Emily Barr thought she was going to be a documentary filmmaker when she grew up. She didn’t think she was going to be CEO of local media group.
But the president and CEO of Graham Media Group made her way from news editor—“my goal was to become assignment manager”—to creative services director to general manager to CEO, by working hard, being curious and being as open to the next opportunity as she could possibly be.
Barr shared some of the lessons she’s learned over her years in broadcasting with moderators Natalia Egan, creative services director at Graham’s KPRC Houston, and Jamie Kay Walters, creative services and programming director at Graham’s WDIV Detroit, at Promax Station Summit in Las Vegas on Thursday.
In a frank and fun session, Egan and Walters asked Barr to share some stories—and she has a few—that revealed how she got to where she is today.
Lesson 1: ‘When the door opens, don’t ask why—run through it.’
When Barr was a news editor at KTSP Minneapolis at the beginning of her career, she was cutting promos on the side because it paid her overtime and she needed the money.
A creative services job came open at the station and Barr immediately threw her name in the hat even though she admits she had no idea what she was doing.
The hiring executive told her to write some promos and he would consider her. So “I went home, wrote some promos and of course they were terrible. She marked them up with red ink. But the person they offered the job to ended up not taking it, so they hired me. When the door opens, don’t ask why - run right through it.”
Lesson 2: Failure’s just a bump in the road - even if you fail in front of Oprah.
When Barr worked in promotion in Houston, the station picked up The Oprah Winfrey Show, which was a big get for it. She and her team created a whole campaign around her name, asking “What’s an Oprah?” and then answering the question with lots of responses that they found funny.
“We were making fun of her name, basically, although we didn’t think of it like that at the time,” she said.
Everyone at the station loved it, she said, and all of the executives at the station signed off on it.
“In a moment of pride, I sent the campaign to the people at the Oprah show and they were horrified,” she said. “They were like, ‘she is going to hate this.’”
That response caused Barr to pull the campaign and do something else instead.
Years later, she became general manager of ABC-owned WLS Chicago, from which Oprah originated. While she sat in on some tapings in the show’s final season, she never told Winfrey herself about the failed campaign,
Lesson 3: Run through the door, but your kids come first.
Barr was seven-and-a-half-months pregnant with her first child when she was named GM of WLS, and she and her husband had to move from Raleigh, N.C., for her to take the job. She doesn’t regret that move, but she said she wouldn’t have done it again if a similar opportunity came up while she was pregnant with her second child.
And to an extent, she faced that situation a few more times in her career. A couple of times she was offered the opportunity to be the GM at WABC New York, one of the country’s most powerful station in the country’s largest market.
“But the timing wasn’t good. I had young children, a move would have been really disruptive to my family,” she said. “When I was in Chicago, that was big enough. Jumping to the biggest market wasn’t something I needed to do. Both of my bosses who offered me that opportunity understood my decision. You don’t get a do-over with your kids. There will always be other opportunities.”
Lesson 4: Firing people should always be at least a little painful.
While “the Oprah thing was right there with big failure,” Barr said she’s also learned from having to push through difficult situations, such as letting people go.
“When you are dealing with having to let someone go and you don’t handle it well and they get very upset, they yell at you, they call you names, it feels really horrible,” Barr said. “It should never feel good to let someone go, even if they are terrible at their job. It should feel lousy because you have to make that decision and you are affecting their lives and the lives of everyone around them.”
Lesson 5: Let what other people think of you be their problem.
Egan told a quick story about going to dinner with Graham’s team in Houston, with Barr in attendance. The waiter came up to Barr and said to her, “let me know when the big boss shows up.” And Barr said, “that’s me.”
Of course, the waiter was mortified but for Barr it was just another day.
“I think I have always tried to just be true to myself. if people don’t recognize who I am or can’t square what I look like with what my job is, that’s fine. It’s way better to be underestimated. That’s a good thing actually. If they underestimate you, then you can always get them right between the eyes. That thing that happened in Houston has happened to me a million times. I don’t have the stature or the height of someone who people think of as the CEO, and I don’t care.
“For everyone in the room who feels they don’t look like the typical whatever, don’t let that bother you, let that be the other person’s issue. That’s how I’ve always approached it.”
Lesson 6: You can never over-compliment.
At one point in Barr’s career, she worked for Arnie Kleiner, the long-time president and general manager of KABC Los Angeles. He said something to her like, “one day when you are a general manager …” and she asked him, “Do you think that is true?” And he said, “Yes, I think that is something that is definitely in your future.”
While that prediction did in fact come true, it was not because Kleiner was psychic. It was because he understood the value of imbuing his people with confidence.
“If you can give acknowledgement to the people around you, they will work harder for you if they know you have their back,” Barr said. “If you constantly berate people, they are not going to want to work for you and they are not going to work that hard.”
Barr closed by running through a few final quick lessons:
—Show up early.
—Do everything that’s asked of you and then try to learn more and offer your services to do other things. You don’t want to step on people’s toes but neither do you want to sit in the corner and wait to be told what to do.
—You are going to make mistakes. If you don’t make a mistake you aren’t pushing yourself hard enough.
And finally—have confidence in yourself: “I’ve always had a good sense of myself and I’ve had some inner confidence,” said Barr. “Even those times when I have gone home and looked in the mirror and thought they are going to fire me tomorrow, I’ve still thought I could get through.”
[Images courtesy of Memoryscape]