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CAA’s management board was barely two months old when the work culture at the agency (and everywhere else) shifted abruptly with the onset of the pandemic-induced lockdown last spring. Over the course of 2020, as the 12-member board—formed that January in part to diversify and somewhat decentralize CAA’s executive leadership structure—acquainted themselves with one another remotely, one of the priorities that emerged was updating the agency’s storied 40-year-old trainee program to be more reflective of CAA’s modern identity as an interdisciplinary entertainment and sports company and to raise the standards of equity and inclusion in the workforce.
“Our reaction to the pandemic has been to re-examine just about everything. There’s a client of ours, [Selema] Masekela, who always says, ‘I don’t want to go back to normal. Normal wasn’t equitable’,” says board member and motion picture group co-head Maha Dakhil. “So our motto is more like, We want to go back to the future, as opposed to back to normal.”
For the agent trainee program, “normal” was the bread-and-butter of a traditional Hollywood talent agency: an emphasis on learning the ropes for becoming a film or television agent (i.e., script coverage) with a heavy dose of administrative manual labor (i.e., mail runs). Regardless of their specific business area of designation, trainees from all over CAA’s offices worldwide would converge on the Los Angeles headquarters for a three-month tour of duty that would begin in the mailroom and have them potentially driving all over the metropolitan area for various tasks.
“The program might have been something you had to do to become a sports agent, but it might not have been really relevant to a sports agent’s business. It may not have had the same allure the way it had for a young television or motion picture assistant,” Dakhil says. “So we’ve decided to create the program so that it is a holy grail for everybody across the board and has a more academic, business-minded approach as opposed to the old-school, ‘pay your dues’ approach.”
To do so, last fall the board charged eight emerging leaders from across the agency with the responsibility of reimagining the trainee program. The committee was consciously assembled to be diverse across business practice, gender, cultural background and generation: Akin Aliu (music), Katie Anderson (music), Ann Blanchard (television), Marissa Dishaw (sports), Jenna Gambaro (commercial endorsements), John Garvey (motion pictures), Kevin Lin (theatre) and Claire Posner (human resources).
What they came up with is CAA Elevate, a program that will resemble more a mini-MBA intensive than anything else. “It’s studies, it’s reading, it’s analysis, it’s getting to learn the tools of the trade from experts within CAA and beyond,” says Lin, who also is co-head of the agency’s cultural business strategy group.
The “curriculum,” which is the term that Elevate’s founding parents are using to describe the new program’s foundation, will be led largely by working CAA agents and executives. Although it will be adjusted according to the composition of each 10- to 11-person cohort, it will always include a 360-degree overview of all of the agency’s varied business practices to add value to the many employees at CAA who don’t work in film or TV. “Whether it’s someone from sports or publishing or motion picture, it gives everyone an equal opportunity to be a part of a program that’s going to make them great,” says CAA Sports co-head of basketball marketing and servicing Lisa Joseph Metelus, who joined the board last June as its first Black member.
The curriculum’s holistic and comprehensive emphasis is also designed to foster interdisciplinary collaboration as the trainees advance in their careers. “We’re focused on helping them see the company globally,” Anderson says. “When you’re doing your day-to-day business, what ideas and opportunities might present themselves by working with these people in different departments that you, by the end of this program, know so well?”
In addition to the business academics, CAA’s trainee program will also for the first time incorporate an inclusion training component, which its organizers say will include educational resources but also be borne out of experiential learning among the cohort. “Every single employee at CAA has antiracism education and unconscious bias training, so that wouldn’t necessarily distinguish [Elevate], but if we’re intentional in how we cast a class, then that transcends the academic,” says Dakhil. “That’s just in practice bonding and gently putting people in an environment where they normally wouldn’t necessarily interact with each other, and all of a sudden they’re leaning on each other, befriending each other and are empathic to each other.”
Dakhil emphasizes that Elevate’s commitment to inclusion begins with dismantling certain traditional barriers to entry, particularly for people with disabilities. Lin elaborates: “Doing runs felt like something that was certainly beneficial for trainees to understand, but a closer analysis clearly revealed it wasn’t equitable for individuals with physical disabilities, for trainees potentially from socioeconomic backgrounds where they couldn’t afford a car, even for trainees who perhaps grew up in Manhattan and didn’t have a driver’s license. We started to look at, how can the time spent in the training program be structured in a way that is equitable to and beneficial for everyone?”
Another big change with respect to expanding the trainee pipeline — while keeping the program merit-based—is introducing transparency to the application process. Whereas in the past, potential trainees were typically given the application only after being recommended by department heads, now the Elevate application questions will be accessible to all employees on CAA’s intranet site—meaning that everyone, including mailroom clerks and receptionists, will have the ability to see and understand the qualifications to become a trainee.
“Our goal is to make that application available to anyone so that you see, ‘Here are the types of questions they’re going to be asking, here are the types of things I need to be thinking about.’ It gives an opportunity for self-examination throughout, to help prepare yourself rather than praying, ‘Have I got it right’?” says Anderson. “We really want to add that transparency to every element of the program. There are no gotchas.”
The Elevate committee will stay intact to run the program, starting with the selection of the first cohort this spring. The inaugural class will, of course, convene remotely, but when in-office work resumes, the program will once again be held in the L.A. headquarters—although not for as long as three months, another consideration of the differing scheduling needs of the various CAA businesses.
“If you’re an employee in sports who’s based in Miami, you’re leaving someone’s desk for three months, even if it’s leading up to the draft. It affects your business,” says Metelus, adding that Elevate will now coordinate closely with department heads to determine the most convenient time of year to place a given trainee in a cohort. “There’s a lot more communication and collaboration across the board, full transparency on what’s happening and a spirit of working together and making sure the right people are brought in at the right time. There’s just a general feeling of wanting to make this work so we’re not doing anything that hinders someone, and also for our colleagues to never feel like they’re missing an opportunity because they can’t get in at this point.”
After the trainees return to their respective offices, they will continue to receive two forms of mentorship through Elevate: one from a different department, and one departmental liaison. “The interdepartmental mentor will work with a group of trainees throughout their journey and beyond to give a different perspective and a safe space to bounce ideas off of,” Anderson says. “The liaison will help them develop strategy for their career and be that sounding board and champion within the department.” (The current trainees under the existing program, which has largely been on pause during the pandemic, will also receive Elevate mentorship.)
“Our hope is that with enough time, we’ve branded this program as such that this will distinguish you in our industry,” says Dakhil. “More than just having been a trainee, someone who’s gone through a mailroom, it should be a real distinguishing factor on anyone’s resume.”
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