Transforming NBCU Meant Tears for Yaccarino

Message to women: changing a company’s culture is difficult and lonely
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You wouldn’t think of a dynamic and successful executive like Linda Yaccarino, chairman of ad sales and client partnerships at NBCUniversal, as coming home and crying after a tough day at work.

And yet, on Tuesday in Chicago, Yaccarino admitted that happened. At Stages Summit in Chicago, an event produced by Advertising Women of New York to educate and inspire women about the skills they’ll need to move their career to the next stage in a rapidly changing industry, top female executives told personal stories about their lives and work.  Yaccarino described her early days tackling a very big job.

“The first year at NBCUniversal was the hardest year I have ever had in my entire career,” she said. “I was hired to come and head up an entire sales and marketing department. But I was also hired to transform the company.”

She said she quickly became aware the task would be more difficult than she’d expected. NBCU had a huge bloated sales operation. There were 15 different teams “and they were rigidly siloed and they were almost allergic to collaboration,” she said. On top of that, “we’d figured out a way to spend all day long talking to ourselves.”

The ad sales computer system might have been worse. “I believe it was invented by Scooby-Doo. It was held together with duct tape and paper clips,” she said, adding that the NBC broadcast network was running on a mainframe.

“The compensation plan, I quickly dubbed the sales prevention plan. Incentives were all out of whack,” she said. “Compared to our competitors, we were about a decade behind.”

Despite that situation, her bosses at Comcast, which had recently bought NBCU, had immediate financial expectations.  “Anyone ever watch that show Naked and Afraid? I felt like that every day,” she recalled.

“I didn’t know where to start. I was pretty sure I wasn’t ready,” she said. But the show had to go on.

“My boss expected me to transition the team from internal fighting to one of collaboration. He wanted me to invest in people and infrastructure and make it easier for our customers to do business with us,” she said. "I was hired to transform the company and it didn’t matter if I was ready or not. I learned really quickly that if I was going to be successful transforming this company, I was going to have to get used to being lonely. Because I was never more lonely than when I managed over 1,000 people.”

Yaccarino said the culture at NBCU was not a positive one. It was hard to hire people and people who were there were actively resisting change.

When she first got to the company, she would invite people to meetings. They’d say they’d be there. And most wouldn’t show up. At one meeting where she was describing the first wave of changes she planned, a guy in the front row leaned over to a friend and said they weren’t going to do it. “Dude! I can see you,” Yaccarino said.

While there were some great people at the company, Yaccarino knew she had to create her own team.

“I had to sell them on a vision,” she said. “Trust me, progress was slow.”

Eventually the company started doing bigger and bolder teams. NBCU invested in rights to the Olympic Games through 2032. It started making more pilots. It merged its linear and digital sales teams. “That got people’s attention,” she said.

And the team started to come together. “Sometimes it just took a few minutes to sit down with someone and have a conversation to inspire them. Sometimes it took just a little effort to make them safe to fall,” she said. “Sometimes you had to call someone in your office and turn up the volume. Sometimes you had to agree to part ways. That was hard. That was lonely. Sometimes it called for red wine. A lot of red wine.”

Her advice to the women at the conference:  “If you’re in a position to make transformational leadership decision, you’ve got to learn how to trust yourself. You’ve got to learn to trust your gut. And trust your experience.  You’re not always going to have the data, the tools, the opportunity to make the decision in the amount of time you need to make those decisions. You’ve got to be brave.”

The media business is moving fast. Where once NBC battled CBS, ABC and Fox, it was soon competing with Google, Facebook, Twitter and Snapchat. “You’ve got to be comfortable with making decisions that fast. After a while you come to learn that’s OK because transformation is a really, really tough thing.”

After her speech, Yaccarino said she told that story because she’d been asked to talk about the topic of transformation. The speech went over well, with attendees and former colleagues greeting her and praising the “bad ass” reputation she’s acquired.

And though things are going well four years after she joined NBCU, transformation is never done. “[If] anyone says there’s no need to transform their company, they’re not paying attention to what’s going on,” she said.

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