Susan Packard: An interview by Bob Morris

PackardIn this competitive marketplace, an organization’s ability to innovate by staying ahead of the competition and delivering products that command the market’s attention is more important than ever. As co-founder and chief operating officer of HGTV, Susan Packard was the second employee to join HGTV and create a niche in the lifestyle marketplace, and also create a corporate culture that recruits and retains exceptional talent. Packard’s vision and success building lifestyle entertainment brands was at the core of the development of additional powerhouse brands — Food Network, DIY Network, Fine Living TV Network and Great American Country (GAC) — that join HGTV to comprise Scripps Networks Interactive, today valued at over $7 billion.

Susan is a visionary media pioneer and brand builder who draws on her on experience advising companies on leadership development, innovation and the strategies needed to win in any market condition. Among many accolades, Packard has been praised as one of the most influential women in the media industry as well as being named “Woman of the Year in Cable Television.” In 2008 she was inducted in the Cable Hall of Fame, and she was recently named to the Tennessee Film, Entertainment & Music Commission. She is also the author of New Rules of the Game: 10 Strategies for Women in the Workplace (February 2015). In that book, Susan advocates for a revolutionary new perspective for businesswomen, which she calls “gamesmanship”— a strategic way of thinking that cultivates creativity, focus, optimism, teamwork, and competitiveness.

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Morris: Before discussing New Rules of the Game, a few general questions. First, who has had the greatest influence on your personal growth? How so?

Packard: My Aunt Rachel, who I cite in the book, was the 1st female vice president at Revlon. Her stories of business as I was growing up fascinated me. My aunt Jack, who was a lawyer, accountant, college professor, and FBI agent, led me to think many careers were possible. Then of course there was my dad, who I worked for every summer and he showed me how to treat customers, with respect, and mom, with her enormous heart and giving spirit.

Morris: The greatest impact on your professional development? How so?

Packard: That would be Ken Lowe, current chairman and CEO of Scripps Networks Interactive. HGTV was his idea, and I was his first hire. I learned too many things to count working with him: the importance of respecting colleagues as much as bosses; the role creativity plays in making successful brands; loyalty to the team.

Morris: Years ago, was there a turning point (if not an epiphany) that set you on the career course you continue to follow? Please explain.

Packard: My sales job in cable programming morphed into a complex, deal-making job with the growing sophistication of the industry, and the recognition of the value of cable programming networks to one’s portfolio. I stuck with it, worked side by side with legal support to learn how to train my mind do this work, and when we were starting HGTV, I was lead negotiator to get distribution deals done. Most of us have that moment in our lives with work that morphs, and calls upon a different set of skills to master it. If you want a senior role in an organization, you must be willing to have the grit to push through. I tell stories about this in chapter 9 of the book.

Morris: What do you know now about the business world that you wish you knew when you went to work full-time for the first time? Why?

Packard: The biggest lesson for me was to learn to take loss in stride, recognizing that everyone wins and loses every day, some battles small and others bigger. Experiencing loss means you are on the field, in the game, instead of watching on the sidelines. Experiences with losing teach us how to do better; they’re our best teacher.

Morris: Of all the films that you have seen, which – in your opinion – best dramatizes important business principles? Please explain.

Packard: One of my top five films is Witness with Harrison Ford. There’s a scene in the end of the movie where a family he’s staying with is about to be killed because of him, and he’s living in Amish country with this family. The patriarch rings a bell, and the scene pans to the hillside, where all his neighbors come running from all directions to help. That’s what community should be in business. If you build a culture with that kind of community, you can go a long way toward being successful.

Morris: From which non-business book have you learned the most valuable lessons about business? Please explain.

Packard: When I was in high school I read A Separate Peace by John Knowles. I wrote a 30-page paper because it impacted me greatly! It was that relationship between Phineas and his friend, the narrator. It told him how precious trust is between people, and the moment trust becomes an uncertainty, terrible circumstances can arise. I’ve tried to live, both in life and at work, with a focus on building trust, knowing it takes time to do.

Morris: From Howard Aiken: “Don’t worry about people stealing your ideas. If your ideas are any good, you’ll have to ram them down people’s throats.”

Packard: I suspect that was said a little tongue in cheek. If not, I disagree with it. Smart, creative business people will respond well if you can paint a picture of your vision. If they don’t, they’re likely on the wrong bus…or you are.

Morris: From Richard Dawkins: “Yesterday’s dangerous idea is today’s orthodoxy and tomorrow’s cliché.”

Packard: What I take from that is how important speed is in business. I’ve worked in a technology industry all of my career and it’s absolutely critical there, perhaps more so than any other industries. Book publishing, for example, (I learned through publishing this book!) is very slow industry by comparison, but something about it works, Amazon notwithstanding. One of the biggest challenges we had at HGTV and with other SNI brands was building something the customer would love—which takes time—and getting it out the door so we could claim first entry into the category. It’s a fragile balancing act.

Morris: From Isaac Asimov: “The most exciting phrase to hear in science, the one that heralds the most discoveries, is not “Eureka!” (I found it!) but ‘That’s odd….'”

Packard: I like that; the most exciting times I’ve had in business are when I sat in a brainstorm and suddenly connected the dots, which led to new innovation. The “odd” ideas are those which may require refinement but are often the foundation of a new product or service.

Morris: From Thomas Edison: “Vision without execution is hallucination.”

Packard: Hallucination is a pretty strong word 🙂 But what is true is that great ideas stay aloft until you anchor them down with good execution.

Morris: Finally, from Peter Drucker: “There is surely nothing quite so useless as doing with great efficiency what should not be done at all.”

Packard: I like that a lot. While we were in a building mode at SNI, we had a phrase we threw around “going to Abilene.” It meant one of us or all of us were on some misguided path, and needed to be brought back on track. “I think we’re going to Abilene on that one” was said a lot!!

Morris: In one of Tom Davenport’s recent books, Judgment Calls, he and co-author Brooke Manville offer “an antidote for the Great Man theory of decision making and organizational performance”: organizational judgment. That is, “the collective capacity to make good calls and wise moves when the need for them exceeds the scope of any single leader’s direct control.” What do you think?

Packard: I agree. A great idea may be one person’s idea, but when you have a group of people, it always becomes a better idea. That is why diversity of perspectives around an executive table produces better operating results. Collective experience makes innovation, strategy, and execution richer in texture and more comprehensive.

Morris: Here’s a brief excerpt from Paul Schoemaker’s latest book, Brilliant Mistakes: “The key question companies need to address is not ‘Should we make mistakes?’ but rather Which mistakes should we make in order to test our deeply held assumptions?'” Your response?

Packard: “Which mistakes” is another way of saying it’s important to take risk in business. Without risk-taking there is no innovation.

Morris: In your opinion, why do so many C-level executives seem to have such a difficult time delegating work to others?

Packard: That’s not been my experience. The best executives do delegate and I’ve worked with some of the best, Ken Lowe being one. He was the first to say he didn’t know the cable operator world I came from, and brought to our new business. So he left me to do my job, which was wonderful.

Having said that, I just read an interview Tim Cook gave and he called Steve Jobs a “heat shield” for the rest of the team. He hadn’t realized how much fell on Jobs shoulders to ultimately be accountable for, until he took the job. 

Morris: The greatest leaders throughout history (with rare exception) were great storytellers. What do you make of that?

Packard: I do agree and it’s one of the things I’ve gotten better at over the years. It is not intuitive to me as it is to some. You know these people. They can just spin a yarn and you’re captivated. Ken’s boss, Frank Gardner, who I talk a about in the book, was like that. The good news is it’s something you can learn if you’re willing to be practice. The best stories are a mix of poignancy, humor and message.

Morris: Most change initiatives either fail or fall far short of original (perhaps unrealistic) expectations. More often than not, resistance is cultural in nature, the result of what James O’Toole so aptly characterizes as “the ideology of comfort and the tyranny of custom.”

Packard: it starts with being aware of the fact that your company has gotten lazy. Often you need an outside set of eyes to recognize that. A trusted other from the outside can look at how you operate and provide feedback. If you’re any good at what you’re doing, you should be benchmarking against your competitive set all along the way.

Morris: In recent years, there has been criticism, sometimes severe criticism of M.B.A. programs, even those offered by the most prestigious business schools. In your opinion, in which area is there the greatest need for immediate improvement? Any suggestions?

Packard: I would be sure to focus on practical, hands-on work; real life business problems that community businesses can bring to the program, and work in partnership with the students to solve. I’d also focus on public speaking coursework, all in addition to the core curriculum.

Morris: Looking ahead (let’s say) 3-5 years, what do you think will be the greatest challenge that CEOs will face? Any advice?

Packard: One of the big ones will be allowing for millennials to zig and zag in their careers as they face life challenges and desires for new learning. Allowing for sabbaticals, for example, is a way to address this. The other area I worry about is this workforce getting experience working in physical teams—not remote, offsite work, but together around the table solving problems. This will always be how the best solutions come about.

Morris: Now please shift your attention to New Rules of the Game. When and why did you decide to write it?

Packard: A female friend who has written several business books suggested that I write a book about my career. “It’s an interesting story,” she said. I had just left 30 years in corporate America, and wasn’t grounded in new endeavors at the time. So I sat back and asked myself, “What were all the reasons you were successful and made it into senior roles?” Those reasons became my ten strategies, which I then went out to validate with a dozen CEOs I interviewed. This became New Rules of the Game.

Morris: Were there any head-snapping revelations while writing it? Please explain.

Packard: The publishing world is very slow. I had to learn patience with the process of writing, designing, promoting and producing a book. It’s much much faster to self-publish, but you don’t have the power and cache of a large, publishing house behind you if you do that, and you also don’t have the built in distribution chain that they have. So like all things, there are tradeoffs.

Morris: To what extent (if any) does the book in final form differ significantly from what you originally envisioned?

Packard: It’s considerably different. I wanted a tongue-in-cheek title that they flat out rejected, and they also asked that I rework the outline so that there was more emphasis on gamesmanship, and less on grit, which was how I had originally organized it. I’ll never know if my first outline would have been better, of course, because we never went there. I crammed quite a lot into the Grit chapter (Chapter 9) however !

Morris: In your opinion, which of the “old rules” seems to have had the greatest impact on denying women the terms, conditions, and opportunities in their careers that men have had? Please explain.

Packard: All of the gender stereotypes that have traditionally existed in our culture: woman playing support role vs. leadership role, woman as stay-at-home mom and primary caregiver, women as being more passive than men, etc. For many people, these are either conscious or unconscious biases that keep women from being promoted to senior positions. The tide is still changing very slowly around these stereotypes.

Morris: I agree with you that there are important lessons to be learned about gender equality in a meritocracy from companies such as Ernst & Young, General Mills, IBM, Marriott, Procter & Gamble, and State Farm. In your opinion, which one or two of these lessons can be of greatest value to almost any organization, whatever its size and nature may be?

Packard: The most important is the business case. All of the data supports that having women around the executive table produces better operating results. Those companies you cited have seen the living proof of that. So sure, supporting diversity is the right thing to do, but the compelling business arguments are what it has taken to begin to move companies.

Morris: All of the material you offer is based on real-world experience. I am convinced that so-called “gender issues” are really business issues. In my opinion, almost all of your advice can be as valuable to men as it is to women. Your own thoughts about all this?

Packard: It’s funny, I wrote the book in chapters, and when I finished I read it front to cover for the first time and saw that, indeed, most of the chapters were good guidance for both men and women. There are four chapters that women should pay special attention to (2, 3, 5, and 7) but, for the most part, the material is genderless.

Morris: Now I am going to tee up a follow-up statement for you: This is a “must read” for supervisors as well as for their direct reports. Do you agree? Please explain.

Packard: Yes! For anyone managing people, it’s a good read. Not every male grew up as a sports-crazy alpha type. Understanding this kind of employee is as important as understanding how women will step up to compete, or back away from it. From a personal standpoint, as I’ve traveled around the country and speak to diverse audiences, I find it so interesting that men are buying it for their daughters. As parents we’re always trying to impart nuggets of wisdom that will stay with our kids, and the dads see offering this book to their daughters as one way to do it. It’s really great when I see that from men.

Morris: As I indicate in my review of the book for various Amazon websites, there are dozens of passages throughout your narrative that caught my eye. First, what is “gamesmanship”? (Pages xxvi-xxvii)

Packard: Gamesmanship is a strategic way of thinking, and an attitude, that can help one to compete effectively — and honorably — in the given workplace.

Morris: Which of the three rules of conditioning seems to be the most difficult to follow? Why? (1-23)

Packard: I would venture to say that International experience is the hardest, because there are fewer opportunities in such work, and also not everyone wants to do international travel, which is more time-consuming than domestic travel.

Morris: Why is composure so important? (27-31)

Packard: Oh for so many reasons! Looking just at women, we are still looked upon as emotional beings, which is not always good in a business setting, where cool heads must prevail. This is one of the rules that has a different set of standards for women vs. men; we women need to be aware of how everyone’s watching a woman in leadership and there are biases about her composure under pressure.

For both men and women, leadership means making well-reasoned, calm decisions, especially when doing so in stressful situations, so composure is a critical quality that earns trust by others.

Morris: When playing verbal offense, what are the most important dos and don’ts to keep in mind? (48-51)

Packard: The biggest “do” is the need to ask for things if you want to be successful: resources (especially hours and dollars), people, partnerships. We’re always asking for what we need to move our organizations forward when we play offense. The biggest “don’t” pertains to how women ask. If we ask with too much force and aggressiveness, we may be called (or at least thought) one of those “b” words of which “bossy” is the nicest one. The answer is to employ Artful Assertiveness, which I discuss in detail in Chapter 3.

Morris: Please explain your own introduction to “business brinkmanship.” (62-64)

Packard: There are lots of stories in my book about the brinksmanship strategies I employed early in my career. One story concerns a time when I called on a potential customer and he led me into his office, directed me toward a chair, and pulled a rifle on me. This was a test. How did I react? That incident is in the book.

Morris: Of all the great moments in brinkmanship in films and on television, which do think offers the most valuable lessons? Please explain. (76-78)

Packard: In the film Arbitrage, Richard Gere has a breakfast meeting with someone who’s buying Gere’s company, but is moving too slowly for Gere’s liking. In the scene Gere berates him, threatens him, gets up to walk away, and they then conduct a negotiation with Gere standing there, and finally agree on a price. Then they shake hands and both smile. It exemplifies one of the many different games often played when doing deals.

Morris: “Likability = Business Success”: How so? (84-85)

Packard: It’s human nature to gravitate to those one likes, so likeability makes it easier to become a leader and to guide your team. Likeability makes it easier to influence and direct those in your organization.Being liked and being respected are not mutually exclusive.

Morris: How to build both trust and “soft power”? (90-96)

Packard: Both of these take time to build, so patience in getting to know others, and having repetitions in working with them will build it. Look for opportunities to work with others not a part of your immediate team, as there are many people that can influence your career rise. Spend time and eventually trust will build, if you treat them in a like manner.

Morris: What seems to be the greatest challenge for women when working with a male supervisor? (96-104)

Packard: The challenge for both is relatability. Men can have this instantly, as can women. But having this between a man and woman is harder because we’re just not as naturally ourselves as we are with our own gender. Just today I was guiding a man who needed to deliver certain advice to a woman in his organization, and he and I talked about it together before he spoke with her. Again, this is why building trust is so important, so workmates can minimize discomfort.

Morris: What are your thoughts about the so-called “10,000 Hours Rule”? (108-110)

Packard: I’m not even sure 10,000 hours is enough to be an expert! But the basis of Gladwell’s thinking is that it takes quite a lot of time to build the composite of skills needed to become a peak performer in a specific activity such as playing chess or a cello. That much is definitely true.Those interested in that rule should check out Anders Ericsson’s HBR article.

Morris: Active Practice, Mental Practice, and Cross-Training Practice (110-121)

Packard: Cross Training is what most people don’t consider doing, and it might be the most important. Our careers today are not a ladder but more like a trellis, a matrix of options, some of which involve taking lateral moves to build out our composite of skills. There is no shame in taking a lateral job; in fact if accepting that assignment is essential to achieving the given objectives, it’s a compliment to a person to be offered different, lateral line opportunities. I call these opportunities cross-training.

Morris: Why do “uniforms” matter? (127-132)

Packard: Your clothing is often the first impression to give to another, so dressing professionally says to others that you’re in the game, just like them, and you take the game of business seriously enough to pay attention to all of what you bring to it. Appearance matters, whether we like it or not!

Morris: Please provide an example of a good sportsman advantage. (141-147)

Packard: One of the stories in Rules of the Game involves a young man I competed with for a job. He ended up getting it. As hard as it was for me, I called him right away to congratulate him. He now runs one of the biggest media companies out there, and we’re still good friends. He’s done me many favors in his leadership role. Treating others, especially opponents, with respect is the main point of good sportsmanship, whether or not any quid pro quo occurs.

Morris: Of “grit as resilience” (153-158)

Packard: Losing requires resilience. I’d argue that losing is a better teacher than winning is because, when you lose a round of the game of business, despite a best effort, and handle it with style and grace, you are much more likely to survive and become stronger. Also wiser and thus better prepared for the next competition, whatever it may be.

Morris: Of “grit as defense” (159-165)

Packard: There are many stories in the book that illustrate this.

Morris: In your opinion, what is the key to establishing and then sustaining team chemistry? (174-186)

Packard: Constant communication, and transparancy, if you are leading teams. This builds trust. With trust comes supportive relationships, where each of you has the back of the other.

Morris: Of all the prominent women throughout history, with which one would you most want to share an evening of conversation if it were possible? Why?

Packard: I think it would be Joan of Arc. I went to St. Joan of Arc Elementary School and I learned the history of this woman early in my life. Her courage and resilience were breathtaking!

Morris: Let’s say that a CEO has read and then (hopefully) re-read New Rules of the Game and is now determined to establish or strengthen a workplace culture within which personal growth and professional development are most likely to thrive. Where to begin?

Packard: Lead by example. Live the core values of your organization. Invest in your employees. Offer leadership development coursework and coaches. Be sensitive to the balancing act both women and men must maintain each day to advance their career while raising kids. Netflix just announced a breakthrough benefit: parental leave for up to a year with paid time to new parents. Slowly we are getting there!

Morris: For more than 25 years, it has been my great pleasure as well as privilege to work closely with the owner/CEOs of hundreds of small companies, those with $20-million or less in annual sales. In your opinion, of all the material you provide in New Rules of the Game, which do you think will be of greatest value to leaders in small companies? Please explain.

Packard: The first chapter of the book is relevant to them, in that financial understanding and a global view will grow their businesses. I work with a woman who invested in a plant in China and her small business has expanded rapidly. To a certain extent, leading a small business is more difficult than leading a Fortune 500 company. All of the ten strategies I recommend are relevant to leadership of any organization, whatever its size and nature may be.

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Susan cordially invites you to check out the resources at her website by clicking here.


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