On women and Washington: A leadership interview with BET’s Debra Lee

Debra Lee clicked into the White House in hot-pink heels for a recent state dinner with Prime Minister David Cameron. The BET Networks chairman and chief executive officer is one of 11 members on the President’s Management Advisory Board. She is also a woman whose interest in public service led her to a career in big business; and whose business career led her back into the world of public service. Do those pink heels set her apart in either sphere? Lee sat down with On Leadership editor Lillian Cunningham to discuss being a woman leader, a Washington leader and just a leader. Period.

How did you end up a business leader in a political leaders’ town?

Well I’ve been in Washington 31 years, since I graduated from law school, and I came to Washington because I thought I was going to go into government. I had a judicial clerkship, and while I was clerking, Ronald  Reagan was elected, and I didn’t want to go into a Republican administration so I went to a big law firm to hide out until the Democrats came back. Well, it took the Democrats 12 years. So after about five years at Steptoe and Johnson, it was time to move on. And luckily BET was a client and so I went over to start the legal department at BET. So I kind of lucked into business.

Fast forward to 2008, when President Obama was elected. I knew him personally, so that provided a great opportunity for me to take my business skills and try to help the administration. I remember the first week he was in office, he had a small meeting of about twelve CEOs to talk about the stimulus plan, and he invited me in as part of that small group. Since then, I’ve been over to the White House many times. And it culminated about a year ago when the president appointed me to the President’s Management Advisory Board, which is a group of about ten CEOs who provide advice to the president on how to run the government better.

I feel like I’m very fortunate to have finally brought my Kennedy School public policy training together with my business skills, and hopefully I’m in a position to help this administration. But I’ve always loved politics, I’ve always loved policy, and I’ve always loved being in Washington.

In fact, when President Obama was elected, several people asked me was I going to go into the administration, and there were rumors floating. I was like, “Why would I do that? I have the best of all worlds.” So I never went into a government agency, per se, but I’ve been able to work it into what I do.

Have you found that your interest in policy and politics has shaped your management style?

I think it did. As COO and now CEO of the largest black media company in the world, I think I always felt a special responsibility to be involved in policy issues that affect black business, that affect women’s issues, that affect young girls and families. I mean, there’s a whole slate of issues that I’m personally interested in helping with. And my position as a business leader, and as an African American female business leader, has given me a platform to speak out on certain issues.

How do you feel about the concept of “women’s leadership”?

You know, there is still a limited number of female CEOs and females on corporate boards, so I think there still are experiences we could share with each other that are empowering.

You can run the risk of generalizing — “women do it this way, men do it that way” — so I don’t like to do that, but I think there are differences in the way we manage, in the way we get to leadership positions. And I think it’s important to talk about those differences, so that women don’t feel uncomfortable doing it differently than men.

I mean, there are a lot of similarities. If you are in the business arena, profit loss is your main concern and creating value for shareholders. So there are issues and concerns that are across the board, whether you’re male, female, black, white, whatever.  So you can’t lose sight of those, you have to run a profitable business.

But I think there are a lot of issues that still need discussing. We need to discuss how we get more women on corporate boards, how we encourage women to climb the corporate ladder and encourage them to aim for CEO positions. It’s not something that’s out of our reach. It’s something we should encourage young women to do. But you have to talk about how you do that at the same time you have work-life balance, and are there family issues that women deal with more so than men. You know, there still are differences.

When I first became COO, I asked myself the question, “Well if I’m going to manage exactly the same way Bob Johnson did, who was the founder of BET, do I bring my experiences as a woman to my position?” I wanted to run a successful business and I wanted to keep the business going in the right direction, but I also wanted to bring issues that are specifically of concern to me to the table — and deal with those differently than my predecessor. I think leadership is important: how you find your own leadership style, how you find your management style.

And so what is your own leadership style? How have you seen it evolve?

Well it was interesting. First I had to go from being a lawyer to being a chief operating officer, so that was one transition. And it took some time, because a lot of lawyers are used to working in a silo. They do their own research, they write their own briefs. If anything, they’re managing maybe one or two other lawyers or an assistant, a paralegal. So going from that environment to managing, you know, 500 people — and managing people in areas that were new to me — was quite a transition. And there was a great deal of a learning curve. I had to learn to hire the best people possible. I had to learn to give them the responsibility and resources they needed to get their jobs done, but also to know they could come back to me for advice or resources or to make calls on their behalf.

So it took me a while to put together the right team, but now I enjoy management. I think it’s the greatest part of my job — being able to hire people, being able to give them opportunities they wouldn’t have in other media companies, and really watching them excel. It’s really very rewarding. I’m really now a student of management and how to do it better, how to motivate people, how to get them committed to my vision and taking the company in the direction I want to take it in. So it’s been a lot of fun.

What does being a student of management look like?

I like to go to conferences and be around other CEOs, whether it’s women or men, to find out what’s important to them. And when you start hearing other people’s experience, you realize it’s not that different from your own. No matter if the company is in athletic wear or something else, when you hear CEOs talk about what’s important and what they’ve learned, we all have shared experiences.

I’ve also learned a lot by my own trial and mistake, and I think that the biggest thing I’ve learned in the six years I’ve been CEO at BET Networks is to trust my own gut. That’s a hard thing to learn, especially when you’re managing people who have more expertise than you do — or in different areas. But I’ve learned that I’m more successful when I trust my own opinions. When I listen to different viewpoints, but when I make the decision myself. And I think that’s part of trusting yourself as a leader. It’s like, “Okay, I know best. I’m the one who set the brand strategy for this company. I’m the one who set the vision.” So you really have to learn to trust yourself, and that’s the biggest thing I’ve learned from my experience.

More from On Leadership:

A love note to the workaholic

The rolodex that redefined power

Like On Leadership? Follow us on Facebook and Twitter:

On Leadership: @post_lead | Editor: @lily_cunningham

Lillian Cunningham is the editor and feature writer for The Washington Post's 'On Leadership' section.
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