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Recently, Photo Studio Manager Sean Arbabi joined us to share his approach to leading his team, how he navigates process improvement initiatives, and the secrets that allow his studio to be so successful.
In the four years since he assumed the leadership role of the Tailored Brands photo studio, his team has increased production by 94% while only increasing costs by 19%. Below is a summary of his presentation and some of the takeaways he offered.
The photo studio that Sean stepped into run had been leaderless for close to 10 months with no dedicated manager for the team in all that time. Instead, four other managers had been splitting the duties to keep the studio running and were covering more than their fair share of responsibilities.
One of his first orders of business was to take as much off of their plates as possible and consolidate the leadership responsibilities under him.
He figured the best approach to understanding how to help them and his team was to complete a thorough assessment of the current state of things and develop a plan he’d approach in stages.
Part of that process included understanding who was doing what on his team and how well they performed. He needed to get a better sense of the big picture before he could even think about suggesting, let alone implementing, any improvements.
He set about developing a keen understanding of everything involved in his team’s success.
One of the tools he used in his first year to help him get to know his team, both FTEs and on-call/freelance employees, was evaluations. He believes these were an important way to understand both team and individual success, strengths and weaknesses of a department, and how all of the members of the team contribute to departmental success.
Here Sean recalls a story about team composition and employee evaluations:
“Somebody said to me once, ‘as a manager I want [only] all-stars on my team.’ That’s very hard to achieve and rarely do you achieve that. The role of a leader and of a manager is to take each employee and make them the best that they can be at what they do. If you’re lucky to have all-stars that are quite successful in their roles, fantastic, that obviously helps. But the role of a manager is not to eliminate people that may not be at that level but to bring each one up to the quality of what they truly can do, to be the best employee they can.”
The role of a leader...is to take each employee and make them the best that they can be at what they do...not to eliminate people that may not be at [the all-star] level but to bring each one up to the quality of what they truly can do, to be the best employee they can.
Not unlike most photo studios, Sean inherited a team with quite a few moving pieces and rotating players. His core studio team was made up of 15 full-time employees but could flex up to as many as 75 with on-call and freelancers. This variability made for more than a few challenges.
Not only that but his team was accountable to a number of other important stakeholders and departments who had, prior to his arrival, had a lot of influence over what was happening in the photo studio. His team’s studio was also responsible for the production of all eComm assets for the four brands under the Tailored Brands name, meaning they had a lot of stakeholders to hold them accountable.
Sean always kept an eye on larger business objectives and knew the best way to serve all of the company's brands was to perfect his studio’s workflow. So he set about analyzing the flow of items and production starting at the beginning.
One thing that Sean stressed as critical to his team’s success (both during his early days while assessing the studio and also in the present): post-mortems.
It’s difficult to take valuable time away from production but he believes these are critical to continuous improvement. He encourages studio leaders to do them 1-on-1 and in smaller group sessions. They can lead to valuable discoveries and improvements in many aspects of the studio.
The final, but most important, part of the introduction to his team was understanding his role—both the expectations of him individually as well as the studio he was now responsible for leading.
He also wanted to ensure that his responsibilities were at least equal to those of his team. This was especially important for him to build trust with his team.
Sean has always believed in leading by example and wanted to set out in the right way.
One of the things he did while starting his tenure was what came naturally and seemed like common sense—beginning each day by walking around the studio to greet and say, ‘hi’ to everyone.
At one point early on, Sean recalled that an on-call employee remarked to him that people had been saying, ‘good morning’ less and less before he arrived. Sean realized that even subtle aspects of his leadership, examples like that, were important to the team, didn’t go unnoticed—and most importantly because he was leading by example and others were following—they were resulting in a greater sense of camaraderie in the studio.
He may not have been conscious of it before, but in preparing to give this presentation, Sean discovered that he has a philosophical approach to managing his team: servant leadership.
For him, this all starts with being of service and leading in a genuine way.
Drawing on inspiration from music producer and Beats by Dr. Dre co-founder, Jimmy Iovine, Sean believes it’s not about him but about what he can bring to a project and how he can help solve problems.
He also believes that no task is too big or small for a leader and that “if someone needs a cup of coffee, get them a cup of coffee.”
He has many inspirations that inform this philosophy and another comes from his dad who said, “the best [leader] is part analyst, part strategist, part manager, and a “doer” who will roll up their sleeves and do the work necessary to accomplish the goal.”
Sean says, “I work for them as much as they work for me, as much as we work for the company.”
He also doesn’t apply a one-size fits all approach and doesn’t manage everyone in the same way. He does manage roles, responsibilities, and goals equally, as well as evaluations for raises and promotions, but adjusts his style based on personality and how each employee approaches his or her job.
His approach is to “manage loose” and if someone makes a mistake you pick them up and dust them off. That’s how they improve as a team and as individuals. He credits this openness to letting employees make mistakes by bolstering creativity and promoting better problem-solving.
He summed it up pretty well here:
Bring a positive attitude, smile every day, promote a solution-based mentality...and be invested in everyone achieving their goals: employees, colleagues, strategic partners, and the company.
This leads to something else that Sean is a firm believer in—that companies benefit in big and small ways when employee retention is high.
This happens through:
And he notes that employees stay when they are:
Now, back to Sean’s journey at Tailored Brands and how he set about righting the ship.
In his approach to applying change the most important point was this: don’t make any sudden moves.
Manipulating one variable at a time and moving slowly allows for evaluation as you go and an understanding of the cause and effect of each change. It’s important to truly understand the process and complexity of any changes you’re planning to make before implementing them.
It’s also important to remember that you can’t do everything at once and changes need to be prioritized.
One example his team identified as a quick win after carefully considering the impacts allowed their team to save time, space, and money.
Their studio had used a shipping container onsite for equipment and prop storage. Unfortunately, the container wasn’t large enough to store all of the sets and props the team required so they continually needed to build, deconstruct, and rebuild set walls. The team realized after evaluating their process and resources that if they moved it offsite they could reduce their costs and increase their storage capacity. This change allowed them to construct walls that could be easily transported back and forth to the storage site, saving thousands of dollars and a lot of valuable time for his team.
This is a relatively minor improvement and just one example of the many ways of working his team reevaluated and improved.
In addition to improving their current ways of working, Sean and his team looked for ways to address challenges that might arise at the moment, without relying on outside help. They had a preventative approach to combat challenges, getting ahead of them when they can with advance planning.
One such example of being self-reliant and tackling a problem internally arose when they received a suit jacket that wasn’t fitting their model quite right. It was bunching up in one of the sleeves and not photographing well. The onset team quickly noticed they were dealing with a bad sample.
They spent some time troubleshooting some ideas, thought about whether they’d be able to get another sample in a timely way, and ultimately decided they could alter the jacket in the studio and move ahead with production without wasting any more time.
This is the type of thing that would not have been standard protocol previously but was the type of problem-solving attitude Sean encouraged.
Another preventative step that he and his team took was developing a prescriptive and detailed lighting guide. One that provided enough information that his very large pool of freelancers and on-call employees could quickly follow it for setup and be on their way with production.
His team was also able to make some upgrades to their gear thanks to a dedicated budget.
And this made them a lot more efficient.
They brought in newer cameras, new lighting, and modifiers that allowed them to change production elements on set very quickly. These improvements led to an increase in speed for their photographers (thanks to faster recycle times), more realistic poses, and an increase in shot count.
At a high level, several other things were integral to the slow turn towards an improved state. One of the most necessary was the implementation of a strong metrics program. The shot count became the studio's main KPI because every team touches it. The merch team receives samples, the prep team through styling, then of course photography, all the way through post-production. So it was a single measure by which they could track production for the entire studio.
Empowering the team was also a critical part of their continuous improvement efforts. Everyone on the team needed to feel comfortable bringing ideas and solutions to take the best course of action.
Sean understands you won’t always have the best ideas as a leader. It’s important to listen to your team, especially those closest to the task and who know it best.
Try to find small improvements—then you start to build a much larger improving system.
After these and many more changes, his team had arrived at the end of the ‘slow turn,’ as Sean calls it.
At this inflection point, where his team could pause and reflect, Sean and the studio analyzed their improved workflow. They wanted to ensure the changes they had made were benefiting the company, other departments, and helping teammates.
It was also a time to reevaluate goals, assess if additional or new equipment was needed, and identify if there were other aspects of the process yet to be adjusted. This mentality is all part of their approach to continuous improvement.
Another aspect of Sean’s leadership that is critical to continuous improvement and soliciting the best solutions he summarizes this way:
Share as much detail about the overall process as possible with everyone in the studio. Everyone should understand why we're doing things a certain way, even if it’s not their job. It’s critical to their improvement and their position to understand why we’re photographing something a certain way, or styling it a certain way, why we’re prepping it, and why we’re tracking it.
The improvements the team had made meant there were now new changes they could address.
They converted and replaced some key roles to ensure there was a blend of inside and outside experience. They brought in new team members with fresh perspectives and new ideas to help fill in informational gaps. This provided some needed inspiration that helped them retool legacy processes that were no longer best practices. These further improvements led to higher shot counts and a higher quality of photography and styling.
The team also turned an eye to what things were beyond their control, originating from other departments, that they might be able to improve by building relationships with strategic partners. A few examples included receiving samples late or bad samples that needed to be replaced, receiving samples piecemeal and not as part of a consignment, or any number of other things that led to wasted work or re-work.
Sean and the studio then met with key stakeholders to better understand their ways of working, how processes could be improved, and to align goals to better serve the business.
This bridge-building led to stakeholders becoming more aware of their impacts on others and ultimately led to significant benefits for the company.
At this stage in their journey, after four years of Sean’s leadership, the result is an increase in production of 94%.
Their eCommerce production has gone up, their editorial numbers have increased significantly, their quality has greatly improved, they’ve found many ways to save the company money, and they’ve built a solid and dedicated team that is better at what they do.
Sean attributes these improvements to better communication, teamwork, and deep knowledge of their process.
While their results are impressive, Sean believes there’s still room for growth and continued improvement. He says there's still much about their process they can do better. They’re still trying to perfect and improve even more.
And when it comes right down to it, Sean sums up their results like this:
It is as much about a philosophy, about people, and relationships,
as it is about logistics and numbers.
In addition to his role as the Photo Studio Manager at Tailored Brands, Sean is also a commercial travel photographer and author specializing in adventure, lifestyle, nature, and travel; for advertising, corporate, and editorial clients. here.
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