A few weeks ago, retired CBS News producer Don Hewitt passed away. I think he is/was an amazing case of being an entrepreneur in a corporate environment. And his life also has several key lessons to teach all of us.
 
Hewitt was one of the pioneers in television news – maybe THE pioneer. He worked alongside Edward R. Murrow and he was the producer when Walter Cronkite took the bold move of going from only 15 minutes of nightly news to 30 in the early 1960s. He produced the famous Kennedy-Nixon debates leading up to the 1960 Presidential election. These debates may have changed history: Nixon looked tired and unshaven, and turned away Hewitt’s recommendation that he get some makeup. Those who saw the debates on TV thought that Kennedy won; whereas those who listened to them on radio – only hearing the words – thought Nixon won.
 
Hewitt had a lot of unorthodox ideas, and was somewhat unpredictable. So a CBS News executive – with the unlikely name of Fred Friendly (born Ferdinand Friendly Wachenheimer) – fired him from being lead producer of the nightly news. Thinking he would get him out of the way, Friendly told him to work on special projects. I think getting fired is the first sign that Hewitt was a real entrepreneur, a maverick.
 
Hewitt’s “special project” turned out to be 60 Minutes, a remarkable program that: (1) was the first television “newsmagazine,” to be followed by 20/20. Dateline, and many others; (2) is one of the longest-running shows in the history of television; (3) was repeatedly the #1 rated show, or very highly ranked, unheard-of for a news series. I don’t know about you, but still today after all these years, I often find 60 Minutes to be among the most interesting hours on television.
 
Until 2004, Hewitt was the master and commander of 60 Minutes. Then, at the age of 81, his bosses pressured him to step aside. As far as I can tell, this was less about questions with 60 Minutes’ success than it was about worrying about his age and ability to develop a plan of succession. Hewitt lived another 5 years but they say he would have rather been at work.
 
Unlike many TV producers, Hewitt and his life and work were no secret. He shows up in the movies Good Night and Good Luck and The Insider. The 2004 book Tick..Tick..Tick by David Blum tells the story of the TV show. Hewitt wrote his own story, Tell Me A Story (Public Affairs, 2002). And the 60 Minutes website has some wonderful footage from their recent posthumous celebration of his life (http://www.cbsnews.com/video/watch/?id=5260393n&tag=contentMain;contentBody). 
 
To put his story in the broader context of the industry – something that is always worth doing – see the broadcasting industry history book that I recently reviewed (http://hooversworld.com/archives/3096?day=Wednesday).  
 
Needless to say, CBS is very happy Hewitt created 60 Minutes. He was reported to have earned $6 million a year as producer, but the company made an annual profit of perhaps $20 million on the show. Most important (to me), he created some outstanding television, even shaping the national dialogue and making news with his interviews and stories.
 
So what can we learn from this amazing guy? Here are a few of my take-aways;
 
  1. Love what you do, and you will never want to retire. Having enough energy will not be an issue if your job is alive and ever-changing.
  2. Hewitt had a passion for learning. Those who knew him say he was one of the most curious people they ever met. He was interested in everyone.
  3. He never “got above the audience.” His sensibilities were essentially blue collar, a man of the people. He was not an artist or intellectual. He always asked, “If I was drinking a beer watching this at home and Mabel wanted to change the channel, would I say, ‘Ok, fine’ or would I say ‘No, this is interesting?”
  4. He thought you could deal with today better if you had one foot in the past – know your history and traditions.
  5. He believed the most important way to engage viewers was to “Tell them a story.” I believe that storytelling is one of our most valuable skills; we don’t praise it enough. (See http://hooversworld.com/archives/2990 to read a book which talks about this idea.)
  6. He said he never did a story about issues, he only did stories about people and how they were caught up in issues. It is too common to leave the human side out of our stories and thinking, especially in business (see http://hooversworld.com/archives/2963).
  7. He treated people as equals – from Mike Wallace to the newest intern.
  8. He wanted people around that argued with him (if you look him up, you will see that he argued a lot, and intensely).
  9. One of his great skills was pulling together diverse opinionated people, often with big egos, and making them work together and produce a quality product. Too many people today give up on “hard cases.” But if you work with real talent, it is worth “stretching” for.
  10. He always had a way to make a story better. One of his young producers did a poor job on his first story, so Hewitt gave him a hard time – but called him later that day with ideas to make the story better before broadcast time. And he did the same with the old pro’s like Wallace and Morley Safer. His focus was on incremental improvement, always increasing product quality.
 
If you listen to the 60 Minutes links above, or read the books, you will get lots of great quotes from Hewitt. One of my faves is “It’s not what you see or hear, it’s what you feel.”
 
In my analysis, Hewitt was one of the most interesting and successful entrepreneurs of the last 50 years, and had a real impact on the society in which he lived. This reminds us that not all entrepreneurs start their own company. 
 
Like many entrepreneurs, he may have been one of a kind. His ability to survive and prosper in the environment of a big company speaks volumes, as does his longevity. But CBS, broadcasting, and America would not be the same had he not worked his unique magic.



     


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2 COMMENTS

  1. What initially caught my attention about this posting was it’s title of being an entrepreneur in a big corporation. Way back in the 1980s I wrote my Professional Report for my MBA on Intrapreneurship in Commercial Banking in Texas. Since that time I have had success as an intrapreneur in both opening new banking offices and new divisions for large banks.

    As I read the posting about Don Hewitt and the ten take-aways, they all resounded as truth and wisdom. Part of the magic of Don Hewitt was that he brought out the best in a diverse group of people and had the ability to always remain focused on the prize while retaining his humility and great sense of humanity.

    We can all learn from his life- perhaps that part of our keeping one foot in the past….always remember the lessons learned and taught from those who have passed this way before.

    John

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