John Landgraf has studied the mechanics of making television shows. He’s made a point to learn about the many jobs, above and below the line, that coalesce into the finished product.
The knowledge he’s gained over 25-plus years of working in TV has made him understand that often the most effective thing he can do as a leader is to be a supportive voice on the sidelines.
“There is no one-size-fits-all solution to managing creative people,” Landgraf says. “You have to understand the intent and the passion of the artist. You have to really get inside that and understand what it is they’re trying to say. And a lot of the time, the best thing you can do is say, ‘Go for it’ and get out of the way.”
Landgraf, CEO of FX Networks and FX Prods., is respected across the TV biz for championing distinctive shows — from “Rescue Me” and “Sons of Anarchy” to “It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia” and “Louie” — and for his candor in addressing everything from FX’s shortcomings to industry-wide problems such as violence on screen. It’s not every executive — make that no other exec — who holds a conference call with reporters to discuss the cancellation of a critical darling, as he did in 2010 with FX’s dearly departed “Terriers.”
In Landgraf’s view, however, his most praiseworthy accomplishment is the stability among his core team of execs since he took the helm of FX in 2005, a year after joining the cabler as president of entertainment. The environment created by the work of a close-knit team anchored by programming presidents Nick Grad and Eric Schrier, program strategy president Chuck Saftler and marketing prexy Stephanie Gibbons is what breeds success.
“What a good leader does is magnify anything they could possibly do individually by wanting to hire people who are better than they are, wanting to create the conditions where they are supported and energized,” he says. “You can achieve so much more by supporting the work of others rather than trying to doggedly do it all yourself.”
But that’s easier said than done, especially when the stakes — and production budgets — are high. Landgraf found his CEO equilibrium through a combination of age and experience.
“When you’re young, you feel a lot of pressure to prove yourself and to add value,” Landgraf says. “As you become more of a leader, you start to understand that you should still stay as sharp as you can but ultimately your job is to bring out the best in others. That’s how you add value.”
Landgraf sees his role as CEO as analogous to a coach. He cites the “Pyramid of Success” approach taken by legendary UCLA basketball coach John Wooden that hinges on nurturing players to their greatest potential as people rather than a narrower focus on winning games.
“We have tried to build an organization where the goal is to allow creative people to do the best work they are capable of doing,” Landgraf says.
Before coming to FX, Landgraf spent five years as a development exec at NBC during its heady 1990s days, followed by several years as a producer and partner in Jersey Television. He learned the hard way that the most detrimental thing executives can do is to try to micromanage creative decisions.
“The more you micromanage, the more you push the writer, the producer or the actor into making conventional choices,” Landgraf says. “Micromanaging is about fear and pushing people to fit preconceived notions. The goal with entertainment is to move people — to surprise them, to grip them, to make them laugh. The best work does that in a way that is wholly original.”
Taking a page from Wooden’s playbook, Landgraf emphasizes that the most productive approach is to do more listening than talking.
“The key to helping people achieve is to really listen to them,” he says. “It’s not easy to gain the trust of artists who are brilliant and mercurial and perfectionists working under incredibly difficult, high-pressure circumstances. Everything you do in those situations has to prove that you are worthy of their trust.”