6 Strategies to Improve Leadership Skills & Build a Team of Leaders

Derek working at MAKE films

For one day each quarter, MAKE films CEO and Creative Director, Derek Dienner, ventures to Chicago for The Strategic Coach Signature Program. Curious to learn more about what he was doing, I sat down with Derek to find out about the program and get his take on leadership.


A continuous theme that came through in our conversation was Derek’s constant drive to learn. He said, “As a leader, you need to constantly be learning and challenging yourself. It is the difference between remaining complacent and staying put, and growing as an individual and a leader. Especially in the film industry which is always changing, you need to be able to change and adapt with it.” A few years ago, Derek was chatting with one of his mentors about his desire to grow and become a better business owner and leader, and it was through this conversation that he found out about Strategic Coach.

On their website, Strategic Coach defines their Signature Program as, “A total support system for entrepreneurs dedicated to never-ending growth and quality of life. The Strategic Coach Signature Program is designed to make your possibilities a reality. It’s not a quick fix. It’s a transformational change for you as an entrepreneur and as a person, building on everything you’ve accomplished up to now.” The benefits of this program are evident when you take into account that since opening 3 years ago and starting Strategic Coach, MAKE films has doubled its team and increased earnings year after year.

Derek snapped a picture of Cloud Gate during his recent trip to Chicago.

Derek snapped a picture of Cloud Gate during his recent trip to Chicago.

1. BUILDING A TEAM OF LEADERS

Derek described Strategic Coach as a program that empowers entrepreneurs and encourages you to build a team of leaders within your company. There simply isn’t enough time in a day to do everything yourself; you will burn out. If your company is going to grow, you need to hire people who are better than you at certain tasks so not everything needs to go through you. Having a team of leaders leads to a self managing company that does not always need you there, ultimately creating less stress for you and giving you peace of mind.

Derek admits letting go of some control was an adjustment for him. “Soon after hiring our first producer, I was out for a few days and one of our computers crashed. Being a self proclaimed techie, this was a problem I normally would handle. But our new hire was able to handle it without calling me, and things went on without a hitch. It was then I realized I’m not the only one people come to for solutions anymore, and it took me a moment to be okay with that…I am human after all. But this is why I’m doing Strategic Coach, because I don’t want to be the one who has to solve all the problems anymore; that gets exhausting.”

For Derek, a good work/life balance is crucial. By implementing Strategic Coach’s ideas and creating a team of leaders he trusts, he has been able to take more time off with his family without having to worry about what is going on back at the studio.

MAKE films team in a meeting

2. BE A LIGHTHOUSE

Strategic Coach encourages leaders to organize their time. Everyone has a certain mental capacity they can handle, and allocating your time allows you to put all your focus on the task at hand. Derek explains this through his lighthouse metaphor. “For years, I’ve had to be a lighthouse, constantly moving my focus around from task to task. Ultimately, my goal is to be a solid lighthouse, where my focus is on one task and if I need to adjust and move my focus elsewhere, I can and I can do it fast.”

MAKE films team at work editing

3. DON’T JUST WORK IN IT, WORK ON IT

Six years ago, Derek’s friend Laura Schanz told him to read “The E Myth”, a book that talks about the need to focus on the business, not just in the business. To understand this idea, pretend you’re an electrician who hates working for someone else, so you decide to start your own company. Now you aren’t just an electrician; you’re also a marketer, an accountant, a customer service rep, and so many more roles that come with owning your own business. If you want your business to succeed, you can’t just be an electrician working in it, you need to work on it. Strategic Coach forces business owners to do just this during their quarterly meeting. It acts as a reset day that pushes you to work on and plan for your business.

4. FOLLOW THEIR DREAMS, EVEN IF THEY LEAVE

At Strategic Coach, they encourage you to implement the Dream Book Program within your company. In the Dream Book Program, your employees fill out a book with their personal and professional goals at various levels, then you discuss them as a company and work to achieve these newfound goals.

Derek implemented the Dream Book Program at MAKE, and through the exercise, one of his original employees came to realize her dreams do not fall inline with his vision for the future of the company — which was towards commercial filmmaking and away from wedding/lifestyle films. The program recognizes that this may happen, and has an ‘exit program’ when it arises. Rather than cutting off ties with them, the program encourages leaders to help their employees transition their path towards their dreams; be that helping them find a new job or internship or starting a company of their own. And Derek did just that.

The wonderful thing about this Dream Book Program is it helps everyone in the company figure out if their goals are in line with the company’s goals, and if not they are enabled to explore their true passions. This opens up their role allowing it to be filled by someone whose goals and dreams are in line with the vision of the company.

MAKE films team at work

5. FILLING THE BUS

Derek spoke at length about the book, Good to Great by Jim Collins, where Collins compares business to a bus. As Collins puts it, “You are a bus driver. The bus, your company, is at a standstill, and it’s your job to get it going. You have to decide where you’re going, how you’re going to get there, and who’s going with you. Most people assume that great bus drivers (read: business leaders) immediately start the journey by announcing to the people on the bus where they’re going—by setting a new direction or by articulating a fresh corporate vision. In fact, leaders of companies that go from good to great start not with “where” but with “who.” They start by getting the right people on the bus, the wrong people off the bus, and the right people in the right seats. And they stick with that discipline—first the people, then the direction—no matter how dire the circumstances.”

A great way Derek ensures he has everyone in the right seat is by testing them using the DiSC Profile and the Kolbe assessment before he pulls the trigger and hires them. This helps him understand their work style and allows him to better determine if they are a good fit within the culture at MAKE. In addition to testing a potential new hire, Derek is upfront and transparent from the get-go about how he envisions the company growing in the future.

MAKE films team at work

6. WORK IN PROGRESS

Through all of his continued efforts, Derek has created a team of leaders that produce amazing content for their clients day in and day out. Even though he has his dream team, to Derek, it doesn’t matter if you’re a business owner or not, you should always work on your leadership skills. “I’m a work in progress. Everyday I challenge what I think and know as a leader and as a person. I’m always learning. And it’s through programs like Strategic Coach that I enable myself and my employees to keep doing just that.”

MAKE films team in a meeting

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