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What I Learned about Leadership from Helming a Film Festival

I am the executive director of the 2016 Environmental Film Festival at Yale (EFFY), but I don’t know much about film festivals, let alone environmental film. I was hand-picked for this role in May 2015 because I had demonstrated leadership and execution abilities that were in line with the requirements for this position. I had served on the Environmental Stewardship Committee at the School of Forestry and Environmental Studies (FES) and as an active member of several student groups and initiatives to “make green things happen” on campus. Not only had I been minimally involved with EFFY last year, but I also have zero professional aspirations to be working in the film and entertainment industry after graduating from SOM and FES with a dual MBA/MEM degree. Nonetheless, I was excited to assume this position because of the value it would bring to my leadership experience and because I would have full creative direction over the internal processes and external outcomes. As the executive director of EFFY, I have been able to put my newly-minted management skills into full effect, such as:

  • Managing a $30,000 budget
  • Recruiting eight Executive Team members to lead specific efforts (Marketing/Communications, Programming, Operations, Strategic Partnerships, Metrics, Volunteer Coordination, Graphic Design, etc.)
  • Establishing more partnerships with complementary organizations and securing formal sponsorships from companies and local restaurants across campus and the greater New Haven area
  • Fundraising to maintain free admission for all audience members
  • Negotiating with production companies to secure educational licenses for each film

We’ve had a strong average of 2.8 out of 3-star ratings for each feature film, over 1,400 people in attendance across the 9 days of screenings, and we will be ending the year significantly under budget, with a sizeable financial cushion to help with next year’s startup costs. I’m so proud of the work my team has done this year, and I have learned so much about executive decision-making at the helm of a truly independent, student-run organization.

The 2016 EFFY Executive Team

Nevertheless, there are several things I wish I could have done differently, and my mind is constantly thinking about the ways in which we could have been more efficient, effective, and impactful. I suppose this will be my responsibility to communicate to next year’s executive director. Through this whole experience, I have found that succession is one of the most challenging elements of running an organization, and I have struggled with this from the very beginning of my term—especially because there has not yet been a formal process for selecting a successor in past years. As an entirely student-run film festival, EFFY has no institutionalized recourse, and I would like to spend some time working to make it more sustainable, as an organization.

EFFY is only eight years old, and as a relatively new, low-budget organization, I imagine the work culture is similar to an early startup—except EFFY onboards new interns and a new CEO each year. All in all, it seems like a recipe for disaster. Not only are we changing the team each year, but we are also trying to connect with the same donors and sponsors year after year, and trying to establish ourselves as a key player in the film festival scene.

There is, however, some beauty and novelty to this cycle of graduate student efforts. As we learned in our Innovator core class, it’s important to “fail early to succeed sooner.” So, as a new team gets underway with the planning process, it becomes a game of testing what works, especially when we don’t know what the solution looks like in the end. Managing a team that fulfills diverse functional roles has been a great experience, and I look forward to this level of responsibility when I graduate in May 2017.