Susan Packard has been on the ground floor and helped to build powerhouse media brands like HBO, CNB and HGTV. She was the cofounder of Scripps Networks Interactive and former chief operating officer of HGTV. Under Packard’s helm, HGTV became one of the fastest growing cable networks in television history.
Today HGTV is available in more than 98 million U.S. homes and distributed in over 200 countries and territories. Packard helped to build Scripps Networks Interactive to a market value of over $10 billion and now she’s helping the women leaders of tomorrow successfully navigate their way through the business landscape. In her 2016 book “New Rules of the Game: 10 Strategies for Women in the Workplace,” Packard uses her 30 years of experience to give women an encouraging and achievable strategy for accomplishing workplace goals: Gamesmanship. Practice. Show true grit. Be a team player.
The idea for the book came after she had a good run in startups and senior management at various media companies. She had left her last job to begin another startup and a friend who’d written some business books suggested she try to write a book about her career and why she’d been successful. After the push from her friend, Packard set out to interview dozens of CEOs to add their perspective, as well.
When I connected with Packard back in February, a week before her book launch, she said “New Rules of the Game” was essentially a book in two parts. “The first being skills and strategies to navigate your workplace successfully, and the second on emotional maturity, a key leadership skill. My hope is that the reader comes away with a nugget or two that enhances their skills and their wisdom. I tell many stories. It’s a pretty quick read. And at the end of each chapter I have a quick summary, so those of us time-starved, what woman isn’t?” she joked. “They can read the ‘cliff notes’ version of the chapter.”
Hailing from Detroit, Packard grew up in a large, close-knit family with many of her cousins residing on the same block. Her father sold direct mail to ad agencies and from an early age she grew a curiosity to discover what made people “buy stuff.” She started her career in consumer research and seldom saw women climbing the ranks.
“When I began in the 80s it was hard to find women even in middle management roles, if you can believe it. So that’s certainly been a welcome shift. But regretfully, finding women in senior roles is still very sparse,” Packard said. “If you look at the ultimate CEO job-running a Fortune 500 company, only 5 percent are women. We still have mountains to move.”
And she’s hoping to amplify that trajectory with her latest work. I asked Packard to stroll with us down memory lane to share some of her lessons and advice for women entrepreneurs in a fun, informal Q&A.
Natasha Clark: Did you encounter any unique experiences in establishing your career because of your gender?
Susan Packard: Unique experiences? Ha! How about a sales call I made where the customer pointed a gun to my head? How about, unbeknownst to me, being taken to lunch to a strip club? I have many stories, and they’re in the book. My career is pretty colorful.
Clark: Being the only female founding member of Scripps Networks, what were those startup days like?
Packard: Startups, as you know, are thrilling. Anyone who has the heart of an entrepreneur loves startups for that reason. Your small team wears every hat and lives and breathes getting your business idea realized, in whatever platform you’re creating it. Our experience at HGTV was no different.
Clark: What revenue sources did you use early on to get going?
Packard: Our model was primarily advertising sales driven, but we also had an important, second source of revenue. That came from the cable operators and satellite providers who would pay us a monthly license fee to air our programming. The dual revenue model was one of the attractions of the owners of hundreds of channels trying to get launched when we did. When we went on the air at the end of 1994, we were one of over 200 ideas trying to get on the air too. Only three made it: History Channel, Golf Channel and us.
Clark: So many startups go through pivots and changes as they become a sustainable business, is the HGTV we know today the same one you all set out to initially create?
Packard: One of our foundations when we launched was the 3 I’s: ideas, information and inspiration in each show. Over time that evolved into the 3 E’s: entertainment, excitement, and …. hmmm, what was that 3rd E? The point is we morphed our brand with life styles and changing habits, but we always stayed true to the consumer. We maintained a sustainable business because our obligation was always to the consumer first. Regardless of what our advertisers were telling us, and our cable operators, the consumer always drove our decision-making. If you can stay close to your customer, you’ve got the best shot at being successful. We created a fierce brand discipline around that.
Clark: What advice would you give to another woman who wants to break into your industry?
Packard: Advice to women – my industry: cable programming, is quickly morphing because of Netflix, Hulu, Roku, Amazon. There are many ways to watch content today beyond a cable or satellite subscription. So understanding the new technologies that drive how one views programming, and then being passionate about a certain category of content to put in front of people, these are a good start.
Clark: What do you see as the next logical phase in your journey?
Packard: What’s the next phase for me? Truly I didn’t know six or seven years ago that today I would be a writer, a speaker, and a mentor to women. I had done these things under the banner of my workplace, but I found, when I left HGTV, that I really loved all of them, and so now I get to do them full time. How lucky I am! Also, I teach mindfulness and am running a retreat weekend for women, in partnership with my alma mater, Michigan State, this upcoming August. That’s a new path for me and I love the prep I’m engaged in to do this.