Shonda Rhimes knows what it’s like to be the “only” in a room. As the first Black woman to create and executive produce a top 10 network series, and the first woman to create three hit shows with more than 100 episodes each, Rhimes has made more than a name for herself in Hollywood — she became the pinnacle. But, like other women who have experienced unparalleled success, the award-winning producer behind Grey’s Anatomy, Scandal, and Netflix’s Bridgerton, has had to cope with the feeling of loneliness at the top.

“The isolation that comes with being everybody's boss is a very real thing,” says Rhimes, who is the founder and CEO of the global media company Shondaland. “I think, however, it's not a devastating thing. I mean, you have to really learn to look at it for what it should be. Yes, it can feel lonely sometimes. But, you can go out and find other women and other people who share the experience of what it is to be a leader… Who know exactly what you're talking about when you talk about being in charge of everybody and what that feels like and how awkward it can feel sometimes to be the person in the room that everybody's looking to.”

Sitting down with Chief Member Dara Treseder, SVP, Global Head of Marketing, Comms & Membership at Peloton, Rhimes spoke about the tradeoffs that have come with her success as a working mother, and why she wants all women to not only know their power, but own it as leaders.

On the Secret to Developing a Good Idea

“You know, for me, a lot of it is how much does something stick with me? I have a lot of little ideas that sound interesting. But, the things that stick with me are the ones that I wake up in the middle of the night thinking about, or I wake up in the morning and I have to write down some notes. Or, once you tell an idea to somebody, you can tell if it's good or bad by how well you tell it, in a weird way. Like how well you felt telling it. So once I've told it to somebody and it sort of still sticks with me, I know that I have something worth writing.

“Also, you know, the dirty little secret of writing is that nobody loves writing. I don't know anybody who loves writing while they're writing. We all love having written. So the key is to have an idea you love and then to just do the work. Like do the work and force yourself through the harder parts, the parts where you're not feeling so inspired. Get those pages out every single day so that once you're done with the script, you feel amazing.”

On Growing Shondaland

“At first, it was just me and my producing partner Betsy Beers. And then it grew. And now, that company is, I want to say there's close to 50 of us now. So it's really grown and we have a digital division. We have a podcast division. We have partnerships that we do with people… We have all of these things and we're growing at this exponential rate. And part of what you want to do is to make sure that everybody who comes in still feels the coziness of what it was like when there were only four of us or five of us. You want to make sure that everybody feels that sort of investment, that sort of buy-in. I like it when people come and they stay for a long time. You know, there are some people who've been there from the very beginning.”

On Saying “No” — Without Apology

“I realized that I was just as bad at saying ‘no’ as I was at saying ‘yes.’ You know, we're all built to please. We never want anybody to think we are not lovely and kind, and all of these things. So, it feels harsh to say no and then not give 55 reasons why. The whole idea that no is a complete sentence is a very hard thing for most of us. So you find yourself saying, No, I can't do that because of this and because of this and because of this and because of this, and suddenly it's very easy to get talked into saying yes because people come up with reasons why those becauses don't matter. And really what you're trying to do is set your boundary. When you're saying no to something, you're setting your boundary. You should not be doing things that you don't want to do, or that you feel manipulated into doing or feel uncomfortable doing, or that are sort of charged to make somebody else feel good but not you.

“And I'm not saying that you don't do things for other people, obviously. But, understanding that you can say, No, I'm not able to do that, and have that be a complete sentence and not feel like you have to add to it or apologize for it is very important. And it took a long time for me to learn how to do it.”

On the Difference Between Knowing Your Power and Owning It

“You know, I think it starts with the idea that power is not power if you don't know you have it. There was a lot of time during my career when I had power and I don't even think I realized I had power… So when you find out, when you start to realize, like, Maybe I have some power here, that's great. But it's also terrifying [because it’s like] How am I going to wield this power? How am I going to use it to get what I want? How am I going to make it work for me and my company and my people? The moment you start to really accept the idea, not just that you have power, but that you deserve the power you have, that's the moment you start to own it. It's a very hard thing for women I've noticed. And I talked to a lot of women about this. There is absolutely nothing wrong with being a powerful woman. And yet, somehow we've all been raised to believe that we are supposed to make other people feel more comfortable with their own power than we are with our own. We make ourselves smaller to make other people feel bigger.

“We all think like, Oh, I don't want them to think I'm difficult. Or, I don't want them to think I'm angry. Or, I don't want them to think I'm this or that. It's not about that. When you are comfortable in your power, when you decide, Okay, this power does belong to me and I can own it, it's not about wielding it or treating anybody a certain way. It's just about knowing your worth.”

On the Importance of Delegating

“When you're afraid, when you're not sure, you are hanging onto everything and trying to do it all yourself because if somebody messes up, Oh my God. As opposed to, I'm comfortable. I know what I'm doing. I can do this. And a good leader finds people and then entrusts them to do their job. That changed my life in a huge way. Like somebody would come to me and say, Well, what do you want me to do? And I would say, Well, it's your job? Do it and let me know what happens. First of all, those people began to feel so empowered and got really excited and felt true ownership of their job. But second, my life changed because my level of control and worry and the amount of time I spent trying to do work that I didn't need to do was just brought down to a halt, which was amazing.”

On Debunking the Myth of Work-Life Balance

“I think we all remember that period of time where, if you were a woman in any job, that was the question they were asking you, How do you have work-life balance? That question used to drive me crazy. And I used to say, Well, Chuck Lorre has three shows. What does he say when you ask him that question? And nobody knew what to say to that because Chuck was a guy, he's not supposed to have work-life balance. But the reality of it is the idea that we're all supposed to live in this sort of perfect little bubble where we've got it all figured. It’s one of the cruelest myths I feel like we've put out there for women. And I was very interested in not doing it because I never felt that way. And it wasn't until people started asking me the question that I really realized why it bothered me so much. It is that thing of, If I am succeeding in one area of my life, I do feel like I'm failing in another and that's okay. You know, as a mother I can be either at my child's science fair, or I can be at Sandra Oh's very last day of work on Grey's Anatomy. I can go to England and watch them film scenes of Bridgerton, or I can stay here and take my kids to school on their very first day. Those are choices that you make and those choices are okay. Like it's okay to feel like you're not giving 100% to everything.”

On Writing Grey’s Anatomy With a Newborn

I became a mother and had a script due for a movie like three weeks later. And then with a brand new baby strapped to my chest, I wrote the pilot for Grey's Anatomy. So, Grey's Anatomy and my daughter are the same age. That's what happened because I thought, Hey, I'll write a television show. And then that show turned out to be this big, giant job. So I had to find ways to deal with the fact that I was suddenly a mother with a huge job that I had never had before at the same time. So I brought my kid to work as much as I possibly could. And I did all the things I possibly could, but I definitely feel like there were trade-offs that I would not have made had I had more experience in the job and more leverage in my job or more experience as a mother and more of a sense of who I was as a mother. I say that because I think it's important for women to understand and to not look at my life and go, Oh, it's so simple. No, I made tons of mistakes. And it was 10 years before I felt like I could have a second kid. That's how hard the job was.”

On the Pandemic Changing Her Approach to Workplace Culture

“I think I thought, We have playrooms, we have nursing spaces for mothers, and anybody can bring their kid to work if they want to. And I thought like we had done it all. But really what was happening was that people were both trying to mother and work at the same time. You're bringing your kid to work, but you were still working and it wasn't the same thing.

“The pandemic really changed that because suddenly we all had to go home. We didn't have a choice. And what I realized was the power for so many people of being able to work from home. They were getting as much work done. They were just as efficient, and sometimes they were more efficient. And, they were far happier because the things that they were worried about at home were no longer things that were over there that they were trying to squeeze into their work life. Now it was, you do your work as you do your work and maybe you stop at 3:00pm to pick up your kids and make dinner for your kids and hang out with your kids for three hours. And maybe you pick work up later, if that's a thing for you. Or you don't pick it up later because you got it all done earlier. I think that was the biggest lesson for me was realizing that we could find a way to let people work how they needed to work and when they needed to work.”

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