As senior vice president of leadership and organizational development at Sony Pictures Entertainment, part of Martin Lowery’s role is to bring the notion of learning and talent development to Hollywood, where historically the unspoken sentiment has been “either you’ve got it, or you don’t.” After all, the classic musical starring Judy Garland was called, “A Star Is Born,” not “A Star Is Developed.”
But these days, it’s not just about who is on the screen — whether in movie theaters, on television sets or the Internet. The entertainment industry is in the midst of a seismic shift from analog to digital, thanks in large part to Sony Pictures’ parent company, Tokyo-based Sony Corp., which pioneered digital production technology. That shift is also transforming how and where creative content can be distributed.
If the studio is to remain competitive, its leaders have to get out of their comfort zones and rethink their product and how it will be marketed and delivered to consumers. That’s where Lowery and his team come in.
“As we look at our marketplace, we don’t simply see other studios as our competitors,” Lowery said. “A great deal of our energy within Sony Pictures Entertainment is to look more broadly — for example, Google, Amazon, Netflix are great partners for the studios, but they are also creating content, so are potentially competitors, too. It behooves us to ensure that we augment and enhance our talent pool so we can evolve our business models.”
The Road to Learning
Lowery said working in the entertainment industry was always on his mind, but he took a circuitous route. After graduating from the U.K.’s Clifton College and then University of Surrey in the mid-1980s, Lowery was recruited by Hilton International Co. in London to work in the hotel chain’s Canadian locations, alternately serving as director of food and beverage; convention services; sales and marketing, and accommodations.
“I always had the desire to travel the world, and to learn and to teach,” Lowery said. “Hospitality was a really attractive career for me. I saw international hospitality as a kind of commercial theater. If you think about hotels, we trained people to evoke a certain atmosphere and to orchestrate some of the most memorable and significant moments in our guests’ lives — their vacations or key business meetings.
Hospitality was a great way to connect in a way that allowed me to be part of an entertainment industry, if not the entertainment industry.”
Eventually, Lowery was drawn to the world of learning and talent development for its ability to develop a team or an individual and add value to the business. He then worked his way through Hilton’s HR management team to become senior vice president, organizational development and chief learning officer for Hilton Hotels Corp. in 2007.
David Kervella worked with Lowery during much of that time, most recently as director of brand training for Hilton Garden Inn. He is now senior director of system-wide professional development for California State University. “With Martin’s guidance at Hilton, we worked on some really interesting projects, such as an internal network for professionals similar to Facebook, and the creation of a computer game for training that employees could play on a Sony PlayStation Portable,” Kervella said. “Martin guided me through the corporate bureaucracy, and without his help, these initiatives would not have been approved.”
Lowery also helped Kervella to understand diverse cultures and how to customize learning for each culture. Hilton Garden Inn was an international brand, opening hotels in India, China, the Middle East, Europe and Eastern Europe.
The two still see each other regularly, and every time they speak Kervella said he learns something new. “It’s not that he’s always trying to teach me something, it’s just the way that he is — he’s just a wealth of knowledge,” Kervella said. “What’s special about him is that he gets you to think: he never tells you the right answer, but he will help you to get to the answer yourself.”
Lowery left Hilton in 2009 to serve as chief learning officer for Apollo Group Inc., a higher education company based in Phoenix. Last year, he moved to Sony Pictures, to finally work in the industry he craved.
“It’s especially gratifying to be working at such an historic icon,” Lowery said. “Sony Pictures bought the old MGM Studios, and visions of Clark Gable and Vivien Leigh echo in the hallways.” While the studio is now housed in a portion of MGM’s original lots, the main buildings are still there, with the offices of early film producers Louis B. Mayer and Irving Thalberg just steps away.
“There’s a constant reminder of the vast output of the studio,” he said. “Every morning I drive through the studio gates onto a working lot, and walk past 12 Oscars for Best Picture in the lobby. There’s 100 years of studio history here. Every sound stage tells a story, and there are artifacts and memorabilia from decades of movies like ‘Lawrence of Arabia,’ ‘From Here to Eternity,’ ‘Ghostbusters’ and ‘Men in Black.’”
A Tough Business for Learning
The ambiance may be fabulous, but selling learning and talent development initiatives at Sony Pictures can be challenging. Lowery said the concepts are still pretty new in the entertainment industry. In many ways he and his team are putting basic elements in place in an industry that historically has not functioned in the same way as other sectors in the corporate world.
For learning and development initiatives to work, they have to be applicable for the studio’s diverse employee base. Roughly half of the studio’s employees are in creative positions, while the other half are in more traditional corporate roles performing business functions. The organization also employs roughly 6,000 people globally, which adds diverse cultural approaches to learning and talent development.
Further, Lowery said the company has great but very specific expertise in a small number of people; therefore, large-scale learning solutions are not always practical. As a result, he and his team are overseeing creation of individual development plans (IDPs) as part of a broader initiative introduced by Lowery’s boss, Executive Vice President George Rose, who restructured and renamed Sony Pictures’ human resources department as People & Organization (P&O).
P&O team members or business partners work one-on-one with leaders in each business unit to support performance reviews and succession strategies and to create IDPs for employees within each unit. Currently, the senior half of the organization has IDPs, but eventually every employee will have one.
“IDPs focus on what we need to do to help grow our talent, what experiences they should provide them, what mentoring or coaching is appropriate and also what coursework and informal learning may be needed,” Lowery said. “Our primary emphasis is on experiential learning and development. We’re looking at how we can enrich our employees’ careers with work experiences and assignments that are both productive and stretch their capacity to be a better leader and a stronger performer.”
To accomplish this, Lowery and his team are developing leaders within each business unit to carry out the initiatives. He said the company is trying to avoid becoming excessively bureaucratic but still ensure development is a part of each executive’s role, as opposed to being delegated by a learning team member. “Our thrust is to support leaders, to deliver what they need in order to provide a learning culture within their own teams,” he said.
To measure effectiveness, Lowery and his team are rolling out a dashboard of HR metrics. They will de-emphasize coursework and related satisfaction metrics and focus on determining how many people have a robust development plan in place.
Sony Pictures is also using leadership development company Lominger’s Leadership Architect tools to provide a common language to discuss leadership competencies and development, and to support its efforts to assess talent performance against goals and potential.
Lowery said he could not disclose exact metrics, but the company has seen some success with its new initiatives, reflected in high employee engagement and retention rates.
In addition to implementing IDPs, Lowery and his team are also embarking on a range of initiatives to support collaboration and nurture a culture of innovation across Sony Pictures’ business units.
For instance, the team has been developing a series of courses, titled Decoding Digital, to educate employees about changes to the digital frontier related to content production and distribution. The series includes input from thought leaders throughout the organization as well as live presentations and e-learning offerings developed by executives within the studio’s motion picture, home entertainment and TV divisions. The team plans to roll out the finished series across global operations by the end of the year.
Christi Olson, vice president of leadership and organizational development who works with Lowery, said she appreciates his creative approach to learning, including use of simulations and games, which are tied to business goals. “For example, we have an initiative to improve collaboration, so we have a learning effort where we get folks to work together across departments in out-of-the-box ways, thinking differently,” she said.
“In the Decoding Digital learning series, we have a module on what consumers want today. We started working with a group of executives to actually come to agreement about what our approach to consumer marketing should be, from a consumer point of view. We are getting them to work better together in a cross-functional way.”
Rose, the head of the P&O department, said Lowery has a good understanding of learning’s role within Sony Pictures and knows how to make it feel necessary. “Sometimes learning can be regarded as something that seems to be forced, or something the HR community has to sell it,” Rose said. “Martin has raised awareness. He’s got a wealth of knowledge, but he is constantly pursuing new things to stay fresh, to challenge all of us to work in the most effective way we can, which is hugely practical.”
Lowery said learning cannot be separated from performance because learning leaders have to make sure they are solving the right problems. Thus, he and his team act as performance consultants to the business units, and sometimes learning is not a panacea. “Lack of knowledge and skills are things we can take responsibility for, mitigating those root causes with learning interventions,” he said. “But often the cause of a performance problem lies in another area. A learning group can’t solve for lack of clarity of goals, objectives, standards or measurement.”
Lowery also said learning must be viewed in the context of business as a team sport, and the opportunity to support team coaching and development is tremendously rewarding, as is the opportunity to develop strong leaders, who become lever points, impacting hundreds or thousands of other lives. “It is very gratifying to see them perform better, and lead more functional, productive teams, and knowing I supported them in that endeavor.”