In a parking-lot-adjacent patio behind a low-slung building in Burbank, California, one recent morning, Jeff Hasler, a Gen-Xer who runs Original Productions, which makes documentary and unscripted programming, is holding a summit with his staff. The employees, younger than he by a decade or more, sit around folding tables, some wearing combat boots, others in hoodies, munching on sandwiches. They’re here to give their boss feedback. Why, they wonder, did Hasler feel the need to be at every pitch meeting? Could he please explain the chain of command? And what about that deal they were told to chase that was clearly never going to happen?
“That was my mistake,” says Hasler, tapping his blue suede shoes. He looks pleadingly in the direction of a judicious-seeming woman with chunky tortoise-shell sunglasses on her head who is there to facilitate this intergenerational parley. She meets his gaze, then turns to the group, marriage-counselor style, to ask, “At what point did we know it wasn’t going to work out?”
She is Lacey Leone McLaughlin, a consultant who has become the go-to underling whisperer for bosses perplexed by the very demanding young people who now work for them. As one showrunner who was pitched her services for thousands of dollars a month puts it to me, “She’s who you call when you need to play defense against a town that’s pretty quick to cancel people.”
“Sometimes I come into situations where someone is at their last chance,” Leone McLaughlin says to me. “That conversation is ‘You like your job? Want to keep it? Then you gotta do some things differently.’ They’re usually very receptive to that.”
After Harvey Weinstein’s fall set off a purge of the entertainment industry’s notorious sexual predators, Me Too morphed into Mean Too. Abusive titans like Scott Rudin and Joss Whedon and Ellen DeGeneres and Sharon Waxman were suddenly called to account for clearly unreasonable, sometimes reprehensible behavior that had been an open secret for years.
At some point during the pandemic, Hollywood’s creative underclass realized it had power — on Slack, on Twitter, and in blind quotes to a trade press suddenly hungry for workplace-misconduct stories. Its champion Instagram account is @assistantsvsagents. One meme pairs language from a job posting — “We are looking for go-getters with thick skin who thrive in a fast-paced environment” — with six red-flag emoji. Caption: “Just tell me it’s going to be toxic.” NDAs, the once commonplace legal-department shield against what used to be considered the resentment-fueled gossip of people who didn’t have what it took to make it to the big time, are seen as warning signs. Many bosses are afraid to ask for them anymore.
Now, in hushed tones up and down Wilshire Boulevard, fearful agents and producers talk as though Madame Defarge Gen-Zers are 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 who reprimanded an assistant for eating in a meeting and then was told by HR that he had to apologize? “We used to have our assistants on the phone all the time, listening and taking notes,” says one big-shot producer. “But now, if you’re going to say something you think might get you in trouble, or something honest, you can’t have your assistant on the phone.”
Which is where Leone McLaughlin, who has been called a “rage” coach by The Hollywood Reporter, comes in. “I think, right now, people are afraid to get it wrong,” she says. “And there’s so much to get wrong from a boss’s perspective.”
Maybe it helps Leone McLaughlin that she didn’t grow up in Beverly Hills, 90210, but rather in San Diego County. Her father was a welder, her mother a hairdresser, and her stepfather worked at a Goodyear tire shop. She went into executive coaching in her 20s after getting an M.B.A. at the University of La Verne in California and then spending more than nine years running a business program at USC. In the past two years, “My job has not changed,” she says, “but I had to change. I had to be more empathetic and put myself in their shoes a little bit, take a step back and not push so hard. I needed to chill out a bit.”
Which is basically her advice to her clients, too — people like Darren Schillace, the president of marketing for Fox Entertainment, who oversees around 150 people. He says Leone McLaughlin taught him how to manage up and down. “Most people, by the time they get Lacey,” he says, while emphasizing that this doesn’t describe him, “they’re up to their waist.” Better to recognize your possible blind spots before you get poked in the eye.
After she finishes her morning session helping Hasler, Leone McLaughlin hops into her black Jaguar SUV and zips down the 101 to the 405 to her next appointment. It’s a one-on-one with Krista Vernoff, the Shonda Rhimes lieutenant and showrunner who took over Grey’s Anatomy and produced Shameless and Charmed. We’re sitting in her leafy backyard, and a sea breeze is blowing in from the beach. Wearing rings of clear quartz and obsidian and rubbing a piece of lavender fluorite between her hands while exhaling deeply, Vernoff is the picture of a stressed-out Hollywood exec. “I might be on the verge of a teeny-tiny nervous breakdown,” she says, laughing. She used to work 100-hour weeks until Leone McLaughlin taught her how to delegate. She’s down to about 70 hours now but desperately needs to take three days to herself and is terrified by all that could go wrong. “I’m a little worried about burying them in my work,” says Vernoff. “When I get high stress — the millennials would say ‘triggered’ — I revert to old coping mechanisms, which is control, the feeling that I need to do it all myself.”
In her soothing yet firm voice, Leone McLaughlin instructs Vernoff to make a list of things that will need to happen on the set in her absence. “When you come back,” says Leone McLaughlin, “you’re not going to jump in and just pretend like you didn’t take 72 hours off. You’re going to focus on the things that can be changed.” She reminds Vernoff that the last time she went away, everything was good. “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 came in and was like, ‘I have an M.B.A.; I’m not a therapist,’ ” recalls Vernoff. “I get sound business logic. It’s the opposite of therapy. It’s not about my feelings.” Hiring an executive coach, she says, means having “to bench your ego,” which is no small thing in this town. But it has been worth it. “People have heart attacks in their 50s in this industry,” Vernoff points out.
“People are tired,” Leone McLaughlin says, digging into a plate of meatballs at an Italian joint in Venice Beach as the sun dips lower in the sky later that day. She ticks off the pandemic, social-justice upheavals, and now the so-called Great Resignation. “Four years ago, when I would coach, I’d be like, ‘Okay, so help me understand what’s going on with this business.’ Now it’s, ‘How are you?’ ” She says that until very recently, hiring a coach was seen as something to be kept on the down low. That has changed so much that she can now interview clients on her podcast, Unfolding Leadership. “I think the workforce has allowed it to be okay. You’re allowed to say, as a boss, ‘I’m not perfect,’ ” she says. “I think some of that might be generational.”
Vernoff says for many years she was “bewildered” by the whippersnappers, but now they make her wonder, “What else did I suffer through that this generation is unwilling to suffer through?”