Susan Packard: An interview by Bob Morris


In 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 New Rules of the Game, 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.

Here is an excerpt from my interview of Susan.

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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.

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Here is a direct link to the complete interview.

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

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