How William Abbott got Crown Media Holdings to work as a team

William J. Abbott, President and CEO, Crown Media Holdings Inc.

William J. Abbott was concerned that Crown Media Holdings Inc. had lost its way. The company, which operates and distributes Hallmark Channel to more than 87 million television subscribers, didn’t seem to have a clear path that it was following to achieve success nor did it have a clear idea of what success looked like.

“We would come up with all kinds of different reasons to pursue an endeavor that might not necessarily enhance that singular focus,” says Abbott, the company’s president and CEO. “The biggest challenge I faced was getting everybody on the same page in terms of what our corporate objectives really are. Especially in the entertainment industry, that can be challenging and difficult in that different entertainment companies sometimes have different focuses and different points of view on what’s really important.”

Abbott wasn’t new to Crown Media. He had spent nine years running ad sales and this experience had provided a window into how the different parts that made up the 170-employee company functioned.

“Previous regimes were always focused on the bottom line,” Abbott says. “I just think that the path to profitability and the path to success were pursued differently and with a different vision. For example, producing volume as opposed to being more targeted in terms of what we produce would be an example of a strategic difference.”

Abbott wanted to change that. His goal was to instill a strategy and a sense of purpose to let everyone know what they were doing and why they were doing it.

“It’s delivering a hard-line business approach to a bottom-line driven emphasis,” Abbott says. “If it doesn’t deliver something for the bottom line, our point of view now is it doesn’t make sense for the business.”

See who fits

Before he could begin plotting this new strategic focus for Crown Media, Abbott had to look at the people who worked for him and determine if they were a good fit.

“The first thing you have to determine is that you have the right team in place that is willing to buy in to a new set of strategies and is willing to pursue things a little bit differently,” Abbott says. “It’s an analysis of the team that you have and ensuring you have the right people on board.”

Abbott knew things about a lot of the people on his team from his experience at the company. But he had to set that aside and gather input as to how they would fit into this new initiative.

“That’s probably a 100-day process of really learning exactly where they have been, what their framework for decision-making is and what they draw on from their experience in terms of how they approach their day to day,” Abbott says. “You don’t want to make snap judgments around looking at someone’s resume and deciding they don’t have the right experience to get where you want to get to. It’s living through the day to day for three to four months. That’s what you need to do to get a sense of their thought process.”

You’re looking at relationships and how people function with each other rather than just trying to appraise the skills of an individual.

“It’s seeing what their relationships are like with other team members and people in their group and in their departments,” Abbott says. “The story is told pretty quickly that way versus any kind of evaluation or fact finding that I would do. It’s through their interaction with others that ultimately tells the tale and the respect or lack of respect they have with other leaders.”

Your observations should not be gathered by planting yourself in someone’s office and watching people work.

“That’s the last thing you want to do,” Abbott says. “The evaluations you make really don’t come through wandering around and talking to people. That creates way too amped up of an environment where it becomes an us-versus-them mentality where everybody is fearful when you walk in their office.”

You’re not trying to size them up on an individual basis, which is often where that pressure comes from. You also shouldn’t necessarily be worried about how they respond to you. It’s the way they interact with others, and with their direct supervisors, that will tell you what you need to know.

“It’s the respect they have in the marketplace, their knowledge overall in the business and their ability to function as the leaders in the organization that are much more important than any one or two questions that you might ask them when they are having a bad day or just got off the phone with somebody else,” Abbott says. “I’m not a big believer in how conversations go in the hallway at 5 o’clock at night or 9 in the morning. It’s a much bigger landscape that you need to look at.”

Talk to your people and gather impressions about how they function as part of a team. Ask about others too and see what you learn.

“Who could say, ‘I’m willing to sacrifice my own personal objectives for what I believe is a philosophy or strategy that results in a good product,’” Abbott says. “It’s having that candid, honest conversation that will begin to help you make that determination about who can get there and who will have more trouble.”

Explain what you’re doing

Abbott learned that he did need to make some personnel moves at Crown Media to get the company on the course he believed it needed to be on. Those changes can be tricky to make as you want to do it without rocking the foundation too much for those who aren’t leaving.

“I don’t know that there is a way you can do it without creating some questions and some sense of trepidation,” Abbott says. “It’s a vigilant communication to the employee group of how well they are doing and how much they are valued. Be as present as possible and as visible as possible and try to reassure people, even on a one-on-one basis, that they are valued and very good at what they do and that they have a bright future in the organization.”

You can’t make the moves and then expect to instantly move on as if the changes had never been made.

“To make changes and not really give a very strong explanation as to why and leaving people in the dark and questioning … is very poisonous,” Abbott says. “You need to overcommunicate and be very clear and as approachable as you can possibly be. At the end of the day, everybody is a human being and they have families and responsibilities and hopefully they work to live and don’t live to work. You’re dealing with peoples’ livelihoods. You want to be sensitive to that fact.

“Not only does it make sense from a business perspective to have an environment where people flourish and like coming to work, but also from a personal perspective. If you’re going to run an organization that has integrity and have people who thrive personally, that’s just the right thing to do. There is a responsibility of leadership to put people in the right places and try as best as you can to ensure their confidence levels are high with what they are doing and that they can feel good about the job they do when they go home at night.”

Get the ball rolling

Abbott did not wait until he had made his personnel moves to begin formulating a plan to create better strategic alignment at Crown Media.

“When I took over, I knew exactly where I wanted to go,” Abbott says. “So I didn’t have to spend a lot of time fact finding or searching for what a strategy might be to make it successful. We were able to roll something out pretty quickly.”

You need something to present to people that shows you’ve done your homework on these big changes you’ve been talking about. But at the same time, you have to show people that they have an opportunity to influence the changes that are going to be made.

“Judging what makes successful television is in the eye of the beholder,” Abbott says. “Through the course of conversations, there will always be that type of creative tension which I think is good and I think it just needs to be solved through talking it through. At the end of the day, hearing what makes the most sense for the brand and for the business is what the ultimate gold star is in terms of making that decision. We view everything through that lens, which makes the decision-making a lot easier than it would be if we were just trying to evaluate something for art’s sake.”

With that in mind, Abbott called on his department leaders to meet with their people in groups to have more intimate conversations about what was happening at Crown Media.

“We don’t put everybody together in one big town-hall meeting, but we have smaller town-hall meetings,” Abbott says. “Communicating that message on a level where you have as few people in the room as practically possible is a strategy that is important. If you’re in an organization that’s too big, it’s absolutely incumbent on the leaders of the divisions to really be the messengers and deliver the news and the new strategy in a compelling and coherent way.”

If you’ve made good personnel decisions, the plan should begin to come together fairly quickly. But there is, of course, no sure thing in business or in any aspect of life.

“At some point, you’ve done the best you can,” Abbott says. “There is a level where you have to have confidence. There is a point in any senior management team’s development and evolution where you make decisions and then you just have to believe in your vision and relentlessly pursue it and make it work. But there is no such thing as a sure thing. You have to have that confidence and a little dash of hope as well.”

The successful execution of these steps is in large part based on your ability to be honest with yourself about your abilities and those of your people. If you’re unwilling to make the tough personnel moves when they need to be made, you’ll have a tough time moving your business forward.

“You have the wrong people in place and you’ve got to make changes,” Abbott says. “There’s no room, at least here in our organization, for people who at the end of the day can’t walk away and learn how to have meetings where they are productive and there is the proper amount of respect given. People need to be mindful that they have colleagues as well who are working for the common good. I’ve been on some of those teams, so I understand what that dynamic is like. It’s not a fun place to work and it’s certainly not a productive place, because you don’t have the type of dialogue necessary to move the business forward. It’s the leader’s responsibility to make sure the team is restructured so that it’s part of the culture.”

The numbers at Crown Media  are trending upwards. Revenue grew to $287.3 million in 2010, up from $279.6 million in 2009.

“It’s really that consistent buy-in that we’re all singing off the same song sheet,” Abbott says. “We all really have in our minds where we want to be, not only this year, but in three to five years. Historically at our company, that hasn’t always been the case.”

Fair or not, the burden on making the tough call that sometimes has to be made to grow your business rests with you.

“Ultimately the leader is accountable and the leader needs to make changes so that he or she brings in the right people where that environment doesn’t exist,” Abbott says. “So yeah, ultimately the fault with the leaders. But individuals are responsible for their behavior and it’s a plague on both of their houses at the end of the day if the organization continues to operate in that kind of manner.”

How to reach: Crown Media Holdings Inc., (818) 755-2400 or hallmarkchannel.com

The Abbott File

Born: Manhasset, N.Y.

Education: English and political science major, College of the Holy Cross, Worcester, Mass.

What was your very first job?

Maintaining tennis courts at a country club. They were Har-Tru (clay) courts so they had to be swept and various things had to be done on the courts that aren’t typical of your typical tennis courts.

What is one of the biggest misconceptions people have about the TV business?

Why shows stay on the air and why they get cancelled. There is a definite bottom-line formula that determines the success of a show and the genre, and that isn’t always necessarily understood.

Do you have a favorite TV show?

In terms of quality and star appeal, the Hallmark Hall of Fame over 60 plus years has been a franchise that needs no introduction to the vast majority of Americans. It has served a vital purpose in the television landscape for a very long time. It continues to endure and do very well.

What is the best advice anyone has ever given you?

Work hard and be prepared. It sounds pretty basic, but preparation is so key to your success or lack thereof. Every day when you wake up in the morning, you decide whether you’re going to be successful that day or you’re not just by the nature of what you decide to do. Being empowered like that and knowing that it is a choice is very good advice.