Fearless - Ep 28: "The Teacher" - Gerry Laybourne

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"The Teacher"

Gerry Laybourne has spent her life unlocking the creativity of others. From her early beginnings as a teacher and film-maker, she created not one but two game-changing networks. First, Nickelodeon, and then the Oxygen network. Along the way, she was named the most influential woman in the entertainment industry and one of the 25 most influential people in America by Time magazine.


Three Takeaways

  • Mission-driven.  A clear definition of what success will look like.

  • Empathetic. What's in the best interest of the audience you are trying to attract.

  • Learn from your past experiences and apply those lessons moving forward.


"FEARLESS CREATIVE LEADERSHIP" PODCAST - TRANSCRIPT

Episode 28: "The Teacher" Gerry Laybourne

 "My job is to figure out what you're good at and make sure you do it 80% of the time."

Charles:                               

Fearless leadership is powered by positive thinking. Seeing a different future and believing that it's achievable is the stuff of dreamers and optimists. The question about where that energy source comes from is as old as the nature versus nurture debate, are you born brave or are you taught to be courageous? We won't solve that problem in this episode, but one fact is inescapably true. However our brains are wired today they can be changed. Recent medical research has shown that the brain, with the right support, is capable of forming new pathways. An old dog can literally learn new tricks. Given that reality, decisions about the kind of thinking we expose ourselves to as leaders become infinitely more crucial.

Surround ourselves with doom sellers and naysayers and even the most fertile imaginations become subdued and depressed. Fear is a creativity killer. It assassinates the what if before it has taken its first breath and it cuts off exploration with the precision of a surgeon. What makes fear complicated is that when it's well managed it can be a force for good. After all, it's helped our species to survive for a couple of thousand years. Today it's part of the fabric of every realistic business plan. As a leader you have to respect its role. The trouble with fear is that it hides in the shadows and it cloaks itself in an endless array of disguises. It can take control when we're not looking and often when we are. Leading is a live broadcast. It has no time for rehearsal or practice, it happens in real time. Leading creativity requires a reservoir of optimism, but too often fear taps into those reserves just as our business needs us to hit the gas.

The key is to surround ourselves with people who see hope and possibility as a starting point for every conversation, to put ourselves in close proximity to those who identify the status quo as a fraud and who believe the future is a destination to be met on our terms. When we do that we discover that our own thinking is hard wired to become more expansive and competent. Leading is lonely, but it can be dramatically less so. Consciously creating an environment that supports and nurtures our own creative thinking is much more than a gift to ourselves, it is fuel for the journey to the future.

Gerry Laybourne has spent her life unlocking the creativity of others. From her early beginnings as a teacher and filmmaker she created not one, but two game-changing networks. First Nickelodeon, which placed the care and nurturing of children at the heart of its DNA and then the Oxygen Network, a revolutionary and innovative commitment to the voice and needs of women. Along the way she was named the most influential woman in the entertainment industry and one of the 25 most influential people in America by Time magazine. She is a visionary, a business builder and an audience advocate. I talked to Gerry about calling out the strengths of the people that work for you, about the importance of giving yourself credit for the things you do well, about the challenge of hiring 750 people all at once and about management approach she would recommend anybody use if they're building a company today.

Gerry Laybourne, welcome to Fearless. Thank you so much for being here.

Gerry Laybourne:            

So great to be here.

Charles:                               

I'd like to start by asking you what's your first memory of creativity. When did creativity first show up in your life that you were aware of?

Gerry Laybourne:            

What a great question. I would say that my whole childhood was incredibly creative because my mother had been a radio producer, writer and actress. So, we were the kids who took oil painting lessons at five and sculpture at seven, but the one that really strikes me is one when I was about ... that I really personally own as not being driven to a class, but I wanted to build a fort in the backyard and I made a tent and then I wanted to landscape it and I worked for six or seven hours and then it started to get dark and I refused to go in. I just took a flashlight and I wouldn't give up my and I had to smooth out all the earth and make it like a rammed earth floor and I remember the satisfaction of really completing that and my dad looked at me and he just shook his head and said, "God help the world."

Charles:                               

Do you have brothers and sisters?

Gerry Laybourne:            

Yes, I have. I'm sandwiched in between two sisters and then we have a baby brother.

Charles:                               

Are you close?

Gerry Laybourne:            

Very.

Charles:  

Where did you grow up?

Gerry Laybourne:            

I grew up in rural New Jersey and I summered in North Dakota. I like to say that I come from two low self-esteem states, which is really good.

Charles:                               

What did you do in school? What did you focus on?

Gerry Laybourne:            

First I thought I was going to be a doctor, until I discovered that I am squeamish when anybody tells me about an illness and it's actually a condition, so that wasn't so good, and then I was-

Charles:                               

Wait, that's a condition? I have that.

Gerry Laybourne:            

Yeah. Vasovagal.

Charles:                               

Oh, really?

Gerry Laybourne:            

Yes, you go faint when somebody tells you about getting something in their eye or ... we're highly empathetic people.

Charles:                               

Yeah, evidently. Squeamish [inaudible]

Gerry Laybourne:            

But at Vassar, which is a great liberal arts college, I studied architecture and urban planning and I went to work in Philadelphia at an architect's office and met my husband, who was doing something really exciting. He was working with kids in inner cities to make movies and I saw the creativity that he was unleashing and so I followed in his footsteps.

Charles:                               

What kind of movies?

Gerry Laybourne:            

Just personal stories. They had Portapaks and animation tools and just ... these were kids who couldn't read or write, but they had stories to tell and Kit would work with them and help them produce movies.

Charles:                               

And this was early in the-

Gerry Laybourne:            

This was in 1969.

Charles:                               

Oh, so a portable filmmaking technology was ... almost non-existent, right?

Gerry Laybourne:            

Portapak was ... Portapak weighed about 15, 20 pounds, but it was a fantastic technology because that was the first time we had anything like that and kids seeing their own image on it immediately was just revolutionary. They understood the conventions of TV and could put on newscasts and all kinds of things.

Charles:                               

You watched the films, obviously?

Gerry Laybourne:            

Yes, I made them.

Charles:                               

Oh, you made-

Gerry Laybourne:            

Yes.

Charles:                               

Okay. What kinds of stories ... they must have had incredible stories, given the opportunity to start to tell stories, they must have been extraordinary.

Gerry Laybourne:            

Well, I guess the best analogy is that there was one year where we went for the UN to make movies in Thailand and Singapore. My husband was hired and I just went along to watch. The kids in Singapore were fantastic at making news documentaries because that was the lion share of what they saw on TV, but you try to get them to do animation, everything was stiff and they could hardly draw, and these were kids that were eight, nine, ten. In Thailand the kids had this whole tradition of shadow puppets and it was like the easiest thing in the world and their animation was stunning, but they could not work as a team to put on a documentary. They'd never seen one, they had no idea.

We worked together to produce a series for Nickelodeon called Video Dream Theater before I worked there and we were actually the first producers who were ever hired by Nickelodeon and this was such a great idea. We were going to take kids and put them in their own dreams so they would send in their dreams and we would animate them into them. We hired a young woman named Julie Taymor who had never worked for anything commercial in her life and she made masks for one dreamer and this dreamer dreamed about being kidnapped by a monster and we had no budget, so my husband was the monster and we shot it at my kindergarten teacher's house, like Sparta. And another was about suffocation, which we use colored Xerox to put a kid into his dream it was about rocket ships and running out of air. We found through that process it was such a cool idea, but guess what? Kid's dreams are scary and they dream about abandonment and suffocation and that did not make good TV.

Charles:                               

Were you always drawn to the children or did this start to trigger it for you?

Gerry Laybourne:            

I think my husband really triggered all of that for me. I wasn't particularly drawn ... I didn't know I was drawn to children, but I'm a natural child advocate and when ... My first stop with kids was teaching at Concord Academy, a really great boarding school in Massachusetts and I was teaching kids, high school kids, how to use Portapaks in nursery schools and elementary schools to work with kids. It was very a '70s kind of an idea. It just gave me a way of seeing how rich kids imaginations were and that was really what I was interested in.

Charles:                               

From helping children to bring their dreams to life, what was the next stage for you?

Gerry Laybourne:            

Well, I got hired by Nickelodeon right away. Before the pilots came in, thank goodness. I had about three years there where we had no subscribers, we had no shows, we had no philosophy and our mission was make the cable operators look good. So, just put on anything that's educational.

Charles:                               

This was cable's answer to PBS essentially?

Gerry Laybourne:            

Kind of, but with no money. I mean, we had absolutely no money. I had a boss who was out of the advertising world. I don't know if you knew him, but he had-

Charles:                               

What was his name?

Gerry Laybourne:            

Schneider 

Charles:                               

Oh, I've heard [inaudible]. Yeah.

Gerry Laybourne:            

Yeah. He had a very old fashioned management style, which was fantastic for me because I keep notebooks and I kept a notebook of what I would never do if I got a chance to run the place and I was constantly evaluating what he was doing, which was great because it meant that I wasn't as hard on myself as I usually am. He was very much a top-down manager. There was no such thing as win-win in those days. Win-win came in Vogue in, I would say, the mid '80s, maybe late '80s, but this was a very revolutionary concept at the time. Team management was a very revolutionary concept at the time and he would never let two people have the same bit of information. He was the dollar out of information.

I had three years of watching and learning about kids and doing anything to make it better for kids, but my own kids were probably about six and nine when I joined and the first summer Sam wore a Nickelodeon hat too and it was reindeer horns and it was just a goofy hat. The original interstitials of Nickelodeon were mimes that just acted out as long as this break took. If it was an 11 minute break it was a [inaudible]. So, it was a goofy network to say the least. The kids at the camp made fun of Sam because Nickelodeon was baby channel, so he threw the hat in the closet and told everybody that I was a housewife when they asked what I did.

My goal became, how do we make this really relevant for kids. Size mantra was, be on time, be on budget and be good. None of that had any allure for me because I was a kid advocate. I really did not care as much about TV as I cared about kids. I cared about getting in their heads, figuring out what they needed and I'm not a great intellectual academic, but, I, my brain is a very lateral thinking brain and that's what I do.

Charles:                               

Tell me about your notebooks. Was that always part of your life?

Gerry Laybourne:            

I only sound more and more nerdy when you put it that way. When I was a kid I kept a notebook about my mother's housekeeping and she was a very creative person and she never liked to put the same thing to the same place, she never liked to go the same direction, we were lost most of our childhood and I would keep these notebooks, like, "When I am a mother, I will never be late. I will keep my drawers neat." It was these kinds of things.

Charles:                               

Did you follow that? Did you follow those dictums?

Gerry Laybourne:            

It took me a while to get there. I'm very much like her and I tend to pack so much in that I'm late more than I'd like to be. And it was the rebellious stage when I was first married and I refused to clean my closet because I just wanted one place where I could be a mass.

Charles:                               

It's interesting. You would know far more than about us than I, but it strikes me just listening to you and thinking about this. Kids need order and consistency so that they can actually play and be chaotic, right?

Gerry Laybourne:            

Exactly.

Charles:                               

I mean, very much like the creative process and the way the creativity works. You need order and structure underneath so that you can feel free and confident to explore.

Gerry Laybourne:            

The limits are often what bring creativity. I mean, we had absolutely no budget at Nickelodeon. The only thing we had going for us was this love of kids and drive to do something great, but those strictures are what brings out creativity. I often describe ... When I was a teacher open classrooms were the Vogue. That's what I studied at University of Pennsylvania. What was great about open classrooms came from Great Britain, was that it was very much about individualized instruction. You would look at the kid and try to figure out, "What form of intelligence is this kid bringing to school? How can I get in? Is it through music? Is it through math? Is it through drawing? Is it through physical?" That was your charge as a teacher.

Well, I found that that was about the best management training that I could ever have because ... And it's also a gift of my mother's. My mother could walk in a room and talk to you for 10 minutes and basically feed back to you who you are in a kind of poetic way. I had watched this genius at that and then the process of individualized instruction and I watched my husband, who is one 100% creative and he would spend 80% of his time trying to be a businessman with no natural common sense about mathematics and he's a genius creative person. I was like, "Okay, I get it. My job is to figure out what you're good at and make sure you do it 80% of the time instead of struggling in the other ratio."

And if you can actually lead your team, not based on what jobs need to be done and how can I shove this person into that hole or whatever, or a box, but how do I take this team of people and give them the whole problem and then try to figure out how we're all going to mesh together and make sure I call out the strengths of people so that maybe everybody isn't interested in that as I am, but so that they gain trust that, "Okay, Jeffrey's really good at that, Debbie's really good at that, let's put on that thinking."

Charles:                               

That struggle watching people fighting against their own best selves is really tough to watch, isn't it? It's one of the greatest satisfactions actually, when I do, is that helping people figure out exactly what you just said. You're great at that. Do that.

Gerry Laybourne:            

It's remarkable because they don't give themselves credit for what they're great, "Oh, that's easy."

Charles:                               

Everybody can do that. It's easy.

Gerry Laybourne: 

I have lots of mottos. One is, "Try easier." And the other is, "Think more, do less." Which is really key. I mean, so much stuff just gets done because it's been done.

Charles:                               

And it's safe, right? You don't have to be afraid.

Gerry Laybourne:            

And it's safe and I know how to do that.

Charles:                               

Right. Yeah. I think there's so much truth to that. You had first three years at Nickelodeon watching all the things you wouldn't do. What triggered ... What happened to give you the opportunity to start doing things the right way?

Gerry Laybourne:  

moved on and Bob Pittman, who was really quite an amazing genius in many ways, still is, I'm sure, but he took a look at me and he said, "I don't know about you, but wouldn't it be wonderful to have a schoolmarm take this schoolmarmishniss out on Nickelodeon, and I don't quite know what to do with you, but why don't you just try it." There was no fanfare. I wasn't made the president of Nickelodeon right away. I was an executive vice president, but what I did was ... what I had in my notebook, I got ... There were only 20 or 22 people at Nickelodeon at that time and I got them all in a room. We went on an off site and it's like, "Okay, guys. This is our opportunity. We can go for it. We can try to do this. It's going to be a team effort. If you want to work with the team please stay. If you don't, if you'd rather work by yourself I'll get a great package for you and you can leave, but this is our chance to make Nickelodeon what we think it could be." In six months we, with the help of some truly gifted people, like ... You should have Fred Seibert on your show. Fred Seibert and Alan Goodman.

Charles:                               

If you connect me Gerry, I will happily have them on the show.

Gerry Laybourne:            

They had been the creative team with Bob Pittman on MTV and Bob gave them to us and they really intuitively knew what creating a great brand was all about. They were sometimes hard to take because Fred, who I love dearly, would start every sentence with, "You're wrong and I'm going to tell you why." I just cherish that because you don't learn unless somebody tells you you're wrong and they're going tell you why, but we got to work with him and within six months we had doubled our ratings. This is like early cable. We're growing. We're not on the very best channel positions, but pretty okay, and we went from a 0.5 to 1 rating. That was a giant step and at that point they decided our team was going to take it all the way, but we had to prove ourselves and that was so exciting.

Charles:                               

What year was this?

Gerry Laybourne:            

'84.

Charles:                               

Did you define success, when you got into the position, were you clear about what you were trying to achieve at that point?

Gerry Laybourne:            

I think so. We had no money so it wasn't like I was going to be able to compete with broadcast television. We had literally, we had a budget of about five million dollars for the whole year and we spent three million on creating Nickelodeon's personality. Nickelodeon's personality was so on the side of kids and so pitch perfect because we did all kinds of groups with kids and it's ... I hesitate to use the word focus groups because focus groups can be just deadly and I like to think of it more like advertising planning groups where instead of asking questions like, "Do you like the name of this show?" You're out there, talking to kids about, "What's it like to be a kid?  What's great about being a kid?" And they tell you what's in their heart and we were in Danbury, Connecticut in 1984.

Fred and I were sitting behind a screen, and I also believe if you're ever going to take anything from research you have to be there personally, that you cannot be interpreted by a focus group leader. I also think you can learn from one person really a lot. I'm not a researcher's research dream gal, but we sat there and these kids were so honest. It's like, "We're being pressured to grow up." So, this is 1984 where mothers were going to work for the first time, divorce rates were high, kids were being asked to be confidants of mothers who were struggling to find their way and they were being given adult problems way too early and so this is what we heard resoundingly, "It's not that easy to be a kid. I don't understand all the things that are being asked of me. When you become a teenager your brain shrinks." And just these really great things.

Then we did another day where we just took everybody's ads to kids and played them to the kids and the kids were furious. It's like, "Don't tell me what to think. I'll tell you what's funny." Those two things became the centerpiece of Nickelodeon. What the kids told us became the centerpiece of Nickelodeon. They need a place where they can just be kids with humor that is not laden with sexual innuendo and jokes that parents get. That's what came of Slime and Double Dare and all these things because it was truly just what spoke to kids. We didn't ever want them to feel awkward. We didn't want them to feel pressured to wear Juicy Couture outfits or anything like that. The other thing was, I wouldn't allow any of our producers to say fun on the air. If they wanted to show kids that we were fun and funny they had to be it. If you look at the early promos for Nickelodeon they were astonishingly brilliant and one day they came up with Inside-Out Boy that was this claymation character with his organs on the outside. It was just goofy nonsense.

Charles:                               

What gave you the instinct to spend 60% of your annual budget on defining the character and the voice of the network?

Gerry Laybourne:            

Because we were so dependent on acquisitions and to not do that was ... If you were a conventional person, which I'm not, because I'm a middle daughter. I think I mentioned that. I went to Vassar College, which basically at Vassar they teach you to question everything and to not accept anything on face value. You're always going to the source, which, by the way, would be good to do now.

Charles:                               

It's so powerful, isn't it, when a company, a brand has a clear understanding of who it is and how it shows up, and I don't think there are enough leaders who spend time really thinking about-

Gerry Laybourne:            

They don't.

Charles:  

The yes and the no of this.

Gerry Laybourne:            

When I left Nickelodeon in 1996 we'd just done a study where we would ask kids if they thought Nickelodeon understood them. 96% of kids said they thought we understood them and I joke that the other 4% didn't understand the question, but we would not violate our trust with kids and even in ... We started taking advertising in 1984 and we had ... I think that also was a five million dollars budget and we got a three million dollar order for Laser Tag and I just was dead set against it because if you could imagine if you had a five million dollar advertising revenue stream and three million was coming from one product we'd have basically Laser Tag would be the brand that you'd remembered.

Besides, it was about kids shooting at a tag on their heart with their head and we had a commitment to the cable operator that we were going to be good for kids and that was really fantastic for me, because it enabled us to protect kids at all cost and we got much more money from the cable operator. So, advertising, we did a good job of having limited ads, no violent ads and we also had an influence on the way advertiser spoke to kids because they started to see what ... Our investment, our three million dollar investment in our brand, in our voice, was the best three million dollars ever spent. I put it up against anybody. It's three million dollars on any network. Because it shaped the way adults started to talk to kids, ads got more fun and it just worked.

Charles:                               

Was it hard to convince people to spend that kind of money in one area where didn't have direct revenue, and equally, was it hard to convince people to turn down the kind of advertising revenue? Did you ... Was that [inaudible]

Gerry Laybourne:            

It was not hard to convince them to create the voice because Bob Pittman, my boss. Well, he was my boss's boss, but we had a direct relationship. He was right behind it. He knew MTV was created out of interstitials. One of the great things about MTV and Nickelodeon in the early days was we went out to the best creative people in New York. Sometimes agencies, but just the best creative people and we said, "Here are the parameters of our ID." For MTV it has to be an M, you can do anything you want with it. For Nickelodeon it has to be orange and you have to use this logotype and it can be anything you want. We had these fantastic studios like Charlex and Colossal just doing their best work, and our promise was, "If you do ten if you do 10 pitches we'll pick three and we won't man handle anything." We let people do their best work and our executives were trained if the creator that you're working with puts the work they did for you at the front of their real then you have succeeded. Then I had all these kooky dictums, but they worked out really well.

Charles:                               

Where did those come from?

Gerry Laybourne:            

Well, I think, again, my mother was always having these crazy dictums. Like we couldn't be cheerleaders because those girls burnt out quickly or we couldn't watch the Ed Sullivan Show because that was a Republican show. We had to watch the Steve Allen Show. I guess I grew up thinking, "That's okay, you can have kooky ideas." But I would not let people supervise in the early days. If people hadn't been a producer, if they hadn't ever produced anything, I wouldn't let them supervise because it's hard to produce and unless you've produced and understand how profound it is to make what sounds like a simple change to an executive, how it disrupts the whole flow of things.

I think most people who worked for Nickelodeon in the early days, most outside suppliers would call it the heavenly years because we had no money so we couldn't be really too supervisory and there was a lot of the lunatics running the asylum, and the harder question that you asked me was, "How did you stand up to the ad salespeople?" I just made a plea that this was going to really destroy our cable business and it was tough and I really worried about it because we could have made our budget right then and there, but Bob Pittman completely sided with me and sadly, if couple months later a kid with a Laser Tag gun was shot by a Los Angeles policeman because he pulled the gun on him and Laser Tag had a very long tough time for a while.

Charles:                               

Going back to your point earlier about the difference that small changes make. I was always struck, when I was on the production side, about the impact of a five frame edits. I mean, I think it's ... to your point, it's not well understood how very, very small changes can make enormous differences. Did you like being the leader? This was obviously a new set of responsibilities for you. Did you take to it easily? Was it instinctive for you or did you have to learn it?

Gerry Laybourne:            

Well, because I was such a child advocate I was not really at all nervous about it. I had been ... In college I was the president my dorm and on the master planning committee and I'd always stepped into leadership, but when you have something you'd care deeply about it's not ... I wasn't climbing some corporate ladder to get some perks. I was not looking to do well. I was looking to do something that could never be taken away from kids, and that was always in my head, how do we get the ... I presided over bringing advertising to Nickelodeon and there was a lot of controversy over that and we did it in the good way, but had we not done that, we would never been able to create Rugrats or Ren and Stimpy and Doug and Rocco's Modern Life.

Charles:                               

Quite a portfolio. As the company grew and started to become successful, how did people's expectations change and what did you have to do? How did you have to adapt your leadership to meet them?

Gerry Laybourne:            

I never really had to adapt my leadership. I was, I would say, a very tough, but joyful leader. Nothing could please me more than seeing the development of my people. We were pretty well organized to start new things each year. One year was the year of the studio, one year was the year the magazine, one year was the ... So there was always something new. One year was recreation. We were learning. We were a learning organization and it was exciting to be there. Really, we weren't asked very many questions because the expectations for Nickelodeon were very low. It was seen as, "This is kind of a throwaway service that will help cable operators build out America." Which it did, but I don't think anybody ever expected it to become the big business that it did.

Charles:                               

How long were you with Nickelodeon?

Gerry Laybourne:            

16 years.

Charles:                               

What made you decide to leave?

Gerry Laybourne:            

Well, I think I could see the writing on the wall that Nickelodeon was going to become a cash cow for Viacom and I took so many risks for Nickelodeon, but I had never really taken a risk for myself and so I felt like I needed to throw myself out of the 50 second floor window and see if what I learned about audiences and getting to their hearts and brains was transferable. I got heavily recruited by Disney, by Ovitz Eisner and Iger. I was given a very broad portfolio to try to create ABC 24 hour news and educational channel and then be on the board of all their cable networks except for ESPN and try to fix the Disney Channel.

Charles:                               

What drew you to that particularly, out of all the things you might have done? What made that appealing to you at that point in your life?

Gerry Laybourne:            

Actually, I liked all the three people individually and I loved the idea of getting involved in news. We had done it in a tiny way with Linda Ellerbee and Nick News. I thought they really wanted to change what they were doing because Nickelodeon ate their lunch in TV. They really had sort of ignored cable, not thinking that it was going to be that important and so the Disney Channel had been a paid channel and it was the most crazy scheduling I've ever seen where they'd have an Eisenhower documentary on one day and then Dumbo movie the next day in the same time slot. I could see that that was easily changed, but what I didn't foresee is that I am a builder and I'm an entrepreneur, I am not a corporate executive and they never treated me like a corporate executive at Viacom. In fact, they've asked me very few questions because we were growing at 20, 30, 36% a year with a 40% profit margin. So, I had almost no interference or questioning because they were thrilled.  At Disney it was a very different ... I was expected to be a buttoned up executive, which I really wasn't.

Charles:                               

Were you surprised by that when you got in there?

Gerry Laybourne:            

I was surprised that Disney wasn't more encouraging of real innovation. That was surprising to me.There were pockets of it. The imagine years were fabulous and that was a blessing for me to get to work with them. I met a lot of great people and I learned a ton and I'm really not sorry I went there, but I only stayed for two and a half years and I did in that instance, I felt like, "You know what? I'm not right for Disney, but I brought a terrific executive team with me. They are going to be great for Disney, but I have to accomplish these three things before I can go." When I left Michael Eisner invested in my new company. He understood that I wanted to make stuff and it was a good parting.

Charles:                               

Do you think they've changed in the subsequent years?

Gerry Laybourne:            

I do. I do. I think Bob Iger has done a terrific job and I think creative groups that think that they need to have business separate from creative really run amok, where the business people are the guards and the creative people are fighting to get what they want. When you give creative people the responsibility of solving the problem within an economic envelope they'll do it and they'll do it in a way better way and you won't waste the time, but Disney had a flotilla of strat planners, who had really very little real world experience.

They were ferociously smart and wonderful people, but they didn't really have any real world experience and some of the questions they would ask would just spin your brain around. Like, "How come you can't get the same license fee for a lifetime as they get for ESPN?" Just, you want to choke. It's like, "I don't know. I don't know. I don't know how to answer that." For me that was the big problem with Disney. They were segmenting things. I was in charge of the Disney Channel US, but not the Disney Channel International. That made no sense to me and they wanted to take the digital piece of the Disney Channel and sit it in a separate division. They were doing things by function and I built businesses holistically. I didn't want to spend my time in meetings arguing about turf.

Charles:                               

What do you think of the conditions in which the marriage of creativity and commerce flourishes? What has to happen? What do businesses have to do to allow that to be [00:42:30] a productive relationship?

Gerry Laybourne:            

I think they have to prize it. I think they have to really show it on their face, that they're ... My experience with a lot of big business is that they don't really trust their own creative gut to even put a smile on their face. Creative people have just poured their guts out and they need feedback and unless you genuinely love great creative ideas and are free enough to show it and confident enough in what you do, it's very hard to bring those two together. I see it in technology companies where they get wheezingly excited about what the technology can do, but they don't really understand what the customer needs the technology to do and the kind of marketing they do and the kind of research that they do is too late and after the fact.

Charles:                               

So ABC led you to Oxygen?

Gerry Laybourne:            

Yes.

Charles:                               

What was that was the genesis of that? What was your insight behind wanting to do that?

Gerry Laybourne:            

I knew that I needed to get back doing something that I deeply cared about and that was mine very personally, because Nickelodeon was a lot of the messiness and prankiness is my personality. I went through a process called The Artist's Way, which is a process of waking up half an hour early, writing three pages of stream of consciousness, never editing what you're doing, never re-reading it, just writing, writing, writing. In the first four days of doing it you spew and then the next months you just are sort of organizing your life and it's very rewarding because you have an amazing to-do list at the beginning of every day, but eventually the layers start peeling off.

 I was doing that while I was at Disney and I woke up one morning and wrote down, again, on my pages, "Oxygen, that's what the world needs. Breathing room for creative people. Breathing room for consumers." That's really was a large part of choosing to do a woman's network and the reason I chose doing a woman's network was pragmatic because it was only one woman's network and the cable operators who really were very much my friend, because I had worked closely with them on Nickelodeon and they enabled me to get 74 million subscribers with a lot of work and ... But because we were going to tackle women.

Charles:                               

What was your focus initially? How did you take this to marketplace? What was the proposition?

Gerry Laybourne:            

This was 1998 and we raised quite a bit of money and all of our bankers said, "Don't do television. Just do the internet." I was fascinated with the internet and had worked closely with the imagineers on the educational brand that we'd built, it was called ABZ and it was very much a technology brand for kids and it was about kids building their environments, creating pets, making stuff. It was way ahead of its time. It didn't get passed, but I got influenced by all of that. When I started Oxygen it was about convergence. It was about how do we get this emerging internet and television together. So we built, in Chelsea Market we built this amazing studio where all of our editors on the internet side were in the studio, at their desks and the show went on there.

Well, we built 19 different websites. One was called Fearless, about women taking risks and tackling issues. One was called Break Up Girl. One was with cheeky love advice. One was called picky.com, that was about fashion. There were just a myriad of these wonderful teams of people so we acquired a few and we built a few. Then we launched the television network in 2000 and our partners were Carsey-Werner, arguably one of the best producers of all time, and Oprah Winfrey. We were so on the front page of magazines that was scary. The day before we launched I remember getting my whole team together because it was not going to be pretty. We were building a network from scratch with all original programming. That is a terrifying thing as I look back on it. We really didn't have any choice because you couldn't acquire stuff, we were too late in the cycle.

I gathered everybody together and I said, "It's going to be brutal. Two days from now we're going to have a smashing launch and it's going to be brutal and you're all going to feel bad and I just want you to know that I am not going to feel bad." Because a lot of it, they're looking to the leadership and then, just to show you my kookiness, about six weeks later we were going to have ... We always had these town halls where everybody came and we showed what we were doing and spoke to everybody. People were building something. They had to be part of the group. I asked my long time assistant, Ed Flathers, "Ed, what do you think they want at this meeting?" Now, this is after six weeks of really bad press, and he said, "They want to know what to say at a cocktail party when somebody looks at them and says, 'Oh you poor person, you work at Oxygen.' " So, Ed and I created these two characters. I was Ethel Anne and he was Ed, and Ed would go to the cocktail party and I would be the nasty, nasty, nastiest neighbor and I would say the worst things about Oxygen, which I think said to my staff, "Okay. She doesn't have her head in the sand. She knows what we're facing." And then Ed would give these wonderful answers and it was fun.

Charles:                               

What kind of things were people saying about Oxygen back then?

Gerry Laybourne:            

Well, they didn't think we'd make it. They thought we'd fold because really, we were struggling, and a lot of things that I've done in my life have always started very earnestly because I am, after all, a lifetime a school teacher, and then loosens up and then you realize you don't really want to fend all that effort and not be popular because you want to reach people and you have to meet them, but it's just part of the crazy process I go through.

Charles:                               

Where did you get the courage and the resilience to keep pushing through and help other people push through?

Gerry Laybourne: 

Did I tell you the story about the tent in the beginning? My grandmother was ... We brought the potato industry to western North Dakota and she lived through the Depression and droughts and had six babies and when I think about that, there was nothing that I did that was scary. The only thing honestly that scared me is my kids being sick, but you just do it because we had no choice but to succeed. We had to close down the internet because we couldn't feed 19 brands and a television brand and there was the complete bust of the internet. So we shut down almost everything we had been doing and just concentrated on TV. We got it to profitability and my partner Lisa Gersh, she was working with me in a very proximate way, said, "Okay, you can have a Christmas bonus. You can go back into the internet."

I took the people, the great people who had come to Oxygen with a much bigger promise for what we going to do technically. I took them off and said, "You guys are going to run a process for Oxygen and we're going to figure out what we should do instead of going to consultants or having anybody you're going to run the process." They had just been trained and agile management, which I think is probably, if I were going to start a new company today, I would manage the whole process agily because it's a transparent process that keeps priorities moving in the right direction. They ran the process and we had lots of ideas but there was one idea that really stood out and it was called Ripped.com and it was based on the way women ... This was before Pinterest or before a lot of social media things, but we ... Always in the back of my brain is how do we be a utility for women to make their daily lives more fun because they really hold up so much of the sky and they are constantly making visual decisions about their wardrobes, their houses, their kids' clothes, their husbands clothes, whatever, parties.

We created this collage that was a very fresh way of replicating what happens in real life where women rip magazine pieces and then show it to their husbands, "Do you like that lamp? Do you like that dress?" And we replicated that in a very organic way and every time it started to look like an application I would just look at them and say, "No, no, that's that's too applicationy. Let's have it feel like women feel about." We were about to launch Ripped when the 2007, 8 economy started to dip and our banker, who had backed us on a loan that we needed to refinance basically pulled out and we had to sell the company and so Ripped got buried inside NBC. We sold it to NBC, but that was like my favorite creative process ever.

Charles:                               

Agile management. Just describe that. Just a 30 second description of why you think that's such a compelling practice.

Gerry Laybourne:            

Well, Agile management is a way of talking about what you're trying to do and you have a project ... Everybody has a role inside agile management. I was the project leader on Ripped, but there were scrum masters and people who were making sure that everybody understood the priorities of what we were trying to build so that we didn't just say to the tech people, "Hey, you know what? We have this cool idea. Why don't you build something that helps women make collages of their visual problems and, by the way, keep the URL so you can buy it right then and there and then come back and show it to us." No. It was every two weeks you evaluate where you are, you lay out what you have to accomplish in the next two weeks, you agree on that and sometimes you ditch something that you were thinking was important because it's just too hard to do or not important enough. That was very eye-opening to me. Plus, in terms of showing respect. I mean, I have never seen a group of people who cherished what each other could do because they were so open about everything. Nobody was squirreling away and hiding what they were doing.

Charles   

I know at Oxygen you hired a lot of people to begin with and then you scaled it back over time. What did you learn about hiring people through that process and through the course of your career and how would you suggest people go through the process of hiring today? What do you think of the things that people don't do very well when it comes to hiring people?

Gerry Laybourne:            

I think that they get fixated on a job description and who has experience doing that. My preference always was to find people young and grow with them. Actually, what I learned at Oxygen is you cannot possibly hire 750 people at one time and have it all be good. I've never had to do that. With Nickelodeon we were maybe hiring 10 people at a time. I would say, of the 750 people we hired, probably 650 were great and 100 were divisive, smart and divisive. The smart and divisive ones, the ones who need to be the smartest guy in the room are the hardest to deal with. There have been so many studies that show that if you have a diverse group of people making a decision versus the smartest, homogeneous group, the diverse group will always come up with a better decision. The smartest, it's always, they always say the smartest man in the room, but I have seen the smartest women in the room too, but I think getting a kick out of what people bring is really something and hiring smart and flexible and funny and playful helps every company.

Charles:                               

What was your firing philosophy? Were you quick to, reluctant to?

Gerry Laybourne:            

I know that almost every time I fired somebody I regretted how long it took me. I had a few instances where I have never had such joy in my life as firing.

Charles:                               

It's liberating, isn't it?

Gerry Laybourne:            

It was terribly liberating.

Charles:                               

It can be, not just for you, but for the entire organization.

Gerry Laybourne:            

Right. But mostly when I did it in a disciplined way and sat down and said, "Here are your issues and these are the things that need to get fixed and you have 30 days and if they aren't fixed that's it." I often had that talk and they left right away if I gave them more money, but I didn't really have to fire that many people. At Nickelodeon I fired seven people in my first week of running it and I didn't really fire them, I counseled them out, when I told you about the off site where it really was clear. Some people wanted to be on the team and some people didn't and we just took the people who didn't off. Then people knew I was serious so there wasn't ... Everybody wanted to do something great.

Charles:                               

I know today you're an advisor, you're an investor, you're involved with businesses still. What do you think of the traits of the most successful leaders in today's economy that you see?

Gerry Laybourne:            

Well, I think this ability to improvise and to really listen and to ... Unfortunately, the Steve Jobs model where everybody thinks he just sat there by himself and thought of these things, I think he was an incredibly intuitive person and that he really thought about consumers endlessly. He wasn't just saying, "I'm going to build it this way and they're going to like it or not." That lesson was he was a constant student of consumers and people and I think that is what made him probably the greatest creative person of, certainly the last century.

Charles:                               

Yeah. I agree with that.

Gerry Laybourne:            

I think, for me, identifying talent is everything and getting a kick out of it and not being self-centered and not worrying about yourself. That's the key thing really, if you can find people who truly are interested in building the enterprise and not fixated on what their title is. I once had somebody come to me and say, "I hear they're going to make a vice president of Nickelodeon, are you competing for it?" And I said, "No, I have no interest in competing for that. My goal is to make Nickelodeon the greatest for kids possible." And her answer was, "Well, if you lack ambition I'm going to have to go someplace else." And I said, "I think that is such a good idea." And I helped her, but I did not lack ambition. I had enormous ambition, but not for getting a seat at the table or 12 windows in my office.

Charles:                               

Before we wrap I just want to go back to something we talked about a little bit earlier because I'm fascinated by this. In many ways this is at the heart of Fearless as an exploration, I guess. When I asked you where did you get the confidence and the resilience to just keep plowing ahead, we talked about Oxygen, but I think it's clearly true throughout your life in your career, and you talked about your mother, your grandmother, the things that they had gone through, great-grandmother, the things that they had gone through, the things that you had heard about or seen them do and you said essentially, " This was easy by comparison." Do you think that this kind of courage, this kind of fearlessness is genetic? Do you think it's learned? Where do you think it comes from?

Gerry Laybourne:            

I think it's encouraged and I haven't really spoken enough about my husband or my kids, but they were a huge part of my early career. My kids were ruthless. They were the kids who said, "Please mommy, no more TV." They had to watch everything. They had to be in every pilot. We shot at our house at Montclair. It was like a family affair and when I was trying to make too safe of a choice and not really embracing something that was a little ... My husband would say to me, "If you're not going to do it, who's going to do it?" I had a very supportive base of people at home who really couldn't have cared less if I came home with no job. In fact, they probably would've liked that, but ...  And I feel like what I tried to do was create a safe creative environment for others.

I got given it by my family. My father was a huge influence on me. He saw me stuck in between these two sisters, one was beautiful and perfect and the other was brilliant and charismatic, and he looked at me, "You're going to be my business daughter." So, I had lot of confidence about business because I would go to business meetings when I was eight, nine and ten. I think it was nurtured and I think also I had trouble early on in school. I had trouble learning how to read. They knew I was bright. They couldn't figure out why I was having trouble learning how to read and my mother never made me feel bad about that. She would just say, "You know what? You just have a different kind of brain and we're going to just do this project a little differently." And I think that, having that struggle early on was really great for me.

Charles:                               

So important, I think, to be given permission to think differently. In the Steve Jobs euphemism, but it took me a long time to realize that traditional education was just not the way that my brain absorbed information and when I was able to accept that and stop seeing myself as an academic failure and just realize I learned differently than that, it made a huge difference in my life actually. It took me a long time, but it makes a massive difference I think. I wrap every show with what I described as three themes, three takeaways. I'm a little more hesitant today since you described your mother's ability to spend 10 minutes with somebody and describe their life back to them, but nevertheless, I will fearlessly take the plunge and you can tell me.

The three things that I've heard today that I think stand out for me in terms of what makes you successful as a leader are, one, clearly you're mission-driven. When you walk into a situation seems to me that you're very clear about what you're trying to achieve and at least, in some pretty specific ways, have a definition of what success will look like. Two, within the context of that you are incredibly empathetic to the audience that you're trying to attract. I know that you spent a lot of your life, most of your career through the media world, but I mean audience in terms of both internal participants and external participants. I think you're very, very empathetic about what's in their best interest and you're driven relentlessly by that.

 And third, I'm pretty sure I name every episode. I'm pretty sure I'm going to name this one The Teacher. It would be crazy not to, but I think what struck me listening to you is how willing you are and able you are to learn from your experiences in an almost systematic way. I mean, I'm struck by your notebooks, but the notion that you were sitting and observing all the things that you wouldn't do really, I think, is a fascinating insight into how you learn and how you absorb it and how you apply it going forward. Do those resonate with you?

Gerry Laybourne:            

Perfectly. I think you're just almost like my mom.

Charles:                               

I take that as very high praise. Thank you very much.

Gerry Laybourne:            

It is.

Charles:                               

Gerry, thank you so much for being here. I think this is just a fascinating conversation and I have so much admiration for not just what you've done, but now that I've known you a little bit, the way you've done it. Thanks for being here.

Gerry Laybourne:            

Thank you.

Charles:                               

You've been listening to Fearless - The Art of Creative Leadership. If you like what you've heard please rate us on iTunes. It helps a lot.  If you want more information on this episode or any of the others going to FearlessCreativeLeadership.com and thanks for listening.