A toast to Michèle Maheux
Gleaning leadership wisdom from the former COO of TIFF and resident of Prince Edward County
I’ve always had a great deal of respect for Michèle Maheux - former executive director and chief operating officer of TIFF, but truthfully, I was often a little intimidated by her too! She was a force (still is) and was so incredibly accomplished and driven, while I virtually tripped into my vocation and for at least the early part of my career - carried a scorching case of imposter syndrome with me pretty much everywhere that I went.
One of my earliest memories of Michèle was talking to her during the 1997 edition of the Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF) in the press office at the Sheraton Centre Hotel. At that time, she was the director of communications and was literally just days, possibly hours - ok, maybe even just minutes away from giving birth to her eldest child, Sean. The timing was kind of funny - her due date was RIGHT in the middle of TIFF, one of the craziest times of year on the film industry calendar.
A bit of background if you don’t know her - in 2019, after more than 30 years of being part of the TIFF organization, Michèle decided to step down from the postion of executive director and COO. During her remarkable tenure, she accomplished multiple major milestones.
She started with the festival back in 1989, when it was still known as “The Festival of Festivals”, and helped launch the Cinematheque Ontario program in 1990. But I think what may have been her biggest undertaking and crowning achievement was the development and creation of TIFF Bell Lightbox, a cinephile’s mecca and a landmark that operates year-round, located in the heart of the entertainment district in downtown Toronto. And, seven years after the birth of Sean - her daughter Sha Sha arrived on the scene via adoption, so, while all of that was going on - she also helped to cement TIFF as one of the leading film festivals in the world.
In her post-TIFF life, she runs a successful executive coaching business and currently sits on the board of the County Stage Company here in Prince Edward County. That’s when I really got to know her.
In the spring of 2017, I was surprised to receive an email from Michèle, and it changed our relationship moving forward. She reached out to say that she and her husband John were looking at homes in Prince Edward County and knowing that Tim and I had been out here for quite some time, she wanted to pick my brains. Since then - I’ve really been able to get to know her, and I can see clearly now that I had nothing to fear!
Working in the film industry can be a challenge on sooooo many levels. Long hours, low pay, INSANE egos, and on top of that - many have had to face varying degrees of #MeToo issues as well. There is a lot to navigate, and positive leadership, well, let’s just say it really never made it to the top of the list of concerns for many executives, at least from my perspective and experience.
In 2019, Michèle was named the winner of the Toronto Film Critic Association’s annual Clyde Gilmour Award for lifetime achievement, and on the night of the awards, she delivered a beautiful and poignant acceptance speech.
I want to share a few of her key life lessons that she shared with us that night, words of wisdom that helped to shape her throughout her impressive career, and lessons on leadership that I think are relatable no matter where you are on your own personal journey, whether professional or personal.
Michèle Maheux’s 12 pointers on leadership:
Be brave and be prepared to take the path not intended.
Illegitimi non-carborundum – translated from Latin means: Don’t let the bastards grind you down - sage advice that her father offered to her.
You learn as much about how to be a great leader from the bad boss experiences as you do from the good ones.
Hire people who are smarter than you – people who know more than you do.
Treat the studio executive assistant the same way you would treat the executive.
Support creators – all the story-tellers. They are transforming the way people see the world, and we need that so badly in our world today.
You need to work together and have each other’s back – no matter what.
Always presume positive intent goes a long way when things are working well and even further when they aren’t.
There’s no such thing as “on time” – you’re either early or you’re late.
When someone gets loud, you go quiet…(and then they look like idiots 😁).
Do onto others; be kind; be generous; keep your hands to yourself (crazy that we have to actually put that out there 😠).
Have a 24 hour response policy.
LIFE IN PRINCE EDWARD COUNTY:
Just over four years ago, Tim’s father passed away and the following year, I lost my father too. On both occasions, Michèle wasted no time in swinging by our place with delicious homemade tourtières in hand (she is a great cook), and when I started the process of documenting and illustrating stories from my past – she immediately offered to meet with me to offer some constructive help and advice, which I gratefully accepted and appreciated. And it’s not just us – I know of others that she has jumped to the aid of as well.
In all of the years that I knew Michèle in the film world, I never imagined that one day, we would be spending time together socially and that I would consider her a close friend, but that’s exactly what happened and we are both grateful to have her, John, their family and their friends by association(!) in our lives. The PEC community is pretty lucky to have them all here too.
Cheers to you, Michèle!
I am a very proud supporter of THRIVE Prince Edward County - a community-led development of a collaborative vision for the future of Prince Edward County. For more information on this initiative, please visit www.thrivepec.ca