Many years ago, I taught at the University of Redlands School of Business (back then it was called the Alfred North Whitehead School of Business). Among my courses was one that coached MBA students in preparing the documentation required for lifetime learning credits. The idea was to acknowledge the value of learning that took place outside of the formal university and its classrooms. To earn credit, you had to put it all down on paper in a particular format for objective evaluation. My students learned how to convey, in written form, what they’d experienced in the world.
Bill Roedy never attended that university or any of my classes – in fact, he’s a Harvard MBA grad. But if he had, I would have awarded full course credit for his new book What Makes Business Rock. For those not in the know, Roedy is former chairman and chief executive of MTV Networks International. Bill Clinton notably described him as “the best businessman in the world.”
What Makes Business Rock is Roedy’s memoir and record of lessons learned in the industry and about business in general. The trouble is that it reads too much like one of those lifetime learning documents. The evaluators at U of R had a reputation for being tough, so to earn maximum credit, students had to emphasize – every couple of paragraphs – precisely what they’d learned out in the world and how it applied to something specific they might have gained in class. Beginning with his time at West Point, Roedy follows a similar formula. “To survive,” he writes, “we had to learn how to prioritize.”
And then the application. “In business there are always more things to de done than time allows, and how to best utilize our time often makes the difference between success and failure.” In Vietnam, Roedy learned how to stay calm and unemotional. Years later, this served him well in a confrontation with P. Diddy playing the diva at an AIDS concert. Then, at HBO, he learned how to show his emotions and that “sometimes you have to raise your voice…to emphasize a point.” Along the way, he also learned to write with green ink, “so when anyone received a document… they instantly knew it came from me.”
Roedy’s writing style is a small setback. In truth, he’s no writer – he shares the credits for this book with author David Fisher. The memoir, however, still earns high marks, often because he acknowledges both the university and the real world for his knowledge and success. It’s a surprise and a pleasure to read the insights of a businessman of his caliber and realize that he’s not all ego and self-congratulation. He uses “we” just as much as the word “I” in explaining how MTV became the world’s largest entertainment network using many strategies that were unique for their time. The network pioneered creative product placement, integrating entire marketing campaigns into programming. “Rather than making black-and-white decisions,” he writes, “we tried to find shades of gray that were acceptable to everyone.” Roedy also believed “it was imperative to have a global perspective,” long before most people knew what it was to have a global perspective. And let’s face it. For those of us who experienced early MTV, it really did rock.
One of the most valuable accounts in Roedy’s lifetime learning is the story of how he negotiated the many snags and potential mishaps of intercultural communication. Initially viewed as a threat to local culture, Roedy convinced many leaders from China to Saudi Arabia that the idea was not to import Americanism, but rather to promote local culture through MTV with sensitivity to local standards. Mastering local cultural protocols was just good business. At the same time, Roedy didn’t shy away from breaking a few cultural rules for the greater good. MTV was an early and strong supporter of AIDS education even when educating the public meant offending the sensibilities of advertisers and local decision-makers. In fact, that is one of the early lessons Roedy offers in his memoir. “Break the rules,” he writes and slyly adds, “it was the one rule I insisted everybody follow.” FBN