CJ People: Vue’s Dee Vassili Proves Cinema Operations is All About the Team

By Helen Budge | May 13, 2021 4:53 am PDT
Dee Vassili of Vue

CJ People is a new series from Celluloid Junkie, examining the issues that affect the driving force of cinema exhibition and the wider film industry: its people. We aim to cover any and all relevant “people” topics from mental health and wellbeing, to work-life balance, to diversity and inclusion. If you have a topic that you’d like to see discussed then please get in touch with Helen Budge on helen.budge@celluloidjunkie.com.

For the first-ever CJ People article, Dee Vassili, Vue Entertainment’s Executive Director of Group Human Resources (HR), sat down with us (via Zoom) to talk about her role and responsibilities, how Vue’s priorities shifted due to COVID-19 and how the company has handled its people management over the last year.

Vassili has worked in the exhibition industry for almost two decades and her reputation – ask anyone that knows her, up close or from a distance – isn’t just built on her strong work ethic and impressive CV, which, before she joined the cinema industry, included roles as Global Head of Talent Acquisition for Thomson Reuters and Head of HR, United Kingdom & Ireland and Northern Europe for Virgin. Rather, her stature comes from her passion to get the right people in the right jobs. And she doesn’t just pay lip service to this: it’s apparent when you meet her that Vassili has an authentic emotional investment in performing her role in an (often overlooked) area to the best of her ability, in recognition that a business is only ever as strong as its team(s).

Talk us through a top line view of what your role involves as Vue’s Executive Director of Group HR.

In a nutshell, my role is about driving business performance through organisational design, culture and people. The focus for me has always been on aligning the strategic and commercial business agenda with people, culture and structural plans.

Over the years, to ensure it is fit for purpose in a constantly changing business, my role has naturally evolved. Shaping and driving solutions in response to a wide range of operational and people challenges, has included digitisation (e.g. moving from analogue to digital projection), globalisation (transforming the business structure/model, as we grew from 35 cinemas in the UK and Ireland to over 200 cinemas across nine territories) and of course dealing with the most recent challenges arising from COVID-19.

All of these speak to constantly changing the way we think and work. This impacts on how our fundamental structures are set up, how we attract and retain talent when the required expertise and knowledge is constantly changing, and how we create an inclusive and high performing business culture that in today’s world has very much become part of the external brand.

What’s your favourite aspect of your job and why?

One of the best bits about my job is finding talented people and watching them grow to become a key player in the company’s success. The Vue alumni are currently to be found in key positions across exhibition, distribution and other businesses within the leisure and entertainment industry. Being a small part of their success story is highly rewarding and makes it all worthwhile.

COVID has changed the world and potentially the way we live our lives – do you think your approach to managing your “people agenda” will be different as a result?

As we focus on resetting our world, we need to step back and think about how we gain the benefits of the working methods from lockdown, adjusting and keeping the good bits, whilst throwing out the dated stuff.

Currently, there is a lot of dialogue around the future of work. We have learned loads about virtual working but it doesn’t mean we should automatically banish using physical office space to the history books. Instead, we should eradicate “presentee-ism” and create clear value and purpose around how and why colleagues come together. And this leads to other cultural changes that need to happen in order to realign the way we lead, structure and manage our teams.

Traditionally, leadership has been seen as a “command and control” phenomenon where the leader had all of the answers and was considered better, stronger and more talented than the rest of the team; the stereotypical, powerful and authoritative leadership figure, expected to inspire everyone by just walking into a room. However, in today’s world in which teams are working remotely, businesses are transforming at rapid speed, new technologies are disrupting the status quo, and the expectation that a leader can have all the answers is no longer realistic.

Global, virtual and matrix teams living in a post COVID world, demand very different forms of leadership.

The new form of “empathetic leadership” is dynamic, not status or power orientated. And it’s focused more on collaboration, team mental health and wellbeing, listening to employees, building capability and a shared sense of purpose across virtual teams, whilst also creating a work environment that is empowering, diverse, equitable and inclusive.

Our approach for the foreseeable future will include shaping and implementing the “office of the future”, delivering a safe environment for both employees and customers, whilst also continuing to develop resilient leaders that are able to confidently lead in a dynamic environment.

What were your main hurdles and priorities in terms of people management during the uncertainty of the different lockdowns?

When the first lockdown happened in March 2020, we quickly focused our teams on certain priorities, stopping all activities and projects that were not deemed critical. The first priority was to mobilise the operational teams to effectively manage the closure of cinemas across all territories. Once this had been completed, we provided further direction on business priorities by rigorously defining the focus areas for all teams during the subsequent three to six months. Communication and clarity were, and still are, paramount.

Operating across different territories definitely adds to the complexity of managing this type of “war room” structure. To help, we put in place a mixture of cascade and two-way communication channels that have ensured the group senior leadership team, territory general managers and cinema teams are all seamlessly connected. This allows them to work in a way that avoids unnecessary duplication and quickly implements best practice.

As we approach the re-opening of our businesses, in some territories we are facing major recruitment challenges where cinema-based teams that have been on furlough for most, if not all of the past 12 months, have moved on to other roles outside the industry. But having focused on retaining key talent, we are in a strong position to rebuild our cinema teams where vacancies may exist.

Our “return to work” preparations also include re-orientation and engagement sessions for head office and cinema teams. This will focus on re-engaging furloughed employees and ensuring teams are able to confidently operate within the safety protocols and measures in place.

Recently, we sent out mini surveys supported by focus groups, to obtain feedback from employees about their home working experience, concerns they may have around returning to their place of work and how they are managing their general mental wellbeing. The information received will be used to inform our reopening plans.

Vue International 2019 Awards Night, recognising staff achievements (credit: Vue Entertainment)
Vue International 2019 Awards Night, recognising staff achievements (credit: Vue Entertainment)

How have you kept in touch with staff over this time? Are there any particular tools or software that helps?

We have done this through various methods and using tools such as Zoom and OnSolve (formerly Send Word Now). Our starting point is that line managers are accountable for ensuring they keep in touch with their team members, flagging up any trends or concerns that need to be escalated. To support them, we have provided relevant tools and put in place two-way communication processes where information can easily and effectively be shared and cascaded to relevant parties across all territories.

We have regular leadership meetings that include the group executive team and different territory general managers. The regularity of these meetings is dictated by what is happening at a particular point in time. For example, at the beginning of the first lockdown we had these meetings every morning and this has now been reduced to twice a week.

We also conduct regular “town hall” meetings where our CEO, Tim Richards, and the group executive team talk directly to all UK-based head office teams. The territory General Managers are then provided with a documented summary of what was discussed, which they can use to structure their own local town hall meetings and communicate relevant information.

Send Word Now is a tool we have used to capture the personal contact details of every employee in each territory. We use this tool to send out urgent messages to all (or targeted) employees, knowing they will receive it on their personal phones and emails (this includes all cinema and head office employees on furlough).

What lessons have you learned from the pandemic?

Change is the only constant, so be prepared for it!

Ambiguity and complexity are the “new norm”, so seek to understand and find a better way of doing things, which may not resemble anything you have implemented before.

Coming out of the pandemic, what have the main personal learnings been for you, in terms of mental health and wellbeing? And how has this informed your top priorities in your role?

Prior to COVID-19, mental health and wellbeing was a subject matter not often talked about due to negative perceptions and stigmas associated with it. It has now become more acceptable to openly discuss this, but it does not automatically make the subject less complex for line managers to deal with. Traditionally, support in this area has tended to be more reactive and only addressed once the symptoms become visible (e.g. employee has been medically signed off sick). The last year has pushed the importance of this subject to the forefront and highlighted the complexities associated with it.

Moving forwards from the pandemic, to ensure we are moving towards a proactive way of managing mental health and wellbeing, we will continue to build the capability within our leadership and management teams to ensure there is clarity, understanding and confidence around this subject area. A healthy working environment can only be created if every line manager is knowledgeable, skilled and confident enough to take ownership of this within their teams.

What would you like to see happen or change in respect to the “people” side of things (as opposed to the commercial side) in the industry as a whole?

Creating a high performing culture encapsulates fundamental subject areas such diversity, inclusion and equity, driving the right behaviours, having the right skills in the right place at the right time and creating a safe, engaging work environment with a shared sense of purpose. Irrespective of organisational size, all of these challenges remain board level accountabilities and levers that play a critical part in driving business performance.

“People strategies” should be an integral part of the commercial agenda and treated as equally important as other big investments we make in areas such as concession stands and auditoriums. Ultimately, I would love to see people and cultural topics being given the same airspace in industry trade magazines, digital content and at global industry-wide conferences/panels.

Helen Budge