Last October, a diverse group of 14 rising executives from across the industry met for a week of intense discussion, workshops and feedback at the Ojai Valley Inn & Spa in Ojai, California, in pursuit of one goal: learning how to be leaders.
Together, creative directors and vice presidents of marketing, media planning and brand creative from such leading media organizations as A+E, ABC, B2 Studios, BET, Cartoon Network, Comedy Central, Food Network, Nickelodeon, TBS, Telemundo, Televisa, Turner and TruTV formed the first Thrive cohort. That group is composed of high-potential talent with one binding characteristic in common: They are all driven to excel as leaders in their organization and as contributors to the larger industry. Over one intense week, the cohort plunged into what makes them tick as individuals, how other people see them and what being a leader really means.
Most of the class came to the program after their bosses pointed it out to them. Often, training programs are seen as a last-ditch effort to get a poorly performing employee back on track, but Thrive is intended for high-potential candidates, people who are expected to move up the management ranks.
“I had been looking for something like this for a little while and could never find it,” says Craig Gordon, creative director at Cartoon Network. “I wanted something that touched on creativity but also focused on management and leadership skills. Thrive was the perfect blend.”
“I think Thrive is an incredibly long overdue idea,” says Walter Levitt, Comedy Central’s chief marketing officer, who was an early supporter of the program. “For so many years, there has been a ton of management training in the industry, but there’s never been one that is specifically targeted toward creatives. Creatives tend to see the world in a different way and need a different kind of approach when it comes to training.”
“There’s this weird expectation that leaders are born and not made,” says Kent Rees, Pivot executive VP and general manager, who was one of the program’s instructors and mentors. “I think that’s a holdover from corporate America that’s not realistic anymore. Part of the obligation of running a good company is having a diverse point of view. It’s a totally outdated notion that people should sink or swim when they get promoted. But when you are dealing with an individual talent, how you transition that talent into something larger, there isn’t a lot of experience with that and it’s high time we addressed it.”
In Ojai, the Thrive cohort received the results of a 360-degree review, had days of sessions with high-level executives and career coaches, and nights around a campfire where they bounced ideas off of each other. Instead of spending hours sitting at desks listening to lectures, the program tended toward hands-on experiences and workshops — project-based learning methods designed for leaders who work in television’s creative, marketing and digital arenas.
“If you consider yourself a creative person and you lean toward being excited about creative things, it was good to be able to look at this job as a whole instead of dividing it into these different little silos,” says Gordon. “There is creativity in the way you can lead someone or be the voice in the room that’s guiding a creative vision.”
How to lead a meeting and a group also is an important part of Thrive, and that goes far beyond just communicating and listening.
“Part of it is putting yourself into the world in a different way,” says Gordon. “There’s a phrase: ‘take a seat at the head of the table.’ That means when you go into a meeting, get up there and get into the mix. That’s what sends a signal to your direct reports and everyone around you that you are taking this seriously and that you are in a position to speak to the matters at hand.”
“It’s about always keeping in mind how people see you and where they are placing you in their minds. Are they thinking of you as a leader and if not, how do you shift the way people see you?” says Nickelodeon’s Michael Pecoriello.
While the week in Ojai forms the heart of the program, it starts at PromaxBDA’s annual conference in June, where the cohort meets their mentors and participates in the Leadership Institute. The program also continues after the participants go home, through the participants’ meetings with their mentors, their personal development with their coaches and their relationships with their peers.
At least once a month, each of them talks to their mentors, who are highly placed industry executives. Volunteering their time for Thrive’s debut class were Cooking Channel GM Michael Smith; Pivot’s Rees; Oxygen SVP Jane Olson; Bravo and Oxygen EVP Ellen Stone; Spredfast Chief Strategy Officer Jesse Redniss; ABC CMO Marla Provencio; Spike EVP Frank Tanki, NBCU/Telemundo EVP Susan Solano Vila; National Geographic SVP Andy Baker; National Geographic CEO Courteney Monroe; Esquire President Adam Stotsky; Turner SVP Dennis Camlek and NBCU SVP Scot Chastain, who’s also co-chair of the PromaxBDA board.
“The thing that made the mentor relationship easy is that we both have this creative background, we both have this thing in common. It wasn’t like we were strangers and she was so open and available immediately that there wasn’t any awkwardness,” says Gordon, whose mentor is ABC’s Provencio. “It’s been a nice back and forth. She has so many stories she can tell and solid advice to offer since she’s had so many experiences and seen so many situations working at that high level.”
Besides the executive mentors, the cohort left Thrive with executive coaches, who also meet with them at least once a month and hold them accountable to their specific development goals.
The coaches are Clear Path’s Eden Abrahams, YSC’s Kathleen Gounaris and YSC’s Cecilia Garcia, who is based in Mexico. Thrive was developed by PromaxBDA’s Vice President of Industry Relations Katerina Zacharia in collaboration with an advisory committee of PromaxBDA executive members and Dan Quinn, now a senior partner with Korn Ferry but formerly with leadership consultancy YSC. Zacharia worked with the industry collaborative to design a program that fuses research-backed learning theory with business psychology, culture and the industry expertise that gives the program its relevance and rigor. Thrive best serves director and vice presidents at networks, studios and agencies in the television industry.
“Now I have this team,” says B2’s Briana Mahoney. “I have my mentor [NBCU’s Chastain], I have my career coach and I’ve got Katerina. Before, I didn’t know how to take advantage of these meetings and I felt like I wasn’t coming to the table with good specific questions.”
Since departing Ojai, several members of the class already have been promoted. A+E’s Jonathan Davis moved up to vice president. TruTV’s Leah L’Esperance was named senior design director. Pecoriello became vice president of strategy and content development for the Nickelodeon’s live events television group.
And Pecoriello even found a place to practice what he had learned at Thrive off the job: he not only found himself serving a week of jury duty, he ended up as foreman. He says his newly acquired Thrive skills helped him lead that group of 12 to a conviction, even though a hung jury was a real possibility at several points in the process.
“Leadership is something you are never taught,” says Pecoriello. “You get into a creative field because you love making stuff and you do that for years and you become an expert in it. As you get promoted, you start overseeing people who make stuff, and it’s a totally different job being the one who makes and being the one who leads. While it’s a hard habit to break, I’ve learned that being creative is not something you ever have to give up. You can always find ways to be a creative leader.”