Mentorship in the Children’s Media Industry

By Randy Astle

Get an inside look into CMA’s Inaugural Mentorship Program and some tips for making the most of your own mentorship experiences!

Mentors and mentees in CMA’s first-ever national mentorship program are now over seven months in. Launched in June 2020 by CMA’s newly formed Mentorship Committee (Caroline Brickley, Katherine Brickley, Rachel Abeshouse, Karen Martin, and Alyson Grubard) just a few months after the world seemed to shut down due to COVID-19, the program was designed to help CMA members connect in ways that would help them advance both personally and professionally, as well as advance the entire kids’ industry as a whole. The program runs from June 2020 through March 2021 and will be repeated again in 2021-22. Applications for prospective mentees will be available soon. 

The following article gives an inside look into mentors’ and mentees’ thoughts on what the experience has been like so far and their advice on how to make the most of any mentor and mentee relationship – perfect for those interested in being a mentor or mentee in future mentorship programs through CMA and beyond!

Make sure to keep reading until the very end to get some additional mentorship resources as well as some tips on getting started with finding mentors/mentees outside of a traditional mentorship program.

Favorite Parts of the Mentorship Journey Thus Far

The first and perhaps most valuable thing to come out of a mentorship is the personal relationship between mentor and mentee–-particularly in this year of social isolation. Many participants have mentioned this, and how their energy has invigorated each other. For instance, mentor Holly Gregory, a veteran of companies like Nickelodeon and Silvergate Media, says that her mentee’s “energy is infectious!” Mentee Deb Frank, an associate producer at WGBH, points out that it even goes beyond work-related topics: “I’ve loved building a relationship with my mentor that’s a little more casual,” she says. “It can feel like a break during the work day. Starting calls talking about the weather, or the election, or a funny work anecdote, or even COVID is a great change of pace! It’s nice to have that relationship to talk about whatever, and then I come back to my next work meetings feeling refreshed like I’ve had a nice mental break that was still productive.”

Mentor Josh Sager, a writer and producer in Los Angeles, has seen how the advice he’s given his mentees has reflected back into his own work. “Seeing the progress made by my mentees has been extremely rewarding. Creative industries can be emotional roller coasters, and passing on some positive habits I have accumulated over the years to deal with that side of things has been a great way to reinforce those same habits in myself.”

The Best Things Mentors and Mentees Have Learned from Each Other

Of course, the topics that CMA’s official mentorships cover vary widely according to the mentees’ desired career paths, from creative pursuits to business practices to academic research. For instance, mentee Randy Astle, a New York-based writer/producer, says, “My mentor and I have been able to explore many different aspects of working as a television writer, and it’s helped me change tactics I was previously using to find work. For instance, instead of spending most of my time writing spec scripts of existing shows, I’ve refocused on developing original properties and capitalizing on the professional work I’ve already done to develop new contacts and find writing assignments.” Similarly, having a guiding hand can help mentees move through the process, as Rachel Graham, a writer who’s worked with Spinmaster and 9 Story, explains. She says the most important lesson for her was “to get out of my own head a little and do the work that’s in front of me–then worry about fixing it later.” Mentee Laura Zimmermann, Founder and President of Tech Play Collaborative, “I’ve gained hands-on consulting experience and learned about ways to better communicate research to industry.” Performing this type of practical work–whether writing, producing, or researching–can move a mentee’s career forward exponentially when performed under an experienced hand.

Lessons have sometimes been more general. Mentor Sarah Wallendjack, Vice President of Production and Development at 9 Story, appreciates “that we rarely take the time to talk about the work and form a basis for understanding [anymore]. This mentorship program is forcing us to take the time and realize what we all have to learn from each other.” Mentor Joey Egger, Managing Director at Two Moos, said of her two mentees, “Besides the fact they’re so inspiring to me in the way they are so committed to bettering themselves but also bettering society (I feel like I’m the mentee half the time!), I am really in awe of their resilience through these crazy COVID times.” Holly Gregory mentions the most important lesson was “to remember that sometimes–if you’re inspired–you look past the red tape and just MAKE IT HAPPEN.”

This mentorship program is forcing us to take the time and realize what we all have to learn from each other.

What Makes Effective Mentorship

As mentioned, good mentorship is based on a strong relationship, something that’s often been a challenge during a global shutdown. Because of social distancing and, in many cases, geographical distance across the country, most of the current mentorship meetings are taking place by phone. As a guideline, the program suggests meetings every other week, about twice a month, for at least half an hour, although conversations frequently go much longer, and some mentors-mentees have found other arrangements to work best. Still, sticking to a regular schedule is crucial, as mentor Greg Alkalay, CEO of batteryPOP Kids Network, says: “Consistent communication [is key]. Making sure we find the time to chat on a somewhat regular schedule. Sometimes we come prepared with certain topics, other times we just chat. Both have been positive.” Deb Frank agrees that it’s crucial to “regularly talk to your mentor and stick to the schedule. Meeting every two weeks and having a regularly scheduled time really helps with meetings not being jam-packed with information or an agenda. It allows for mentorship to cover long-term and shorter-term issues, and to feel like an ongoing relationship.” With the specific issue of creating content, Josh Sager adds that “regular communication on a fixed schedule is great because it encourages writing and knocking on doors as a routine process, not something that you do once in a while. This industry is about constantly networking–keeping in touch with each other is vital.”

Of course, more organic mentorship relationships may not have as consistent a structure as the CMA program. In either scenario, building on that strong personal relationship will allow for actionable information to be passed on. This in turn requires candor and honesty from both parties. Mentor Amy Strauss, Asset Production Coordinator at DreamWorks Animation TV, says good mentorship relies on “openness, honesty, and a willingness to help,” and mentor and prolific writer Melinda LaRose adds that good communication “should feel like an open and honest conversation between friends.”

Mentorship Resources

Not only is this year’s program the first time CMA has sponsored a mentorship program, it’s also the first time most of the mentors and mentees have tried anything like this. Thus, the Mentorship Committee is always on the lookout for resources that can help mentors and mentees in their experiences, including these: 

Tips on Finding a Mentor/Mentee Outside of a Mentorship Program

While the CMA program will begin taking new applicants again soon, the benefits of finding mentors–or mentees–outside of a formal program are obvious, and thousands of people develop these relationships all the time. So how should one go about finding someone to mentor them? It’s not as simple as just calling someone up and asking them to mentor you. Some more subtle, but more effective, tactics are outlined in these articles:  

By and large, you want to identify someone who has taken a career journey similar to the one you envision. This is possible through personal relationships–good old-fashioned networking–as well online networks like LinkedIn. Some kid-specific sites are amazing ways to find and interact with others without immediately introducing the onus of a mentorship relationship. Top among these are some of the online communities CMA has fostered:

Following industry news, such as through KidScreen’s regular newsletter and bimonthly print magazine, can help identify potential mentors or mentees, and in-person events can be even better (even if they’re still being held online for the time being). With all the hustling of buying and selling that goes on at conferences like the KidScreen Summit in February and MIP in October, it can be refreshing for prospective mentors to just meet with people interested in a personal relationship and in finding out more about what you do, especially if they are eager to contribute to your work in some way as well. 

Of course, there are also resources available for mentorship that aren’t geared specifically towards the kids’ entertainment industry, such as mentor-specific sites, university alumni networks, and general networking events. A good mentor may work in a different field but still have the life experiences–and the personal relationship–that can help you progress in the kids’ TV space. In general, broadening the scope of your search may help identify diamonds in the rough that you otherwise would have overlooked. It can even be helpful to find more than one mentor, e.g. someone whose business acumen you admire, or their entrepreneurial skills, writing or speaking ability, family life or work/life balance, artistic accomplishments, or anything else. If you want to travel the world, for instance, you could do worse than finding someone who’s done it and learning how they went about it. In general, people are delighted to talk about themselves and share about how they achieved their accomplishments, so as long as you’re not overbearing, don’t be shy about striking up a conversation! The worst that can happen is that someone turns you down for whatever reason, in which case remember there are always more people out there to tap into.

Whether in a regular workplace situation or personal relationship, a mentorship-type relationship is most likely to develop organically, rather than through a formal request or invitation with the accompanying label of “mentor/mentee.” Even then, it can require proactive effort on the part of the potential mentee to find people they admire and begin an ongoing conversation about their work or life. Especially in this time when we’re all still sheltering in our bubbles, take the time to identify both your goals and some people who might be able to provide insight on those goals, and then take just one next step in creating or improving that relationship.

And of course:

Sign up for CMA’s newsletter and social media platforms to be notified when we begin taking applications for the 2021 CMA Mentorship Program!