Read the full story in The New York Times
SEPT. 5, 2015
By ADAM BRYANT
This interview with Kathleen Finch, chief programming officer of HGTV, Food Network and Travel Channel, was conducted and condensed by Adam Bryant.
Q. What were some early influences for you
A. I grew up in Manhattan, in Greenwich Village. My parents moved here in the ’60s. I had these very bohemian, liberal, artsy parents, and my entire upbringing was a little unusual. I also went to a Quaker school.
Tell me more about your parents.
They made their living in the arts, but they also would buy brownstones and loft spaces and apartments in Manhattan. We would renovate them ourselves and then flip them, and they made a lot of money doing this. From my early teenage years, I could do things like run an industrial floor sander. I used to go to school with flecks of paint in my hair from painting ceilings. It taught me the value of hard work.
Did you have an idea what you wanted to do for a career when you went to college
I knew I wanted to do something in media. When I was in college, I applied for some internships. I decided as a lark to take an internship at the Dr. Ruth show in New York. The day I walked on set, I thought, This is so cool. After college I worked for a while making videos for Apple, but I ended up going to CBS News, which was really my dream at that point.
How did you make that happen
I went in as a secretary. Quite a few of my friends said, “What” I said, “Foot in the door.” At the time, my boss was the news director. I knew when I met her that she would mentor me, and she did. I ended up being at CBS for 12 years as a producer. I traveled all over the world and had the best time.
How did that experience as a producer help you in your current role as a leader
I was a 20-something producer, and my crews often consisted of grizzled veterans. I really had to prove myself to them because I had to tell them what to do out in the field, and a few of them hated that. There was a little bit of hazing that would go on.
At the time, we had a helicopter at CBS, and it was one of those helicopters that didn’t have doors. The pilot didn’t like people like me saying, “We’ve got to get to D.C. in two hours.” So as we were leaving Manhattan, he would bank the helicopter on its side. It was horrifying, but I learned pretty quickly that I had to be very tough, never back down, and if I was scared to death, I would never let them see it. You learn to be gracious but tough.
Tell me about your leadership style now.
One of my favorite things to do is to put a team together in an informal way, then figure out who can do what best. Not everybody likes that because I will oftentimes change somebody’s responsibilities pretty significantly. But I like people playing to their strengths. Some of my best performers are people who had very different jobs than the ones they’re doing now.
I have a meeting every few months that I call a “pile-on meeting.” I bring about 25 people into a room and go over all the different projects that are coming up in the next six months, and the goal is that everybody piles on with their ideas to make those projects as successful as they can be.
The rule walking into the meeting is you must forget your job title. I don’t want the marketing person just talking about marketing. I want everyone talking about what they would do to make this better. It is amazing what comes out of those meetings.
Other leadership lessons
I love when things don’t go right, because it’s a good time to talk about taking smart risks. If everything worked all the time, that would mean we’re not trying anything crazy, and it’s the crazy ideas that end up being the really successful ideas.
So when things don’t go right, I’ll talk about what we learned from the mistakes. We celebrate our failures just about as strongly as we celebrate our successes because I need to encourage the team to keep coming up with the big ideas.
How do you hire
I always ask, “What do you watch” because I just want to see that enthusiasm bubble up. And then I always ask, “If you were me, what would you be worried about” I’m not really looking for specific answers. I just want everybody I hire to have a very top-of-the-trees approach to our business.
I don’t just want someone who’s looking for a finance job to talk about the financials. I don’t want you worrying about your individual departmental goals. I want you worrying about the business. And that’s an important distinction because I don’t want people competing with each other. I want people thinking about the collective whole. I also ask them, “If you were me, what would you change” Because I like to know that I’m hiring people who have the guts to speak up. We’ve built an environment in which you will not get reprimanded for disagreeing with your boss, so I need to know that people on the team have the courage to let their voices be heard.
What advice do you give to new college grads
I give two pieces of advice. First, learn how to write. No matter what you’re studying in college, be a great writer because it can stymie your career if you’re not. And second, get your foot in the door. If you have a dream job or a dream place to work, take any job that will get you in as long as you’re reporting or visible to important people.Then raise your hand. Work hard. Be the person about whom everybody says, “She’s next, she’s the one who can do it.”
Each week, Adam Bryant talks with top executives about leadership. Follow him on Twitter: @nytcorneroffice. This interview has been edited for space and clarity.
A version of this article appears in print on September 6, 2015, on page BU2 of the New York edition with the headline: ‘Piling On’ to Get Better Ideas.