I’ve just returned from a wonderful jazz cruise with stops at 5 Caribbean islands as well as a tour by water of Fort Lauderdale, Florida. I was unaware that Fort Lauderdale is known as the "Venice of America" due to the miles of canals and historic riverfront. As we passed by luxurious households bordering the water, I was reminded of being inside one of these lovely mansions, owned by Bob Wright, retired Chairman and CEO of NBC TV, the oldest major broadcast network in the US, where he’s been credited with overseeing the company’s expansion into a media conglomerate and leading growth to record earnings. Bob’s resumé also features several executive positions with the network’s then parent, General Electric, culminating as GE’s vice chairman, a role he retired from in 2008.
My friend George Cohon had set me up to meet with Bob at his splendid West Palm Beach, Florida home, this for a chapter in my book “Pushing The Boundaries: How To Get More Out Of Life”. I learned a lot talking to this brilliant businessman, including how dealing with risk and taking steps outside the box are great ways to get ahead. I also picked up pointers on the value of resilience in your life that helps achieve objectives.
One of the highlights of Bob’s career is the merger of NBC and Vivendi Universal, which included one of the longest, most productive tenures of any media company chief executive. During his two decades at NBC, he transformed the broadcast network into a global media giant by expanding into cable, satellite, the Internet, and fertile new media markets.
Considering his business prowess, I was surprised as we settled into the comfort of his stylish waterside residence to talk. He had recently lost his beloved wife, Suzanne (his “North Star”), to the misery of pancreatic cancer. He was not alone: I had suffered the sudden death of my younger son, Jamie, on Christmas Eve. While it’s not the ideal way to bond, both Bob and I acknowledged our pain, plus our membership in a lonely club that no one wants to belong to. We hugged, two guys confronting loss.
And then we sat down to talk. Bob’s career included enduring real challenges in getting broadcasters to understand the inevitability of merging standard television with cable. David Zaslav, President and CEO of the Discovery Channel, is a fan: “Bob is the first broadcaster who recognized the future meant displaying content for all platforms. It wasn’t easy: everyone at NBC was against him. To have Bob on your side is to have a transformative force in your corner.”
So, this seemed like a logical place to start our discussion. “Bob, looking back,” I said, “it seems obvious that merging platforms made sense. But, at the time, you were a bit of a lone gun. How’d you overcome this?”
“You know, Peter,” he told me, “I just knew in my gut this was what we’d have to do. It comes from looking forward, not sitting still, or resting on your laurels by looking back. I was confident in my judgement, even when others weren’t.”
Ah yes, that confidence thing.
Our discussions of business carried on, But it wasn’t long before we dealt with Bob’s thoughts on healthcare.
“Peter, can you believe this,” he said out of the blue with barely concealed exasperation. “When Suzanne was first diagnosed, I came to realize there were virtually no screening tools for pancreatic cancer. The mortality rate is 92%! And there’s been virtually no improvement in more than 40 years. 117 people die from pancreatic cancer every day in the US. It’s a truly horrible killer. The day we learned about Suzanne’s diagnosis was the worst day of my life. Pancreatic cancer has the highest mortality rate of all major cancers. And yet, there’s been virtually no attention to this from the National Cancer Institute, the National Institutes of Health, or the US Department of Health and Human Services. It’s such a debilitating illness.”
And then he added, as only a tried-and-true business executive can state, “It’s a real management failure.”
Never one to sit still and watch life transpire from the sidelines, Bob channeled his anger into championing new paradigms for healthcare federal funding, research, and regulatory reviews. These were to be built on accountability and results. To confront shortcomings, he established the Suzanne Wright Foundation, including launching Code Purple, an awareness and advocacy campaign to fight pancreatic cancer.
“I’m out to accelerate discovery of detection tools, find better treatments, and, ultimately, discover a cure for pancreatic cancer,” he explained. “To do that, you need leadership, prioritization, and urgency. I’ve got ‘em in spades!”
Once again, that statement of confidence.
There was much more to our conversation, covering both healthcare and business, and you can read all about that in Chapter 6 of “Pushing The Boundaries”. But for now, let’s accept that using business skills in retirement to make the world a better place while pushing the boundaries is a resilient and constructive lesson we can all take advantage of.
"I can't thank you enough for taking the time to talk with me, Bob," I said as I prepared to head out. "It's been really enlightening."
"My pleasure, Peter," he said. "Thanks for asking intriguing questions. Come again, I've enjoyed this."