Managing Change and Taking Risks: One Woman’s View from the C-Suite

Published: February 11, 2010 in Knowledge@Emory

As chief marketing officer for Turner Broadcasting System, Inc.’s Animation, Young Adults and Kids Media division, Brenda Freeman spends a lot of time thinking about shows like Robot Chicken and Ben 10. Freeman’s job is to provide vision and leadership in marketing three of Turner’s cable television networks—Cartoon Network, Adult Swim and Boomerang—as well as the company’s digital businesses, like adultswim.com. Cartoon Network alone is seen in 97 million U.S. homes and 166 countries, and the strategic plans Freeman and her cohorts create are designed to strike a chord not only with viewers and users, but with ad sales clients, promotional partners, affiliates and industry trade communities.

Although Freeman is now a veteran brand marketing and promotion executive, her first job out of the University of Maryland gave little indication of where she would end up. Freeman, who grew up in a family of engineers, has a degree in chemical engineering and went to work after graduation designing rocket motors for Mobil Oil. But it turned out not to be a good fit. “It was not what I liked,” she says, speaking before a group of women gathered for the Executive Women of Goizueta’s (EWG) 2009 Conference, themed, “Managing Change, Managing Challenge.” EWG is an alumni group of Emory University’s Goizueta Business School.

So Freeman went back to school, earned her MBA, and found herself on a general manager track at PepsiCo. As part of her training, she spent time in different departments—including the plant floor. “I threw cases,” she says, briefly flexing her arms. While it’s easy to imagine the lean 40-something stacking soft drinks, it wasn’t long before Freeman singled out marketing as the place for her.

After PepsiCo, roles at ABC Radio Networks, MTV Networks, VH1 and Nickelodeon followed. Oftentimes, she left a job and a boss she liked to move onward and upward. “Most of the times when I’ve made a career move, I was absolutely happy where I was,” she explains in the EWG fireside chat with Jacqueline Welch, SVP, HR, Turner Broadcasting, Inc. However, before discarding an opportunity, “you have to look at where you ultimately want to go and the skills you’re going to acquire.”

Welch underscores Freeman’s point that leaving on a high note versus a low one has its advantages. “You don’t have to leave a job only when things are bad,” Welch explains. “If you’re tired of them and they’re tired of you, you’ll take anything.”

Freeman and her current boss, Stuart Snyder, president and COO of Turner Animation, Young Adults & Kids Media (AYAKM), “clicked immediately,” Freeman says. She loved his style—calling him a people manager. “He didn’t want to micromanage,” she adds.

TBS, Inc. is anchored by its news division, CNN, a fairly traditional enterprise. At AYAKM the environment is suited for dreaming up games like Sumo Slammer Samurai and story lines for Ben 10: Alien Force, and that creative environment attracts employees apt to sport tattoos or to sleep late and work late. Freeman’s an early bird, but rather than bemoan the fact that she’s in the office alone as she waits for most of the creative types to roll in, she treasures that time, using it to “get some heavy-duty thinking in,” she says, before the rest of her day is hijacked by meetings, presentations, and planning sessions. She describes her role as being “the hub” that pulls AYAKM’s marketing department together.

Since coming on board two years ago, one of Freeman’s biggest challenges has been to initiate and manage change. “We’re a work in progress,” she says of AYAKM. She’s had to make some tough decisions, including how to most effectively reorganize the department.

Freeman did her best to fill new and existing positions based “on quality more than history,” but it was a sensitive process. TBS, Inc. has a number of employees who have been with the company since founder Ted Turner ran things. “It would have been easy to hire outside the organization, but I had to think about what that would have done to morale,” Freeman notes. Making changes hasn’t come without some anxiety over how they’ll affect the division’s creative culture—something she monitors closely. “That’s our competitive advantage,” she explains.

Freeman positioned herself as someone who encourages feedback and engages the 130 employees under her watch. “I had them help me,” she says. “I collaborate. I’m a consensus builder. You make better decisions if you have robust, diverse dialogue. I welcome that.”

Once the organizational structure was set, Freeman went about assessing and measuring attitudinal shifts in the marketplace. “We weren’t using a filter that was reflective of what is in the hearts and minds of six- to eleven-year-olds,” she says. When it came to Millennials, they weren’t doing much better. Ratings suffered as a result. So Freeman initiated some deep research. “We had to make some fundamental changes,” she says. They scratched shows in the pipeline and went to work armed with a new set of values and new methods of green-lighting shows.

Scratching an entire pipeline of shows isn’t without risk, but Freeman’s okay with that. And not just on a business level. She advises women to “take bigger risks,” she says. “Calculated risks.” For feedback, Freeman relies on a group of women mentors she has dubbed her “board of directors.” According to Freeman, “they’re a few steps ahead of me—they’ve been there, done that.”

Calling on her board of directors, as well as observing the actions and lives of several of her female peers, Freeman has been inspired to maintain a balance between life and work: be a mother, have a meaningful career, collaborate, make tough decisions and know that having it all comes with a price.

When Freeman was at PepsiCo, she met Brenda Barnes, who at that time was Sara Lee’s COO and is now Sara Lee’s chairman and CEO. “I really looked up to her,” notes Freeman. Barnes was also a mom to three kids and would break from meetings to talk to them. “It impressed me a great deal,” Freeman recalls. She eventually summoned the courage to ask Barnes how she was able to have it all. But Barnes told Freeman she didn’t—there was a price to pay. Barnes’s price, according to Freeman, was “she didn’t sleep.” Before noting the ways Barnes made time for her family, Freeman hadn’t seen other women she’d worked with “visibly having balance,” she says. She began to pay attention to the message broadcast by women in leadership positions and, as a result, she’s careful about the message her behavior sends to others.

Freeman lives and works in Atlanta, but the single mother of two flies to Washington, D.C., on weekends to spend time with her children. She and her former husband decided that D.C., where most of the kids’ support system—grandparents and extended family—lives should be their home. Before Freeman took the job at TBS, Inc., she told Snyder that to make the job work, she’d need to leave early on Fridays to fly to D.C. to spend the weekends with her kids. “It was something that had to be understood upfront if I was to join the team,” she says.

There may have been a time she would have prioritized other things, but “things that were once important aren’t important any more,” Freeman tells Welch. “You have to bring your whole self into the decision.”

Although she no longer designs rockets, Freeman still carves out time to serve on the advisory board for the University of Maryland College of Engineering. She’s also a board member of Women in Cable and Television.

What’s next in Freeman’s career? “I love what the CMO position gives you,” she says, adding that down the road, she’d consider a move that “would expand the toolbox.”

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