Industry Pro: Former Discovery Communications CEO Judith McHale
It was a big coup for Your Industry Insider to talk with Judith McHale, the longtime head of Discovery Communications who was instrumental in taking them from a 30-person single channel operation into a global media powerhouse. It’s not often you get to hear success strategies from someone who led that kind of monumental growth. We got a lot of takeaways that anyone can use for their own career. One of them was already shared in this post, but there are plenty of others, such as the power of following your gut and using your existing strengths as you develop your career, and the advantage of being the first mover (with solid examples). Read on to find out more about these and get other words of wisdom from someone who made it to the top of the entertainment industry.
Can you talk a little bit about your career as you started it? Did you intend to go specifically into the entertainment industry, and whether you did or not, how did you get into it? Let me give you a little bit of background for that question. I was born in New York, but when I was 12 or 13, my parents moved to England. My father joined the Foreign Service, so I spent high school and university in England and South Africa, which provided me with a global perspective from very early in life. I worked in South Africa for a couple of years after I graduated university and then moved back to New York, since I had lived overseas at that point for about 14 years and thought it was a good time to get reacquainted with America. My first job in New York was for a small production company which did television commercials, sales films, and industrials, Alton/Melsky, which was subsequently acquired by Columbia Screen Gems. That was in the mid‑to‑late ’70s.
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I started as a Production Assistant and ended up becoming an Executive Producer. So I had my feet a little bit in a very specialized segment of the industry. But then I was on a shoot one day and I was talking to the prop man’s son, who was applying to law school. I said something like, “Gee, I wish I had done that,” and he replied, “Don’t ever say you wish you had done something. You should go on and do it.” And with that, and candidly, probably not giving as much attention as I should have, I applied to Fordham Law School.
I went to law school at night while working as a commercial producer during the day. At some point, I decided I would love to figure out a way of combining entertainment and law by doing something in the industry related to law. However, when I graduated, I went to work for a law firm in New York which did not have an entertainment practice. But once I had established myself, I let them know if they ever went in the direction of entertainment law, I would be interested in working in that area. Lucky for me, two or three years into my tenure there, they actually merged with another firm and acquired an entertainment practice. I became the principle associate on that and began to work on media cases, everything from First Amendment issues to contracting to sports to television to syndication. So I got a pretty broad exposure to the industry.
After maybe five or six years at the firm, I decided I wanted to be on the business side of things. Most opportunities in the film and television industry were obviously in Los Angeles. The big three broadcast networks were based in New York, and of course, you had Broadway and publishing. There was all of that or there was this new industry which was emerging, cable and satellite programming. It was taking off in New York at that time. I was very attracted to that because I felt there would be good opportunities for me, as a woman and just as a young professional, going into a new industry. And it seemed like it would be more fun because there was no road map, no set ways of doing things. So I went to MTV as one of the lawyers. After a year or two, I was made general counsel of MTV Networks, which was MTV, VHI, Nickelodeon, and Nick at Night.
Now, I know when you were at MTV, they started the push to globalize. Is that something that you knew before you went there or did they start after you arrived? One of the reasons that I mentioned where I grew up was to show that I was going to bring a more global perspective to whatever I did. MTV had a small executive team at the time, being led by Bob Pittman, so I worked very closely with Bob and with one of his lieutenants to actually develop the international strategies. I worked very closely with them and I brought to the process a high degree of comfort being in those markets because I had grown up there. It didn’t strike me as unusual to go in that direction. I actually saw it as a real opportunity.
Music, of course, has universal appeal and we didn’t have a lot of resources, so we had to have some pretty strategic relationships with a number of global players. We would travel around and do very creative deals to get that up and running. One of the things that I learned really early on from business perspective, particularly in a programming arena, that there’s a huge advantage to being the first mover. So if you look in the United States, you know, CNN, MTV, Discovery — all were first movers in their particular genre of programming, which gave them huge strategic advantages going forward. And we knew that was going to be the case for overseas as well.
Now what made you move over to the Discovery Channel? I went for personal reasons. My parents were living in Washington. My father was not well and I wanted to be closer to them. As I’m sure you can appreciate, there were not a lot of opportunities then for entertainment lawyers in Washington. So I looked at a number of different opportunities. Discovery was a very small company. I think we had 30 employees. I don’t think any of us had any idea how big it would grow and how fast. It was done for personal reasons, but it turned out to be a great move for me, obviously.
You mentioned your international background growing up and the comfort level that that gave you. Can you expand a little on what you feel made you successful in your career in general and what do you think made you successful on your specific path? I was not someone who had set career goals and objectives I doggedly pursued. To some degree, a lot of the things that I got to do just came my way. But if I were to look at the critical decision factors, I would say going to law school played a part in it. Beyond that, it was the decision that I made when I was leaving law school as to where do I go. Do I look for a large, established corporation or do I go to a challenger company like MTV? Ultimately that allowed me to have a lot of input in creating what obviously turned out to be a hugely successful company.
I guess you would have to say I’m not risk averse. I’m quite prepared to take on those kinds of challenges. I find it really interesting to do things that other people haven’t been done before. I like going in and wrestling with problems, and developing new solutions to things, and new strategies. That’s always been really appealing to me and obviously paid a lot of dividends.
Also, in each case in my career, I made it clear to the people I was working for that there were things that I was interested in working on. I would say, “Don’t put me in a particular box and think of me as an X,Y, or Z.” When I was at my law firm, I was doing classic sort rotations; a lot of work in trusts and estates, for instance. I had a good relationship with the partners there and I said to them, “I really want to do entertainment law, so if there’s an opportunity, please consider me for that.” That clearly had a huge impact on my career.
When I went to Discovery, I made a very similar statement: “Don’t think of me just as the general counsel. I want to do more than that. I want to be engaged in the strategic planning. I want to be engaged in some of our acquisitions.” I knew I had a broader bandwidth than just typical lawyer work. And that’s one of the important things that I encouraged at Discovery. I’d say, “Raise your hand,” because all too often, people (and women in particular) don’t do that. The refrain sometimes is, “Well, I thought if you thought I was ready for it, you would have asked me.” That can hold someone back.
Planting those seeds is absolutely critical. When the opportunities arrive, go for it. You have absolutely nothing to lose and a lot to gain. If you don’t go for it, you will never get it. It’s not they I “didn’t think of you” for the position or that I didn’t think you were qualified or what have you. It’s just that in the pressures of day‑to‑day business, you are not on my radar screen. It’s not a reflection on you or your talent. It’s just a reflection of the pressures that we’re dealing with.
What the best piece of career advice you got from someone else early on? When I was a lawyer at the firm in New York and I was thinking of moving to a corporation, one of the senior partners said, “If you’re going to do this, be sure you know how the company feels about its lawyers. Do they understand and respect what you are doing? Be sure they do.” I would expand that to say everyone should be sure to understand how the senior level of the organization views the particular area that you are potentially moving into, whatever that is. In the case of lawyers, some people can find them a nuisance. If that’s the case and you are going to a company as lawyer, it potentially can be really tough.
Is there something you wish you would have known at the beginning of your career that you think would have helped you in some way? I’ve been speaking about this with women in particular, that women don’t seek as much credit for what they do as they should. They tend to talk about how it’s not about me, it’s about the team. I’m sure you’ve heard that phrase. It’s about the team, yes, but it’s also about you. I wish in certain cases I had been more vocal about telling my own story. When I was at Discovery, I told my communications team that I didn’t really want to have a media profile. I really wanted to have the lowest media profile of anybody in my business; which in the media business is a strange stance to take. But I just tend to be a private person.
I think for each of us, in our careers, the ability to tell our own story and for people to understand what you’ve done is critically important. I’ve just come out of the State Department. [Judith served as Under Secretary of State for Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs from May 2009 until June of 2011.] I spent a lot of time there talking about the importance of our government shaping the narrative. It’s also important to shape your own personal narrative because other people are not going to do it for you and a lot of the great stuff you’ve done will go unrecognized because of that.
When I’m advising young people who are just starting out in the industry, one of the things that I tell them is to look for the growth. Go where the growth is. Obviously, you got into an area of growth in your career. If you were starting out now, where do you think you would go? Where do you recognize today’s areas of opportunity? I think that’s incredibly good advice. When you go into those growth areas, as I mentioned was the case with me, you are going to find there are fewer barriers because, as an organization or field is growing, they are looking for good people.
Obviously I come from the content side of the business and I look at it through that particular lens. I think there are so many opportunities in social media, mobile particularly with the mobile applications being developed in every business sector, whether it’s the entertainment industry, education, business, or whatever. There are huge opportunities and I would encourage more people to get engaged in that, whether it’s programmers or just as big thinkers, frankly. That to me is an astounding area, how it’s going to affect us literally around the world. So if you are a content developer, having this multi‑platform perspective on the world is critically important to building your business. Everybody is trying to figure it out, but I think if you look at it creatively and start with yourself as a user, you can come up with new ideas and concepts and adapt them to that world. I think that’s a great way to go.
Judith McHale is currently the President and Chief Executive Officer of Cane Investments, LLC. From 2009 to 2011 she served as Under Secretary of State for Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs.
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