CEO of WarnerMedia Studios and Networks Offers Advice to Women on Advancing in the Workplace

Canva Graphic_Ann Sarnoff

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Ann Sarnoff (B’83), chair and CEO, WarnerMedia Studios and Networks Group, recently sat down with Catherine Tinsley, Raffini Professor of Management and faculty director of the Georgetown University Women’s Leadership Institute, to discuss Sarnoff’s career trajectory and her advice for promoting women in the workplace. In addition to her role at WarnerMedia, Sarnoff is a member of the Georgetown University Board of Directors and vice chair of the McDonough Board of Advisors.

Tinsley: How should women position themselves or how can companies position their women to be in the pool for board seats? I am asking because my research shows that men and women have different trajectories toward becoming a CEO, and board seats are an important stepping stone for women. 

Sarnoff: First, in terms of career progress, it’s important to get operating and P&L responsibility in your career. Functional heads are less likely to become CEOs than business unit heads, so an important part in any career, but especially for women, is to show you can manage a business because that then leads to general management and helps put you on the CEO track.

In regard to boards, they typically look for C-suite executives, and historically most people occupying the C-suite were men. In the past, CEOs tended to bring in friends and acquaintances, so if it’s mostly men in the C-suite and men at the top, then you’re by definition bringing more men onto the board. 

Now there is more awareness of the need for diversity and expanding the C’s on boards– not just CEOs but COOs, CMOs, etc. — so that helps bring more richness into the boardroom. In terms of my personal experience, I started getting called for boards about 12 or 13 years ago, and one of the things that no one ever prepares you for — something I had to learn on the fly — was that a board interview or resume is different than a job interview or resume. The interviewing part is much more about the lean-back advisory positioning versus a “lean forward” mentality of ‘I want the job and can do this for you.’ It’s a subtle but really important difference because they are observing you as somebody sitting around a table as an equal member of a very important and high-level group. The resume is much more of a bio of those types of skills, of advisor vs. doing. So, for example, highlight what nonprofit boards you have been on, and whether you were a leader on those boards. 

The way I got on the first board, which was HSN Inc., was that I got a call from a search person about a job but I wasn’t that interested. I gave some referrals, but then he said, ‘what about you? Are you happy? What can I do for you?’ I mentioned I would really like to serve on one public company board. And, importantly, I had the four- to five-minute elevator pitch for what I could contribute to a board. Whatever I said lit something up in his head. He said ‘wow, I might have a board position for you.’ He called me back a week or two later and I was one of the top candidates, and I eventually did get that board position. Having a board elevator pitch and positioning yourself for boards is very important. 

Five years later, Liberty Media bought HSN, and I became available to sit on another board. I got another call from somebody who knew about me through a mentor of mine, Gerry Laybourne, who I worked with at Nickelodeon back in the day. Dan Schulman at PayPal was looking for a new board member, and Gerry said, ‘you’ve got to talk to Ann.’ That worked out well and I’m now on the PayPal board. So I have one headhunter experience and one referral. 

Referrals are very important. I get called by a lot of search people now. I can’t take on another public company board because it’s a time-consuming endeavor, but people often call me asking for other women or people of color who I know because they are trying to move beyond the habit of going to their own Rolodex. They are now expanding horizons to understand who else is out there. My referral seems to have helped and I’ve had some success in helping women get on boards. 

Tinsley: What makes you confident about using your social capital to recommend somebody for a board? 

Sarnoff: It’s really sitting around that table and understanding what kind of skills are needed — women or men who have that executive presence, maturity, and advisory capacity. You don’t need to be the smartest person in the room, you need to pick your moments and know what’s your superpower. Companies need specific skills around a board table. It’s a portfolio, just like anything else in life. They need someone with, for example, financial expertise or marketing expertise. So, I listen hard to what the recruiter is saying they are looking for, then I say, ‘I know somebody like that.’ In my contacts, I keep a list of people to recommend for boards, and then I’m trying to matchmake when I get the calls.

Tinsley: There is new research coming out about non-promotable tasks. The idea is that one of the reasons women and minorities are not promoted as often has nothing to do with how hard they are working, but that they are working on things not as rewarding and rewarded. What kinds of non-promotable tasks do you see as possible threats in the workplace for women?

Sarnoff: I’m actually going to flip this and say how to make lemonade out of lemons. At Nickelodeon, I started in strategic planning, and my boss, who was a man, kept taking a bet on me. He’d say ‘Instead of betting on your experience, I’m betting on your bandwidth.’ And you know from your research that men tend to get the break because of their potential, but women typically have to have proven they can do the job.  

That boss bet on my potential for five years, and that was a huge opportunity for me to get more experience. Along the way he kept giving me new things to do that were, at times inheriting difficult situations. I started in strategic planning, then I took on the research group, then the consumer products division, and these were areas that needed some degree of turnaround. At one point I asked why he was giving me all the hard stuff. He said it would prove to be a big benefit for my career — and he was right. 

The turnaround thing, the dealing with difficult problems, the “no task too difficult mindset,” and taking risks became career defining for me. I could have said ‘no thank you, I’m good. I’m going to stay in my strategic planning role.’ But I’m a risk taker. My parents didn’t go to college and we had no money, so I came from humble roots and in a sense, I had nothing to lose. I didn’t have a grand plan, I didn’t have anybody telling me how to be successful. I was making it up as I went. That made me more open to opportunity and more willing to take risks. 

Sometimes I think kids are too programmed these days – with their parents telling them you’ve got to do this, you’ve got to get this job, you’ve got to be promoted by this time — they become closed and narrow-minded and not open to these lateral opportunities. I inherited the Nickelodeon consumer products business, which wasn’t performing well, vs moving to the programming side of things, which was the sexier business — a lot of people may have said, ‘no, I don’t want that.’ But, that became a huge turning point in my career because I ran a P&L. I could demonstrate that I could turn something around and significantly grow a business. That experience opened up literally every job from that point on because I built a large business and helped Nickelodeon grow beyond television into a broader multi-media kids business and brand. 

So, the non-promotable part is how do you take something that doesn’t even look like an opportunity and turn it into an asset for you. It doesn’t mean you don’t volunteer for those things, but keep a conscious eye toward the challenges that can build a muscle in you or develop a certain skill set. Then people will see you differently. Sometimes we can pigeonhole ourselves by being perceived a certain way but we have to visibly show that we can do the next job or task. I encourage women and girls to find ways to demonstrate new skills so that people who might be more close-minded can visibly see their potential.