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Bossing It: Lessons in Leadership with Hornet’s Hana Shimizu, Kristin Labriola, Karen Lawler and Natalie Labarre


Hornet's managing partner, head of creative development, director of production and creative director discuss leadership experience, growing together and keeping the team inspired

Bossing It: Lessons in Leadership with Hornet’s Hana Shimizu, Kristin Labriola, Karen Lawler and Natalie Labarre

Hana Shimizu is a seasoned leader with over 15 years of experience in the creative industry. As the managing partner of Hornet, a leading creative studio known for its innovative design and award-winning storytelling, she is responsible for overseeing the studio’s operations and driving its growth strategy.

Kristin Labriola started her career in the feature film world of Blue Sky studios, and brought her learnings of story development to Hornet’s commercial pitch process a little over 10 years ago. From there she’s built up Hornet’s creative development and strategy as it applies to expanding talent and winning work. As the head of creative development at Hornet, she oversees the overall creative growth at the studio in tandem with the managing partners. This includes managing the pitch process, cultivating talent, strategising creative direction, and determining how to evolve and expand Hornet’s offerings in this ever-changing landscape. 

Karen Lawler has over 20 years of experience in creative industries. She started her career in the fine and performing arts and learned very quickly that if you want something to happen, you need to make it happen. As the director of production of Hornet, she is a facilitator, curator, world builder and champion who recognises talent and opportunity and acknowledges the symbiotic relationship of company growth depends on the development of the individual talent within the company. She oversees all production focusing on continuous development and improvement of talent and processes to allow the company to scale and confidently pursue opportunities across multiple disciplines.

Natalie Labarre is Hornet’s ultimate fan and poster child rising through the ranks from intern to director and creative director. Her elegant animation style and sophisticated storytelling ability both belie her years. She is a fresh voice with a contemporary sensibility and an old-soul drilled in the old-school who thrives on blending worlds together: analogy with digital, technique with story, original vision with inch-perfect execution.

LBB> What was your first experience of leadership? Did you always know you wanted to take on leadership roles?

Natalie> In French high school, there's a sports requirement called 'circus', and that’s when I realised that I am bossy. You have to come up with choreography for the group, and I immediately was telling everybody what to do (but in a friendly way). And it felt really good.

Kristin> Yeah, I'm mixing up leadership and bossy, too, because I never allowed my sister and cousin to dictate any of the games we played when we were little. So that's where I started.

Karen> I am very particular, even as a kid I often chose what we were doing or where we were going. My friends were always asking for suggestions and I would spend whatever time necessary to find the best place to go or thing to do.

Hana> I think I was six and my friend wanted to play with a pink toy, but I really wanted the pink one. I clearly remember explaining to her that she should pick the blue one because it was better suited for her. I've always operated in a way that if I have a decision to make or a strong feeling about something, I figure out what logistics are involved to create the best outcome.

Karen> Should we be conflating leadership with being bossy?

Natalie> Funny that we all brought It up, because if we were all men having the same conversation the word ‘bossy’ wouldn’t come up at all.

Kristin> I think it's important to say that’s how we interpreted our very first moments showing leadership.

Natalie> There's no question. It's the emotion behind knowing so strongly that you know how this project should go. And what word do you put on that?

Hana> You're right. It's certainty. We all had certainty, even in the earliest versions of ourselves.

LBB> How did you figure out what type of leader you wanted to be (or didn't want to be)?

Karen> I can start this one– I was freelance for a really, really long time prior to Hornet. My last full time job was right out of college and after that, I decided I wanted to go see the world and learn from everyone that I work with, and take the right things forward. Being freelance allowed me to really do that because you see a lot. At one point I was part of a collective of artists. Imagine being on the road with 25 people who are used to working alone, trying to get people to agree on the smallest of things, what you want for lunch that day or what time to take a break from rehearsal or who gets to do their solo next and all of that stuff. You really learn a lot about behaviour. When I saw bad behaviour, it was this immediate recognition - oh, that is not helpful. I don't want to be like that, let alone lead like that, because it tends not to be successful.

Kristin> One of the things I picked up on pretty early was that the leaders who walked into a room and pretended to know everything were always the least respected, the most confusing, and the hardest to connect to. When someone would just say, “I don't know” there was a collective sigh of relief and everyone could really add value to the conversation. In our industry there's a lot of people who like to pretend that they've seen it all, they've done it all, and it is never productive.

My dad has been a manager his whole career, and he always said to me, “your team needs to be better than you. They need to be sharper. And you're facilitating that. And if you can do that, if you can step away, you've succeeded.” It is really rewarding when your team can come together and everyone has a voice.

Karen> To echo what your dad said, I think one of the most rewarding things about being a leader is the ability to pick your team and surround yourself with people that you can learn from. Our role is to facilitate our team pushing itself so that we all grow together.

Natalie> For me, I was so recently on the side of freelancing and being an artist that I really remember how it felt when a director or a leader truly respected me. I've always had leads who have been able to personalise their approach per person, because we're all different. So I just try to remember how it felt to be spoken to in a way that felt respectful. 

Kristin> That is really important. I think knowing how to give the same message in different ways is so key to people absorbing the message and feeling seen.

Hana> I don't think I ever wanted to be a leader or considered myself ‘leadership material’. Growing up as a Japanese woman in Tokyo, I was very accustomed with the proverb: "The nail that sticks out gets hammered down". I was never the loudest person in the room but I have always been a deep listener and I learned over time how powerful that is when it comes to leadership traits. I also equate leaders to being a builder. I always wanted to build something that brings people together, where others are heard and actively moving in a direction that gives everybody purpose. So naturally focusing on that was the best training ground to becoming a leader.

LBB> Did you have a mentor (or current mentee)?

Natalie> This is embarrassing because mine is Kristin. We met nine years ago and I remember being so nervous as a new intern because you were so confident and funny and I was just like, “Who is this woman?” When I first started at Hornet, I was very introverted and not comfortable. And watching you work over the years, I learned a million things. One of the biggest things is your respect for your team, and seeing people as individuals. I think you're a very warm leader and I try to do that.

Kristin> That makes me want to cry. It's nice to hear that. So much of the time, you're so in your own head that you don't know if you're doing it right. So thank you. 

For me, three mentors come to mind. One would be my dad for sure. Another was a woman I worked for at Blue Sky- she had this cool confidence and she was one of the first people I ever saw in a room who said, “I'm not sure. Let me get back to you.” She was also so warm, but still firm. And third, Hana. We can bounce off of each other in a way that really helps to focus my instincts, again, in a really kind and warm and firm way. So those are my three.

Karen> I didn't grow up with the concept of mentorship, but I would like to say my parents. Both my parents immigrated here from totally different cultures– my father is from Ireland and my mother was from the Philippines– but one thing that they both agreed on was to make sure that you are ready for every decision that you make. Don’t get hung up on making the right decision, focus on deciding what is best for right now and be prepared for what follows. Quick instinctual decisions or ones I ponder for a year are based on making sure I am ready for everything that comes after that decision. 

Hana> I've learned from my mom, who was a working mom, that you can have a passion that drives you and she was really honest about the failures of trying to juggle a career. She was never the figure at my house that had a chip on her shoulder, she really just dove into both roles with a full heart. And so any time I feel really challenged being a working mom, I just think of her and I just think of that set passion and lead from the heart. 

Natalie> It's funny you say mom, because someone's mother is almost the first leader who is really producing this whole thing. And it's really the mix of sternness and warmth, love and brutal honesty and growing up, I thought it was not a good thing to have. Those are pretty feminine qualities. And I fought them to be in charge; thought those qualities were bad things. But I'm learning that there you know, there are different types of leaders and what is most suited for me, is to have that combination.

LBB> How have people grown and been nurtured into leadership positions at Hornet?

Hana> Hornet has always welcomed people who are really vulnerable, humble, and passionate. If someone has an idea or a better way to do something, I'm all ears, and we'll all roll up our sleeves and come together to get it done. When you give people that room and opportunity they naturally rise to the occasion to be their best selves. We’ve seen exponential growth in people who in this way have intuitively, organically grown into leadership roles.

Kristin> Yeah, I think the way we hire is really important. When my mentor at my old company interviewed me, she saw in my resume that I studied abroad in Florence, and we spent the whole time talking about that. And then I got the job. And now when I meet artists or interview people, I love hearing about who they are beyond their resume. For an artist, where's their sketchbook? Where do they play? Because that shows us so much more of what they can potentially offer and where they feel their best. And I think starting a relationship like that sets you up for feeling comfortable and confident enough to explore as an employee.

Natalie> From my personal experience, I felt like I've always been given opportunities. Hornet has a culture of trying new things, and I learned who I was as an artist because everyone is extremely supportive. And my current role is completely bespoke for me as a person. So now with my artists, everyone has their unique qualities and I'm trying to identify what those are so we give them the right opportunities.

LBB> The industry is still being confronted with a lack of action and progress on diversity and inclusion. As a leader, how have you dealt with this?

Hana> As a leader, continuing to ensure our studio culture fosters and prioritises diversity and inclusion as a value and not just a statistic is key. You do that by bringing together people who are open minded, progressive, and paying attention, who contribute across all levels of the studio to make decisions that help promote that value. We have educators and great mentors on our staff who spend a lot of time offering a thoughtful internship program to recruit from outside of the familiar well established institutions. We have an education scholarship program in the works specifically for pre-college age groups. There is constant work to bridge the gaps that exist in the industry for sure, but we have a group that has a lot of heart and potential to actually yield more results.

Kristin> Also, Hornet has never been a 'let's check a box' kind of place. Everything we do is really thoughtful and in approaching something like diversity in the workplace, I think that might cause it to take a little longer but in the end, the effect will be much more powerful and long lasting.

Karen> One of the things that I like most about Hornet is that people do listen and they are open to new ideas. There are tiny actionable things that have been done that we won't necessarily see the fruits of now, like removing college degree requirements from all postings and being mindful of where we recruit. 

But at the heart of it, we are a self-selecting group. I want to speak to the natural talent of everyone that we've brought here. These are people that have ambitions and they found their way to Hornet. They selected being with us as much as we selected being with them. 

I've always felt like interviews are less of how someone fits into our giant machine but more of what can we give to each other? So I hope that we are building a place where people want to work with us. 

LBB> What is leadership's role in terms of nurturing the company culture and why is company culture important to the success of a business?

Karen> Well, employee retention. If you don't have a good culture, even if you find the best talent in the world, they won't stay. So we need to make sure that we're building an environment that allows them to grow and be happy here. Otherwise, it's kind of simple: they won't stay.

Natalie> From what I see with our artists when we get to them together to ideate or problem solve, they're all excited to be part of the conversation. And I think it's because we all like each other. We all feel comfortable sharing ideas and people push themselves because they care. And I think that's really, for me, the fundamental culture of Hornet.

Kristin> When I first met Michael Feder, co founder of Hornet, my very first coffee with him, I asked him “So what is Hornet?” And he told me that in the very most fundamental way, he wanted Hornet to be a place where artists that he admired could make a living. The ethos was “Let's feed you so that you can spend your life doing what you love” and it sounded so lovely, but I wondered how true it was. And ten years later, that's how we all function. Everything that comes in the door we see as an opportunity for our artists and our people to make a living doing what they love.

And I really think that that's at the core of everything. Who we hire, how we hire, what work we take on our director roster. It's all about that. And just intuitively it creates an environment where we're so supportive of one another without trying.

Hana> I think when you reach a certain scale, it might be harder for someone who walks in the door to feel the distilled sense of this company culture that has been created over the last 20+ years. As a brand, we need to capture that and bottle it so it’s an intentionally shared experience because that's what culture is. I think that that's where I would love everyone to think about, participate in and build on so we find different ways to express this culture today which has grown from a shared instinct.

Each and every one of us are leading in a really guided and thoughtful manner to ensure that people are inspired. And it's not by accident. It's so easy to think that all this just comes naturally to us and we're all happy. But underneath it all, it takes a lot of work for each of you to show up every day and guide and make choices. And maybe as women, we don't necessarily pat ourselves on the back for these things, but I do think that we should feel more ownership of this success.

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Hornet, Thu, 20 Apr 2023 12:12:50 GMT