Over a Starbucks in her office, the gregarious Managing Director, NBCUniversal Networks Asia-Pacific talks diversity in the workplace with SRi Partner Helen Soulsby.
The Australian-born Economics graduate flashes a smile at me as we settle into the inviting sofa set up in her workspace, and coffee is forthcoming! I am here to interview Christine Fellowes about her views on women in the workplace, and their presence as leaders.
The commonly held (misconceptions) of women business leaders often include descriptions of “hard”, “cold” and “aggressive” females. Fellowes’ relaxed manner and nature, however, completely belies this outdated stereotype.
I poise my pen, ready to take notes as she shares about how she got her start in the television industry. “I started off in retail fashion actually,” confesses Fellowes. “I just wanted to follow my passion so when my friends went on to become merchant bankers, I was working at the back of the shop.” It was the right thing to do at the time, for me, but I soon realised that fashion needed to remain my hobby and not my career focus.” With this realisation in mind in the years to come, she delved into the world of advertising and the likes of Turner Broadcasting and Omnicom Group, before finally moving to Singapore in 2011 with her family to take up her current appointment.
Fellowes is not afraid of being a trailblazer, back when she took the helm from Raymund Miranda, NBCUniversal had entered the Asian market later than its already-established rivals. While other television channels were vying for viewership for their Hollywood content, Fellowes focused her energy on rejuvenating their portfolio, creating regional content and launching digital services.
Fellowes pauses for a sip of coffee and I make use of the opportunity –– to ask if she has any role model in the industry. Enthused, she rattles off a few names before settling on a senior leader at E! Entertainment who gave her a break in her career. After going through a series of phone interviews, she was finally invited to fly to Los Angeles to meet with the company’s management, however being nine months pregnant at the time meant this was going to be slightly tricky. She confesses, laughing and half-embarrassed, that she “went into a defensive tirade about her as a working mother, and that this really does not matter, and she can prove she is right for the job”. And yes, she admits she said “I can do it all! to which he responded, “I have seven sisters. I think working mothers are the most time-effective managers. Wait for news.” He then put down the phone, turned to a colleague and said “We have to hire her!” Soon after, Fellowes landed the job and had her first revelation of how a leader’s attitude can inspire loyalty; a lesson that would influence her future decisions and leadership style.
Curious, I quiz her about female representation in the media industry. In a broad stroke, Fellowes paints it as “high proportions of females across the industry but significantly less so at the senior management level”. A thoughtful look on her face, she muses, “Many go on a career break – often after starting a family and they never return – for multiple reasons. [It could be because of a] lack of support or they feel that they have to choose between career and family.” This represents a drain of valuable talent from the industry and we need to invest in creating new organizational approaches and structures to retain women and allow them to develop meaningful careers while prioritizing family and accommodating other roles that women hold in the community.
By this time, the conversation has taken a life of its own and it spins off in the direction of how to attract different types of talent. Fellowes is keen to talk more broadly about diverse teams, “As a leader I believe in hiring diversely, looking beyond age, race and industry experience,” she stresses. “Corporate environments and leadership positions are structured to appreciate extroverts and certain personality types, and research demonstrates that some leaders can be prone to unconscious bias. . We also know that a lot of creative minds are introverts.” She shares that, at NBCUniversal, they invest in bringing out innovation from everyone, and are focusing on hiring on skills rather than definitions of roles. “In a world where industry consolidation and disruption are shifting traditional business foundations, we require talent with agility, resilience and the capacity to deal with volatility and ambiguity.”
This conversation could go for hours but in the interest of time we move on to the topic of mentoring. “Do you do any mentoring yourself?” She nods in the affirmative, before reciting a list of formal mentorship programs in their company which she is personally involved in. She values the opportunity to interact with next generation talent. “You are often high level as a leader, [overseeing] operations, investments, new business, and at the same time you need to notice what’s happening in your organisation.” She also highlighted that the gift of mentoring is how much you can learn from those you mentor, whether it be in the context of trends in social and technology or cultural nuances around peoples’ views of leadership across the globe.
Fellowes is optimistic about the future. When I raise the much-recounted views on the shortcomings of the millennial workforce, she has a refreshing view. Rather than self-entitled, she thinks millennials and Gen-Z’s like her children are simply more altruistic in their approach in life and it is positive that they want to have balance in the truest sense of the word. “ I know that they look at me and simply do not want the life I lead. We were inspired to blaze a progressive trail on the back of the generation before us, – particularly as women forging careers. But younger people today see the sacrifices that took and importantly feel they have a choice to do it very differently. They are the first generation to be so connected, technologically savvy and globally mobile, and this will inform the way they shape the world”
“You need to show [your team] that it’s important to have a multi-layered life,” emphasises Fellowes. The importance of leaders developing a social presence is crucial, as it will help in forging connections with millennials as well as the broader employee base. “You know what – it’s great to have a gym bag in your office and take time out to exercise in the day. It’s okay to have family photos and personal effects around you”. And she believes this sets an important tone that trickles down to all staff, recognising authentic leadership, – with scope for true diversity in the workplace and ultimately creating a more effective result. Organisations can support this by developing employee-directed social outreach initiatives; it helps to make employees feel they are contributing to the community we work in and valued as a member of the organisation. “Encourage them to bring their whole selves to work,” was her final remark and one that has stayed with me.
As a recent Forbes article highlighted – bringing our whole selves to work means showing up authentically, leading with humility, and remembering that we’re all vulnerable, imperfect human beings doing the best we can.
From our discussion, it is clear that Fellowes and NBCU are committed to creating an environment that encourages and enables this type of authenticity and humanity. Diversity and innovation across all areas will surely thrive within it.
About the interviewer
Managing Partner for the APAC region, Helen Soulsby leads a multilingual and multinational team of 14 from the Singapore office.
Helen has been championing SRi’s growth in Asia for the past 7 years, stretching SRi’s network to include South East Asia, China and Hong Kong, South Korea and Japan. A discerning advisor with deep market knowledge, Helen leads senior-level searches across the ever-converging media, sport, entertainment and technology sectors for agencies, content owners, media companies and brands.
SRi is a boutique global executive search and consulting firm focused on media, content, technology and sport.
We work as one partner-led team with staff based in key global markets across eleven offices on four continents. We offer dedicated and specific sector, function and region expertise. Our services include executive search, board assessment, succession planning, salary bench-marking, advising clients on their internal and external hiring strategy, new market entry and multi-vacancy projects.
About NBCUniversal’s programs/initiatives
NBCUniversal is one of the world’s leading media and entertainment companies in the development, production, and marketing of entertainment, news and information to a global audience.
NBCUniversal owns and operates a valuable portfolio of news and entertainment television networks, a premier motion picture company, significant television production operations, a leading television stations group, world-renowned theme parks, and a suite of leading Internet-based businesses.