Scandal! An Interview with Crisis Queen Judy Smith, Who Inspired the Hit TV Series
Does anyone else hear the big click when the Universe unlocks her abundance, when Diosito bathes you with goodness? That’s how I felt when I guest hosted NPR’s Tell Me More with Michel Martin when Michel was away. One of the many terrific stories I did was an interview with Judy Smith, a Washington, DC-based crisis manager or “fixer of problems” who also inspired the ABC primetime drama Scandal starring Kerry Washington, with Grey’s Anatomy and Private Practice creator Shonda Rhimes as Hollywood Fairy Godmother. And if that weren’t enough, Judy has published her first book: Good Self, Bad Self: Transforming Your Worst Qualities into Your Biggest Assets.We chatted for quite a while–which really means once I had Judy close by, I wasn’t going to pass up the opportunity to pick the brain of this successful professional who balances motherhood and marriage.
I was likely in the presence of Wonder Woman.
She also was rockin’ skinny dark denim jeans, a chunky heather grey sweater, and heels.
What is it about Judy Smith that captivated my attention? Being fabulous…nope…that isn’t it.
It’s that she wants to give everyone–not just her rich and powerful clients, who've included President George H.W. Bush, NFL quarterback Michael Vick, Monica Lewinsky, and the World Health Organization’s response to the SARS epidemic–the tools necessary to survive and overcome a disaster.
But what can really happen to someone like–gulp!–me?
I can get fired, laid off, downsized, pink-slipped (check check check check).
My honey can be caught photographed in a woman’s G-string (I’m using creative license here).
Pot can be found in Yunior‘s backpack by Mr. Skinner (when I have him, he will fear before he loves me, making this scenario unlikely).
In other words, life, complications, problemas happen, sending your fight or flight instincts full throttle ahead. So in the return of The Wise Latina Club’s 6 Minute Career Climb where career women share the secrets of their success, Judy reveals her tips to handle, survive, and rebuild after a crisis as she details in her new book Good Self, Bad Self: Transforming Your Worst Qualities into Your Biggest Assets. But first, we chat about inspiring a primetime drama ABC’s Scandal.
The Wise Latina Club: Olivia Pope, the main character you inspired in ABC‘s new drama Scandal hops planes, defies the district attorney by “borrowing” evidence before he does, and steals a kiss with the fictional U.S. President Grant. Is this your life?
Judy Smith: Shonda has done a great job at writing some pretty “scandalous” storylines and has really captured the fast pace, “think quick on your feet,” chaotic nature of the crisis management world. But I have to be clear–I definitely never had an affair with the President! Shonda comes up with these fascinating crisis scenarios and then asks how I would go about approaching them. I would give her input based on my professional experiences. She has done a great job at making Olivia’s personal life much more interesting than my own.
TWLC: There must be tons of roadblocks to getting a show from concept to airing in prime time. That process certainly must have had its share of crisis. Can you take us through the steps from meeting Grey’s Anatomy creator Shonda Rhimes, to seeing the six Scandal episodes air on ABC?
Judy Smith: Scandal has been in the works for almost two years. It’s been an amazing journey. The first time I met Shonda and executive producer, Betsy Beers, we all sat down for what we thought would be a quick 15 min meeting. Two-and-a-half hours later, Shonda turned to Betsy and said, “We’ve got to do this show.” It was so amazing and humbling to think that such talented women were taking on a project based on my professional life.
TWLC: Actor Kerry Washington plays Olivia Pope, the character you inspired. She’s also the lead. As I watched, I thought, Olivia Pope is a strong, smart, fierce, successful businesswoman who happens to be African-American. With Washington as the lead actor, another black woman Shonda Rhimes as Executive Producer/Creator and you in these production roles as well as the inspiration, what barriers is the series breaking down?
Judy Smith: So many. First, there has never been a show based on an African-American woman on a major network in over 30 years. Second, the show isn’t focused on Olivia Pope being African-American–it’s based on her talents and desire to work cases that no one else would be able to handle. I think you hit the nail on the head when you said she is strong, smart, fierce and successful–and she also happens to be African-American. Her race is not central to the character’s identity in the show. I think the show really represents the world as most people experience it today. It’s a multiracial cast and the characters all have unique backgrounds not bound by racial stereotypes that plague a lot of the characters we see in primetime today.
TWLC: You published your first book this month Good Self, Bad Self: Transforming Your Worst Qualities into Your Biggest Assets. What is it about?
Judy Smith: Good Self, Bad Self pinpoints the seven character traits that I believe give rise to those personal, social, financial and workplace crises that we all have experienced at some point in our lives. The traits I talk about in the book should be familiar:
- ego, denial, fear, ambition, accommodation, patience and indulgence.
I think people will be able to easily identify with these traits because they represent core aspects of our personality. All these attributes can be blessings as well as curses; they’re positive when you manage them but they create problems when you don’t. The role they provide can keep you moving forward in your career and life but if they’re out of control they can cause you to crash and burn.
Judy Smith: I tell clients that first and foremost they have to “own it”. They have to admit the truth to themselves and accept the facts to be what they are and not what they try to spin them to be. I can’t effectively do my job until a client has a real and honest perspective about why they are in a situation they are in and understand the role that their behaviors have played in getting them to that point. It’s a difficult journey for them to take, but owning up to the truth is the first step to not only getting out of a crisis but preventing it from happening in the future.
TWLC: Surviving a crisis means overcoming failure. How do you get people comfortable with the concept that failing can lead to success?
Judy Smith: I truly believe that out of catastrophe can come opportunity. Sometimes when you get into a crisis you just want it to be over so you can move on. But I tell them that simply moving on would be premature if they don’t learn from their past mistakes. I base the premise of my book on the fact that the same personality traits that can get us into a crisis can also lead us out of one–we just have to learn how to balance them and use them to our advantage. Also, and this is especially true for my corporate clients, a crisis provides an opportunity to re-examine the effectiveness (or lack thereof) of certain policies and procedure and may signal a need for more oversight and leadership among executives. Sometimes these companies don’t realize that what they are doing isn’t working until something breaks.
TWLC: Your clients are often rich and powerful people. Can advice for the scenarios they face help people with “every day” crises such as office politics, carpools, and squabbles with other moms in the PTA?
Judy Smith: The essence of crisis is the same whether you’re a CEO of a Fortune 500 company or chairman of the church bake sale committee. It all boils down to the same personality traits that we all have. The difference is the high profile crisis takes place on a larger stage.
TWLC: Can you provide some general tips for managing crisis at work?
- Be proactive. If you made a mistake at work, or failed to do something that you were supposed to do, admit to it up front before your boss approaches you about it.
- Never underestimate the written word: sometimes crises or issues at work involve miscommunication, which is why it is very important to write things down, keep accurate notes and records, and save your emails! You can’t win just on a he said/she said, but having something in writing that supports your position is golden.
- Never panic or overreact. Try to stay calm and focused– even if that means excusing yourself from the situation until you regain control.
- Get all parties involved together to discuss what has happened, what can be done now, and how you can help prevent a similar situation from happening in the future.
- If appropriate, involve human resources. Go to them and tell them your side of the story.
- Never lie. You can only make excuses if those excuses can be backed up. Lying may be very tempting, but you’ll look petty and immature if you’re caught. Worst of all, you will appear untrustworthy. It’s better to cop to a mistake than to cover it up and later be called out on it.
- Say as little as possible until you have a full idea/knowledge of what the situation is. Don’t engage in gossip or water-cooler talk– even with sympathetic coworkers because you never know what will find its way back to others.
TWLC: Do you think that a problem or a crisis can ever really be solved, or only contained in our 24-hour, Twitter-verse media culture?
Judy Smith: It makes it incredibly hard, that’s for sure. Today anything can be written by anyone and published through a forum that has more reach than any traditional news outlet. It’s a constant balancing act and, depending on the crisis, you have to carefully choose how to pick your battles. On one hand, you have to realize that perception can quickly become reality, so if the blogosphere is against you, you sometimes have to take action and correct what is untrue and address the accusations. On the other hand, I tell my clients that it’s important to keep focused. A reputation is often not going to be permanently ruined by one tweet or blog post– it might make things more difficult in the immediate future, but true crisis management is a process that takes time.
TWLC: What do you hope people gain from the book?
Judy Smith: Good Self, Bad Self is a book about some of the lessons I learned from my 25 years of experience as a crisis manager. I’ve been helping everyone from the President of the United States to super star athletes to Fortune 500 CEOs, as well as Hollywood celebrities. Good Self, Bad Self takes the lessons of those experiences and translates them into terms and lessons that can be utilized by people from all walks of life to help them get through the stress and crisis of everyday life and learn that they are in control of their destiny.What is your one tip for dealing with and overcoming a crisis?
An earlier version appeared on The Wise Latina Club. Republished with permission.