but saying that his corporate ways were not compatible with operating a union. “I both agree and disagree with her,” Pisano said. “I think that there are some things from the so-called for-profit or corporate world that are not appropriate in a union. But I disagree with the other piece: A union absolutely needs some of the discipline that comes from the for-profit side of life in terms of its efficient spending of the members’ money.” How would he describe the level of acumen he encountered at his most recent job as compared to previous assignments? “I need to distinguish between raw smarts and business sophistication,” Pisano said. “I associated with people on the board and in the senior elected leadership in the guild who were incredibly smart. Some of them didn’t have any experience in the business side because they’re creative people. So part of my job was to try and translate for people who didn’t have the experience in business and management things like financial statements and financial projects and all the tools that any organization needs.” Pisano said he had a pair of goals when he took the job: getting the union organized internally, and unifying it to speak on issues with a single voice. He believes he achieved the former. As for the latter, the raging intra-SAG “Restore Respect” vs. “Membership First” factional feud makes the nations red state vs. blue state chasm appear narrow. “I think we did a lot to basically drag the organization into the 21st century,” Pisano said. “The analogy I would use is that SAG, when I got there, was like a kid that was 5’2″ who suddenly grew up to be 6’2″ and the clothes didn’t fit.” Pisano and his team oversaw administrative and infrastructure reforms, and streamlined SAG’s internal operations. A 2003 vote to merge with AFTRA barely failed to pass. Pisano’s replacement, former AFTRA national exec director Greg Hessinger, would be wise to build on momentum he and Pisano helped to create and ultimately revisit the issue. Pisano exited the guild with no misconceptions about his role. He never anticipated that his task would be long term. “I went in there committed to making changes,” he said. “In my experience and in whatever reading I’ve done, a change agent by definition has to change things. That makes people mad because organizations like continuity and stability. And SAG needed change.” So what will Pisano do next? Given what he experienced at fractious SAG, his reply shouldn’t be surprising. “To the extent I have a choice,” Pisano said, “I probably will gravitate back to the for-profit world.” Stephen Unger is a leading exec recruiter. At various times, he led the media and entertainment practices of the worlds three largest executive search firms. He can be reached at email@example.com.
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