Like many millions of others, this weekend was planned around a cinema trip to see Avengers: Endgame – the latest instalment in the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU). But as well as the usual dose of superhero satisfaction, I came away thinking how Kevin Feige could teach us more than a thing or two about how to build and retain successful teams.
Feige is the President of Marvel Studios, who in the last 10 years has released 22 hit films grossing over $16billion – the highest grossing film series of all time. This, from a franchise that spent previous decades hovering on the brink between limited success and failure. Who recalls the 1986 Marvel ‘classic’ Howard the Duck which lost $21m after being panned by the people that mattered, the fans, despite being produced by a living film legend – George Lucas! Or 2003’s Daredevil which was considered so disappointing, its leading star Ben Affleck said: “[Batman’s] the movie I want to do. I want to be a part of that…I hate Daredevil so much”
So from a struggling company, to a stellar performer: what on earth (or if we are seriously embracing the MCU), what on the ‘multi-verse’ has Feige done to drive this sort of turnaround, that we too can learn from?
Back in 2007, when my daughter was still trying to choose between Tinky-Winky and La-La and hadn’t even heard of superhero’s, Kevin Feige had a plan for how exactly she (and millions of other teens) were going to spend this weekend. Before the first Iron Man film had made a penny, Feige had planned out not just the next two or three movies, but a decade of interwoven narrative across all 22 films and hit TV series. His plan embraced the existing cohort of superhero movie watchers from 2007, and the future generations of film goers who could be tempted into to MCU.
And isn’t this the job of every great manager? You are employed to see the bigger picture, to know where you’re going, to plan the staffing and skills you’ll need not just now, but for the organisation you want to become. I’ve seen plenty of organisations with a three-year or five-year plan, but how many organisations do you know with a ten-year plan? Not many. And of these forward looking few, how many have a clearly defined staffing plan built into this vision of the future? Well, I’m struggling to think of one (though excited to talk to you if this is how you are planning!). Yet, we all accept that our staff are usually our most expensive asset, and the defining difference between success and failure. And still we tend to have better long-term plans for the office furniture than we do for staff development.
So isn’t it time to learn from Feige, to start planning 10 years out for what we think our people will be doing. And of course the plan will flex and change along the way, but that doesn’t change the need for a long-term vision. If you are just focussed on your staffing needs today, you’ll never be ready to deliver a future vision.
Be a superfan…
Yes we all know it is possible to just turn up and do the job: no heart, soul or passion required…but why would you want to? If you aren’t invested in what you do emotionally then why would your staff be! Kevin Feige has made no secret that he is a HUGE fanboy. He has been preparing to be President of Marvel Studios from the moment he first sneaked his torch into bed to read comics after lights out. This is a man who still collects the ticket stubs from every film he goes to. He LOVES what he does and this passion is infectious. Many of the A-listers who have become part of the MCU reference Feige’s passion for the project as a key draw:
“When I found that out about him, and seeing the familiar excitement and inner light that comes from a huge fan speaking about how much they love the whole magical world…that really speaks a lot to who he is…I was like YES!” – Scarlett Johansson.
Those of us lucky enough to have experienced being led by someone with passion have seen how it injects energy in a team and motivates everyone to be their best. And with staff identifying ‘belief in what we do’ as a key management skill; it isn’t just about getting the right people, it’s about getting them to stay. It’s said that people don’t leave jobs, they leave bad bosses and the research backs this up: 61% of those defining their relationship with their boss as ‘bad’ are actively looking to leave this year. So, if you want to attract and keep the top talent in your industry, then try communicating your passion for what you do. If some of your staff don’t share it, fine, these are the ones who are likely to move on anyway.
Don’t plan around the hero’s you don’t have…
By the time Feige started to design the MCU many of the rights to its key characters had been sold off years before when Marvel was in financial trouble. So he faced the prospect of trying to build the most successful movie franchise ever, with a load of second tier characters. But rather than focus on what he didn’t have, Feige put his energy into those he did:
“Yeah, the “B-list characters”… I never really thought that because I knew that Iron Man was really cool and Hulk was arguably, next to Spider-Man, the biggest character we had. The goal was…to make the best Iron Man film we could, and make the best version of Hulk.” Feige 
Feige is sharing with us one of the most important lessons here: whatever the quality of the team you have, these are the people you’ve got. Moaning about needing great staff in order to make your targets isn’t going to help. Instead focus on how to make your team great. So, your task as a manager is to work out where to put your energy. Which team members may not be at the top right now but have the potential, or the right attitude, and with training and effort could be your superstars? Investing your time in them now can give you an extraordinary return down the line. And if there are people in the team who are never going to deliver then don’t ignore it. Do something about it, because whilst performance management is no one’s idea of fun, moving on might be their opportunity to find a role they love and your chance to recruit a new star.
Focus on the individual
All MCU fans have a favourite ‘origin story’, the films where we are introduced to a character and watch them develop their superpowers. For Feige it’s Black Panther, but the point is he puts time, love and attention into every origin story. This is no mean feat when you remember he has been holding that ten-year plan in his head throughout. He knows where the whole over-arching story is going, yet he has time to focus on each individual character’s storyline, and how they develop over time. And this is the point; each character is allowed to individually develop within the Marvel universe. They make mistakes. They learn. They become better superheros. As Feige says: “I was never cynical about sequels…I was always excited to see how characters I loved would grow and change”
Feige knows it’s important because fans care about this sort of detail. The little things matter. And that’s just as true for our staff. Yes, they want to be part of a great team and contribute to a massive organisational vision. But they also want to know you can pick them out in a line-up. So make sure you know the detail; remember to praise individually, comment if they’ve tried to do something new – even if it’s not been successful or everyone else finds it easy – recognise the effort of the individual. And invest in each person, don’t try and squeeze them into some HR driven organisational development plan that sets out what and when they can learn. Work out what works for them…and remember it.
A team is stronger together…
Embedded within the MCU are the much-loved ensemble films: the Avenger series where characters across the MCU come together to fight a common enemy. Those new to the franchise might struggle to keep up when viewing one of these ensemble movies. They are fast paced with a cast of (what seems like) thousands all of whom seem to be leads and have story arcs that impact on the final resolution. But what might seem confusing from the outside is actually a team effectively integrating under pressure to deliver a positive outcome.
One of my bosses (a huge Marvel fan) would often call an: “Avengers Assemble”. This was our organisational shorthand for the need for the team to come together to jointly tackle an urgent situation. Sometimes this was a real organisational crisis, sometimes it was when one team member needed the support of others. But it was a recognition of the strength of bringing the team together; uniting the individual skills and talents that each member of your team has into a superhero problem solving squad. So whether you see yourself as a Kevin Feige or a Nick Fury, what are you doing to get your staff to pull together towards a common goal?
And accept the Endgame…
So Feige’s plan always includes an ending, and Avengers: Endgame is it (though for hardcore MCU fans I’m aware this is actually the end of phase three). The end of a 10-year journey, and saying goodbye to some much-loved characters (can’t say who as Thanos has demanded my silence!). Like all great managers, Feige knows that the strongest teams have change and growth built into them. When you are surrounded by fantastic high performing staff you should be planning what happens next – ensure successions plans are in place for everyone. So if a key staff member is ready to leave you can afford to be gracious. Accept this phase has come to an end and help them move on successfully – if you do they will become advocates for you and your organisation, making the next round of recruitment tons easier.
But it’s never really over…
Feige has already started to reveal highlights from his next five-year plan. It includes new superheros, plenty more special effects and probably many more box-office breaking films. This type of long-term success doesn’t happen by chance. It comes from long-term thinking and planning, staff investment and development, doing the day-job but never forgetting that your team are looking to you to help them see (and be inspired) by the future.
So if you are looking for some help with your staffing issues, why not channel a bit of Marvel this week? There are 22 good films I could recommend…
Vanessa Longley has worked in Fundraising and Communications for over 20 years and is currently researching creative leadership in the charity sector. Her favourite Marvel movie is Doctor Strange.
 Williams, Trey (6 May 2018). “How Marvel Became a $16 Billion Franchise: Fandom, Cribbing From Comics and Kevin Feige. TheWrap.
 Mccluskey, Megan (14 December, 2016). “Ben Affleck on hating Daredevil”. Time Magazine
 Joanna Robinson (6th December, 2017). “An extended conversation with Kevin Feige” Vanity Fair.
 Barna Group (18th February, 2015). “The different impact of good and bad leadership”.
 Joanna Robinson (6th December, 2017). “An extended conversation with Kevin Feige” Vanity Fair.
 Rianne Houghton (12th June, 2018). “Marvel Studio boss reveals best MCU films”. DigitalSpy
 For non MCU nerds, Fury is the head of a secretive government sanctioned organisation SHIELD forming strategic alliances with superheros to protect the planet and our current existence. I could go on…but it’s probably best I don’t!