LOS ANGELES – Life as a big media CEO can be a battlefield — but you can always get through by learning how to play the game.
“From playing games I had a really good foundation to become a CEO,” Dish Network co-founder Charlie Ergen joked during a panel at the 2012 Milken Global Conference.
Milken Institute Chairman Michael Milken, the moderator of the “Evolving Media: Will Content, Distribution or New Platforms Dominate?” panel, had prodded Ergen to describe how he made the jump from professional poker player to a CEO — Milken joking that before he hired anybody, he liked to play a game of poker with them.
But all joking aside, big media can be a brutal, super-competitive landscape — where top executives need to constantly push themselves to stay ahead of the competition.
The panel quickly became fixated on the trickiest part of keeping that competitive edge: pushing your established, however-many-years-old company to always be innovating.
“How do you free the most creative people at your company?” asked Clear Channel CEO Robert Pittman. The biggest obstacle, he said, is most often the company itself.
Companies “build all of these structures” that then end up imprisoning the creative people who are the most often the brightest hope for the future.
“If it’s possible to cannibalize us, let’s do it to ourselves!” he continued.
It’s a never-ending struggle for CEOs, especially the CEOs of big media and content companies where the credo is: Innovate or die, the guy who’s standing still gets killed first. And often, it’s the CEO’s own staff and managers who are stifling that essential creativity — often simply because of resistance to change.
“Every big company has managers,” Ergen said. You hire new talent to get your hands on those life-giving, golden new ideas — but sometimes the managers at your own company keep you from getting that value out of them. A “new person has great ideas, and the manager doesn’t want to change,” he said.
Because of that persistent problem at companies that have been around for even just a few years, Ergen went so far as to advocate that CEOs should make their crucial innovation strategies a completely separate division of the company.
News Corp President Chase Carey disagreed — saying that when a CEO does his job right, he can grow a culture at the company where innovation is always in its lifeblood.
“It helps to start with a company that has innovation in its DNA,” Carey said. “You have to push it … it takes some pain in getting there.”
Carey said that CEOs have to lean on the side of innovation, but not blindly — mentioning one example when News Corp starting putting content on NetFlix without knowing exactly where the venture would take them, but they always had something of a rulebook on hand.
You need a “set of rules and a set of practices that make sense,” Carey said.
Sometimes innovation isn’t nearly as complicated as companies seem to make it, Clear Channel’s Pittman said, pointing to examples like Steve Jobs who just looked at customers and said, “what do they like?”
Pittman asked the audience to picture the worst remote control for a TV or radio in their house, with all of the horrible buttons that you can’t make any sense of and the different modes that most people don’t even know what they do. Those are “TVs designed by the engineers,” Pittman said.
Then “look at the iPod, it’s very simple,” he said — which he stressed is always, always what the customer wants.
“The joys of the ‘what ifs’ can get very disruptive,” Pittman said — but he stressed that chaos has to be a part of it because, at the innovation stage, there just aren’t any rules yet.
Carey pointed to one peril that CEOs pushing for innovation always have to avoid: don’t micromanage.
“You have to bet on people,” Carey said, “you can’t manage the decisions.”
Get the right team in place and then stand by them and live and die by them, Carey said.
“You have to bet that you have the right people,” Carey emphasized, “sometimes people fall short of expectations, it’s true.”
Sometimes that’s just how the chips fall.