Shonda Rhimes isn’t done changing the game
The legendary showrunner already has a night of TV named for her. So what's next? Even better shows, even happier crews. Here, Shonda gives you a look into her daily grind.
You know Shonda Rhimes. You’ve probably dedicated your Thursday nights to her ABC shows, Grey’s Anatomy, Scandal, and How to Get Away With Murder. Or perhaps you’ve read her bestselling book, Year of Yes, or her site, Shondaland. What you might not know is that even the great Shonda Rhimes still considers herself a work in process—chasing ideas, dreaming bigger, and trying to take everything she does to the next level. “I’m still wondering how I can be better,” she says. “What new can be accomplished? How can I make a better show? How can I make the people I work with happier?”
This year, she’s taking on a lot of projects at once. She has two new shows—the legal drama For the People and Station 19, a Grey’s Anatomy spin-off—both picked up for season two at ABC. Shonda is also set to launch a slate of new series and films on Netflix through a multiyear development deal. In order to match the level of creativity those projects require, she’s carving out time in her schedule for it. “I try to find two or three hours a day to just be alone with my thoughts,” she says. “That’s my goal every day, to find that creative time. It’s like breathing. I need it.” It’s important her team gets that space too. “I want to make sure the people around me feel like their creative time is valuable,” she says. “Otherwise, it’s just a company where I can be creative and no one else can, and that can’t work. Creativity is at the heart of what we’re doing.”
Shonda’s secret weapon
"I like to hire people who argue with me. It’s important to have someone around who can say, 'This is dumb—you’re being silly.' But when you get to a certain level and people know who you are, it can be hard for them to question you. That’s why, every show I’m on, I put what I call a 'ringer' in the writers’ room—someone who will say, 'That’s a bad idea' or 'I disagree with you.'"
Which brings us to a second goal Shonda mentioned: making the people she works with happier. Her production company, also called Shondaland, is notorious for bringing together some of the most diverse casts and crews on television. Now she’s instituting policies that make it easier for her teams to thrive. “I knew I had power in my position when I realized I could utilize it for other people,” she says. “When I realized I was the person who could say, ‘We’re going to take three months of maternity leave.’” At Shondaland, she’s cultivated an atmosphere that’s truly inclusive. “I like to make my shows incredibly pregnancy friendly and baby friendly,” she says. “You can work here and not get fired for having a baby—which still happens at some places—or feel overworked while you’re doing it.”
Shonda Rhimes: “My phone does not work on the weekend”
Shonda thinks about work culture a lot. She wants policies that keep her (and her staff’s) creative juices flowing and their sanity intact. Click through for Shonda's recipe for a happy workplace.
Try to export empathy
"Both on our shows and in our writers’ rooms, we try to teach people how to be empathetic toward those who don’t look like them."
Feel free to say no
"I’m practicing what I call my Year of No. It’s OK to say no to things that aren’t in your best interest or that would otherwise overwhelm you."
Know when to turn everything off
"I have an email signature that says, 'My phone does not work on the weekend.' I want people who work for me to feel like their creative time is important. If I’m your boss, turn your phone off."
Own up to messing up
"Failure is a way of figuring out what doesn’t work, so you can figure out what does. It’s important to admit when you’ve made a mistake."
Make people feel comfortable disagreeing
"I hire people who tell me the truth. You don’t want to be trapped in an environment where everyone is afraid to disagree. "
Few people achieve the level of influence Shonda has, and with that influence comes the ability to make widespread, systemic changes. “I was telling my daughters recently that to whom much is given, much is expected,” she says. “There’s so much to be done in a town like Hollywood, and if I can just hire even more women or create more female showrunners, I’ll feel like I’ve done something.” And that push to make both her company and the wider industry a better place to work is what keeps Shonda in process.
Build a culture from the ground up
Watch Shonda lead a conversation about leadership with Valarie Jarett, Mieko Kusano, and Chloe Arnold, discovering similarities and differences in their experiences. The main themes: be true to yourself, speak up, listen, learn, stay passionate, and be courageous.
How Shonda Rhimes deals with doubt and failure
Shonda Rhimes sits down with Mikaila Ulmer, the 13-year-old CEO of Me & the Bees Lemonade, for a one-on-one mentoring session. Shonda gives Mikaila some great advice on jumping into the things the scare you, managing setbacks, and keeping on striving. Listen in.