As part of our series about the “**Five Things You Need To Be A Highly Effective Leader During Turbulent Times,” we had the pleasure of interviewing Elizabeth Tumulty who most recently served as President of CBS Television Network, Fortune 200 Company, reporting to the Chairman of the Board.
In three short years, Elizabeth took her division from less than $450M to an amount exceeding $2.5B by 2020. She started as a secretary and worked every job in television. Currently Elizabeth is a Board Director, CEO advisor and mentor. She also spoke at Davos during the World Economic Forum on a panel of women leaders as it relates to the boardroom; “The Intrinsic Value of Women”.
Thank you so much for your time! I know that you are a very busy person. Our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your ‘backstory’ and how you got started?
I grew up in an economically challenged household; my mother did not finish high school and had to work three low wage jobs yet could not make ends meet. Often we were evicted. The one constant was TV and that is because wherever we wound up TV was available and free.
I knew nothing in life came free. And not only was TV free to me, broadcast television put me on a level playing field, a place where I could truly fit in and participate in zeitgeist discussions as well as be up to date in news and information. How is this possible? A big driver for me is curiosity. My “how is this possible” curiosity started with as a 10-year-old girl taking apart the television to see how programs get inside, to cutting school so I could hang out at a local TV station to watch them work, to an unimaginable career.
I have come a long way from that girl who lived in Section 8 housing to becoming a President at the #1 Network, with a fortune 200 company, reporting directly to the Chairman of the Board where I grew revenue from $450M to $2.5B by 2020 in less than 3 years. But I couldn’t have done that without being curious, understanding the intricacies of the business and developing a specific strategy.
Today, I rely on that same curiosity in the Boardroom. I always ask, “why” and reframe answers into questions. For example, some board members would be happy when company revenue is up. But I will always ask, why. “Why is our revenue lagging the competition when we should be setting the market?” etc.
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lessons or ‘take aways’ you learned from that?
Something that instantly comes to mind was when I was a mid-level executive at Warner Brothers and overseeing my first big industry event. I was in a meeting with Warner Brothers’ event production team going over run of day specifics; this event was for all of Warner Brothers’ big talent and my constituents, the owners and CEO’s of every major broadcast group in the country.
Just prior to that I was living in Chicago, a city infamous for volatile weather conditions. I was trying to review and approve everything from swatches to colors to guest coordination as quickly as each producer gave it to me. The entire room was buzzing with enthusiasm and bigger, better ideas, when at some point I asked, “what are we doing if it rains?” The laughter of enthusiasm immediately stopped and the whole room went completely silent. They looked at me as if I had just been dropped in from another planet. No one wanted to speak up. I did not understand what was wrong with what I had said. The producers looked to their leader who curtly said, “Elizabeth, it is August. We are in LA. It is not going to rain.” The room began to buzz again.
Even so I still persisted, because what if? While it did not rain on event day, it was 106 degrees and almost everyone was thankful we had a contingency plan in place including an indoor air-conditioned area, coverings, branded umbrellas, etc. The lesson I learned then and continue to use in the boardroom today is:
- Question the status quo.
- Be proactive vs reactive.
- CEO’s and Board of Directors need to surround themselves with people unlike themselves.
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story?
Maybe this is an unusual answer, but for me, grateful is the key word here. I am absolutely grateful for every single opportunity and obstacle that has come into my path, and the people who knowingly and unknowingly put them there. More importantly, I am grateful for having recognized those opportunities. It is difficult but if I had to name one person I am most grateful for, it is Ken Werner who recently retired as a President for Warner Bros. Ken hired me to work in Affiliate Relations for The WB Network from a very well known Warner Bros. produced talk show based in Chicago. At the time, I had another offer at a competing network for more money. My experience growing up in an extremely challenged socio economic environment armed me with critical thinking skills unlike my peers. Yet I believed I could learn more about strategic planning from Ken. Not only did Ken promote me four times in six years, he propelled me forward. And I took with me the importance of having a strategic plan for every task at hand as well as the importance of mentoring and propelling people forward.
For example, at CBS my task was to monetize our programming by securing a portion of revenue the broadcasters are paid for providing their local TV stations’ programming including CBS programming to cable and satellite providers.
CBS simply wanted me to slam my fist on the table and demand money. And if that didn’t work, they wanted me to take CBS Network programming including the NFL, NCAA Basketball away from the small broadcast companies in the economically challenged cities.
That reaction would have probably brought CBS up to the level of its competitors. But the only way to truly reset the marketplace and take #1 position was to develop a proactive vs. reactive strategic plan that stands the test of time:
- Question the status quo:
Strategic plan — Revenue: Instead of taking a percentage of a diminishing asset let’s charge a flat rate for an increasing asset.
- Be proactive vs reactive:
Strategic plan — Timing: Instead of going after the little guy in an economically challenged city let’s wait for a large broadcaster to realize their incipient plan then strike when they have a lot more to lose than we do.
- Surround yourself with people unlike yourself:
Strategic plan — Preparation: CBS had a very impressive group of executives reporting to the Chairman but they were entrenched. I was not like them… I was not “one of them,” so they did not perceive me to be good enough to sit among them. Yet they were lagging the marketplace while touting incremental gains. However, It was the outsider, who was not like them, who made an immediate impact.
In that same vein, my entrenched colleagues had been in their same positions doing the same thing for many, many years. I came in, made an impact and moved on in three years.
Board members should do the same. Do not get me wrong, I believe it is helpful to have some board members entrenched but others should be rotating out once they no longer have something new or unique to offer.
Extensive research suggests that “purpose driven businesses” are more successful in many areas. When your company started, what was its vision, what was its purpose?
Whether you start a company, or sit on a large company board, you need to understand the company’s purpose. Goals and strategies are important, but the company’s purpose is the differentiator that should drive clear actionable goals and strategies.
Unfortunately, all too often we see a company’s purpose is to be number one in the sector growing revenue, maintaining a strong balance sheet etc. Those are not differentiators. Those should be a given for all companies!
Within the company’s purpose should also be Environmental, Social, and Corporate Governance (ESG) as well as Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DE&I). Every item a Board Member or an employee is doing should be directly related to the company’s purpose. If not they should not be doing it.
Thank you for all that. Let’s now turn to the main focus of our discussion. Can you share with our readers a story from your own experience about how you lead your team during uncertain or difficult times?
I was working for The WB Network when we began hearing rumors of our demise. When rumors start, focus often stops. But we were ready with a communication strategy as well as a contingency plan. I gathered my team and constituents, and we got out in front of the information and rumors to clearly communicate, execute and move forward.
In my experience, success has come when I have been prepared for unknown opportunities. Being prepared is one thing everyone can do that others often do not do. And by being prepared, it is important to think big… very big! Think of the biggest thing that could happen, and know whatever happens is going to be even more monumental.
Fortunately I developed my own unique strategic planning and contingency skills working in the 24/7 business of television. Each and every day something happens somewhere in our country and in the world — breaking news, sports running long, disastrous weather systems, and so on that are constantly changing people’s lives right here, right now. I am used to having just a brief moment to think, act, communicate and move forward. Then as I mentioned I strengthened my strategic planning skill while working for Ken Werner at The WB.
Sadly, the WB Network did go out of business. We could not control that situation but we could execute a plan for those bad times while simultaneously planning the next opportunity. That next opportunity became CW Television Network. I was part of the executive team who launched The CW. During my tenure my position continued to grow and I took my entire team with me.
Did you ever consider giving up? Where did you get the motivation to continue through your challenges? What sustains your drive?
That is such an interesting question to me. I am not sure what that means because I just do not think like that.
My motivation comes from curiosity and focus. We discussed my curiosity. By focus start by thinking about the e interactions you have with people every single day. Consider how to improve upon those interactions. Specifically, think and develop ways to become the best part of your clients’ or colleagues’ day. We live in an increasingly automated world making personal interactions even more important. These ideas for making someone else’s job and life a bit less stressful often lead to efficiencies that drive revenue or create new business.
What would you say is the most critical role of a leader during challenging times?
It is critical for any leader to anticipate versus react. In doing so it is also important to have a strong Independent board of directors who also anticipate versus react. Your board is there to impact shareholder value. That includes helping you. Of course, you want to go to your board with a strong presentation that pats yourself on your back. But it is also important to create some transparency and lean on the governance and diversity created by your board.
When the future seems so uncertain, what is the best way to boost morale? What can a leader do to inspire, motivate and engage their team?
It is important to realize this — leading is different from managing, and both are difficult. Leadership is more crucial during difficult times. When people are powerless, they want someone they believe has control. Remember, head in and fingers out. Let your people do their jobs, and do not hire people that necessitate managing.
I like to lead by example — I show up, roll up my sleeves and communicate. I communicate up, down, around and sideways with a consistent message. Clear on-going communication exponentially increases company morale and provides all stakeholders a clear vision of what’s going on. And it’s important to communicate before anyone asks for information. Get out in front of it every time.
What is the best way to communicate difficult news to one’s team and customers?
The best way is to get out in front of it and face it head on, even when you do not have the answers. At the same time, it is important to listen, really listen with empathy. Then follow up. For some reason people are afraid to follow up on bad news but it is important and allows you to communicate actions taken related to their initial response.
This was particularly difficult at some of the larger companies. While typically under one umbrella, the separate companies or divisions I worked with operated in a silo and were completely entrenched. Often these silos would issue a press release without thinking how it would affect contingencies within the larger company.
Multiplying this issue was the fact that I was different from my colleagues who had worked for the same company in the same capacity for 15–30 years. They assumed my experience was not relevant so they could not connect the dots as to why I belonged sitting alongside them at the Chairman’s conference room table. It took a great deal to break down those barriers. Fortunately, we got to a point that I was given at least a five or seven minute lead way to get out in front and communicate prior to any press release.
This issue also speaks to entrenchment and the importance of surrounding yourself with others unlike you.
How can a leader make plans when the future is so unpredictable?
Once again, you cannot underestimate the value of preparation as well as surrounding yourself with people from diverse backgrounds. It is also a good idea to follow the trends, read all the trade press not just in your business but your clients’ and customers’ business. Understanding the changing needs of your clients’ and/or customers is critical when preparing for the future.
Is there a “number one principle” that can help guide a company through the ups and downs of turbulent times?
Every company should have a purpose including a set of guiding principles. This goes further than a crooked sign hiding in a break room. Guiding principles should guide employees toward the decisions they make. When I walked the halls, I wasn’t interested on the tasks each employee was doing. Instead I asked them what they were doing to further our purpose. Even if they were building a mailing list at the time, they understood why they were doing it specific to moving our purpose forward.
Can you share 3 or 4 of the most common mistakes you have seen other businesses make during difficult times? What should one keep in mind to avoid that?
So many people tend to be reactive versus proactive. They spend a lot of time trying to change the narrative, or digging up dirt to point fingers instead of dealing with the problem head on and using that difficult time to take advantage and create new opportunities.
Generating new business, increasing your profits, or at least maintaining your financial stability can be challenging during good times, even more so during turbulent times. Can you share some of the strategies you use to keep forging ahead and not lose growth traction during a difficult economy?
My strategic plan is always updating and preparation is a constant. I focus on the purpose while obtaining fresh perspectives. After all at the center of a company’s resiliency is that purpose and strategic plan which includes contingencies. Stick to it and that combination will sustain your organization during the best and worst of times.
Here is the primary question of our discussion. Based on your experience and success, what are the five most important things a business leader should do to lead effectively during uncertain and turbulent times? Please share a story or an example for each.
All in all, from my perspective the five most important aspects to keep in mind for effective leadership during difficult times are:
- Question the status quo: Always Ask “Why” something is the way it is. Be proactive vs reactive, prepare and communicate.
- Surround yourself with people from different socioeconomic and ethnic backgrounds: Their life experience is valuable in ways you cannot possibly appreciate without diversity.
- Have a purpose: This differentiator should drive your existence and every decision you make.
- Value Each One of Your Stakeholders: First remember that every stakeholder from large investors to your entry-level employees and everyone in between wants you to succeed. When a stakeholder feels undervalued, you will likely have a problem that is going to take you away from your purpose. Understand a day in their shoes, and what motivates them. Then head off potential headaches by keeping these people top of mind. Communicate, listen and follow up. Tell them how you are addressing their concerns or ideas. And if you are not addressing the concerns let them know why.
- Communicate: Get out in front of it and try over communicating. Communicate in all directions, not just top down. Communication goes beyond the two-way street so listen. Listen with empathy. And importantly follow up. People need validation. Let them know they are heard and give them examples for how you are addressing their needs and concerns. And if you are not or cannot address their needs and concerns give them the reasons why. Again, they want you to succeed. If you can let them in a little they will likely help you a lot.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
My favorite quote was given to me by a very tall, tough looking NY State Trooper named Turk. He said, “Whatever you believe in the most you must question the most.”
This statement has truly guided me in all of my decision-making professionally as well as personally. At the end of the day, you only know what you know, and often you don’t know what you don’t know. I fully believe it is critical to question everything as well as understanding your answer.
Whether it is your company’s purpose, your religion, political beliefs, passions or even a favorite color or food, it is important to ask yourself why you believe what you believe as well as why you want to believe it to be true. Then expose yourself to the “what if’s.” Sometimes that due diligence does not change your perspective but oftentimes, if you really truly put in the research, hard work, and are willing to be wrong therefore let down your guard to truly receive and understand new information, your perspectives will change and continue to evolve.
By the way, Turk also said, “The soup is all you need.” Remember that the next time you go out to your favorite steak restaurant, the one with the huge portions and tasty desserts to quench your hunger. You will notice that after the soup course you are no longer hungry. In other words, stay true to the purpose and do not get caught up in everything else.
How can our readers further follow your work?
You can reach me or learn more at the following:
- LinkedIn: https://www.linkedin.com/in/elizabethtumulty/
- ViacomCBS Website: https://www.viacomcbspressexpress.com/cbs-entertainment/releases/view?id=37568
- Twitter: @E_Tumulty