You’ve seen it time after time. That brand-new general manager who is now running your station came from, you guessed it, sales. On rare occasions, a news director, or even a creative services director, becomes a general manager, but those seem to be the oddities. Why is this?
An easy answer is that because most general managers are former sales managers, they are comfortable with people who share their professional background. There is truth to this, but it is not the most important factor.
By the nature of their jobs, general sales managers are used to achieving specific goals every month. Unlike news directors and creative services directors, who deal with far more nebulous things like ratings that are affected by factors outside their control, sales manager’s incomes depend on achieving specific goals and doing so every month. This makes them used to accountability.
A second reason is that sales managers are already responsible for station revenue. That means when they become general managers, overseeing the sales manager should be a slam dunk. In theory, it’s easier to learn about news, creatives services, engineering and even the business office that it is to learn sales. And speaking of the business office, sales managers work with numbers and spreadsheets every day. That gives them a leg up when moving to responsibility for a station’s overall budget.
Does that mean only sales managers have a real chance at promotion? Not at all. There are many examples of successful GMs and even group heads who came from other departments. Emily Barr, the president and chief executive officer of Graham Media Group, is a great example. Emily’s background was marketing/creative services/programming. Frank Biancuzzo, executive vice-president and group head of Hearst Television has a similar background to Emily’s. Dave Lougee, president and chief executive officer of Tegna, was a news director. Those are three pretty powerful people in our industry who did not come from sales.
If your goal is to be a general manager but don’t come from sales, you can still make that happen, but you have to be determined. The key is to become well rounded, understanding every part of the television station, as well as the industry, then showcase yourself.
Start by telling your general manager your goal and asking for help understanding the big picture. Programming, retransmission consent, regulation and other areas are not that hard, but someone needs to explain them in detail, then you need to keep up.
If you are a news director, make the general sales manager your best friend. Find out everything she knows about sales. The business manager should be your second-best friend and so forth.
Be the problem-solver in your station, not the person who puts up barriers. Consciously try to think and make decisions like a general manager. Your goal is to stand out as someone who has a holistic view of the television station. Over time, you will build a reputation as a person who can do more than your current job.
Once you’ve done all this, raise your hand in your company. You are now in contention. Make the most of it.
Hank Price is a veteran media executive, educator and author of Leading Local Television (BPP, 2018) and co-author of Managing Today’s News Media: Audience First (Sage, 2015) a management textbook. He is a frequent speaker to television industry groups about the future of media. He currently serves as Director of Leadership Development for the School of Journalism and New Media at Ole Miss. During a 30-year career as a television general manager, Priced specialized in turnarounds, leading television stations for Hearst, CBS and Gannett. During this time, he became known for turning traditional businesses into multi-platform brands. Simultaneously, he spent 15 years as senior director of Northwestern University’s Media Management Center, teaching in both the domestic and international executive education programs.