Debra Lee, former chairman and CEO of BET Networks, has spent her 30-plus years in the industry earning much recognition, including a spot in The Hollywood Reporter’s100 Most Powerful Women in Entertainment,Billboard’sPower 100, and the Grammy’s Salute To Industry Icons Award.In this edition of “In Hindsight,” Lee reflects on one of her biggest career career lessons: You can seek all the council in the world, but at the end of the day—*you* get to call the shots. So listen to your inner voice.
Shortly after I became CEO of BET, there was a minister in Maryland who decided he didn’t like hip hop music. He decided to bus his congregation down to my house every Saturday afternoon to protest hip hop music. I’d previously been president and COO of BET Networks for a decade, after starting as general counsel for the company.
But in all my time with BET, I had never been protested before, especially at my own home! The experience was so strange, but it made me sit back and really consider where I wanted to take BET. It made me, in a sense, reflect on what I wanted my legacy to be as a leader.
“I had people outside my house yelling and screaming about the language of hip hop.”
I had a inkling of what was to come after I’d taken a meeting with the minister. He found offense in some of our content and asked me take off three videos off BET. I said, “Well, I’m not gonna do that.” I explained how I had a standard committee made of up executives at BET, and we made the decisions as to what videos are on the air. We spent a lot of time negotiating with labels and we took out offensive images or words. I wasn’t going to take three videos off the air because someone didn’t like them.
What followed after that conversation was a painful seven months of protests. I had people outside my house yelling and screaming about the language of hip hop. But, I wasn’t going to stand down on my decision. And, in that long protest, something good came of it. I don’t think that’s what the protesters intended, but we came out of that process with a brand statement and sort of mission for the company. We wanted BET to respect, reflect, and elevate our audience.
That mission statement gave me my north star of what I wanted to see on the air. It guided what I wanted to do and helped me better judge individual grievances or issues as they arose. Having that mission statement helped me, too, to better trust myself. Over the years it became easier for me to trust my own decision-making process.
Sure, I always took into account any grievances, especially from our audience, but in the end I was the decision maker. And I had to make the decisions. I think that over time, as a CEO, you learn that skill. You take in all the information you can, and all that you have time for, but in the final result, you’re the one responsible for the decision. At least, that’s how I tried to run my company.
“Trusting my own decisions wasn’t an easy task at first. In fact, I think I was originally pretty slow at making decisions.”
The thing is, though, trusting my own decisions wasn’t an easy task at first. In fact, I think I was originally pretty slow at making decisions. I’d gone to law school, and the first part of my career I was general counsel for BET. When you’re a lawyer, you’re used to researching a lot and focused on finding the right answer.
So, I had to learn to make decisions quicker! And as they say, I had to learn to take my legal hat off and become a businesswoman. When you’re in the media business, you have to get a show on tonight, you don’t have a lot of time to agonize over the many, many decisions you’re making each day. Sometimes you make the wrong decision, and if that’s the case, you apologize and try to do better next time. It’s the nature of business.
Still, I was not afraid to seek the council of friends and others in the business when it comes to challenging PR situations. Working in entertainment means you’ll inevitably deal with something controversial.
I remember one of the big decisions I had to make was whether I would let Chris Brown perform in tribute to Michael Jackson right after Michael Jackson died, and the news of his assaulting Rihanna was still fresh. He had not served his time yet. I got a lot of input from different people in the industry, especially women, saying this would be a bad signal to young women to let him perform. There were a lot of opinions on the subject and a lot of contradictory ones at that. But in the end, I decided it wasn’t the right move. I had to trust my own opinion.
Perhaps that’s why they say being a CEO is a very lonely job. You can take in all the advice and council available, but in the end you have to make the decision. Whether it’s rejecting a Kanye West video, or deciding whether to air Rosa Park’s funeral, you’re the last decision maker. And you will be held responsible.
“Whether it’s rejecting a Kanye West video, or deciding whether to air Rosa Park’s funeral, you’re the last decision maker. And you will be held responsible.”
When I look back at my career, there are a lot of issues where I had to make the decision, and a lot of time the decisions revolve around what the “right thing to do” is, what the best thing to do “for the company” is. Or, you think about will there be any financial implications? How will the audience react? How will the industry react?
Looking back, I think I wish I had learned to listen to my own voice earlier. In my earlier years, I was so worried about not ruining business that I hesitated to listen to myself first. Before I took over BET, I was told, “don’t ruin the business model.” And sometimes I think that affected my decision making more than it should have. Not in a very serious way, but in a way that, if I had to do it again, I would’ve listened to my own voice earlier on, and maybe done more programming that I liked.
“Some of the greatest successes I’ve had over my career are when I made a decision and really listen to my inner voice.”
Because, as it turns out, I think some of the greatest successes I’ve had over my career are when I made a decision and really listen to my inner voice. When we put on The Game after it was canceled on the CW, we got 7.7 million viewers, and it was the highest rated sitcom ever on cable. When we green-lit Being Mary Jane, it became one of the rare, critical depictions on television black single working women.
I would’ve done more of that kind of programming earlier on, but you always have to take into consideration what the budget is, how many resources you have, and so on. But, I think on some of the trickier issues I would’ve listened to my own voice earlier on.
And that’s why I hope young women find their voices early in their careers. That’s part of being a good leader. It’s listening to others, taking advice, but really, when it comes down to it, it’s trusting your own decision-making ability. That’s why you’re in a leadership position.
I read something the other day that I liked. It said, “I never lose. I either win or I learn.” It’s a good motto, especially for someone in business.
—As told to Theresa Avila