As a part of my series about strong female leaders, I had the pleasure of interviewing Sylvia George. Sylvia was appointed as General Manager of UMC — Urban Movie Channel in March of 2018. Prior to that she was the Company’s first Chief Marketing Officer from January 2017 to March 2018 after serving as President, US managing North American distribution for four years and spearheading the integration of Acorn Media and Image Entertainment, which were acquired by the Company in October 2012. Before this integration, Ms. George served as Vice President of Sales & Marketing for Acorn Media after progressing from her first role with Acorn as Marketing Manager in 1999. During this time, Ms. George helped to build Acorn’s brand profile as the “chief curator of the best Brit TV” (TIME magazine) and grew the brand’s footprint across retail while developing a growing business in the digital home video market. Ms. George came to Acorn from technology sector company Icarus Corporation where she advanced from product marketing to managing sales and marketing efforts for Latin American markets.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?
Even though my story dates me back to the stone age, it speaks to how I moved into entertainment. Way back when there was a tech boom in the early days of companies like Amazon and Google, jobs in high-tech companies were everywhere so as a liberal arts major, I found myself starting my professional life in that sector marketing a very technical product line. It was a great company, but I wasn’t really passionate about what I was marketing. A couple of years later, the tech bubble burst and high-tech companies were going through a major market correction. My company was suddenly very challenged, so I started looking for something else. I soon found a small, east coast media company that was distributing interesting, high-quality documentary and drama content. Despite having no media experience, I really wanted the position, so I interviewed and actually got the job. The only drawback was that I’d be making less than 50% of what I was currently making in the tech sector. I didn’t have to think about it too long. I took the job and was much happier. In the end, the investment in finding a job I enjoyed paid off both in happiness and compensation and set the stage for a long career in the media industry.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began leading your company?
There was a lot of change in my group when I came on board and a lot of uncertainty about the direction of the business. That’s a tricky time as it can be easy for a team to get caught up in conjecture about the organization and concerns about what’s going to happen to them. That behavior is totally normal and expected, but it can be distracting if a team isn’t immediately focused around a goal. So rather than keeping the team out of the loop on business strategy, we started to integrate the team into key decisions from the content we’re producing and acquiring to how we’re marketing the brand to product development initiatives. That immediately focused the team and removed a lot of uncertainty. We were all in the trenches together and on the same page on what we needed to do to make the business successful. Thanks to that unified, integrated approach we were able to growth the business 100% over the next twelve months.
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?
I’m sure there have been a number of mistakes but the funniest thing about my job is how much my younger team is constantly teaching me about what’s hip and happening in the world. I came from a very different division in the organization that catered to an older audience and now I’m running a digital channel that caters to a much younger, savvy, heavily mobile audience. I’m constantly having to say, “translation please?” when there’s a new term I haven’t heard before. It’s often funny and always fascinating and rewarding to learn from my much hipper team.
What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?
Our organization is focused on fundamentals from presenting quality content for passionate audiences to developing a dynamic and fulfilled team to focusing on profitability while reinvesting in growth. In the media industry, there are lot of big shiny new ventures on the rise all the time. They explode on the horizon and burn out fast because they don’t focus on those key fundamentals.
Are you working on any exciting new projects now? How do you think that will help people?
We’re working on producing some amazing original content form addictive dramas to thrillers to inspiring docu-series and entertaining reality TV. We’re here to give our audience an entertaining escape through content that is created just for them.
What advice would you give to other female leaders to help their team to thrive?
Listen to your team and really involve them in the business. Some of the best decisions we’ve made this past year came from input from the team.
What advice would you give to other female leaders about the best way to manage a large team?
Prioritize. Focus on daily goals that support longer term goals and stay focused on what you must do to achieve those goals every day. That will naturally dictate the direction the team has to go in and the direction for specific team members that can help achieve the larger group goals.
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?
There are so many people who’ve been amazing mentors along the way. When I first started at my company, I had an amazing boss who showed me the power of inclusivity while striving for excellence. She was exacting but an incredible communicator who made everyone feel like they were an important part of the team. That’s a balance I strive for every day with my team.
How have you used your success to bring goodness to the world?
My hope is that I’ve been able to help develop people, particularly women, along the way in my career. I think helping people find their potential and grow into roles and responsibilities they never even envisioned for themselves has been one of the most rewarding aspects of my career.
What are your “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Started” and why? (Please share a story or example for each.)
- If something doesn’t feel right or you’re hearing an explanation that doesn’t make sense, don’t ignore your instincts and go with the flow. Some of the worst business decisions are made that way and many of them can be prevented. It’s understandably harder for a junior person to do that but even in management, I’ve had times in my career where I’ve worked with “experts” who said 2 + 2 = 5 and I thought, they must know something I don’t. 9 times out of 10 they don’t.
- Smile and eventually you’ll feel better (aka fake it ’til you make it). There have been so many times where I felt out of my depth and didn’t feel up to the task, but I put on a smile (or at least tried to avoid a panicked expression) and eventually, I got the job done. Give yourself a chance before letting your lack of confidence get in your way even if you have to fake it for a little while.
- Ask for help. Never be afraid to ask for help if you don’t understand something. I’ve seen many people fail because they felt it was a sign of weakness to go to other co-workers and ask for advice or assistance. Often, it’s the people you’re most afraid to ask for help that turn out to be the best collaborators and mentors.
- Conversely, help others in your organization and wider network. You don’t have to say yes to everything and you certainly have to focus on getting your job done, however, if you can reasonably extend a helping hand to a colleague it’s not only a nice thing to do it’s an investment in your future.
- Try to find something you love outside of work. Whether it’s a hobby, a partner, friends, a beloved pet or all the above. It’s so helpful to know that if work goes away tomorrow, you’ll still have something that makes you happy and want to get out of bed every day. That’s helpful to remember, particularly when you’re having a bad day at work.
You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂
I don’t have a specific idea around this, and I know a lot of great work is already happening around the world in this area, but I feel that women supporting and mentoring other women in business is so important. I’ve had so many wonderful mentors in my life — many of whom were amazing women — that I feel the need to pay it forward any way I can. In that vein, it would be wonderful to develop a national women’s professional mentorship program that makes it easy for women to get help with everything form resume building to figuring out how to ask for a raise.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
“The most common way people give up their power is by thinking they don’t have any.”
– Alice Walker.
As a woman in business this sentiment has been relevant to me my whole career, but it really applies to everyone who has ever felt like they weren’t worthy of a particular job or promotion or even basic respect at any point in their lives.
We are blessed that some of the biggest names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this if we tag them 🙂
It’s hard to narrow the list down to one. There are so many amazing people out there who inspire me every day. I’m particularly drawn to women with staying power who’ve been able to reinvent themselves as they move into different phases of their careers. Women like Oprah, Sheryl Sandberg, Arianna Huffington, Indra Nooyi and Meg Whitman.