Lessons in Business and Life: The Red Chair Series with Susanne Daniels and Amy Friedman

On Tuesday, May 3rd, Children’s Media Association hosted the seventh annual Red Chair Series. The Red Chair Series are conversations between Amy Friedman, CMA Board Advisor and SVP of Programming and Development at Sprout, and some of the most influential figures in the children’s media industry.

The event was held at the Centre for Social Innovation. Yes, that is a canoe suspended from the ceiling! (Photo credit: Kerry Pompeo)

This year, Amy Friedman talked with Susanne Daniels, Global Head of Original Content for YouTube.

Amy Friedman: “How and why do we love Susanne? Let me count the ways.” (Photo credit: Kerry Pompeo)

Amy and Susanne talked about Susanne’s incredible career and lessons learned along the way. Without further ado, here are some lessons I learned from Amy and Susanne’s talk:

Lesson 1: Be Prepared!

Be Prepared
(But don’t be evil like Scar. Prepared, not evil.)

Susanne landed her first job in the entertainment industry – Lorne Michaels’ personal assistant – because she did her homework. She read a book that covered the whole history of Saturday Night Live and came into the interview with questions about specific events covered in the book.

Fast-forward to when Susanne was President of Programming at MTV. Susanne once conducted an interview with a woman who asked what was currently on the air at MTV. Don’t do this!! Susanne said to her, point blank,

You’re not going to get the job, but you’re not going to make this mistake again. You need to do your homework.

I think it’s safe to say that from that point on, Susanne’s interviewee was prepared for all her interviews!

Lesson 2: Break The Rules! Trust Your Gut!

Get it? ‘Cause it’s your gut. By the way, this awesome GIF is from PBS Digital Studios.

When Susanne was president of The WB Television Network, she created Dawson’s Creek, Gilmore Girls, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Smallville, Charmed, and 7th Heaven, all considered pop culture touchstones. I’m sure many of you reading this blog grew up on some, if not all, of these shows.

Amy asked Susanne how she had so much incredible success at the WB, and Susanne attributed her success to trusting her gut instead of following the rules – not out of rebelliousness, but because she didn’t know certain rules even existed, so never felt imprisoned by them.

That being said, it takes a certain kind of person to follow through on her own convictions rather than self-consciously ask, “Is this what’s normally done?” In Susanne’s words:

So when Joss Wheadon walked in the door, saying, “I want to take a failed movie and make it into a series, it’s called Buffy the Vampire Slayer… I didn’t know enough to say, “No, you don’t take a failed movie!” You can rarely make a regular movie work if you transition it to television. I didn’t have lessons that kept me from taking chances like that.

Amy had her own perspective on Susanne’s success:

She really has this incredible combination of this expertise, this expert command, and somehow, and I’ve never seen it quite like with Susanne, she’s never lost her beginner’s mind, and I think that’s what drives her success.

“Beginner’s mind” is a Zen Buddhist concept that means a mind open to possibilities. Susanne was open to Joss developing a show from a failed movie. And, by the way, Joss had no TV experience. Neither did Kevin Williamson, who created Dawson’s Creek. She took a risk on both of them and their projects, and her risk paid off in a huge way!

Dawson’s Creek wasn’t based on a failed movie, but a pitch that had already been passed on at Fox. Typically, there’s a stigma attached to pitches that have been passed on — there must be something wrong with it, right? But Susanne trusted her gut, and sure enough, it was not just a hit, but a cultural phenomenon!

Similarly, Susanne advised the audience to trust their own instincts and develop projects that interest them instead of playing a guessing game with the networks:

It’s really something that drives me crazy when people say, “What are you looking for?” I hate that question! Because I don’t know what I’m looking for… let’s say I did, let’s say I said, “I want a superhero show.” You go off to develop a superhero show, that’s a Tuesday. Wednesday morning, someone comes in my office pitching a superhero show that I love and I buy it. And then, guess what, I’m not looking for a superhero show anymore…. Develop something that means something to you, that you’re really excited about… because I get excited when people are passionate and when people are writing from experience and an original point of view.

I found Susanne’s candor refreshing. The entertainment industry can be frustratingly fickle, so it’s a losing battle to try to outsmart it or play by what you may perceive as its rules. Instead, create what you want to create! What matters most is passion, and the wonderful thing about passion is that it’s contagious.

Lesson 3: Be Smart And Take An Optimistic Approach!

When Susanne came on to head Lifetime, it was at that point a struggling network. Susanne was brought in right when a brand study had been completed. In Susanne’s words:

[The brand study] basically said that women were passionate about Lifetime and loved Lifetime, but they weren’t watching because there wasn’t anything inventive or new. So I thought, I took that as good news. They liked the brand, I just have to give them something exciting and they’ll come back. And that proved to be true.

And Susanne’s incisive and optimistic approach paid off! She developed, among other shows, Army Wives, which became Lifetime’s longest-running series ever! Army Wives features strong, dynamic female characters, which went against the typical Lifetime trope of women in trouble.

Amy Friedman on Susanne: “She moved Lifetime from ‘Women in Peril’ to ‘Women Empowered!'”

Lesson 4: Treat Every Experience As An Opportunity!

Okay, Pete Hornberger’s enthusiasm might be a TAD overkill, but you get my point.

Susanne first got her foot in the door through an informational interview with NBC News. I know what you’re thinking – Lorne Michaels definitely does not work for NBC News. And did an informational interview really lead to a job? They aren’t just, ya know, informational? But, sure enough, the informational interview did in fact lead to Lorne.

During the informational interview, the interviewer sensed that maybe Susanne wasn’t right for NBC News, telling her outright that she didn’t want to “eat, drink, and sleep the news.” Nevertheless, he offered to pass along Susanne’s resume to Lorne, since he knew he was looking for a new assistant. Susanne got the interview with Lorne, was subsequently hired, and worked at Saturday Night Live for three years – her first job in the entertainment business! All from an informational interview at NBC News!

Lesson 5: Learn From The Best!

yoda and luke
Yoda = Rupert and Luke = Susanne. Just go with it.

Okay, so we’re probably not all going to work with Rupert Murdoch, like Susanne did. Fair enough. But surely most of us have people in our lives we consider mentors or role models. What traits or habits can we adopt from our mentors? When asked what she learned from working under Rupert, Susanne replied:

…he was a real leader, a visionary, and a risk-taker, and in order to make Fox work and make it work well, make it work fast, he decided this was going to be a Big Four player, he made those big, aggressive, expensive moves and it worked! And I walked away thinking, if you have a leader who cares like that and is passionate, and who wants it to work, that is truly probably the most important thing you could have in a company.

The “big, aggressive, expensive moves” that Susanne is referring to are: 1) acquiring the New World Station Group, which meant that Fox controlled affiliate stations across the country; and 2) acquiring the television rights for the NFL. Both of these major purchases established Fox as a power-player and put it on the map as one of the Big Four networks when it was previously just the Big Three. It is clear to me that Susanne is also a “real leader, a visionary, and a risk-taker” – her career has been defined by bold, instinct-based moves.

giphy (3).gif
Confidence, baby! Just like Pacey! (and who brought Dawson’s Creek to the screen? Susanne did!)

Amy Friedman certainly agrees. In Amy’s words:

She’s a maverick! She’s a renegade! She’s a badass! 

Lesson 6: Know That It’s Still A Biased World, But The Tide is Turning!

Okay, so the tone of this lesson is a little different. Susanne is a mother of four kids. Her husband is Greg Daniels, creator of The Office and Parks and Recreation (and, fun fact, her brother is Paul Lieberstein, who you might know better as Toby Flenderson from The Office. Paul was also an executive producer of The Office).

Susanne talked about her experience as a mother of four children in a largely male-dominated industry:

So I have four kids. And let me tell you something: it has been my experience as a woman when I interview with men, when I say – and I learned not to the hard way, that I have four kids – I see a look in their eyes… like, “How will she ever do this job? Like, four kids, really?! I’m supposed to rely on you to build this business or do whatever you need me to do?” There’s just this inherent assumption that that’s going to distract me and I’m not going to be able to do my job as well someone who didn’t. So I learned to tap dance when someone said, “Do you have kids?”

giphy (6)
Backwards and in heels! (Okay, Susanne didn’t mean literally, but you get the point.)

Susanne continued, explaining her “tap dance”:

I would say, “Yes, I have kids. I’ve always worked, by the way, they’re really independent, my husband’s very involved. Do you have kids?” That’s what I learned to say, which has gone over fine. Then they started talking about their kids and it was all good, and I was like, phew, I passed that.

It’s frustrating yet unsurprising that a woman as powerful as Susanne still needs to tap dance around the fact that she’s the mother of four children. I would be very surprised if a father of four children has to avoid talking about his kids, fearing that he won’t be taken as seriously. That being said, Susanne’s experience at YouTube is an exciting step in a positive direction:

So I’m interviewing with Susan Wojcicki, the CEO of YouTube, and she’s amazing. And she says, “Do you have kids?” And I say, “Yes, but…” and I start my tap dance, and before I can get word one in, she says, “Isn’t it great to be a working mom!… It just helps you at work, and isn’t it fun to be able to be a mom, isn’t it great! And I was like, this is really happening! This is amazing!!”

YouTube is one of the most influential media companies around, so it’s thrilling that there are two strong and dynamic women at its helm. Susanne went on to talk about reframing the discussion of being a working mother:

I think being a working mother is often talked about as a challenge, and what the difficulties and complexities are as a working mother, but I think people don’t frame it enough as a great thing, and getting to do both, and it IS a great thing!

It’s true — the dialogue about being a working mother often focuses on its challenges.

I hear ya, Rory! And three guesses for who developed Gilmore Girls.

Balancing a career and family presents real and significant challenges, and this is especially apparent along socioeconomic lines (e.g., paid/unpaid maternity leave). Nevertheless, I found Susanne’s perspective refreshing and encouraging. Getting personal for a sec: I’m a young(ish) woman who wants to have children, but I also have big career aspirations as a writer/producer. In my head, as is the general cultural dialogue, I typically frame these desires as opposites to one another — not that I can’t do both, but that sacrifices will have to be made along the way.

While it would be naive to think that framing the discussion in a positive light erases these profound challenges, it does help us to remember that, hey, being a working mom can actually be “fun,” in Susan Wojcicki’s words. I think “fun” is a word we can sometimes shy away from because it seems unsophisticated, but it’s actually pretty darn important! And, what’s more, being a mother probably informs Susan’s job – she is on the pulse of what’s cool and youthful. That being said, socioeconomic factors obviously affect how “fun” it is to be a working mother.

Back to YouTube, where Susanne is the Global Head of Original Content. YouTube is now embarking on what Susanne called their “Great Big Experiment.” They’re developing scripted and unscripted shows of every size and style! YouTube has recently introduced their subscription service, YouTube Red, which features shows with YouTube talent in a variety of shows. They’ve also recently introduced their app for children, YouTube Kids, which includes all sorts of amazing content for children! It’s clearly an exciting time at YouTube! And so it’s crazy to doubt both Susanne’s and Susan’s abilities as leaders because they’re also mothers! They are proving all the naysayers wrong!

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That’s right, Buffy!

Next up, my recap of “Putting the Tunes in Cartoons: An Intro to Songwriting and Composing for Children” with Mike Rubin (Blue’s Clues, Bubble Guppies) and J. Walter Hawkes (Wonder Pets, Peg + Cat).