Shonda Rhimes’ Rules Of Work: “Come Into My Office With A Solution, Not A Problem”
As the CEO of ShondaLand, which produces a whopping four TV shows for ABC, Shonda Rhimes is one of the busiest people in the entertainment world—so busy, in fact, that she had to force herself to say “yes” to non-work endeavors and opportunities for a whole year. (Like a typical overachiever, she wrote a book about it. And did a TED Talk.) Below, Rhimes offers insight into the other rules and routines she’s put into place that make it possible to create 70 hours of television per season.
What’s a typical day for you? Let’s start with the first thing you do when you get up.
I have three small children, so I try to get up well before them so that I can have some quiet time and be in the right head space for the day. I use that time to catch up on the news. Sometimes I use it to just do nothing, sometimes I use it to make notes for work. And once the kids are out the door, there’s another hour where I work from home, because I’ve found that that’s the most productive for me.
So you’re not usually working from home?
No, this is new. I have found that if I spend the first hour of my day at home, I get more done and less people steal my time. I think my biggest problem with time is that I need most of it for creative space, [but] there is a giant part of my job that is running my business. So people try to come into my office with fires that need to be put out, many of which they could solve themselves if they did not have me in front of them. You know what I mean?
I do. So how do you delegate?
I mean, part of that is not being there. But the other part of my growth is, in order to do all of these shows, Betsy [Beers, my producing partner] and I had to allow people to rise over the years. Sometimes people don’t want to be empowered because they are afraid of being the person to make the decisions. I am lucky that I have people who’ve worked with me for 10 years or more, [who’ve learned] that they could trust themselves to be the decision maker.
So, not being the definitive “yes” person also means that I do not answer phone calls or emails after 7 p.m. I do not work on the weekends, which I have to tell you is incredibly difficult. I mean, I write, I just don’t answer phone calls or emails. My email signature says, “I do not answer calls or emails after 7 p.m. or on weekends, and if you work for me, may I suggest that you put down your phone.”
I can certainly understand the feeling of always getting pulled into the news cycle or some form of ongoing correspondence.
Yeah, I look at it this way. I work for ABC. If the thing that ABC is paying me for is storytelling—not to make sure that a costume is exactly right or all those other things—then it is up to me to find the most creative space possible, so that that function of my job can happen.
Right, setting those boundaries.
And at work I have a rule that you’re not allowed to come into my office unless you’re coming into my office with a solution to a problem, and not with a problem.
That’s interesting. Can you give me an example?
Well, we have four shows shooting at once at this moment—Grey’s Anatomy, The Catch, How To Get Away With Murder, and Still Star-Crossed, which is an untitled Shonda Rhimes project shooting in Spain right now. And we’re also double-shooting episodes of Grey’s. So for instance, we have a scheduling problem where actors have [to appear] in several [concurrent shoots]. Does it mean I need to change a story to accommodate that? Or does it mean the story is more important, and we have to change the booking?
I want you to come into my office with some plans for what you think can happen. Don’t come in with a fire that’s already lit—I want to know how you think the fire is gonna be put out, and then we can talk.
So right now you’re shooting four shows at once. What is your approach to balancing everything?
I try really hard to do two things. One, I think it’s really important to be surrounded by people who know more stuff than you do, and are better at it than you are. I didn’t bring on Peter Nowalk and have him create How To Get Away With Murder because I thought he didn’t know what he was doing. What’s wonderful is that I can say that’s your show, go, come to me if you have a problem. I don’t have to stand and look over his shoulder. I didn’t give The Catch to Allan Heinberg because I thought I was gonna have to hold his hand. I could hand it to him and then breathe a sigh of relief because I knew it was being well taken care of.
Two, I try to focus on thing that’s right in front of me, because there’s always gonna be more work tomorrow. My first year doing Grey’s Anatomy, I would be at work at 10, 11 at night, and one of the executive producers, James Pariott, would go home at 6:30 or 7, and I would look at him with such rage. And he’d say, “Shonda, this work will always be there tomorrow.” Now I understand. You’re never going to cut down the mountain [of work] to make it flat. It’s always going to be a mountain. I try to focus on climbing this piece of the mountain, and then think about climbing the rest of it later.
Last year, you released The Year of Yes, in which you write about saying “yes” to things that might be challenging or things that might scare you. How does that impact what you’re telling me about knowing when to say no?
What was great about saying yes to things was that it made me realize that I was a workaholic. I was completely burned out and had reached a place where I was probably not that productive. When you’re suddenly say yes to things and stepping out into the world, you’re getting a whole new viewpoints on things. If you’re a creative person, that’s exactly what you need. It showed me there are so many things outside the four walls of my office that I need to spend time doing. And so that’s what taught me how to decide to manage my time. I became 10 times busier but 10 times more effective.
How do you balance getting that outside perspective with finishing everything that you have to do?
I am never worried that I’m not gonna get my work done. I was the kid who got straight As and was a little too intense in school. Like, I am a perfectionist, and I am going to sit at the front of the class with my hand raised. If you’re that kind of person, forcing yourself to not work is the key. I was more worried that I was going to miss life while I was busy getting my work done.
Can you point to anything in your work today that may be fruit of your year of yes?
I have many more stories to tell. And I feel like Grey’s has had this great resurgence, and part of that is because I felt reignited creatively and excited about telling stories there. That’s just come from living differently, I think.
How would you describe your writing process in general?
First of all, I don’t do everything myself. Every show has a writers’ room. Grey’s writers’ room is huge—it’s 15 people.
I am only responsible for the storytelling on two of those shows, Grey’s and Scandal. There is this very interesting moment when I walk into a writers’ room and I sit down and I say, “What show is this?” It happens a lot. I just need to be reminded because I’ve just been in another room talking about surgery for 20 minutes or an hour. But I like it because when I am only thinking about one thing, you can worry a story to death and never find the answer because it’s all your thinking about.
When it comes time for me to write, I don’t outline and I don’t do any of that stuff. I just sit down and write. If it’s not honest emotionally then it’s not good, and that’s my only rule.
Is there anyone who helps you stay on your toes?
I have an executive assistant, Blanca, who keeps my life running on a very clean, serious, go here, go there, take-no-complaining-from-me way. And I have a creative assistant, Daniel. And Daniel’s job, which I think is a very hard job, is to follow me around and go everywhere I go and then to be my memory and my brain. “You promised this room that you were gonna do this, and you promised this person you were gonna give them that, and last time we were in this room you told them this.” What’s great for him, as an aspiring writer and director, is that he gets to be involved in every creative process I’m involved in. What’s great for me is I have a terrible memory and he can remember everything for me.
What is your best habit? You gotta give yourself some props.
The fact that I am available and reading nighttime stories to my children every night, I’m very proud of that. Because I know a lot of people who don’t make it home until after their kids are sleeping.
And what’s the last thing you do at night?
The last thing I do at night is make a list of all the things that are in my head so that I don’t think about them while I’m trying to sleep.
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A version of this article appeared in the December 2016 / January 2017 issue of Fast Company magazine.