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Paula Kerger (chief executive of PBS) in “The Corner Office”) in “The Corner Office”

KergerAdam Bryant conducts interviews of senior-level executives that appear in his “Corner Office” column each week in the SundayBusiness section of The New York Times. Here are a few insights provided during an interview of Paula Kerger, chief executive of PBS. To read the complete interview, check out other articles, and obtain subscription information, please click here.

Photo credit: Earl Wilson/The New York Times

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Tell me about your early years.

I grew up outside Baltimore in an area that was largely rural. When my parents married, my grandparents gave them a piece of land adjacent to theirs, so it was really the idyllic life. I spent a lot of time outside running around and just doing stuff.

My grandfather was a great influence on me. He was a physics professor, and his expertise was in microwave technology. He founded the public radio station in Baltimore as a real-world application for his students. He also was interested in the arts — he was very involved in local theater and did a lot of set design, and he was a great storyteller.

The fact that I ended up in public media seems destined in hindsight, though that was not the path I took.

What was your plan when you went to college?

I started out in pre-med, but then I hit organic chemistry, and that was the end of my designs on being a doctor. And so, without any real notion of what I wanted to do with my life, I switched to business.

I also worked during college at a processing center for Visa and MasterCard, and was in a management job there even as I went to school. Afterward, just by serendipity, I saw an ad in the newspaper, and then went to work for UNICEF. From there, I moved to a couple of different nonprofits.

What have been some important leadership lessons for you?

I’ve learned so much from great bosses, but I’ve learned more from really bad bosses: They’re not clear, they’re not focused on making sure everyone shares the same strategic vision and understands what success looks like, and they don’t give people the room to figure out how to get there.

I’ve also seen bosses who deliberately give four people the same assignment, thinking that survival of the fittest gets the best work out of people. But fear doesn’t work well.

So what’s your approach?

With the teams we build, we look for different skill sets and we look for people who bring different voices to the table. I know that’s now become very popular in theory, but that’s something I’ve always done. I always believe that the best projects are managed not by people who all think alike but who are all contributing something different.

The biggest mistakes that I’ve made have all been human resource-related, particularly those when I’ve not moved quickly enough when I realize the fit is wrong. All of us have some humanity. Some of us have a softer heart than others, but when you have someone who is not a good fit, it is not kind to them or the people around them to keep them too long.

What else?

I like to get a lot of information before I make a decision, but I’m not afraid to make decisions. That comes back to the whole thing about being the C.E.O. You have to be able to move. People who always want all the information before they make a decision are disastrous C.E.O.s. You’re never going to have all the information.

Cultural change is also the biggest challenge for leaders, and it’s also the thing that will kill you if you can’t figure out how to manage what is clearly a shifting landscape, and get people moving along that path and not be stuck.

We’re going through a big rebuild of our whole infrastructure of how we distribute our content. When you get your head around it, it’s such an extraordinary time, and it’s not one for the faint of heart.

Life is often about those moments — you have to be willing, every once in a while, to jump, and it’s absolutely terrifying. Our nature as humans is to not change. We get comfortable, and we don’t want to be pushed outside that comfort zone, whether it’s moving from a job that you know is not the right one or because it always feels so much easier to keep doing the same thing, even if it’s painful, rather than taking that leap.

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To read the complete interview as well as Bryant’s interviews of other executives, please click here.

Adam Bryant, deputy national editor of The New York Times, oversees coverage of education issues, military affairs, law, and works with reporters in many of the Times’ domestic bureaus. He also conducts interviews with CEOs and other leaders for Corner Office, a weekly feature in the SundayBusiness section and on that he started in March 2009. In his book, The Corner Office: Indispensable and Unexpected Lessons from CEOs on How to Lead and Succeed, (Times Books), he analyzes the broader lessons that emerge from his interviews of hundreds of business leaders. To read an excerpt, please click here. To contact him, please click here.

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