One Giant Leap for a Dancer

Janet Rollé, now a VH1 V-P, learned discipline, teamwork, and calculated risk-taking from her time in the corps de ballet

In 1989, Janet Rollé left her job after five years and enrolled in the MBA program at Columbia University. That was hardly unusual: Many students enter B-school with a few years' professional experience. What made Rollé a little different was the job she had left behind. After studying at Barnard College and then receiving an undergraduate degree in fine arts from the State University of New York at Purchase, Rollé worked as a jazz, modern, and classical dancer in London. Her stint in ballet slippers included positions as a principal dancer for the English National Opera and as a dance captain for the musical Time.

Rollé, 39, graduated from B-school with a dual concentration in marketing and film. She landed her first post-MBA job at HBO, as special assistant to then-CEO Michael Fuchs. Recently, she was appointed vice-president for program enterprises at Viacom's VH1, a 24-hour cable-television music station. Among her responsibilities, Rollé oversees licensing for VH1 and Viacom's Country Music Television. VH1 COO Ann Sarnoff says she was impressed with Rollé's understanding both of business and of what Sarnoff calls "the creative process." Recently, BusinessWeek Online writer Pamela Mendels chatted with Rollé about her stage-to-office career path. Here are edited excerpts from their conversation:

Q: Why did you make the leap from the art world to the business world?


A dancer is like a professional athlete in that there's a limited amount of time to practice the craft from a physical standpoint. I didn't want to become a dance teacher after my performing days. I didn't want to be a choreographer. I went into my dance career with the view that it was an opportunity to seize when I was most prepared to do it -- but that ultimately, my body would start to break down and I'd have to think about the next thing.

My initial thought was to become an agent. I thought I would be good at representing artists and talent because I had been in their shoes. After doing some research, I realized that being an agent wasn't what I was most interested in, but rather in combining involvement in the creative process [with ways] that ultimately drive the business objectives of an organization.

Q: Why did you decide to go to business school?


I looked at ways of furthering my education that would launch my career fastest. It was clear to me that with a bachelor's degree in fine arts and dance, the best I could hope for was to be a secretary. It occurred to me that if I could spend two years being in a musical, I could certainly devote two years to advancing my education to the point where I would be taken seriously when trying to find work.

Q: Do you have any idea what the admissions committee at the business school thought of your application?


They regarded it with a lot of warmth, [in part] because I had the experience at [Columbia's sister school] Barnard. I think that gave them comfort that I was someone who had a brain. On the other hand, they did put me through some paces. For example, at the time I applied, they discouraged people from coming to interview in person. But they invited me in. I think they wanted a sense of whether I knew what I was committing to.

Q: Do you recall any of the questions they asked you?


What was gratifying about my dance career? What was it in my approach to my dance career that I felt would serve me well in pursuing a business career? Why did I want to make the change at the time that I did? Was it necessitated by an injury or anything like that? Was I feeling pressured into making the decision -- which I was not.

I pride myself on getting out while I was still a good dancer, so I never had to go through that regret of seeing my skills deteriorate and diminish over time.

I also think it might have been a hedge on their part, because entertainment isn't an industry that comes on campus to recruit for MBAs. I think that the school wanted to make sure that I felt very comfortable in directing my own job search.

Q: How did you conduct your job hunt?


Pretty much independently. Columbia has a very sophisticated and useful database of alumni in entertainment. I began there, calling alums, setting up informational interviews. I would take trips to Los Angeles during school breaks for some of those interviews and to attend professional conferences that would enable me to be immersed in the language of the business.

It was important to network as much as possible. If I made a good contact in an organization, I tried to turn that into two or three additional contacts. The more people you know, the more likely it is that your name is going to come up when there's an opportunity. Because there isn't a traditional recruiting cycle in the entertainment industry, it was critical that I was the name on people's lips when an opportunity presented itself -- which is eventually how I actually got my first job.

Q: How did you line that up?


In my pounding-the-pavement mentality, I made it my business to go to conferences at other schools [not just Columbia]. I made one of my first HBO contacts at a conference at Wharton. The person was in finance -- we had a conversation, and I was up front. [I said] I was interested in HBO, but not particularly in the finance area, and if there were other people at HBO I might talk to, I would appreciate those referrals. I think the person appreciated my honesty and that helped me get into the HBO system. My resume was passed along to a couple of people.

To make a long story short, Michael Fuchs, decided concurrent with all of this activity that he wanted to bring someone in to the company to work directly with him, to see the company from his vantage point, and then launch that person into a more traditional career at HBO. My resume crossed the desk of the person doing the recruiting for that position. It all happened very, very quickly from there. I had my initial meeting with someone who worked with Michael and who gave me a couple of assignments to bring back for my meeting with him.

Q: Do you remember the assignments?


The gist was to do research that would prepare Michael for a meeting with General [Norman] Schwarzkopf, [in case] HBO was interested in pitching him on getting into business with us -- which could be filming his life story or a number of other things.

I think what stood out in the way I approached the assignment, relative to the other finalists, was that I was able to find out how much General Schwarzkopf made. Michael asked me why I included the salary in my research. My answer was that if he were going to go into negotiations with General Schwarzkopf, he should certainly have a sense of the value of the deal. If we were going to offer him a dollar amount for the rights to his life story, he [Fuchs] would be able to gauge how meaningful that offer was.

Q: What was the hardest part about making a switch from the art world to the business world?


Convincing people that the transition made sense and that there were skills that I'd developed as a dancer that were completely transferable to business. One thing I appreciated about the way Michael viewed my candidacy is that he was able to articulate why he thought my background as a dancer was valuable to HBO. He pointed to the level of discipline that it requires to be a dancer and how that would position me well in a business environment. He also understood how my love for and experience with the creative process would make me a better marketer. That kind of insight is not something that I saw a lot.

Q: Are there other lessons that you bring from dance to business?


The dance world allowed me a window into two ways you should function as the leader in any organization. There are times when you have to be a part of a team in order to advance the vision. It's much like when you're in the corps de ballet: You are not meant to stand out -- you're meant to be a part of a team that fulfills the artistic vision the choreographer has for the group.

But at other times you have to play in terms of your leadership and your ability to advance a vision. You should be willing to take the risk to go out front and be the soloist.

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