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30 Mar 2010

Debra Lee: On Leadership

Listed under: Blog

BET’s Debra Lee talks about her leadership lessons and management style

By Adam Bryant
The N.Y. Times
(March 26, 2010) Debra L. Lee is the chairwoman and chief executive of the BET Networks. She says that although she is a consensus builder, she has learned over time that as the C.E.O., “it had to be about where I wanted to take this company.”

Q. What were some key leadership lessons for you?

A. One occurred when I was appointed chief operating officer at BET. Before that, I was general counsel, and over time I had taken on more and more business projects.

When I was promoted to the new role it was assumed that I was picked as the successor to Bob Johnson, our founder. It was a good training ground.

But when Bob left and I became C.E.O., I had to learn different skills, and I had to become the leader of the company. I had to decide what my vision was, what I’m passionate about, and how I motivate my executive team to help me carry out my vision and my goals. For me, it was tough for a while to even say “my.”

Q. Why?

A. I’m a consensus builder and I like having my executives on the same page and I like motivating them in that way — let’s talk about it, let’s all agree on it.

But I found very quickly that as C.E.O. I couldn’t do that anymore. I really had to be the individual who took charge and was clear about what my vision was, was clear about what my passions were, so that I could believe in what we were doing. Then I could pass that on to the executives, but still be open to their needs and desires and what they wanted to accomplish. But as the leader of the company, it had to be about where I wanted to take this company, and it took me a few years to get used to that.

Q. Talk more about that transition.

A. Bob Johnson had created a very successful company. So when I took over as C.E.O., I had to say: What do I want my legacy to be? What do I want to accomplish at this company?

The first thing I turned to was original programming. I didn’t feel the company, in its 25-year history, had really created enough original content to give it its own brand identity. We did a lot of music video shows, we bought a lot of syndicated product, but we hadn’t created the hit shows, the water-cooler shows. So, first of all, I wanted to do that because I wanted to make us known for being a great content company, in addition to being a great business.

Then we found ourselves in the eye of the storm after the Don Imus situation. After he said those horrible things about the women’s basketball team at Rutgers, all of a sudden hip-hop became a focal point. If hip-hop artists can say things about women, why can’t Don Imus?

Because we were so music-oriented at the time, BET became part of the focus. We were showing these videos and some of them say things or insinuate negative things about women, and so we were highly criticized. That was the point when I had to say, O.K., what are we really doing here?

For the first time since I had been at BET, we had to sit back and say, who are we, what do we want to be, and what do we want to stand for? What kind of programming do we want to do? What does our audience expect from us, and how do we increase the ratings? How do we kind of garner that passion and bring back our audience?

So we sat back and for a couple of years we really went through a process of asking ourselves what we wanted BET to be, and out of that came what we call our brand. We decided we wanted to inspire our audience, we wanted to elevate them, we wanted to respect them, but we also wanted to entertain them. It’s helped me as the C.E.O. because I’m clear in terms of where we’re going.

Q. How many people were involved in the process of deciding what BET would stand for?

A. It was primarily the senior team, about 12 to 13 people, senior V.P.’s and up. But we also brought in the vice presidents and at particular points we talked to our stakeholders. We had conversations with advertisers, affiliates, people on the Hill, our employees.

Q. Looking back, it sounds like it was a big leap to go from general counsel to C.O.O.

A. As general counsel, you’re taught research, research, find out every case, find out every opinion, think about it. It’s almost like you’re a judge.

So when I went from being general counsel to C.O.O., that’s the way I first approached it. I’d go into senior staff meetings and I’d listen to advertising and sales folks, I’d listen to the programmers, I’d listen to everyone. And then my job was to go away, think about it and make a decision. Well, that doesn’t work. By that time, they’re all going off in five different directions.

I had to learn to make decisions quicker on the spot and follow my gut. You’re not going to have all the information. You’re not going to be able to run the numbers and come up with the perfect answers.

Q. You went from being part of a team of executives to managing that team.

A. Yes, these are your friends, and all of a sudden they’re reporting to you. Early on, I was not decisive enough and I was not clear in my instructions. People saw that as a sign of weakness and an ability to keep doing what they wanted to do — “You didn’t tell me I couldn’t do that; this is the way I’ve always done it.”

So I found over time I had to be more precise and give more directions. It was no longer, “Hey, we’re friends and we’re all in this together.” It’s, “I’m the one making the decisions about your salary and your promotion and your future and whether you’re going to a make it here.” And that’s a much different relationship than when you’re someone’s peer.

There was also an expectation that I didn’t know enough about their departments in order to manage them. They knew I had a learning curve, so they could withhold that information and still be able to do what they wanted to do until I got up to speed and understood where I needed to change things. So there’s a little gamesmanship that went on for a while — “She doesn’t know anything about this.”

Q. So how did you deal with that?

A. I got more and more involved in what they did. That was painful at first for me and for them, and I studied the industry as a whole. I became friendly with other people in the industry, and found out how they did things. I’m on several corporate boards, so that was a great learning experience for me. I think that’s one of the things I enjoy most about being on other boards. You can see how things are done differently, and you can bring management techniques and other kinds of methods to your company.

I didn’t get an M.B.A. I got a master’s in public policy, which taught a little bit of management. But I think it’s more about experience. You have to really see how companies are run.

Theories help, but I think it’s really just seeing it in action — whether it’s your own company or whether it’s observing someone else’s company. It’s kind of an on-the-job learning experience. I don’t think you can get an M.B.A. and then be perfectly positioned to run a company. I think you have to grow up in that company. I think you have to learn all aspects of it.

You have to understand that management is a skill. It took me a while to understand that that’s really what I do from day to day, that management is really my job. You say you’re a C.E.O., but what do you do?

When I was general counsel, I could say I keep the company out of legal trouble. I knew exactly what my job was, but as C.O.O. and C.E.O., you’re really a manager and a leader, and those are things that you have to learn over time. You have to learn how you do it and how it works for you and what kind of people relate well to how you do it.

I talk about this a lot, and I talk to women’s groups about it. I think men and women manage differently, and I think women have to learn to be comfortable that their management style may be different from a man’s, and that’s O.K.

Q. And what is your sense of the difference between how women and men lead?

A. I think women listen more. I think women tend to be more consensus builders and less dictators. I’m generalizing, but I think women are more compassionate about executives and employees and their family circumstances. That can be good sometimes and it can be bad sometimes. You can be too compassionate and lose sight of what you’re trying to accomplish and making sure the folks who work for you are able to deliver. I’m not saying all women are the same and all men are the same. But I think there are some general differences, and we need more women as C.E.O.’s to prove that their way to manage is O.K.

Unfortunately, if one woman is unsuccessful, all of a sudden there’s a feeling that women can’t do this, that women aren’t made to do this. A man could be unsuccessful and the next day someone else hires him and he gets another chance. He keeps failing up. You can go from company to company, and it’s never a testament to the fact that you’re a man. It’s just that it didn’t work out at that company.

So I think we’ve made a lot of progress, but I think there’s a lot more that needs to be made in terms of women as managers and companies accepting them as managers and giving them opportunities.

Q. How do you hire?

A. I like to get to know people as a person when I’m interviewing them. The most important thing for me, in addition to their experience, is just how flexible they seem in their approach to life. That indicates to me whether they’d be willing to take on additional responsibilities, whether they can grow with the company. It’s always been a company where you had to do your basic job, but you also had to be open to doing different kinds of things.

I’m always looking for people who have the ability to grow — overachievers who have always multitasked their whole life, who’ve done more than just go to school, who’ve been active in organizations and been open to new experiences. I also look for people who are compassionate and good people-people.

Q. What other questions do you ask?

A. One would be what do they know about BET and the company and how do they feel about it. The other one is: What do you want to accomplish in your career? I think that tells you about whether folks have thought through the long term or whether they’re just looking for a job.