For a glimpse into the future of the media business, you don't have to look any further than James Citrin's souped-up laptop. That's where the head of the technology, communications, and media practice at executive search firm Spencer Stuart keeps a voluminous database of executives, plotting their strengths along grids and mapping out their potential.
Nobody understands more keenly than the 45-year-old Citrin what will be required to run the media company of the future. In his 11 years at Spencer Stuart, Citrin has placed 290 executives, about a quarter of those in CEO jobs. His handiwork incudes putting the former co-head of Warner Bros. (TWX) studio, Terry Semel, at Yahoo! (YHOO), former TV exec Jonathan Miller at America Online, and former Agriculture Secretary Dan Glickman in the CEO job at the Motion Picture Association of America, succeeding Jack Valenti.
Citrin, a Vassar undergraduate with a Harvard MBA, has 500 or so names on what he calls "a relationship map," ranging from those executives he hasn't met but would like to (such as Microsoft (MSFT) Chairman Bill Gates) to those he has worked with closely (Time Warner CEO Dick Parsons) and those he's very friendly with (Comcast (CMCSA) COO Steve Burke). In a recent interview with BusinessWeek Media Editor Tom Lowry, Citrin took time to offer his advice for the next generation of media leaders. Edited excerpts of their conversation follow:
Q: What's happening in the media business today?
A: You're seeing a shift from the great bootstrapping entrepreneurs who built these companies to the professional managers. You can see a lot of parallels with this evolution to what took place before in the financial, auto, and oil industries. At the same time, though, you have the realization of convergence in media. It couldn't be a more fascinating time.
Q: So what's the story with the relationship map?
A: About a year ago, [Yahoo COO] Dan Rosensweig mentioned to me that I was uniquely positioned to hold salon-like meetings or dinners among a cross-section of media, technology, and communications executives as a result of my relationships and cross-industry work. He said if I invited people, they would enjoy getting together. Then, over the summer, Dan's idea sparked an epiphany about how I could manage relationships.
Q: What do you mean by manage relationships?
A: I developed a list of leading executives from the relevant sectors of traditional media to online, telecom, venture capital, and private equity, to Washington types and [people from businesses based overseas] -- all across the economic landscape. The list included people I knew as well as those that I haven't met but would like to.
When I begin a major CEO or board search, I first look at the map and use it to help generate ideas. If someone is of the credibility and stature to be a candidate, then I should either know them or want to know them. The goal is to have the most influential executives move up the map from someone who I may have only met or had a good conversation with to someone who I've worked closely with, all the way to someone who would happily attend a dinner or salon.
Q: You placed Terry Semel at Yahoo and Jonathan Miller at America Online. These weren't exactly execs with typical backgrounds for those companies. eBay (EBAY) CEO Meg Whitman has even been mentioned on the list of outside candidates for Disney (DIS). Is having a lifelong career in the same business less important for CEOs in this new world of media?
A: In a lot of these situations, no one had done what needed to be done going forward at those companies. Because there was no square peg to fit into a square hole, we needed to search in a more creative way. One effective approach is to break down a company's business into its component parts and match those with the skills and backgrounds of the executive being considered.
Q: Give us an example.
A: In the case of AOL, no one had ever turned around a $9 billion online company that needed to make a transition from narrowband to broadband. But if you deconstruct AOL into its component parts, you see a subscriber-based business (cable TV and magazine publishing), entertainment and information content (TV programming), a branded marketing company (consumer products and services), a U.S. and international business, and a giant technology operation (software, financial, or business services).
Prior to joining AOL, Jon Miller had led businesses across just about all of these areas. He had cable programming, subscription, and international experience at MTV Networks, he had e-commerce technology experience as head of interactive services for Barry Diller's IAC, and he had marketing experience as head of NBA Entertainment and as an executive at Nickelodeon.
Q: What's the single biggest challenge for the media executive of tomorrow?
A: Let me give you two challenges. The first is how do you grow your business when there's such consolidation on the provider side [and] so much fragmentation on the audience and advertising sides? Secondly, media companies have invested to create companies with giant asset bases. So how do you generate an attractive return on these assets?
Q: One of the biggest CEO searches in media history is at Disney. Who will get the job?
A: I don't feel that it's appropriate for me to comment on an active search, especially one being conducted by another leading firm [Heidrick & Struggles has been hired by the Disney board].
Q: O.K., but in general terms what do you believe that Disney needs from its next CEO?
A: All giant global entertainment companies will need to create great products and content that will work across multiple distribution channels and on various technology platforms and do so in a fiscally responsible way. That means that they need to be increasingly entrepreneurial and creatively driven while being financially prudent.
That, in turn, places a premium on operational excellence and decentralization. The one additional challenge and opportunity for Disney will be to regenerate its gift for storytelling and, in so doing, renew its position as the steward of youth-oriented and family entertainment on a global basis.
Q: You and your partner, Thomas Neff, just published a book called You're in Charge -- Now What?, an eight-point plan for executives in their first 100 days on the job. If you were to narrow down your advice to just the media business, what's your most salient recommendation to a new CEO in this digital age?
A: Don't try to become a "mogul." The business today is far too complex and interdependent for one person to make all the decisions and wield all the influence. Rather, listen and learn and underpromise and overdeliver. This will help you bring out the best in people and build your credibility internally and externally.
EDITED BY Edited by Patricia O'Connell