As a hotelier, I know a thing or two about having guests and one thing is generally true -- they stay for a limited time. Well, there was one occasion in my life when I was an invited guest... and I never left. In 2005, as I was finishing my first book tour for The Power of We, I got a phone call from the Plum TV network asking if I would be the guest on a pilot show they were developing where CEOs would be interviewed in a relaxed setting. "Sure, why not," I answered, thinking additional exposure for my book's message of success through partnerships wouldn't hurt.
On a snowy January day, we taped the interview in front of a glowing fire at my friend's well-regarded restaurant, The Laundry, in East Hampton. The interview seemed to have gone well and my intention was to simply send a thank-you note to the show's producers and look forward to watching. But about a month later, I got another phone call. The producers who edited the show had a new idea -- they wanted me to be the host. Four years and some thirty CEOs later, Beyond the Boardroom with Jonathan Tisch is still going strong.
Some of the early experiences were amusing. One of my favorite moments was when we had just finished a casual shoot at the Southampton home of Steve Ross, CEO of The Related Companies.
He looked at me and said, "That was great."
And I looked at him and said, "Thanks. This is the first time I've ever done this."
Yet, what was more unexpected than what started as this somewhat-accidental experience of making television was the exceptional learning process that came my way as the show's host. Beyond the Boardroom has taken me on a professional journey in television, but the human side of every business story has taken me on a personal one that has taught me a few things.
Starbucks founder and CEO Howard Schultz won my admiration. He was broke with an expectant wife and a father-in-law who wanted Howard to leave this coffee business dream of his and "get a real job." Howard told me about an awful time in his life and his own resilience. He never quit and created the now global Starbucks franchise in the face of personal distress -- an incredible human story. Howard also spoke of his passion for healthcare reform in that revealing Beyond the Boardroom interview, long before the national healthcare discourse permeated the American consciousness as it does today. Howard was out in front, a CEO leader in the private sector, with a vision for his company's own version of universal healthcare.
The CEO of NBC, Jeff Zucker, was extremely self-effacing in our conversation and told me that he had never really seen The Today Show when he accepted his first job on the broadcast at age 24 and that actually worked to his advantage, as he had a fresh eye, fresh enough that he eventually got the top job at Today and is credited with making it the successful franchise it is now. Our conversation revealed Jeff's savvy personal judgment and acute business instincts, in addition, the importance of looking at something in a new way.
Dick Parsons made me think about leadership. As we sat in the beautiful new Time Warner Center (at the time he was Chairman and CEO) not that far from where he grew up in Brooklyn and Queens, it was clear he had taken lessons from the street and life and applied them to business. After a foolish bet playing poker in college caused him to lose his car, he learned a tough axiom that he practices today, "Never gamble what you can't afford to lose," Dick said, something any manager or business school student might need to hear. He also invoked a famous quote when we spoke: "A good leader causes the people he is leading to believe in him or her. A great leader causes people to believe in themselves."
And just last week, as we began taping episodes for our fourth season, we heard an inspiring lesson about "dreaming big." I interviewed an accomplished executive with a big personality -- from an industry where larger-than-life personas aren't the norm. The CEO I spoke with is an insurance guy. Yes, insurance. He's the Chairman and CEO of Willis Group Holdings Limited, one of the world's most prominent insurance companies. Joseph Plumeri's large-yet-grounded personality energized me and our entire crew when he spoke about the ability for anyone in this world to do anything. From the street corners in Trenton, N.J. where he grew up, to sitting at a desk half-wedged in a closet fetching coffee in Sandy Weil's office during law school, all the way to the chairman's office today, Joe doesn't even think the sky is the limit. Literally. Two weeks ago, under Joe's leadership, the Sears Tower in Chicago became the Willis Tower, the tallest building in North America. Joe believes in his work, calling insurance the DNA of capitalism, referring to its linkage to every aspect of our lives. More importantly, he believes in himself and everyone around him, a contagious feeling I won't soon forget.
There is no doubt we are living in a world today where CEOs are vilified, and in some cases, justifiably so. But there is also no doubt that what I have learned from Beyond the Boardroom is true as well: stories of guts, smarts, hard work and integrity in American business are still all around us.
For me, Beyond the Boardroom allows me to be on television (which I must admit I enjoy) but more meaningfully, through these interviews I continue to learn. In speaking with these talented leaders from diverse backgrounds and various industries, two consistent themes have emerged: 1) they wouldn't be successful without the support and help of many people around them; and 2) there is no substitution for hard work.
It's also been very gratifying when viewers come up to me -- from young people just starting out, mid-level managers trying to get ahead, or executives at the pinnacle of their career -- and tell me that by watching the program, they've learned about perseverance, instincts, leadership and people.
So what was supposed to be a half-hour guest appearance has morphed into a bit of a side career for me. Another lesson, I suppose, that you never know where life will take you so be open-minded and seize opportunities as they present themselves.
Jonathan Tisch is Chairman and CEO of Loews Hotels, Co-Chairman of the Board for Loews Corp. and host of television's Beyond the Boardroom with Jonathan Tisch. Beyond the Boardroom airs on Plum TV and on Fox Business Channel Sundays at 5:30 p.m. EDT.