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Why the President of TLC Encourages Her Team to Take Big Swings, Even If it Ends in Failure

Nancy Daniels shares her tips for effective leadership, meetings and recognizing employees.
Why the President of TLC Encourages Her Team to Take Big Swings, Even If it Ends in Failure
Image credit: Nancy Daniels | TLC Network

In this series, Leader Board, we speak with CEOs, managers, founders and others who lead organizations to learn what makes them tick, what they look for in new hires and even where they eat lunch.

Nancy Daniels started her career as an entry-level freelance production assistant, making copies and brewing coffee. Now, she's the president and general manager of TLC Network, the network behind popular shows such as Cake Boss, What Not to Wear and Sister Wives.

She’s the most senior female content executive across Discovery Communications, TLC's parent company, and she’s helped build a network that’s available in more than 325 million households today. Daniels manages 75 employees across departments such as programming, production and marketing.

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She made her way up the ladder with various leadership and production positions. Before joining Discovery, Daniels worked as a freelance producer on CBS shows such as Big Brother and Survivor. However, once she was offered a new position on the corporate side of the network, Daniels took the job even though her heart remained in production. But after a few years, she realized she wanted to go back to where she started.

I wanted to go back to my people and to be with all the doers and the scrappy people … the crew,” she told Entrepreneur.

Daniels followed her heart and joined Discovery in 2007 as the VP of development and production for Discovery Studios. After six years, she landed the top position as TLC’s president and general manager, running nearly every aspect of the network (including production).

She’s been in the biz for more than 20 years, so it’s safe to say she knows a thing or two about the craft and about leading a prominent company. We caught up with Daniels to learn how she successfully leads a bi-coastal team, creates a strong culture, hires top talent and more.

On the most important leadership traits:

“You have to have a vision for where you want the network to go and you have to lead with clarity of that vision. I think confusion can be the enemy of any business.

“I also think you have to be trustworthy to your employees. They have to trust in you and they have to feel protected and safe. When we develop shows and put them on the air, there’s a lot of risk involved, and everything you do is very public. You get a report card every day on your rating that everybody sees and everybody can be a critic. So what I do with my team is let them know we're taking big swings here but we have to do it. And if it doesn't work, we'll learn something from it and move on.”

On leadership style:

“I really believe in hiring the right people and then trusting them to do the job they've been hired to do. I don't like to micro-manage but I want to be completely up to speed on everything. I don't want to ever slow down the process, [but] if you have the right people in the right job, you won't.”

On habits that help her lead:

“There's a lot of communication and collaboration with my direct reports. I'm constantly talking with the head of production and development [and] the head of programming. I feel like we're all in it together and all over whatever the ‘hot thing of the day’ is.

“We are a bi-coastal team. I'm in Los Angeles. My head[s] of programming, production development, marketing [and] press are all in Silver Spring, Md., which is the headquarters of Discovery Communications. Then we have a few people in New York as well. So [with] me being in Los Angeles, some of my daily habits mean getting up early and being available early. For me, it's constantly being on the phone, and we are constantly Skyping or video conferencing just to have face-to-face contact.”

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On challenges:

“When I first got into this job, I wanted to have all the answers. And it took me awhile to realize [that] I don't. We have to work together to come to those answers. At the end of the day, I have to take responsibility for all of the decisions that we make as a company and I'm very comfortable doing that, but getting to those decisions is a collaborative effort.”

On the toughest business decision:

“When you have to make really tough decisions where you know there are personal consequences for people. We're constantly trying new shows and putting new things on the air and suffering the criticism along with that. It's really tough when we've had a show on the air for a very long time and it's time to cancel [it]. We do nonfiction programming [and] a lot of docu-series, so these are often people’s real lives [and] stories that they’ve shared with us and our viewers. And we’re going to them and saying, ‘We’re all moving on.’ Those are some of the hardest decisions to make.”

On the most important traits in a new hire:

“I look for people who are going to be a cultural fit. It's very easy to look at a resume and say, ‘Yes, this person checks all the boxes for all the right types of experience.’ But are they going to work well with us? Are they going to be able to thrive in a bi-coastal environment?

“When I'm looking at a creative hire, I want someone who's a true fan of TV and has familiarity with TLC programming. I want them to come in and love the shows they're working on and be truly excited about them. We have tight budgets on our shows. What I always want is somebody who is somewhat scrappy. I want people who are doers.”

On recognizing employees:

“We really try to celebrate the good. I think in any TV [shows] across the board, it's about a 70 percent failure rate of what you do every day. So when you have the win, you have to recognize it and celebrate the people who are involved.

“We have quarterly all-staff meetings where we go through all [of] the shows that are coming up. So even in that way, it's the department heads making sure they are singling out people on their team [who] have really contributed in a big way on those shows.

“It's not a one-award-a-year kind of thing. It's the little things all along the way to recognize what people are doing in their everyday jobs.”

On team-building:

“[Before] I first started at Discovery, I had worked in freelance production for a long time. When you're freelancer, you create your own culture [and] coming in I wasn't so sure about retreats. They felt very corporate to me [but] then I went on one and I was like, 'This is amazing.' To be able to have time to get out of the office with the right people and just talk about the goals and how you can make [the network] better is such a gift.”

On unique office rituals:

“I think when people come onto our team, they're a little thrown by all of the video conferencing. And the fact that [in] my office, they installed a full video conference setup [with] specific lighting. It almost looks like I do a newscast from my conference table.”

On managing meetings:

“In a meeting -- especially if it's a creative or greenlight meeting -- I try not to jump in too early into a conversation. I go into [a] meeting and I want to listen and hear debate. If they're presenting a certain show for a possible green light, I want to hear from the people who love it and why, and I want to hear from the people who don't think it's going to work and why. It's about being measured and being a good listener.”

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On scheduling:

I carry around a notebook with an ongoing to-do list that I try to check in and off as I go along. The fact that we're bi-coastal and I'm in L.A., my morning is mostly meetings and my afternoon is a little bit more open.”

On office setup:

“Every office is different and they all feel different culturally. In L.A., we just finished a remodel of our offices and for the first time we have all of the people who are dedicated to TLC working together on the same floor, in the same wing.”

“The way we just redid our offices in L.A., they're all glass and there's a lot of workstations. The people who had offices had all been working with walls, and they could shut their door -- you can't really have that level of privacy anymore. People were worried about it -- they were used to it and thought it was weird. Now it’s been about six months and people love it. They feel much more connected and like a team.”

On lunch:

It's kind of a sad answer but because of our time zones, I'm sitting at my desk in a meeting or in a conference room eating out of a to-go box.”

On a strong company culture:

“I've talked a lot about this with David Zaslav, the [Discovery Communications] CEO, and he talks about how hard it is to change culture. I've worked at different networks within Discovery Communications -- I worked at Discovery Channel for a few years [but] I’ve spent most of my time at TLC. There's a marked difference in culture between those networks even though we're in the same company.

“The way I look at it is I want to live and behave how I want the culture and my team to be and that takes time. If you walk in and say, ‘I want things to be this way,’ you need to not just say [it],you need to do it [and] prove it.”

On cultural mistakes:

“There was a short time when I was [at] Discovery channel running production and development, and I think I was naive to go in there and think I could try and change the culture of that department. I had to learn it was just a different environment.”

On her biggest cultural win:

“About 18 months ago, we launched a new marketing brand campaign called I Am. What we were trying to say is [that] with all of our talent, [they] all come together and say, ‘I am strong,’ ‘I am not what you think,’ I am worried about my future’ -- all these kinds of things. It was our talent and our messaging as a network saying, ‘We all are different. But the things that make us different are what make us special and what join us together.’

“We announced it to the team who loved it and then we all started living it. It started coming up in people's emails -- somebody would send an email and say, ‘I am excited about the premiere of the show’ or ‘I am not looking forward to this meeting tomorrow.’ It was something that became a part of our lexicon, and people embraced it. We created T-shirts for everybody -- one said ‘I am trouble’ or ‘I am with the band.’

“To me, it was the brand coming up with a very successful brand message, but it also became a message for who we are as a team.”

On her role models:

“It's not one person. I remember one of my very first jobs, I was a production assistant on a show and had a mentor at the time who said, ‘You will learn something from every job and every boss you have, whether they're good or bad. Just make sure you're always learning.’ I've always tried to do that -- take the best and learn from the worst to figure out who I am as a leader.”

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On her favorite leadership books:

Good to Great by Jim Collins. It's about that moment [when] a company is trekking along and doing well but then they just explode and why. It has a bunch of case studies that they look at.

“Another one is Winning by Jack Welch. It's indisputable that he is one of the best CEOs that's ever been out there and I loved reading his philosophy on running a business. And then I have a soft spot for Lean In by Sheryl Sandberg, just as a woman working in this business.”

On where most leaders go wrong:

“Thinking it's about you, not about what you're there to do.”