How to Navigate Change at Any Career Stage


ALISON BEARD: Welcome to the HBR IdeaCast from Harvard Business Review. I’m Alison Beard.

It’s hard to find an industry today that isn’t facing rapid transformation. The pace of technological change means that we have to constantly update our business models, shift strategies, and revamp our skill sets. And no matter where you are in your career, that can feel challenging, even overwhelming.

One field that’s seen enormous disruption is media, and today’s guest has spent four decades successfully navigating it. Through the transition to cable and then streaming, the rise of the internet giants competing for advertisers and many mergers and corporate reorgs, she worked her way up from a production assistant role on a local TV show to become one of the entertainment industry’s most powerful players.

Even if you don’t know her name, you know her work. She discovered Bob Vila and helped to create This Old House, gave Dakota Fanning her first big starring role, led the cable networks, USA, Syfy, Bravo, and more to 14 straight years of growth, and oversaw the creation of the Peacock Streaming channel.

Bonnie Hammer is now vice chair of NBCUniversal and author of the book, 15 Lies Women are Told About Work and the Truth We Need to Succeed. Bonnie, thanks so much for joining me.

BONNIE HAMMER: I’m delighted to be here. It’s always fun talking with you.

ALISON BEARD: So at the start of your career, were you looking for a job that would come with a lot of change in dynamism, or was it just something you had to figure out to survive in the industry?

BONNIE HAMMER: Let’s just put it this way, at the start of my career, I was looking for anything to do that gave me a paycheck. I had a passion that I started with, which was photography, and I figured that somehow I’d make a living that way. So my first jobs out of college were working in a dark room at a commercial photography studio, and it led me to a photo editing job, that was kind of boring too. I really worked at finding something with my passion until I tripped into a position that led me to a job, which led me to a career.

So I think the first one was giving up a dream that wasn’t leading me anywhere, and kind of what then became my philosophy in life, following the opportunities, and my first opportunity wasn’t exactly shining. I was the lowest grade production assistant on a kid’s math TV show, on public broadcasting in Boston, literally following a dog around the set and cleaning up his poop. I knew it was an opportunity. I was in a television studio and who knew what it could lead to, and I cleaned up the poop with a smile and realized from then on it was about attitude and following opportunities.

ALISON BEARD: So how did you identify those opportunities that you knew were going to lead you in the direction that the industry was also going?

BONNIE HAMMER: I didn’t look at it towards leaning me to the opportunities that would help me grow, and I think that is one of the obstacles in the way with I think a lot of young people trying to navigate the workplace. What I did was follow opportunities where I would learn, learn almost anything, new skills, how to do something I haven’t done before, meeting new people that I hadn’t met before, with the hope that one of those opportunities would lead me to the next step, as opposed to seeing it as a ladder where you climb rung by rung by rung to get up to the top.

I think if you do that, especially these days when industries are changing so quickly, that the likelihood that, that job, that position or even that industry would still be there in 10 or 20 years, is not realistic. So for me, it was taking on different things that at least sounded interesting or had a new skillset that I could learn, so I could broaden myself. And part of it was sometimes it was the only thing available. So do I not take it and do nothing and complain, or do I take it and just see where it leads me?

ALISON BEARD: And when you could see changes looming, whether it was the rise of cable or the digitization of the industry, I think you went through seven mergers to become what is now NBCUniversal. What did you do to figure out those learning opportunities but also places where you would be safe? How did you try to stay ahead of the change?

BONNIE HAMMER: Well, I think first and foremost, what people have to do is not fear change. Change is going to come. Whether you want it or not, whether you try to control it or not, your boat is going to be rocked, whether you do it or the waves do it, you’re going to get wet.

In our world, change is inevitable. So rather than waste time fearing it and complaining about it and being a naysayer, my gut has always been embrace change. Because you have no control doing anything else. Yes, there’s always a moment of “I can’t believe this is happening again.” And as you said, I’ve gone through seven corporate changes, eight different bosses, and somehow still navigated my way through.

So the first thing was embrace it, meaning, “It’s here, what I have to do is figure out a way that I can fit into this new world.” Which means figuring out what their culture is, doing your homework, talking to people, are they more creative than financial-based? Are they more interested in the bottom line than a great hit? Do they give good feedback and criticism or are they quiet and just watch you? So understand what the culture is and try to accept that.

Then basically try to figure out where the door’s going to be open, meaning, what are your skill sets? What have you done before? What do they need, and how can you fit into their world? And then try to talk to people, get advice on where and how you can fit into this new culture. The minute you become negative, the naysayer, they’re not going to want you around. The minute you seem positive, optimistic, “I want to learn. This is what I’ve done before. I’d love to fit into your world. Show me how.” It empowers the new powers that be to take you under their wing and want to help you grow you, and have you be part of their new regime. That was my way. It was finding a door rather than walls and obstacles.

ALISON BEARD: Yeah, and I think what’s so impressive is that you’ve done that, not just when you were a lowly production assistant, but you’ve done that when you were a really senior executive, trying to figure out what a new regime would feel like and work like.

BONNIE HAMMER: Yes, it happens at every level, and in some ways it’s easier when you’re younger because you can fit in a lot of new areas, but once you have a style of management and you are in a much more senior position, embracing it can be more difficult because you’ve developed your own style. And will that style fit the new regime? Nine out of 10 times, it can, and it will. And I kind of joke that the reason I can be in a room is because I’ve been in so many rooms that I’ve figured out a way where the door is, where a window is, where a crack is, to figure out a way to fit in and join that new culture.

It doesn’t mean I’m not going to have a voice or I’m going to give up my voice, or not be authentic to me or my style of management. It’s just being open to figure out how my style can integrate with the new style, the new tone. I’ve still always remained Bonnie. I’ve still led my team, my people in the same way, but I had to figure out how to translate their values, their bottom line, their definition of success to all of my people so we could still have fun and do what we do, but have it translate in a way that they understand and get it.

ALISON BEARD: Was there ever a time, during the industry ups and downs and the mergers, when you were really worried about the future? And if so, how did you stay focused?

BONNIE HAMMER: You always worry about the future. People keep saying what’s happening now in the business is the biggest change that’s ever happened. AI is going to come in, companies are restructuring, getting smaller and smaller. The truth is that’s happened from the get go. What happened with cable over the decades, that I was lucky enough to be in it, we basically out did broadcast in terms of revenue because we had two sources of revenue coming in, so we were making a lot more money than broadcast was making.

Then everybody said, Peacock or streamers at large, were going to completely blow away linear TV. Guess what? We’re all going to still survive it, but differently. And because I’ve been around so long, each decade, something else was surely going to kill something else. There’ll always be something new, always be something threatening it. See what it is, learn about it, understand it, and then try to figure out how the two can co survive while you’re navigating your way to see where it really ends up.

ALISON BEARD: Yeah. So I do want to talk about NBC’s entrance to streaming with Peacock. It’s always difficult with new technology. You don’t want to enter if it’s not going to pan out. You don’t want to be too early, but then you also don’t want to be too late. NBCUniversal did start a bit behind. So how did you approach that challenge as the person who was tasked with creating Peacock?

BONNIE HAMMER: Well, in hindsight, Steve Burke, Brian Roberts were right to wait. However, for the five years leading up to when we started, I and several other senior people, within the NBC family, were pushing them to jump into streaming. “We’re late, we’re late, we have to do it. Look what’s going on in the world.” And they kind of listened, but not really, until one day Steve said, “Okay, we’re going to do this, and I want you to lead the charges to at least launch it.” And my reaction to him, other than me being one of several who were pushing it was, “Why me?” I am so not a technological buff. I’m a content creator and yes, I’m a leader, but I was very honest saying, “This isn’t my world.” But I think the honesty was what led him to put me in the position.

Because he knew I knew how to lead, he knew I knew content, and he also knew that I didn’t need to be the smartest one in the room, that I will surround myself with people who knew a lot more than I did, and let them teach me and help me grow a team that can launch it.

ALISON BEARD: Talk me through your process for making important decisions, whether it goes back to green lighting a show or hiring a key producer or making your own career move, like saying, “Sure, I will take on launching the streaming channel.” How do you weigh the pros and cons or consider information versus instinct?

BONNIE HAMMER: This has grown over time, and the easiest way for me to describe it is the ABCs all the way to G, of gut. I’ll start with A. Analyze. What are you trying to do, where are you trying to get to, whether it’s a show or a career decision or anything else. And really take the time to figure out what it is you want and why. B is brainstorming, which is my favorite thing because it’s collaborative. Get a bunch of people together and talk about it. What we always did with every single show before we greenlit it, I had every one of my senior people, even people who had nothing to do with creative, sit in a room, read the script before they came in, and we would brainstorm the good, the bad, what we liked, what we didn’t like, et cetera, to just see where people are coming out.

Then C, compare. What are you trying to do versus what has happened before, either in your life or other shows that were on other networks or other streamers before? Did it work? Why did it work? If it didn’t work, why did it fail? D, which I love as well, find a devil’s advocate. It is what most people do not do, because most people don’t want to hear negative stuff. Find somebody who is going to pick apart whatever you are choosing to do, just to see where the holes are. It’s not so they can talk you out of it, it’s so at least they’re going to give you a side of whatever you’re deciding that might not be in your language at that point or might not be in your mind. E, it’s just the effort that you put into what it is and finding the experts that are in that world.

So you know what the red lights, green lights are in that decision. Someone who already has a job, someone who’s already produced a show, somebody who is an expert in directing visual effects that you haven’t done.

F, simple, the facts. You actually have to know the facts of what you’re doing, compared to what has come before. And then G is gut. Trust your gut, especially when you’ve been in that world before, done what you’ve done before. So for me it’s using the two brains, the brain in your head and the brain in your stomach. And when together, you may not be guaranteed success, but you’re definitely going to limit failure.

ALISON BEARD: So it sounds like also that gut instinct, even if you’re operating in a completely new environment, there are parts of your experience in different realms that will inform it in a really positive way.

BONNIE HAMMER: Absolutely. I have one – once we were trying to do a show called Political Animals, which everybody on the team was absolutely positive was going to be huge success. It had Sigourney Weaver and Ellen Burstyn. We had a great producer, we had a great director. We did none of the ABCs of gut checking other than check our gut. When we got the ratings, we were absolutely shocked because it did worse than any other show we had ever, ever done before.

And the first thing I had to do, I owned the failure. Wrote a note to my boss, before the ratings were public, said, “We are devastated. We have no idea how or why this happened. We’re going to figure out what went wrong, but I just want to let you know before the ratings come in officially, we blew it, just totally blew it.”

The other instance was a show where we all knew, my entire team, the script did not fit USA Network. It was a little too dark, actor wasn’t really known, but he was interesting and quirky. Nothing about it fit what we wanted to do in USA, but the director, writer, we thought, was exceptional. The character involved was fabulous.

And we made the decision consciously that nothing about this should fit on USA, but it is too good for any other network to get it. And we decided we are willing to take a calculated risk and do this. And what happened was, this is Mr. Robot, which did incredibly well, was a huge success for USA. The conscious calculated risk worked out. And we were willing to fail if we had to because we knew all the ABCs, all the way through gut, of making that decision and we were willing to fail. There were no surprises there.

ALISON BEARD: And so the contrast with Political Animals is that you didn’t do A through F, you just did G.

BONNIE HAMMER: Correct.

ALISON BEARD: You are this person who’s risen to the very top of your industry, and that meant that you went from managing small teams to huge ones, like more than 2000 people. So how did you figure out that transition? You seem like you rely very much on interpersonal connection, collaboration, team culture. How do you maintain all of that as your span of power increases, and make all of those people, who you’re managing, feel as comfortable as you are in managing change in a really difficult dynamic industry?

BONNIE HAMMER: Well, first you have to maintain the values you had when you were leading a smaller group, meaning collaboration, caring, empathy, creating a high bar for success, but having really good communication in that process. So it’s knowing what your brand or your culture is for managing your team, then teaching that to all your direct reports so they can push it down. There has to be consistency and an understanding. Some of the ways I helped do that – once I got into larger teams and multiple channels that I was managing, I would do what I called Breakfast with Bonnie. And those breakfasts would be once a month with probably about 20 in each breakfast, from executive assistants to directors. And we would sit in a room, I would do a very fun, easy open, I would talk about at the moment what was going on, what was succeeding, what was not succeeding within our own world.

And then I would open it up to questions, and I would literally say to people, “This room is Vegas. Whatever happens here stays here. Nothing is going to go up to your direct boss or up to anybody higher in my room. I need to understand what’s working and what’s not working in our division. And I know you guys are truth tellers, so tell me what’s happening, what’s working, what’s not. What messages are you getting? Do you feel comfortable? Do you feel like you’re growing?” I wanted to hear the truth. And eventually somebody would raise their hand and open up and tell me the truth of a problem that existed or an attitude, or something that wasn’t happening that should happen. And I would learn about what’s happening at the more junior levels so I could fix it, or at least I’d be aware of it.

Because it wasn’t bubbling up to my level, I didn’t know about it. And I got to know a whole lot of people on the lower levels. And because I went through every single level getting to where I am, I appreciated everything that other people do on the lower levels that most people don’t get are so important to the product. So I did that for years and it worked incredibly well. So you have to articulate your values, people have to understand your culture, and you have to push those values down, all the way to the entry-level people as well. When you do that, people stay within that culture, and want to stay and grow within your world for a long time.

ALISON BEARD: So it sounds like you’re willing to hire people who have different leadership styles than you. What specifically do you look for to make sure that they’re going to be the people who approach challenges the way you do?

BONNIE HAMMER: Well, I think often people hire people because of skillset, or in the early stages, because of degrees or the school they went to. Yes, skillset is important, basic smarts, intelligence, but for me it’s a quality of a person. When they come in, are they willing to listen or are they just going to babble about themselves? Do they give other people credit in the conversation you have with them or do they take credit for themselves? I look for tone. I look for somebody who has some grace. I look for someone who I think can be trusted as a team member who’s willing to collaborate. So listening rather than talking, asking smart questions that shows they want to learn, all for me go way above any kind of degree or skillset experience.

ALISON BEARD: Yeah. And when you have team members that you don’t see embracing change in the way you want them to, how do you give them critical feedback? What’s the key to doing that well?

BONNIE HAMMER: Well, I think first and foremost, you have to give that feedback. And I think oftentimes, in the workplace, people watch, they judge, but don’t necessarily have real conversations with those that work with and for them. And they may wait for the end of year review, but I don’t think that’s enough. You have to have the tough conversations with people who you think have the possibility to grow. And even those you might not think can grow, but you should give them another try to see, to let them know what’s going on or not going on. Ask them how are they doing? How do you think you’re doing here and why? And then tell them, “Well me tell you how I see it, and I just want to help you learn and help you grow.” I don’t believe people can grow without a little tough love and being told the truth, but it should come in a helpful, useful, positively tonal way.

ALISON BEARD: I feel like one real struggle for managers now is working with people who are very, very good at what they currently do, but need to learn something new. For example, it’s me, I’m an excellent editor, I’m a great podcast host, hopefully, and I need to learn GenAI. I need to learn these new technologies, but it’s easy for me to rest on my laurels. So how do you push those people who are great performers, to do more and challenge themselves?

BONNIE HAMMER: Well, first and foremost, I always look for those people who will raise their hands and say, “I want to learn. I don’t know anything about AI yet, and what’s the best way to do it?” It starts with a conversation that says, “You’re doing amazingly well. Everything I ask you to do, within your skillset, your task, your title, is great, but the world is changing. And I think for you to grow, and I think for you to have a runway within this world, this company, this skillset, you’ve got to start reaching a little out of your comfort zone. And here’s several ways in which you could do it.

It’s basically approaching that individual in a way that, again, doesn’t sound like, “Oh my God, I’m going to lose my job if I don’t learn this skillset,” but in a way that is offering them the possibility. And if they jump at it, fabulous. If they don’t, you can still give them a little nudge, but if they really don’t take you up on it, then as a leader, as a boss, you have to realize what their limitation is.

ALISON BEARD: I just want to say for the record, I attended a large language model lunch and learn this week, and I also went to a conference where I learned about all of these AI tools. So I’m trying. What advice do you give young people who want careers in media or any other really fast-changing industry today?

BONNIE HAMMER: My advice is to understand that you have to work at your worth to get what you want. That in order to stand out, you have to be seen, which means coming in early, raising your hands for opportunities, staying late, not seeing anything beneath you, particularly in the first few years during those learning years –

ALISON BEARD: Yeah. A reminder that Bonnie Hammer picked up dog poo in her first job.

BONNIE HAMMER: Yeah. Yes. Did I complain to my friends and family? Of course I did, but when I showed up on the set, I did it with a smile, and anything they asked me, to run out for three lattes, I did it knowing that if I was optimistic, if I was positive, they would want to have me around. And if you are positive, people are going to want you continue to have you around. Then you have to perform. If you’re asked to do something, do it. Do your homework, do it well. If you’re going to miss a deadline, don’t BS about it. Basically say, “I’m not going to have it in on time. This is the reason. I’ll definitely have it for you by,” give a date.

People have to trust you, and then you have to master the skill set, whatever it is. Then raise your hand to learn as much as you can for opportunities outside of your skill set, even if you’re not going to get extra pay for it, because that too will show people you have the energy, the eagerness, the desire to learn more. Make sure that you don’t go into a situation pretending that you know what you can do if you can’t do it. Ask questions. Learn. Show people what you know and tell them what you don’t. It’s very hard to win back trust, but it’s very easy to empower others to want to help you and teach you. I think it’s important to remain humble, have humility, even along with confidence. You don’t need entitlement and arrogance. That makes a huge difference in the middle part of your career in terms of how you navigate it.

And once you get a little bit more senior, then it really is the ABCs of gut in terms of how you grow, and learning how… Winning is wonderful, but you also have to learn how to lose, learn from losing, so that you can move forward and understand all that is, is a learning experience. It was an obstacle, but it’s not a stop sign. It’s not a dead end. Use it to challenge yourself to find a way to win in a different way. And then ultimately, it’s just embracing change. Because it’s going to come for you no matter what you do. So learn how to run towards it and embrace it.

ALISON BEARD: Well, Bonnie, that’s such great advice. So many pearls of wisdom in this conversation and in the book. I really appreciate you coming on the show.

BONNIE HAMMER: Alison. Thank you for having me. I always enjoy talking with you.

ALISON BEARD: That’s Bonnie Hammer, vice chair of NBCUniversal and author of the book… That’s Bonnie Hammer, vice Chair of NBCUniversal and author of the book, 15 Lies. Women are Told About Work and the Truth We Need to Succeed.

And we have more episodes and more podcasts to help you manage your team, your organization, and your career. Find them at hbr.org/podcasts, or search HBR and Apple Podcasts, Spotify, or wherever you listen.

Thanks to our team, senior producer Mary Dooe, associate producer Hannah Bates, audio product manager Ian Fox, and senior production specialist Rob Eckhardt. And thanks to you for listening to the HBR IdeaCast. We’ll be back with a new episode on Tuesday. I’m Alison Beard.



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