Q&A with Susan Lyne

December 21, 2012

Katharine Weymouth: You’ve spoken in interviews about how you’ve never taken the easy path, how you were drawn to where the heat is, and your career certainly shows that. But that takes a tremendous amount of courage -- why are you drawn to where the heat is? Why not take the easy path?

Susan Lyne: I don’t know the answer to that completely, except that I grew up as the oldest daughter and the oldest granddaughter in a large Irish Catholic family in Boston. I came of age in the late ‘60s, early ‘70s, and the world was changing around me, and I had to make a decision about whether I was going to do what generations before me had done or try to do something different.

Katharine Weymouth: You dropped out of Berkeley, didn’t you?

Susan Lyne: I did, and I don’t have a college degree. There were a lot of things I did early that were probably unusual at that moment. But I’ve also been excited and lucky enough to be alive and working at times of great change, and certainly my original path came largely out of the fact that I liked being part of the anti-war movement and the women’s movement, and, yet, I wasn’t ever going to be the person standing up in front of the microphone and giving the rip-roaring speech. But I could be there as a reporter, and I could be there as someone who was trying to understand all that was taking place. And I think that just set a course for me through life that if I could be where change was happening, I would be a happier, more challenged person.

Katharine Weymouth: At one point you got fired, and you were not expecting it? Can you talk about what lessons you learned from that, how you dealt with it, what did you do, how did it change your career?

Susan Lyne: I always felt that I had sort of a blessed life. For several decades, I went from job to job, and I was pretty good at seeing an opportunity and grabbing hold of it.

I was tapped to be president of entertainment [at Disney] which meant that I was running primetime. It was a tough time for Disney; they were under a fair amount of pressure from shareholders, largely because ABC was underperforming. We were the fourth network among four networks at that time.

Although I had a few semi-successes in my first development year, we were still in fourth place and we were not looking like we were going to get out of it. My boss at that time was let go, and I was told I was going to get more responsibility. And two weeks later, out of the blue, I was told I was being replaced.

It was the first time in my life I had been fired but also it was a very public firing. It was on the front page of every business section of every newspaper so there was no way to run and hide from it. I decided to embrace it. After a week of wanting to crawl into a hole, I thought this is an opportunity. I have always just listened to what people were going to offer me, and I really haven’t stepped back and thought about what I want to do enough, and I have a chance to do that. So I took the summer off, and I got to do a lot of things I hadn’t done ever. I walked all of Central Park. I spent a lot of time doing puzzles with one of my daughters. It was a lazy, fabulous summer.

And I called a lot of people who in some cases I didn’t know but people I admired and asked them if I could get half an hour with them. You’d be really surprised how many people said yes. I just asked them for advice, and I asked them what they saw happening in this world of media. What it led to ultimately was the job of CEO at the Martha Stewart Company. I spent four years there in a wonderful, robust moment for the company. And then another chance meeting led me to Gilt Groupe.

Katharine Weymouth: What do you think gave you the strength to not want to crawl in a hole with all the media coverage and just retire?

Susan Lyne: Well, I couldn’t afford to retire, so that’s always a good motivator. But I’m also not somebody who could sit at home for a long time. So there were lots of things driving me. It was an interesting experience for me because I had to be honest about it. A lot of times we try to cover over problems we’ve had and explain them away; and in this case, I just couldn’t do that.

The other thing that gave me confidence is that the shows I had developed for that coming season [included] Desperate Housewives and Lost and Grey’s Anatomy. So there was a nice little moment of irony that I had actually done a pretty good job in that last year.

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