Production Manager Jay Sheehan on Mentorship

January 15, 2021

Jay Sheehan and Cary Gillett with their book The Production Manager's Toolkit.

Production manager, author, USITT director, and past SMMP mentor Jay Sheehan authored a piece on mentorship, which can be read below. We thank Jay for providing this informative and reflective work.

By: Jay Sheehan

A few years ago, I started reading some books on leadership and management styles. As I reflected on my career in stage and production management, I realized that I had never relied on just one type or style of leadership. Instead, I gathered several management skills for my toolkit and implemented the ones that resonated with me the most.  
After that, I relied on my intuition to help me make management decisions and it was my intuition that helped me to learn how to treat others with kindness, how to be a fair negotiator and most importantly, how to listen to others with intention.  
This all seemed like a commonsense approach towards leadership and it would soon become the foundation of my “style” for the next 30 years.  
While I didn’t rely on “how to manage” books very much, I DID rely on the abundance of mentors that have influenced me during each phase and transition of my career. In every new job that I took, there was always someone willing to help me learn more and guide me towards success.  
Watching my mentors in action proved to be the very best way in which I learned. Back then was when I first started observing body language and I would watch facial expressions and reactions during face to face encounters. It was then that I also learned about using the correct tone in your voice when speaking to others.  
I would also observe my mentors running production meetings and while always keeping an eye on the clock, made sure that everyone in the room had a chance to speak.   
The most amazing thing about all of this was observing how easily it came to them. They never seemed to struggle or show stress, even when the waters got rough.  They always exhibited a calming and reassuring tone that everything was going to be all right…even in the most difficult of situations.  
I am grateful to this day for the lessons that were brought to me over the years, especially the lesson on continued mentorship.  
Mentorship became especially important to me as I became more involved with the United States Institute for Theatre Technology (USITT). In 2008 I was asked to become a mentor for a USITT program called the Stage Management Mentor Project (SMMP). The project connects professional stage managers and production managers with mentees for a week of practical training experiences. The students training culminates with them organizing and calling cues for some of the Conference’s most high-profile events including the Keynote Address, the New Products Showcase, and many more. The program is by far one of my most favorite weeks of the year, and I always come back to San Diego State refreshed and reinvigorated to teach and mentor the students enrolled in my management program.  
In my program, having students attend actual events with me has become one of the key aspects of my approach to teaching and learning together. I explain to them that the observation of an event, from beginning to end, is the only real way to learn about dealing with challenges the moment they occur.  
In order to prepare for the in-person event observation, we will spend a couple of weeks in the classroom looking at drawings of the venue, daily schedules and light plots. We also analyze the video requirements and we carefully determine the audio needs, especially if live music is being planned for the evening. By the end of the week we have identified many potential challenges that inevitably come up at each event, and have a robust list of things to watch out for during the actual load in. This drill in anticipating potential problems is paramount to their event planning education.  
Being a mentor is a huge responsibility and it is important to understand just how much of your time will be invested in the student’s education and future.  
In my opinion, true mentors are mentors for life…not just a semester.  
I learned from watching and listening to the best mentors that a young manager could ever ask for. To this day I am still in touch with several of them and I consider many of them close friends.  
My USITT colleagues and friends Michele Kay and Antonia Collins said it best at a recent USITT session on management. “A candle loses nothing by lighting another candle.” I encourage all of you that have considered mentorship to find a way to contribute to a student’s success and to be the candle that helps light another.