ESPN is one of the most successful media ventures ever, covering a wide variety of sports across the widest variety of media platforms in the business. In print, on radio, television, the Internet, by satellite and on your tablet or phone, you can always find scores, commentary, games and chat on ESPN. John Skipper, ESPN’s president since January 2012, has had a hand in shaping it all — from the content you see, read, hear and argue about, to the way it’s packaged, managed, marketed and sold, to the way advertisers work with the company. Skipper, 55, began his media career at Straight Arrow Publishing, best known for publishing Rolling Stone. He went on to Spin magazine, a music publication, and then to the Walt Disney Company, where he was responsible for the publishing group. In 1996, when Disney acquired CapCities/ABC, a TV and media group, ESPN was part of the package. Since that time, it has become one of Disney’s top-performing stars, and for 14 years, Skipper has played a role in making that star shine brightly. He began by developing a magazine for ESPN, was placed in charge of ESPN.com, then took over advertising and sales, and finally, Skipper became responsible for all of ESPN’s vast ever-changing content. When Skipper took over from George Bodenheimer, ESPN’s much-loved president, he inherited a company that was successful, stable and in possession of deep reserves of talent and experience. Skipper discussed his career and the lessons he learned with Jed Hughes, Korn/Ferry International’s Vice Chairman and Global Sector Leader for Sports, and Joel Kurtzman, editor-in-chief of the Korn/Ferry Institute’s Briefings on Talent & Leadership.
You began your career at Rolling Stone. How did you make the leap from publishing magazines and books about music and entertainment to sports?
Skipper: It was more happenstance than predetermined. I moved to sports because Steve Bornstein, who was president of ESPN at the time, wanted to have an ESPN magazine. I was already at the Walt Disney Company, where I was managing book and magazine publishing. So in 1995, when Disney bought Cap Cities/ABC, which owned ESPN, Steve Bornstein said, “Well, who’s the magazine guy at Disney who can take a look at our magazine?” They were publishing a magazine called Total Sports. And so they had me look at the magazine and asked me what I thought about it. I told them that I believed there was a good opportunity for an ESPN magazine, but the one they were publishing was woefully inadequate. I also said we probably ought to stop, shut down the magazine, rethink what we wanted to do and start a new magazine. So that’s what Steve asked me to do.
What got you to ESPN?
Skipper: When we presented the plan for the new magazine, they said, “Well, the good news is we’re going to do the magazine. And the further good news is you’re going to come over to ESPN from Disney and run it.” They transferred me to ESPN.
Once you made the move, how did you establish yourself at ESPN?
Skipper: I had a pretty good partner in John Walsh, who was a longtime editorial executive at ESPN. He was my partner when we did a prototype for the magazine and were figuring out what we wanted. And then he became my guide. I guess he was my guide to ESPN, which was very different from Disney. Disney was a big, global, Los Angeles-based company. ESPN is in Bristol, Conn., a small town. It had a very entrepreneurial spirit. There was a significant adjustment in culture. And at Disney I was not a senior executive. When I moved over to run the magazine, the same thing was true. I was at the VP level, sort of a third-ring guy.
How were you able to succeed?
Skipper: I had the president of the company, Steve Bornstein, wanting me to do the magazine. So I had a direct relationship with the guy in charge. And I had a guide, John Walsh, who helped me figure out the company. We ran the magazine from 34th Street in New York, and Walsh gave me some great advice. He said, “Go to Bristol once a week to the staff meeting. It’s the way you’ll get to know the people in Bristol, and the way you’ll begin to understand the company.” He said, “If you don’t do that, you can’t succeed here.” So I did it.
How did you learn ESPN’s culture?
Skipper: Mostly personal relationships. The fact that I was there once a week and met everybody means I got to understand how they did things. And then it was just a matter of learning. You learn by meeting people, forming personal relationships, observing how they do business, trying to understand how you fit into it.
So is learning the culture of an organization the way to succeed?
Skipper: Sure, but let me make an observation. While I have pretty good skills at assimilation, pretty good skills at understanding a culture and making personal relationships, the most important thing was not that. It was that the magazine worked. We had a business plan, we executed it, it worked.
Business success is the key to professional success?
Skipper: It is. But the thing I always tell people who ask, “How am I going to succeed? How am I going to get to move up?” is, “You have to own something within a company, at some point.”
What do you mean by owning something?
Skipper: You have a big company, right? We’ve got 7,000 people here right now. They walk around and they do a job — and they’re great at it. But a few people own something. John Walsh reinvented “SportsCenter” when he first got here. So he owns that. Now that allows him to have an identity in the company, to be associated with something successful. If you’re associated with something successful, people say, “Hey, how about that guy who made the magazine work? Could he do something else for us?” That’s what I mean by owning something.
Got it. So what did you do after starting the magazine?
Skipper: The second assignment I got at ESPN was to manage ESPN.com. It was floundering. I launched the magazine in March 1998, and it’s now January 2000. The guy they put in charge of ESPN.com wasn’t succeeding. So they had a problem, right? So I gave up the magazine to fix ESPN.com. But there’s another lesson here. When they offered me the job doing ESPN magazine I said, “Well, I can just add it to my portfolio of books and magazines at Disney, right?” And they said, “No. You’re going to run the magazine. Period.” They wanted focus. And then the same thing happened again. ESPN magazine was working really well. In fact, it was flying. Business was great. And so I said, “Well, great, I’ll run the magazine and I’ll run ESPN.com.” And they said, “No.” In both cases Steve Bornstein was very clear that he wanted me to focus on one thing at a time in order to hold me directly accountable for what I was doing, successful or not.
By making you focus, he made you accountable?
Skipper: Yes. And by the way, I do it, too. I want somebody who I can say, “You’re the person I’m going to hold accountable. If it’s working I’m going to give you a big hug and a bonus. And if it’s not working you’re the person responsible, and it’s going to be on you.”
You said you and John Walsh were partners with the magazine. How does that work with the idea of accountability?
Skipper: We’re a matrix organization. And to be honest, there aren’t any perfect organizational structures. We could sit here and talk about very, very tight divisional structures where somebody is in charge of ESPNU, which is for college sports, and they manage everything about ESPNU, so Sales reports to them and Marketing reports to them, and so on. And then we could talk about our structure. In our structure, we have a general manager of ESPNU. But the fact is, Marketing doesn’t report to her, Sales doesn’t report to her, Production doesn’t report to her. So it’s still accountability, but in a matrix organization, that means leading by influence, not command.
So who’s in charge? Who’s accountable?
Skipper: Rosalyn Durant is the general manager of ESPNU. She is the person I look to. And because it’s a matrix, it may be harder. But I still have to look at her and say, “Rosalyn, you’re the person responsible for ESPNU. If it works, you get the credit. If it doesn’t, you don’t.” And it’s a copout to say, “Well, not everybody works for me. Sales are down and Sales works for someone else.” My point is, if sales are down, you still have to fix it, even if Sales reports to someone else.
Are power and influence two different things?
Skipper: There’s no hard-and-fast dividing line between power and influence. But basically, in a matrix organization you have influence, and in a divisional structure you have power. Rosalyn, at ESPNU, has to figure out how to line her people up. It just requires a different kind of collegiality and collaboration than in a hierarchical organization where you’re in charge of everything.
Why is a matrix structure better for ESPN?
Skipper: We have a broad collection of assets, all branded ESPN. And it is so much more important that those collections of assets are consistent and work together than it is that any one of them excels alone. Don’t get me wrong. I don’t doubt if I took the most talented person in the organization and put that person in charge of any of these assets, they would do a slightly better job than now. But I also don’t doubt that the collective whole would probably decline.
Q: The whole is more than the sum of its parts?
What came after ESPN.com?
Skipper: I went back to the magazine for a while because it wasn’t growing as fast as it should. Then, in the spring of 2004, they gave me responsibility for sales and marketing. And this time they actually changed their point of view. They said, “When you do this, you can keep the magazine. And you can keep ESPN.com.” So this was probably the seminal moment in my career. It was at that point they were saying, “We can see you can manage a whole bunch of stuff.”
How does sales and marketing work in a matrix organization?
Skipper: We had a budget number we had to meet. Say it was 10, whatever 10 is. Well, I’d have somebody come to me from one of the divisions who’d say, “Look, my budget is two and we’re only going to do 1.9.” And I’d say, “It doesn’t matter. My budget target is 10. If I make 10, better yet if I make 10 and a half, that’s all you need to care about.” And sometimes I’d get questioned by my bosses, who’d say, “Well, gee, how come ‘so-and-so’ is not doing better?” And I’d say, “People, we’re focused on the whole.” That’s what a matrix organization does. It forces you to focus on the whole. I think it’s been critical to the success of ESPN.
Are other media companies matrix organizations?
Skipper: No. We’re the only media company organized that way, which means all of our content is created from one group. People work across mediums. People who have radio shows also appear on television. People who are writing for the magazine are also doing feature stories on “E:60.” And we don’t have to ask them. We changed our talent contracts a few years ago to say, “You work for ESPN.” We moved to this structure first in Sales. I got that job in the spring of 2004, and we made the change in 2005. Ed Erhardt, who was my partner doing this, still runs all the sales and marketing at ESPN. I’m pretty sure ours was the first wholly integrated sales organization in the media business.
Did you design the new structure?
Skipper: Ed Erhardt and I did.
Was it difficult to make those changes?
Skipper: It was really hard. And by the way, we couldn’t have done it if they hadn’t put me in the sales and marketing job, because when I was at ESPN.com and at the magazine I was a huge resister. I was, “No, you’re not going to take away my sales forces, are you?” So then they cleverly put me in charge of the sales force, and we made a single sales force. We took the very strong point of view that the future was going to be about cross-platform advertising and that you were going to better serve your clients by going to them and saying, “Look, let us put a plan together for you. We can utilize radio. We can utilize Internet, television, magazines, and that’ll work better for you.” And it did. It’s been an enormous advantage to ESPN.
Then what did you do?
Skipper: George Bodenheimer, who was my boss at the time — he’s actually still my boss — decided to reorganize the whole company that way. It was, “You know what? We need to be organized by function.” And that’s when I moved over to run content. We made content into a single organization in the fall of 2005. So we suddenly had an integrated sales force and an integrated editorial group. And if you look at the success of ESPN in the last six or seven years, I think those were critical decisions.
Why did you decide to make those changes?
Skipper: I influenced the decisions, but the guy who made the decisions was George. In fact, George Bodenheimer was the single most important influence on me and my development. If you go back to what I always tell people, “You’ve got to find some things to own,” I would add that you also have to have a mentor or a sponsor. You’ve got to find somebody who is going to sponsor you getting more responsibility, developing you and making more money. George did that for me. He ran ESPN for 13 years, and you need to understand that when I’m telling you all the things I did, it was George who was in charge. It was George who provided the leadership and the environment to do the things I’ve just mentioned.
Why was George Bodenheimer so important to the company’s success?
Skipper: George is the ultimate collaborator. He’s a collegial, consensual manager, and he likes to get everybody involved. He’s a great process guy. So I certainly improved my ability to lead by watching what George did. But if you took a survey and asked people who the great leaders in the media business were over the last 25 years, I’m not positive George’s name would come up until somebody said, “Well, you know, let’s think about who the most successful companies were in the last 15 to 25 years.” And then somebody might figure out ESPN was one of them and it was George who did it. You see, George was always a relentless non-self-promoter. From George I certainly learned humility. And as I said, I learned about process — which was not a particular skill of mine. I’m more of an instinctive guy. But I learned the value of process from George.
Can you give me an example of George’s leadership style and what you learned from it?
Skipper: In his first year, George said, “We’re going to get everybody together, and we’re going to go somewhere and establish our priorities.” I think there were about 25 or 30 of us, and he took us away for two and a half days and said, “We’re going to establish the priorities of our company, and what we want to get done in the next year.” We did that every year for 13 years. We’d go away and say, “We’re going to set our three or four priorities for the year.” And we’d come out of the meeting and say, “Here they are.” And the whole company would wait for us like they’re waiting for the white smoke from the cardinals.
Are you going to do that, too, now that you’re in George’s old job?
Skipper: Yes. I haven’t done it yet. I just got here in Jan-uary and the meeting typically takes place in May, and our priorities from the last meeting are good ones. But I will do it.
When George led the sessions, how did they work?
Skipper: Every year, George appointed somebody to moderate the sessions so he could listen. We would all be seated in an open rectangle. The moderator would stand in the middle of the rectangle, and you would have a process where you’d have a discussion, where people would make nominations for priorities, and the moderator would write them down. You’d end up with 30 nominations. Then, you’d break into small groups. Your responsibility in each of the small groups was to come up with, say, five nominations. So, you’d pick. And of course what would emerge is a quick consensus around one or two things, and then fairly stark and vigorous differences on the other things. So, we’d debate those out. It was a democratic process with George, the leader, sitting there listening most of the time. And if he had to, he’d make a decision. He’d say, “I know that we’re split on the last priority, so we’re going to do this.” It was a really interesting process.
What was the result of the process?
Skipper: Unbelievable consensus was the result. Over time, the meetings grew from about 25 to 30 in the first year, to about 60 people in the end. Sixty was a little bit unwieldy. On the other hand, the point was that at the end, you had 60 people who were really bought in. They participated. They were there. And they had real clarity, which they conveyed to the rest of the organization.
What was the discussion like? Was it rough? Was it collaborative?
Skipper: George set the tone. And if you think about leadership, one of the things a leader does is set the tone. George always set a tone that we work together. Animosity is not part of the program here. Embarrassing your colleagues is not part of the process here. So these were very constructive discussions.
Are these some of the values that he specifically articulated for the company?
Skipper: Well, that’s interesting. They’re practiced more than they are articulated.
Let’s go back to what you said about mentoring and sponsorship. When George took you on, did you feel an obligation to perform for him?
Skipper: Oh, yeah. There’s no question that with George’s leadership approach, your desire was to perform for him. That was pretty strong and was a significant characteristic of how his leadership style worked. You see, he’s a good guy and he let you do it your way. He gave you subtle guidance, but he’d let you do it your way. He was also very clear about accountability. So you knew you were in charge, but you also knew then your obligation was to succeed and show George you were doing things the right way.
It sounds like George really respected the people he worked with. Is that true?
Skipper: Absolutely. And it works the other way too. The respect for George in the company is through the roof. Respect for employees was one of his early priorities. You see, ESPN grew up as an entrepreneurial venture — hard-charging, fast-growing. But there came a time in the company where it had to mature a little bit and get serious.
You were sponsored by George. Are you doing that now with others?
Skipper: The good news for me in this job is that the senior management of ESPN is very stable. I did not make a lot of changes. I have a team with well over 100 years of experience. I added a few others and added more diversity. But think about all that experience! I’ve got four 25-plus-year veterans, and several 20-plus-year veterans.
You’re a longtime veteran, too, and a member of the leadership team. Did things change when you became the leader?
Skipper: We were colleagues before, and now, in a way, we aren’t. It’s an interesting dynamic.
When you got promoted, how did you approach the team?
Skipper: I don’t know if I have a good answer yet, since we haven’t done any surveys so far. But I’ll tell you the process. I went to each of the people on the team and asked them where they were. I asked, “How do you feel? How are you doing? What’s important to you?” That was the first step. The second step was going back to them and saying, “Now that I know where you are and what’s important to you, here’s what’s important to me. And here’s where those things match up, and here’s where those things are a little different.” So, first, I tried to understand where they were, and, second, I tried to provide clarity and vision, and say, “Here’s where we are. Here’s what we’re going to do.” And then I asked, “Are you bought in?”
What if they say, “Well, I’m sort of bought in, but I don’t think it’s exactly the right direction?”
Skipper: Well, they have to be bought in. My main responsibility is to reach out, get some understanding and provide clarity. After that, it isn’t really a choice. At that point you are either on the team or you’re not. In the very first staff meeting that I had with my new group, I closed the meeting by thanking them because I wouldn’t have gotten my position without them. I was part of a team that worked for George, and we performed very well, but I was only a part of the team. So I thanked them for helping me get this job, assured them that I was committed to their success, and then said, “We’re going to run this company together. We’re going to make decisions in our meeting together. Everything that happens in this meeting stays in this meeting. And when we leave the meeting we’re all together.” You see, I always tell the people who work with me, “All criticism goes up.” You’re unhappy about something, criticize up. That’s fine. Tell me you’re unhappy with what I’m doing. Tell me you don’t think we’re doing something right. Tell me that your colleague is not doing what they should be doing. But never criticize down. You kill an organization when you start complaining to the people who work for you about your boss. It’s a killer.
You’ve been president for only a few months. Overall, how is the transition going?
Skipper: The company is performing very well. We have a great senior group, and they’re not shy — which is another thing George established. Feedback goes both ways in a professional relationship between a supervisor and somebody he’s supervising. So I think I have a pretty candid relationship with all the people who work for me, and they don’t hesitate to give me observations about how I could do my job better.
Would you say the fundamentals were all in place for the transition?
Skipper: Yes. Our organization is very stable. If you’re coming in to fix a company, it’s different — you have to identify who can help you fix the company and who is part of the problem. And I’ve been in that situation too. But look, if you don’t have to make changes, if things are working well, stability is much better than disruption.
Does sports differ from other businesses?
Skipper: Sports is unique. You can’t knock it off. You can’t copy it. You can knock off “American Idol” or a police procedural TV show or a comedy show. But you can’t knock off the Rose Bowl. The Rose Bowl is the Rose Bowl, and it’s live. Sports content is unique — 99.4 percent of ESPN is watched live. The fundamental things about running a company transfer, but sports content is unique.
Did George give you any specific advice when you succeeded him that you’d like to share?
Skipper: George said, “Don’t try to be like me. Be yourself. Do it the way you want to do it. Just because I’ve done something one way for a certain number of years doesn’t mean you have to do it the same way.”
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