Conversation with Gemstar-TV Guide International’s Jeff Shell

Former CEO Gemstar-TV Guide International, Inc.

Jeff Shell is the former CEO of Gemstar-TV Guide International, Inc. Shell started his career at the New York investment banking firm of Salomon Brothers. He next segued to The Walt Disney Company, holding various positions in the Corporate Strategic Planning department. Joining Fox Television in 1994 as head of new business development, Shell oversaw a number of acquisitions, strategic alliances and new business launches and played a major role in brokering Fox Television’s partnership with Liberty Media, joining Fox/Liberty Networks as its CFO in 1996. Named President of Fox Sports Inc. in April 2000, Shell became president and CEO of Fox Cable Networks Group, overseeing more than 20 major domestic cable and satellite networks. In April 2002, Shell joined Gemstar-TV Guide International, Inc. serving first as co-president, then CEO until December 2004.

As technology continues to escalate, where do you see TV going in the next several years?

Jeff Shell

That’s a great question! Brian Roberts, who runs Comcast, says that the changes in TV over the next five years will be more dramatic than the changes over the last 50 years. I think that is somewhat overstated, but it’s not complete hyperbole.

What I think he means by that, and I agree with him, is we are moving from an area where you have had a limited number of different programming options presented to you to where you have almost unlimited choice, and it’s your decision when and how to watch things. That reality is going to have dramatic impact on how people decide what they want to watch, how programmers get you to watch something, how advertisers pay for such programming, and how the whole economic model works. I think that anyone who has a TiVo already has a kind of window on where this is all going. I personally have a TiVo and I literally have not watched anything live in six months.

People say, “Well, you’re still going to watch sports and news live.” At first you do, but increasingly you say, “You know what? I can tune into the baseball game an hour after it has started and can catch up and not miss anything just by fast forwarding through the commercials and the boring parts. I get the same experience, and I’ve just saved an hour to go play outside with my daughter.”

The changes are going to be dramatic. Ultimately I think this is good for the television business because the more these capabilities proliferate, the more people are going to watch TV. Ultimately the more people who use a product, the better for the product, but I also think there are going to be some pretty “bloody” transitions in the meantime.

I’d like to shift away from the specific service product into looking at your background. For the last 10 years during your time at Fox, then Gemstar, how would you describe your development as a leader? What were some of the keys in your leadership development?

First, obviously I think that working for the right organization is key for me. I moved from Disney to Fox, and I think moving to the “right” organization was the first thing that was good for me, moving to an organization that was a little bit more entrepreneurial and where the opportunities were for me a bit more significant.

The big, most critical moment in my career was when I got an opportunity to go work for Tony Ball in a pretty significant position (I think I was senior vice president of finance) for the joint venture between Fox and Liberty, which ultimately became Fox Sports Net. I basically moved from being essentially a career development person going from investment banking, to Disney and corporate development, to Fox and business development.

Very early when I was in that position, Tony sat me down and said, “You can either be a business development scale person, or you can be an operator. If you want to be an operator, you need to focus on the task at hand because when people look back at this business, all they are going to remember is if it succeeded or failed. You’re going to be tagged with that either way.”

At the time I was helping to buy the Dodgers, and I think what he [Ball] got me to do was really to put my head down and to focus for two years on learning to be a real CFO and on the unglamorous world of accounts payable, accounts receivable, and cash and check management systems. I went from a glamorous, highfalutin’ life as a business development person, which I think is very seductive to MBAs in particular, to the really unglamorous but much more important world of being the actual operating executive. That was a critical, very difficult two years for me, but looking back, it was the most important two years of my life.

You’ve talked in terms of having a mentor that gave you a direction, but what about yourself? Where do you see your development? What did you notice about changes in your leadership style or behavior that have led to your success?

I think the more you learn, the more you learn that you don’t know. One of the big things I think an MBA always has is the thought that you actually know more than you really do. It’s interesting to note that at this point in my career, I think I know less than I’ve ever thought I did. You begin to respect experience and complexity a little bit more. And even though your instinct when you walk into a room may be correct, you begin to make sure that you’re a little bit more methodical in how you go forward and test your instinct as opposed to just going forward like a bull in a china shop and really “making it happen.”

Another key thing is that people develop different management styles. For example, one of the things I’ve read about General Electric, which I think is indisputably one of the best companies in American history, is that when you look at the people who do well at General Electric, they are really ultimately judged on only one thing—and that is how well they hire people below them. I think that my management style has increasingly been to hire people who are good and smart and who will succeed. And ultimately even though doing that could be threatening to you, it will make you look better. Then the challenge is how much to get involved in their business and hold them accountable for what they do and how much to let them manage their business. That’s the only way to keep good people: if they feel they really have an opportunity to manage the business. That’s something I’m still learning.

So all things considered, where do you see yourself in the next 10 years?

I have no idea. In the last three years at Gemstar I’ve learned a lot about things that I’m either good at or not good at. I think that I am very increasingly good at untangling messy problems, fixing things, and building things. I don’t know if I’m as good as the next person at managing mature, rather methodical businesses, so I need to continue to put myself in situations where I can succeed by being in the situations I’ve described. I’m sure people, such as my wife, will tell you that more than anybody else, I get bored fairly easily. So I would hope over the next 10 years, I would have the opportunity to increasingly learn three or four different but related businesses as I go forward in my career, as opposed to developing as the kind of guy who just sits in one place for 25 years. I respect people that do [have longevity with companies], by the way, but I just don’t think that’s me.

As you say, different styles, depending on the industry or the task or the responsibility or the nature of those under an effective leader–those things sometimes dictate the appropriate management style.

You want to find those people under you who complement you. I don’t want a group of people working for me who also have short attention spans and want to move from thing to thing. I want people who have different styles and who complement my strengths and improve on my weaknesses.

What pearls of wisdom do you have to share with business entrepreneurs and MBA graduates about achieving success?

I would say that they should never agonize about a specific job choice, particularly the first one, because there is no such thing as a “career ending decision.” I think people tend to agonize over that first job search as opposed to choosing a business and a company that they want to work for and maybe taking a different kind of job than they wanted. You can sit there and plot out your career all you want. It’s never going to work out that way, so you might as well get yourself into situations where you’re in a company that you like and where you’re learning.

Two other pearls of wisdom would be to go to a place that has smart people. For example, if you’re a football player going to a college where you can play and watch, you’re better off going where there are better players because the key is to keep learning and getting better. Therefore, focus on really good organizations that have good, smart people, people smarter than you. Ultimately while it will be harder for you to move up, you’ll learn a lot more.

Secondly, I think the biggest pearl of wisdom I can offer, which is probably a cliché, is to ask forgiveness, not permission. The only way you’ll ever make yourself known is to grab the bull by the horns, be aggressive, and go out and make an impact. You need to outwork other people, and you need to act on your convictions. If you think something’s the right thing to do, go do it because if you don’t, you’re going to regret not doing it. Whatever kind of organization you move into, make sure you get your job done, but also make sure that you step up in ways that they didn’t anticipate when they hired you.

Functional expertise may get someone into an entry position, but when companies hire, they are looking for leadership potential. To those who tend to say that money and the good positions are in finance and marketing and that management is “soft,” how would you respond?

I think there’s a balance. On the one hand, being proficient in marketing and finance is important, but leadership is also key. More important is not trying to be a leader too fast. If I had to choose a class or a discipline that is most applicable to my job as a CEO, it would probably be Organizational Behavior. Thirty to 50 percent of my job is driven by the management of people. Whether it’s hiring or firing or reviews or motivating or incentivizing or whatever, I increasingly think that how I am judged in my job is based on how well the people who work for me do their jobs. I think that leadership skills in organization behavior are increasingly part of your job as you move up the chain.

There is a wealth of things that you learn, experience, use, and store in your memory based on your courses, experiences, and mentors over your career. Then one day you wake up and think, “I’m no longer focused on finance and marketing; I’m using my leadership experience.” But again, I caution that you don’t want to transition to leadership too quickly.

Author of the article
Mark Mallinger, PhD
Mark Mallinger, PhD,

, is a professor of applied behavioral science at the Graziadio School of Business and Management’s at Pepperdine University. He teaches in the full-time, fully-employed, and executive programs. Dr. Mallinger is a management development consultant and has published works in a number of academic and practitioner journals.

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