Upoma Dutta (MBA ’21) talks with Jeff Shell (MBA ’91) about his next chapter at NBCUniversal.
For the past three years, HBS has managed to get a sizable portion of the RC and EC cohorts to sacrifice four days from their much-needed winter breaks to take the optional Short Intensive Programs (SIPs)—for no credit. “The Life and Role of the CEO”—led by Dean Nitin Nohria and Professor Kevin Sharer—is one of the SIPs that are always substantially oversubscribed, reflecting students’ aspiration to someday become CEOs or be advisors to CEOs. This January, more than a hundred students participated in a series of case discussions and conversations with current and former CEOs to better understand the realities of the CEO role. For many, one of the major takeaways was that, while CEOs’ performance should be assessed over their entire tenure, the “first year” is particularly critical for building credibility with various stakeholders and aligning the organization towards the long-term vision.
For Jeff Shell (MBA ’91), the “first year” officially started on January 1, when he assumed the role of the CEO at NBCUniversal (NBCU), one of the most storied companies in the media and entertainment industry. Having spent the last 15 years in various leadership roles at NBCU and its parent company Comcast, Shell was no stranger to the strategic priorities and industry shifts facing NBCU. In a not-so-long-ago role as the Chairman of NBCU’s motion picture division, Universal Filmed Entertainment Group (UFEG), Shell led the shift to a franchise strategy—against the backdrop of an overall declining box office—helping the studio deliver several billion-dollar hits from tentpole franchises (such as Fast & Furious, Jurassic World and Despicable Me).
However, with his ascent to the CEO role, his scope of responsibilities has significantly expanded to other assets in NBCU’s sprawling portfolio, including its television networks and theme parks. In April, NBCU will launch its highly-anticipated streaming service Peacock. In July and August, NBC Sports will be deep in the throes of the Tokyo 2020 Summer Olympics coverage. And in the months leading up to the Presidential Election Night in November, NBC News will need to heavily focus on drawing eyeballs in a highly fragmented news climate. Talk about a packed first year!
As Shell dives into the most exciting phase of his illustrious three-decades long career in media and entertainment, we talk about the leadership traits and self-discoveries that defined his journey so far and about the facets of his new role that make him excited to wake up in the morning.
Let’s go back to the early years of your career. What made you decide to come to Harvard Business School? And how did the experience shape you?
After getting out of my undergraduate program at UC Berkeley, I was drawn to working on Wall Street to make money and relieve financial stress at home. But during my two years at Salomon Bros., I realized that investment banking was not the right career path for me. I wanted to work on a product that I liked. So, I went to HBS to not just switch careers but also discover which career was right for me.
While I found many great professors at HBS, what I remember most is the people in my section and the people from the HBS community who I interacted with. The best part of HBS is not just learning from people around you but also building a network of friends and colleagues that last a lifetime. Later on, in my career, I would continue to find other HBS alumni in the industry, including my former boss, Steve Burke [MBA ’82].
What factors were most important to you when planning your career in the media and entertainment industry?
One of the mistakes that many HBS students make is that they want to chart their career and think they really know when the opportunities are going to come. Instead, they should focus on being good at the job they have, grow in the moment and be willing to take risks when opportunities present themselves.
To be candid, during my time at HBS, I was only interested in media and entertainment insofar that it was a business with a product that I liked. Disney happened to be one of the few L.A.-based companies that recruited on campus, and I fortunately got a job in its strategic planning team—which gave me an overview of a big established media company.
But I knew I did not want to work in just strategy—I wanted to be an operating executive and run a business. So, I took a chance and went to Fox to work in an operating role. I had a great run there. Years later, when my wife and I wanted to move out of L.A., Comcast [in Philadelphia] was well positioned in the industry and presented the right opportunity at the right time.
The organizations that you worked for had quite different cultures and faced different strategic challenges. What leadership traits allowed you to be successful under those different circumstances?
Throughout my career, I proved to be very good at diving into businesses that I did not know a lot about. And learning those businesses allowed me to make changes to them without breaking them—be it businesses that needed to be turned around or businesses that needed to take a different strategic direction.
Two qualities were particularly helpful whenever I moved to a new role. First, I was never afraid to ask lots of questions. I didn’t see asking questions as a sign of weakness. If I asked a question once and I did not get an answer, I was not afraid to ask the question again.
Second, I never assumed that the people running the businesses were anything other than experts or that I was smarter than those people. In contrast, many MBA graduates make this mistake—they think they can change the business from Day 1 without first investing the time to get to know the people or the business itself.
Let’s go back to your time at Universal. You helped build several successful franchises during your tenure. As someone with an MBA degree and mostly business experience, how did you develop the foresight to know which creative projects would be successful and which would not?
The short answer is, nobody knows what the next big hit will be. It’s not something that an algorithm can help figure out because so many variables—such as the idea, the script, the vision of the director and the showrunner, and the casting decision—will have to come together to deliver an excellent product.
More often than not, achieving success in a creative business comes a lot down to the execution. My forte was in finding people with good ideas and passion to execute the projects and giving them the resources and support to succeed. In this way, managing a creative business is the same as managing any other business.
NBCU is in the middle of several pivotal initiatives this year. What is your biggest priority?
Our company is well-positioned for two reasons. First, people are consuming our content—movies, TV shows, news and sports—much more than they ever have. Second, we have the capital to do what we want, given so many of our existing businesses are doing well.
We are, of course, in an industry where consumer habits are dramatically changing. My biggest priority is getting the organization to a consensus on where we think the world is headed and making sure the organization and the talent are appropriately set up to succeed in that.
As you look back at your career, what advice do you have for current HBS students who might someday want to lead as CEOs?
Go work for a business where you love the product, and go work for a business which is growing with smart people. Do your job well but also be venturesome with your career choices, even if you have to relocate with your family, move overseas or adapt to a different set of responsibilities. If you do all these things right, you will definitely have a lot of success.
Upoma Dutta (MBA ’21) came to HBS after spending roughly four years in the media and entertainment industry in New York, where she helped two media companies (HBO and Disney) transition into the streaming era and build on new strategic growth opportunities. Originally from Bangladesh, she also worked for the International Finance Corporation (World Bank Group) early in her career to promote financial inclusion and financial sector stability in South Asia. She holds a bachelor’s degree in business administration from The Institute of Business Administration, University of Dhaka.