Geraldine Laybourne Featured

7:00pm EDT February 28, 2007

Geraldine Laybourne saw something that the guys didn’t notice: Women not only make up a larger share of the population than do men, they are also making more decisions and controlling a growing portion of the money spent in the marketplace. So after turning money-losing Nickelodeon into the top-rated 24-hour cable channel and doing a stint at Disney/ABC, Laybourne co-founded Oxygen with Oprah Winfrey, Marcy Carsey, Tom Werner and Caryn Mandabach. Oxygen’s latest venture is oomph.net, which Laybourne calls a virtual back fence where women can gather to chat, for advice and information, and to meet people with similar interests. Smart Business spoke with Laybourne about the value of vision, putting problems in front of everyone and why you should avoid the brainiacs.

Trust your instincts. In general, what bothers me about business today is there’s so much emphasis on PowerPoint presentations and analysis and decks and strategic planners. I feel that we’re losing that intuitive gut that takes in so much information, so much more than any PowerPoint could ever present, and that we’re fixated on the form and that people think they’ve made a good presentation because their PowerPoint is neat.

Don’t think, ‘Get rich quick.’ I am worried about the level of thinking about problems and the level of passion that people bring to the table. I was on an airplane a few years ago and I had a press packet for Oxygen. This guy sitting next to me said, ‘My goodness, you’ve had a successful career. How can I make money quickly?’

I said, ‘I hate to tell you this, but you’ll never be successful with that question.’ For me, it’s standing for something, believing in it, taking your bumps, getting back on the horse and sticking with it, not relying on outside consultants, really asking yourself honest questions and being open to learning negative things.

If it’s worth doing, it’s going to be hard. You have to really stick with it.

Choose people who put vision ahead of ambition. I think the single most important quality is, is this person able to think of the greater good, as opposed to building their career. It starts with the vision and it starts with articulating that and then finding people who want to be part of something.

You could pretty much tell who were the people in the room who wanted to help you build the vision and then execute the vision from the ones who didn’t really want to participate, who didn’t really want to be part of the team. They didn’t enjoy the process.

I took exactly the same group of people at Nickelodeon, and by getting rid of the boss and me being the boss, the same people turned the network from a low-rated network to the highest-rated network on cable television.

Stay close to the ground. People will often talk about the glass ceiling as it relates to women. I think the thing that’s scarier today is the glass floor that most executives stand on, where they’re protected from consumers, they’re protected from employees by a layer of management that’s trying to package information for them. My advice to executives is to trust your gut, keep your eyes open. You have to be with your consumers ... you have to listen to what the people using your product are saying and not listen to brainiacs who never had any operational experience.

Stay connected to the marketplace. I’m constantly reading, I’m constantly out in the world, I’m going to focus groups. I’m trying to find those people that have a different point of view and trying to integrate all of that.

There’s no shortcut to knowing your customer, and anybody that thinks that they can learn something by reading a research report, they can’t. You might learn something, but you really learn it if you see if for yourself.

Keep the problems on the table for everyone to work on. Oxygen has five people on the executive team, and we sit once a week and put all of the problems of the company on the table. At Nickelodeon, we called it the PIT program, presidents-in-training.

The training program was a pact. If you come and think about the problems of the network and don’t just think about the problems of your department and don’t just be territorial, you will learn how to become the president of a network. You’ll be solving all the problems all the time.

Look ahead of the curve. I really believed that my cable brethren had not done a very good job for women. Really, to have just one brand, Lifetime, for 52 percent of the population, that’s not super-serving your audience. Lifetime was very defined and for an older woman, and had a definite personality, but I didn’t think that was the only thing women were interested in, so I saw a market opportunity. I convinced cable operators that when they started out as cable operators, men paid all the bills, and since then there’s been a huge shift and now women are paying 85 percent of the bills. I thought we could help them market to women. I also thought that the advertising community was eventually going to realize that women weren’t buying just soap suds and feminine hygiene products, but they were buying electronics, cars, houses, everything.

HOW TO REACH: Oxygen Network, www.oxygen.com; oomph.net

Editor’s note: Geraldine Laybourne will be the keynote speaker at the “Building a World-Class Business” conference, presented by e-magnify at the Westin Convention Center on March 20. For details and registration, visit www.e-magnify.com.