SBJ/May 12-18, 2014/Opinion

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  • How John Miller instills a winning culture at NBC

    “Do a million little things right” and a “Double-no rule.”
    Those were some of the early leadership lessons that NBC Chief Marketing Officer John Miller shared with me as we sat at the network’s Stamford, Conn., studios recently and discussed his years in the business. Miller has a matter-of-fact, smart style, and is now responsible for marketing all of the network’s sports programming in addition to other NBC offerings.
      
    He’s been in the media business since graduating from Syracuse and starting as a freelance producer in 1972. He joined NBC in 1982 and has held a number of positions over the years in the promotion, advertising and now marketing sides of the business. He was part of the group that coined “Must See TV,” the pop culture slogan for the network’s successful prime-time programming in the 1980s and ’90s, especially its Thursday night schedule.

    “‘Cosby’ was one of the shows closest to me,” he said, “because it was the first that I had a role in marketing. ‘ER’ is special because I saw the pilot and said, ‘That’s a hit.’ Even I could see that one being successful.”

    Sitting in director chairs, with the NBC Sports logo as a backdrop, we discussed some of his early leadership lessons and why he manages down more than up these days.

    Photos by: GENE BOYARS
    “There was a guy that I worked for early in my career at NBC by the name of Steve Sohmer,” he said. “He was big in television marketing in the late ’70s and early ’80s and was sort of a Renaissance man. He went off to become a doctor in Shakespearean studies and later became chairman of Columbia Pictures. He said a couple things that were always very important to me. One of them was, ‘Do a million little things right.’ So the idea was based on this incredible attention to detail and that you win by doing a million little
    things right. Yes, you focus on the big things, but you have to make sure that you are doing a lot of little things right. That’s one of the things I learned from him.
       
    “The other thing I learned from him is something I continue to use in any management situation. It was what he called the ‘Double-no rule.’ I’ve used this with people that I’ve managed and people who managed me over the years. When someone comes to you and says, ‘Hey, I’d like to try and do this. What do you think?’ And you say, ‘No, I’m sorry. I don’t think that’s going to work.’ And they come back to you and say, ‘Wait a second. Have you thought about this? I think we can try to do this.’ Sometimes you say, ‘Hmm … OK. Give it a shot.’ That’s fine and good. But, on the other hand, if they come back a second time and you say, ‘You know, I hear your point, but I really don’t think that’s going to work.’ Then, no. That’s it. Double-no. After you’ve said ‘No’ twice, walk away. If you walk away from a single ‘No,’ you may be undermining a great idea, so push it. But double-no? You move on.”

    I asked him to elaborate. He said he had pushed people on this concept throughout his career. “Most people stopped at a single ‘No,’” he said. “They were a little bit too afraid of authority and they were a little bit too afraid of their own confidence. But then there are certain people that simply just never hear the word ‘No.’ They push, and then it’s fine to say, ‘OK, now you’re annoying me.’ I go by the double-no rule still. Occasionally, will I sometimes use a single no? Sure. Will I sometimes go to a triple? Sure, if I really believe in it. But I find the double-no is the best approach. It shows that you have a real confidence in your idea but also that you are respecting someone else’s time and decision-making.”
    What about his management style?

    “I try to be as collaborative as I can,” he said. “I try to be as constructive as I can. I try to be as kind as I can. I like to try to get people comfortable around me. At a certain point, you realize that you’ve moved up a little in the food chain and you can be a little intimidating. I try to be as non-intimidating as I possibly can because good ideas can come from everywhere. But I’m also very competitive. I try to instill a winning culture without being overly competitive. I also try to communicate as much as I can. I try to be as open as I possibly can and overcommunicate to make sure that people feel involved in the process.

         
    Miller said his management style is collaborative, and competitive. “I try to instill a winning culture without being overly competitive.”
    “I don’t think it’s in my nature to be dictatorial,” he said. “I have gotten mad and I have sworn at people, yes. But it takes a long push for me to get that way. I usually get upset when I find there’s a level of, at least in my perception, stupidity involved. Or, blindly going down a road without necessarily looking at other alternatives. As long as you come at it straight, fair and honestly, and with a creative vent, I am more than willing to go along for the ride.”

    With big personalities as his bosses through the years and a mix of veterans and ambitious young people working for him, what is he better at: managing up or managing down? And, what does he spend more time on?
      
    “I spend more of my time managing down,” he said after thinking for a moment. “Maybe it’s my age. Maybe it’s the amount of time that I’ve been in the job. I respect bosses, but I don’t feel I need to butter them up, and I try to use the same double-no rule with them. But at my age and my job, I’m far more interested in encouraging young people to come up with great ideas, particularly in a world of social and digital media. People who are 20, 30, 40 years my junior are far more expert at that area than I am. If I think I have all the answers, I’m dead. Quite honestly, the younger on that score, the better. If I can empower them, mold them, help them and make them feel part of the process, the group is better off, and so am I.”

    With the short shelf life of brand CMOs, Miller has shown remarkable longevity as a network marketer, but he says it’s due to the changing demands of the role. “The competition was different. The way we marketed was different. The technology was different. It has changed dramatically. You have to continually be a student of the business,” he said. “You have to admit that you don’t know everything, because you don’t know everything. It’s changing all the time, and so you have to be an agent of change, an ambassador of change, as well as a continual student of the industry. So I try to be as creative as I possibly can. Be mindful of the fact that you’re not going to do anything that is going to get you sued and you’re not going to do anything that is necessarily going to turn people off. But you know, if we come close to getting sued and turning people off without going over, OK. I’ve never gone quite that far. I had to have my hand slapped a few times, but that comes with the territory.”

    And when I asked him how he gets away from the day-to-day grind, I get a response I wasn’t expecting, one rooted in a childhood love. “I’m not sure if I ever quite get away from it, but the one thing I do enjoy is that I sang with two different international champion barbershop quartets,” he said. “I have been doing that for a long period of time, and two of my sons are involved in it as well. So if I really ever get depressed, I put on some barbershop quartet music, and that has a great way of helping me escape to some other area that puts a smile on my face. I know it is unique, and a little bit bizarre, but for some reason I’ve been a fan of barbershop harmony since I was a kid — from my first quartet when I was in the fifth grade to when I won in the Illinois district championship at 17. And I haven’t stopped since.”

    Abraham D. Madkour can be reached at amadkour@sportsbusinessjournal.com.


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  • Questions that will define European sports business in 2014

    Nearly halfway through 2014, change is the new black in the European sports business. Here are five questions to ponder across the sports landscape:

    1. Will F1 be a quiet life after Bernie?
    Bernie Ecclestone will spend a great deal of 2014 in a German court, contesting a bribery charge that goes back to the sale of Formula One Management to private equity house CVC. Regardless of the outcome, the issue has forced the sport to engage fully in the issue of succession — which, given that Ecclestone is 83, is not before its time.

    A succession plan for Ecclestone will occupy F1 decision-makers this year.
    Photo by: GETTY IMAGES

    Ecclestone has been F1’s central figure since the 1970s, providing a link to the entrepreneurial roots of the race car series and playing the role of the all-powerful figurehead through four decades of commercial success. Life without him will be more corporate and less colorful, but the bigger question is whether it is possible for someone without Ecclestone’s political clout to run such a politically charged sport. Changes to the cars’ engine specs have made them quieter, to the irritation of some of the big teams, such as Ferrari and Red Bull. The noise factor pricks an existential fear that the green lobby is undermining F1’s image of cutting edge technological innovation, which gives the series its commercial point of difference. Under Ecclestone, excess has been part of the brand DNA. As the cars become quieter and greener, F1 devotees fear a future as just another race series. It’s not for nothing that “Every sport needs a Bernie” is conference hall cliché.

    2. Is the Premier League bigger than Manchester United?
    Succession is also at the heart of Manchester United’s season of woe. United has been the leading team in English football since the inception of the Premier League in 1992, but the end of the Sir Alex Ferguson reign as manager has been followed by a dramatic on-field decline and the subsequent sacking of Ferguson’s replacement, David Moyes. The debt-laden Glazer family takeover still rankles fans, and the family will need to provide the cash to ensure 2014 is just a temporary blip in form. This is not just a concern for fans of the club, however. Premier League CEO Richard Scudamore hinted at a broader issue during an interview with Bloomberg earlier in the year. “It’s a double-edged sword,” Scudamore said. “When your most popular club isn’t doing as well, that costs you interest and audience in some places. There’s lots of fans around the world who wish Manchester United were winning it again, but you have to balance that off against, generally, we’re in the business of putting on a competition, and competition means people can compete.”

    Running in parallel to United’s dip is the suggestion that Barclays will exit its long-term position as title sponsor of the league. The current deal has two years to run, but a senior figure at the bank was quoted in the British media as saying the deal offered “no value” to the brand, particularly in foreign markets, where it is routinely referred to as the English, rather than Barclays, Premier League. Come the next round of broadcast deals, Scudamore will doubtless be keen to see the red side of Manchester competing for silverware again.

    3. Will the new Nations League revive UEFA’s problem child?
    The UEFA Nations League is the European governing body’s attempt to apply Champions League-type clarity to the qualification process for its European Nations Championship, the quadrennial summer event. The Euro qualifiers have a habit of producing tedious, inconsequential matchups between mismatched teams, leaving viewers, sponsors and TV partners underwhelmed. UEFA says the Nations League will declutter the football season and give every match meaning. Critics say it is merely solving a problem of UEFA’s own making, that by broadening the European Championships to include smaller nations, the level of the competition was lowered.

    UEFA recently has taken central control of TV rights for the competitive qualifying matches of all its member nations, promising large underwritten guarantees to the biggest countries. That has increased the pressure on UEFA to bring in funding from TV and commercial partners in order to meet them. To this end, the European governing body is likely to centralize the TV and marketing rights for the Euro qualifiers in the same way as it has for the Champions League and Europa League, but the fault line in world football remains club versus country, and Michel Platini’s new plan is an attempt to promote national team competition. Whether he can fight market forces in this way remains to be seen.

    4. Is the future of rugby at the club level?
    Club versus country again, this time for rugby. The Heineken Cup has been one of the great success stories of the professional rugby era, pitching the best club teams from the home nations against those of France, Italy and Spain since 1995. It has been so successful that the commercially ambitious English and French club owners want a bigger slice of the pie. To everyone’s great relief, the impasse over TV rights between Sky and BT Sport was resolved, and European club rugby has a new trophy, with a three-tier structure and a new rights holder to oversee its commercial future. The profits from the tournament will be split equally between the three leagues, giving credence to the belief that the spare commercial capacity in rugby lies in the club rather than the national team game. Time will tell, but the future just got brighter for many of Europe’s underleveraged club brands.

    Gustafsson’s rise in popularity mirrors that of the UFC in Europe.
    Photo by: GETTY IMAGES

    5. Did the UFC just tip in Europe?
    When EA Sports launched its inaugural UFC computer game, the company ran a fan competition to select the two fighters to appear on the cover. The vote went to an American, Jon “Bones” Jones, and — this is the surprise — a European, the Swedish fighter Alexander “The Mauler” Gustafsson. The latter’s elevation to UFC star status was perfect timing given the fight series’ international ambitions. Lorenzo Fertitta led a spring charm offensive aimed at raising the UFC’s profile among the European sports industry. It seems to be working. A number of new TV deals, most notably with BT Sport in the U.K. at four times the previous rights fee, plus the benefit of EA Sports’ marketing muscle among the target market means that 2014 might just be the tipping point for UFC.

    Richard Gillis writes the Unofficial Partner blog and covers sports business for The Wall Street Journal in London. Follow him on Twitter @RichardGillis1.


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  • Looking for a job? Mind your spelling, and your Facebook page

    With May and June being graduation months, I thought I would share with you some important job-seeking advice and a few of the common mistakes I have seen throughout my career, including my most recent stint as chairing a search for an athletic director. I offer this in the hope that I can help some of today’s job seekers avoid these pitfalls and assist them on their quest.

    1. Do not send multiple résumés.
    This was a major turnoff for me in my most recent search. Why would anyone assume I would need 17 copies of his or her résumé? Sending separate résumés to the entire search committee only resulted in all of them sending them on to me as the chair. Recommendation: Send an electronic copy followed by a hard copy in the mail. This will ensure that your résumé reaches its destination.

    2. Verify the accuracy of your résumé and other application materials.
    Recent unfortunate events have shown that not only can you be eliminated from the job you are seeking but you also can jeopardize your current employment situation.

    3. Use references who can speak to your skill set and why you are a desirable candidate.
    Ask them what they will say before submitting them to speak on your behalf. I am now aware of the courtesy reference phone call — a call that stems from obligation rather than conviction — and few things are as damaging as a reference call or conversation when it is apparent that the reference is not really advocating the candidate for the position.

    4. Understand the qualifications and requirements for the position.
    Having several internships might be valuable but not if the position requires five years of experience. Also, understand that “management experience” is usually intended to describe the management and leadership of full-time employees, not necessarily fellow students or volunteers on a game-day staff.

    A résumé doesn’t have to be a single page anymore, but it still needs to be proofread and accurate.
    Photo by: GETTY IMAGES

    5. Forget the one-page résumé philosophy.

    Too many times I review a résumé that doesn’t offer enough information because the candidate was attempting to limit it to one page. While recent college graduates with little work experience may find it difficult to fill up one page, most candidates (including graduate students with multiple internships or volunteer experiences) often do themselves a disservice by not conveying what their duties were and what they accomplished, leaving more questions than answers and not making it to the interview pool.

    6. Quantify your accomplishments.
    How much did you sell? What was the percentage growth in attendance? How did you rank in terms of your performance when compared to others in the same role?

    7. Eliminate the objective on your résumé.
    This can be addressed in the cover letter. And let me guess: Your objective is to find employment? Instead, take two or three sentences to summarize who you are.

    8. Include references with the submission of materials for your application.
    Many times I look at the references after reading the cover letter to see if I know anyone I can call to get an accurate assessment of the candidate and to shorten the hiring process.

    9. Understand the importance of the cover letter.
    Too often I see a one paragraph “letter” informing me that there is a résumé attached for the particular position. This is your opportunity to showcase your communication skills and sell yourself by explaining to the reader who you are, what you have done, why you fit this position and why you should be interviewed.

    10. Spell-check and proofread all materials before submitting them.
    Spell-check is only the first step. If you meant to type “from” and typed “form” (as I frequently do), spell-check does not make that change. If you are not a good proofreader (I am not), make sure you have someone read and review your documents before submitting them. Remember, you are applying to be hired to represent the organization hiring you and the person who will be managing you. Why would they be confident in your abilities to represent them if you fail to be diligent about how you represent yourself?

    11. Manage your social media accounts and your online behavior and representation/image.
    Pictures of you during and after a party, foul language on your posts, the opinions and feelings you express, and the information you provide about your activities and interests can cost you consideration for the position and may even cause a potential job offer to be reconsidered or rescinded. Remember, it isn’t as private as you might think, and once you post it, it is there for the world to see.

    12. Dress appropriately for the interview.
    While we are much less formal in 2014 than we have been in the past, your appearance may still be a limiting factor. If four other candidates wore suits, and you show up in slacks and a shirt, it may cause the interview to start with less of a positive feeling regarding your candidacy. If the workplace is casual, you can always ask if you can remove your jacket or loosen your tie, but you can’t magically acquire those items once you arrive if it is not. Use common sense when considering body art and piercing; choose locations wisely.

    I would also remind you that searching for a job, particularly that first job, can be a frustrating and difficult experience. The process is completely out of your control, yet it permeates every waking hour of your day and can cause sleepless nights. Treat searching for a job just like a job: Schedule regular hours for your search, preparing your materials and following up. Thank your advocates, and once you secure that job, take the time to thank everyone who helped along the way.

    Most importantly, share your experiences and help others following you on the path.

    Bill Sutton (wsutton1@usf.edu) is the founding director of the sport and entertainment business management MBA at the University of South Florida and principal of Bill Sutton & Associates. Follow him on Twitter @Sutton_ImpactU.


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