Yale School of Management

Time Warner CEO Jeffrey Bewkes Cites the Importance of Emotional Intelligence in Talk at SOM

Jeffrey L. Bewkes YC '74, chairman and CEO of Time Warner, didn’t start his career in the media space. After getting an MBA, he joined Citibank, thinking that it would help round out his analytical skills. But after two years, he made a dramatic change by joining HBO in 1979, long before the network became a cable powerhouse. The fact that HBO was so obscure allowed the management there to try just about anything and stick with what worked. Bewkes said that the group running HBO had a significant advantage, one that surely helps him run a media giant today. "We had a very clear statement of what we were trying to be," he said. "We had a distinct strategy and a mission."

Bewkes, who is on the SOM Board of Advisors and spoke at SOM on April 8 as part of the Leaders Forum lecture series, eventually rose to be the CEO of HBO, helping to build the network into a cable powerhouse. For the last year, he has led Time Warner as it moves beyond its failed merger with AOL and tries to adjust to an environment hostile to traditional media operations. Taking the audience on a tour of his career, he stressed how much professional success is beyond a person’s control. His first big test at Citibank avoided becoming his first big failure through the quick thinking of a clerk in the back office. He green lighted the Sopranos, arguably the most successful cable series ever, but admits he had no idea it would be a huge hit. And he reminded people how quickly the Time Warner/AOL merger, once hailed as a truly brilliant business move, went bad. "There were missteps along the way," he said. "That’s industry jargon for going off a cliff and into a crater."

The point of Bewkes’ lecture wasn’t to stress the role luck plays in a career. Instead it was to explain two very important lessons he learned along the way. The first, he said, is that emotional intelligence is as important as intellectual intelligence. ("Most train wrecks I’ve seen come about more from a fascinating lack of emotional intelligence or social relations than through analytical failure.") Second, he said that culture trumps strategy. You can have a good strategy, but if the firm’s culture is bad, people will ride on what worked in the past and miss opportunities. By contrast, if the culture is healthy, where people are encouraged to question the company’s direction, people can always figure out the right strategy to pursue.

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