Behind the Career: Brooke Runnette

December 2, 2012

Position: President of National Geographic Television, the production arm of the National Geographic Society.

Raised overseas, Brooke Runnette was drawn to geography and culture early on. She entered the journalism field with hopes of working in television. After impressing people with her writing skills, she got recruited to work for a variety of television and cable television shows produced by the likes of A&E, CBS, ABC, TLC, Discovery and now National Geographic.

You took a big risk by transforming the style of “Shark Week” at the Discovery Channel to be less about the blood and gore. What was your inspiration?

I interviewed Ted Turner for a biography years ago. I asked him about taking the risk to create CNN. If CNN didn’t work, he would’ve lost a lot of money. A lot of people would’ve lost everything. But he said, “I can always get another job.” That stuck with me. The risk doesn’t terrify me because I can always get another job.

When was the first time you had people under you?

I had a little production company for a while. I had eight people working for me then. Sweating payroll instead of being able to do creative work was really difficult. I did it for just under a year.

What would you have done
differently?

Talk to everyone you could possibly talk to. When you think about starting a company, think carefully about hiring friends and harder about hiring people who you know will fight with you in the foxhole. Also, I liked to do good shows, but I didn’t have enough experience. I had entrepreneurial feelings and thought I could do it. In some ways I did. I just didn’t think big picture-wise or strategically.

What does it take to be a successful leader in the television?

In the creative industry, human resources is often a silly term. People talk about casting in front of the camera, but casting behind the camera is insanely important. Different people will produce different results, even if you had the same idea, same budget, same everything. Who’s cutting the tape? Who’s running the camera? Who’s writing the script? Totally different product. The only thing that is important is who the people are, how happy they are, if they feel like they have lots of room to be creative, that they have a supportive and healthy environment. That’s the factory. All the capital is the people.

You’ve worked in New York, too. What do you think it takes to be successful in Washington?

One lesson for everyone in this industry: it’s a small world. Everyone knows everyone. Assume that however you treat someone, it will come back to you. People you don’t even remember will remember something you’ve done. Every action.

Reading any business books?

Not business books. But “Bring up the Bodies” [by Hilary Mantel] was great. Umberto Eco is great. Thomas Cromwell. They are all good for leadership.

— Interview with Vanessa Small

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