The Necessity of Failure

Dubuc, CEO of A+E Networks

“There are very few black-and-white truths in management or in business, but one that I have found is that people either hire people who are smarter than them or people hire people they can control. I see it over and over again. I’ve always hired people who are smarter than me. I rowed crew in college, and I’m always thinking in those terms — will they make the team better?” ~ Nancy Dubuc
Originally posted on NYTimes

Nancy Dubuc | The Necessity of Failure

Nancy Dubuc, chief executive of A&E Networks, has made her mark on cable television by taking big risks. But for every success, Ms. Dubuc says, she has learned from important failures.

This interview with Nancy Dubuc, the chief executive of A&E Networks, was conducted and condensed by Adam Bryant.

Q. Tell me about when you were younger. What were some early lessons for you?

A. I grew up in Bristol, R.I. I had grandparents and great-grandparents nearby, and because I was the only grandchild until I was 12, I was the center of a lot of adult attention.

I’ve only come to realize this within the last couple of years, but because I was part of so many different households, I was able to be a slightly different child in each one of them. That openness to change was ingrained in me at a very young age. I think it helps me to this day, because I can walk into a meeting, size it up and pivot. That’s not something you can teach.

Were you in leadership roles in high school?

My interests were more extracurricular, more external and more social than they were academic. My birthday is also in December, so I was one of the older kids. That meant I learned social leadership early on. I was always just much better in a team and work environment than I was in a classroom environment.

How have your parents influenced your leadership style?

The directness of my mother is clearly in my voice. Her opinion is always a very strong opinion at the dining room table. I think she empowered me to have the same drive.

My stepfather and I had long drives to school together, and I was never allowed to listen to my radio stations. It was either NPR or we would talk. One of the things that he used to say to me often, and I’ve taken this with me, is “Don’t worry about it, because it’s not going to turn out that way anyway.”

I don’t think you understand that when you’re 16 or 17 years old, but now as I look back on it, so much of what we worry about is the outcome, and outcomes rarely turn out the way you think they are going to. It doesn’t mean you shouldn’t have patience and discipline and drive during the process, but only thinking about the outcome is in some ways very singular, because the outcome might be something different, and it might be better.

When did you first start managing people?

I worked at an outside production company for five years. People didn’t report directly to me, but I handled a lot of logistics, like schedules and budgets. Then, over time, some of the field producers started asking my opinion about their work — “Could you look at this and tell me what you think?” I aspired to be these people someday, and they cared what I thought about their work. That’s when my creative confidence grew.

And what was your first formal management role?

I was put in charge of development for A&E. I suddenly had eight people reporting to me, and I had to let some of them go.

Because?

I have an innate passion and competitive streak to win and to create, and I want our team to be better than everybody else. Some people thrive in that environment, and some people don’t.

There are very few black-and-white truths in management or in business, but one that I have found is that people either hire people who are smarter than them or people hire people they can control. I see it over and over again. I’ve always hired people who are smarter than me. I rowed crew in college, and I’m always thinking in those terms — will they make the team better?

Another pattern I’ve seen is that managers will sometimes complain that one of their employees is difficult to manage. But those difficult people also tend to be the best performers. Sometimes managers don’t realize that they actually have to manage people. You have to figure out what motivates them. Great managers recognize that there is no one way to manage. You may have to be 10 different managers to get the best out of your team.

How has your leadership style evolved?

I lead with some core principles. I need to trust who works for me, and they need to trust me. Trust is just paramount. And the more people say, “Trust me, I’m here for you,” the less I trust them. It really needs to be trust by action. If people do, act and deliver, I will forever give those people more leeway.

I value people who have something constructive to say and can make things better. Anyone can have an opinion about what’s wrong with something. I can’t stand the pile-on effect when something didn’t work. But then somebody might say, “Well, what if we did this?” It may be wacky and it may not be the right thing to do there, but at least they’re trying to solve the problem.

How do you hire?

A lot of it is intuition. I also think about the skills I have and the skills I need. I’m a big believer in the idea that people tend to fall into one of three camps — you’re either a thinker, a doer or a feeler.

So I’ll be thinking about the mix of those three groups on my teams. If you have all thinkers, nothing will get done. If you have all doers, that can be really chaotic because you’re not necessarily thinking about the consequences. And feelers are important because they create energy — but if you have too many of them, they will just dramatize the moment.

When you put the different kinds of people together in the right way, that can be very powerful. You never want that out of balance.

And which camp are you in?

I’m more of a doer. And when I have time, I think.

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