Kiko Washington is EVP, Worldwide Human Resources, Warner Bros. Entertainment. We spoke with him recently to discuss how the organisation is facing up to challenges in the industry.
After graduating from the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania with a degree in Economics, Kiko Washington had a plan.
He had secured a place on a rotational work programme at Hitachi America. The firm was interested in combining Japanese and American styles of management, and with a Japanese mother and American father, Washington was a perfect fit for the programme.
His next step was to take a place at law school, but sometimes life doesn’t follow the script. As with many great stories, a chance encounter led to a new path opening up.
Getting into HR
“I was at a bar and helped someone after they got in a fight and then later found out he was Head of HR for Gulf and Western. He offered me a job,” Washington explains.
“I believe he just felt that if I was willing to help in that situation, I’d probably be a good person to have on his team.”
Washington says that this open approach to opportunity, and willingness to establish new relationships, is something that has stayed with him throughout his career.
“I have met a lot of people in different situations. You never know who is going to come into your life in different ways.
“I tend to respond to people [who reach out to me], even if I don’t know them. Or, if people I do know refer someone, I just tend to try and do more than most for them. I will see people and I know that careers are made through situations like that.”
He believes that the key to success is forming good relationships and being open to different paths.
“There’s not one specific way on your journey. It’s about being open to what’s in front of you and creating your path, that I think matters. And, of course, a lot of luck helps too.”
Being open to new opportunities
The importance of having an open outlook is something Washington has been aware of his whole life. He lists his mother and his multicultural upbringing as one of his biggest influences. He says it is this that has positioned him to understand that different backgrounds and experiences can give different perspectives.
“Having that inclusive view means you can build an approach that plays to a global strategy, it’s so important.
“My other big influence is that gentleman who gave me that first job in HR, Dave Pritchard. He taught me that you can focus on work and keep your head down, but that it’s as important to establish the right relationships so you can quickly move through those challenges.
“Relationships get you through sticky situations because they provide a foundation of trust.”
Washington went from Gulf and Western to HBO, giving him his first taste of working in the entertainment industry. He then moved to Time Warner, which later became WarnerMedia, and has remained there ever since.
He says that while this may seem like a long time in one industry, it has always felt fresh to him: “I’ve been in the industry 35 years, but one could argue I’ve had 35 jobs, because every year you’re approaching it so differently.
“If you’re in a job where you’re just responding, you can get bored. But if you view your role as being strategically linked to business plans and strategies going forward, then you’re always in front of it.
“I think as an HR professional that’s certainly how we should be approaching it, which means the job is always changing dramatically.”
Building an inclusive business
The fast-changing nature of the media industry means that over the years, Washington has worked on a wide range of projects, including expanding the company into new markets, launching digital services and more recently developing direct-to-client services. But in the last few years, the media industry has faced a different type of challenge.
The prevalence of sexual assaults in the film business came to a head following the exposure of Harvey Weinstein. Since then, the whole industry has had to shoulder responsibility and ask some difficult questions of itself.
Washington says that at Warner Bros., the focus is on inclusion and belonging, and on creating a culture that provides complete clarity that problematic behaviours are not tolerated.
He says the company has looked at the treatment of employees from a macro perspective and ensured there are avenues open to colleagues where they can talk to people if they feel they are not being treated fairly.
“We also have ongoing employee focus groups and feedback mechanisms so we can very, very quickly understand anything that may be going on that we need to address.
“We can also see specific areas where things are bubbling up in the treatment of employees. So, whether it’s the #MeToo movement, or people feeling that the environment is not consistent to what we want from a Warner Bros. perspective, it allows the organisation to approach all work from a cultural standpoint.”
Sharing stories to boost diversity
A lack of diversity has also been a point of friction in the media industry. The 2016 Academy Awards was disparaged for the lack of nominations for non-white actors or directors.
Washington says hiring more artists from diverse backgrounds is the key for more inclusive hiring across the board.
“We think the best way to do that is to ensure that our organisation, and especially our creative teams, are very inclusive and reflect the diverse and global perspectives of society.
“Bringing in artists like Michael B. Jordan, Ava DuVernay, Charles King, Lin-Manuel Miranda, Patty Jenkins or Jon Chu enables you to create content that is increasingly inclusive and people notice that.
“I believe that artists look at the creative executives in our Theatrical Group and think, ‘they are reflective of my reality, and I’m confident that they can both create and market my films to a global audience in a manner that’s consistent with the passion I feel for my film.’”
However, he says that further steps must be taken to ensure this talent continues to develop in the future.
“You have to introduce people before there are job openings, which means getting people networked,” he explains.
“An inclusive group of people that are already networked means that when an opening does occur, people are already known and they have nurtured relationships.”
Warner Bros. is also using CSR initiatives, managed by Dee Dee Myers, Worldwide Executive Vice President, Corporate Communications and Public Affairs, to lay the groundwork to continue to improve diversity across the organisation in the future. There are three areas of focus: ‘The Next Great Storytellers’, which encourages the next generation of storytellers to recognise the value of their own voice; ‘Changing the Narrative’, which aims to provide access and opportunity in the industry; and ‘Making Stories Sustainably’, where sustainable practices within production ensures the future of storytelling is preserved for generations to come.
Creating new networks of talent
Working together on CSR and philanthropy opportunities, Warner Bros. connected with schools and organisations to create pathways for talent that may not have had access before and found ways to help existing employees get involved in the process.
“Dee Dee’s CSR/Public Affairs team has led the charge to inspire the next generation of storytellers, developing two programmes – ‘WB Story Lab’ and ‘WB First Cut’,” Washington explains. “Both are in-school, teach-the-teacher programmes that provide storytelling and filmmaking skills to Los Angeles Unified School District sixth grade and high school students, respectively.
“On the production side of the business, Access to Action provides production assistant jobs to people who haven’t traditionally had pathways into the entertainment industry, sourcing candidates from local job training programmes and non-profit organisations.
“And in the UK, Warner Bros. Creative Talent identifies and incubates a pipeline of diverse, emerging talent for the UK and Ireland’s creative industries by providing scholarships, apprenticeships, work and training placements, mentoring and masterclasses.”
The company has also developed opportunities for employees to work with school children. “They will bring the kids to the studio lot so they can share their stories,” Washington explains. “We also provide red carpet opportunities for the kids to be recognised. That motivates them to want to continue as writers, as directors, and enables us to grow the new crop of creatives who will one day be the next Ava DuVernay, Greg Berlanti or J.J. Abrams.”
While ‘Making Stories Sustainably’ relates to working in a greener way, it’s also echoed in Warner Bros.’ wider diversity goals.
“That third part is about how we create our content going forward and what it means to work for Warner Bros.,” he says. “We have to ask ‘what do we stand for in the community and how are we developing that next tier of storytellers?’
“This generation is keenly interested in working for companies who walk the talk in terms of corporate responsibility, including environmental awareness and green production. Companies who not only make an impact with their product but also make a difference in protecting the world. That’s a key element in the way we attract upcoming talent to the Studio.”
Showcasing employees across the organisation
With such a focused approach to finding future talent, Warner Bros. has also sought ways to inspire existing employees in their careers. Again, Washington says that a focus on culture is allowing the company to showcase a broader range of talent than ever before to their existing people, which helps inspire them with new opportunities.
“Too frequently people only focus on tactics,” he says. “Tactics are important as they help you consider how you are specifically going to attract and retain talent but ultimately it’s how you develop your culture and establish what your culture and brand stands for that matters.
“We’re fortunate that Warner Bros. has always had a reputation for being team-orientated. Being part of a team is woven into how people are expected to work.
“So, we’re maintaining that culture and ensuring that it is a culture that values inclusivity. And when I say inclusive, too frequently people think that’s just race and gender.
“For us it’s geography, because we’re a global company. It’s generational because we feel it’s important that early-career employees see that their careers can take off quickly.
“It’s showing them that opportunity is not just based on length of service and experience and that their career mobility is tied to their desires.
“Ultimately, I think it’s a culture that’s respectful, that’s inclusive, that’s engaging, that reminds people that they work for a global media and entertainment company.”
Employees are reminded of this through regular worldwide screenings that allow people to hear from filmmakers, showrunners and leadership teams from different parts of the world. “Those are the types of things I think creates a culture of inclusion that people value.”
Encouraging innovation in the film industry
Washington says that innovation is also a vital component of the Warner Bros. culture and that keeping staff up to date with progression in the industry through education is key.
“We have a speaker series, where we let all employees see where the industry is going,” he says.
“It really is about access and education and getting people ahead of the curve.”
At the moment, the company is working with its partners at HBO as the HBO Max streaming service launches. Washington says that holding regular conversations with staff will ensure the business can get the most out of partnerships with sister divisions.
It is also focusing on the importance of making the best content, regardless of screen size. As consumers demand everything from large-scale theatrical releases to streaming services on their phones, Warner Bros. will focus on creating pieces that allow consumers to view them how and when they like.
Washington concludes that the most important aspect of any training is to ensure people know that it is an ongoing process.
“I think too frequently people do one bit of education and think it’s done,” he reflects. “For us, there’s no beginning or end to education. I’m always amazed when I hear some of my HR colleagues in other companies talk about getting to the end of an education piece.
“Our perspective and what we’re trying to continually drive home is that change is constant. Culture is a huge part of how you win that battle.”
About this Author
Irene is the Director of People & Culture and is responsible for people initiatives across ANZ to support the business to continue to grow and dominate the market. She commenced her career with Hays in 1996 and has 23 years of experience in consulting, recruitment, human resources and training in Australia, New Zealand and Asia.