Media Coach & Stanford Lecturer Allison Kluger on Mistakes, Executive Presence for Women and Career Advice
Interview by Kathrina Q. Miranda, MiMA CEO
What is the most difficult decision (career wise) you had to make and what was the outcome?
Leaving Good Morning America to go to Q2 (a nascent Home Shopping Network started by Barry Diller and Diane Von Furtenberg) was the most difficult decision I have ever made. I had been at GMA for 8 years, one as an intern, seven as a producer. However, I had hit a ceiling and I did not see anymore upward mobility. By leaving and moving to a new niche, I was taking a risk. Yet my move to Q2 led me to being an on-air host, a Line Producer in the control room and an Executive Producer at another Shopping Network, called Global Shopping Network, where I managed a staff of 100 people and 16 hours of live television a day. These were all things I would have never been allowed to do at GMA. 4 years later, ABC invited me back to help start up The View with Barbara Walters. This time I was much more skilled and respected for my experience. I was a leader and came back in a Senior role at ABC. Sometimes you need to leave the nest, try something new, and come back stronger.
What mistakes have you made in your career and how did you recover?
I rarely look at anything as a mistake, as I truly believe that the only way I have learned and grown is from my experiences. Yet there are two events that stick out. One was when I was 23 and I got into a car accident during a field shoot in Iowa. I was producing a remote at the actual farm where the movie The Field of Dreams was shot. I flew into Dubuque to survey the site and meet Don Larsen, the farmer. I was a New Yorker and rarely drove a car. I was most afraid of getting lost because I was terrible with directions. The morning of the segment I got up at 3am to head to the site and I didn't realize how dark it would be on rural roads. I went to turn off the air conditioner with my right arm, and my left arm, on the steering wheel, mirrored the same movement at the same time and I swerved off the road, hit the accelerator instead of the brake, and I careened of the road at 90 miles per hour. My car hit something and flipped twice and then stopped in the middle of a field in the middle of nowhere. This was when there were no cell phones and it was a holiday weekend. I was alone, it was pitch black, and there wasn't a person or car in sight. I had severed a giant portion of my left leg right above the muscle, which was now open and bleeding, and sitting in my lap. I had broken my right arm in 4 places, broken ribs, injured my pancreas when the car flipped, and had assorted cuts and bruises. I knew if I remained in the car I would bleed to death. I managed to hold my leg together and tie it up with my shirt and get out of the car and make my way back to the road so I could walk for help--hoping to find a farm. Fortunately, after some time passed, a car eventually drove by and gave me a ride to a paramedic's home 5 towns away. Once there, the ambulance arrived. After preliminary surgeries in Iowa, ABC flew me back to NYC where I was in a hospital for 6 more weeks where I had skin grafts and bone grafts and lost a big portion of my leg. But the worst part was that I lied about the accident. I said I had swerved on the road to avoid hitting an animal. I was so afraid that if I admitted to losing control of my car that GMA would never send me out on another assignment. I was so worried about my reputation. I lived with that guilt for years. What was amazing, and what took me years and maturity to figure out, was that colleagues, friends and family were so impressed that I had the determination and mettle to get myself out of the car, tie up my leg, save my life, and search for help. No one cared how the accident happened. What I realize now is that my work ethic never would have been called into question. I was always known as a hard worker and as a resourceful and productive producer. And a strong reputation will always speak for itself.
The second event, which I consider a misstep, was when I went to a new shopping network as a Producer. I was paired up with another woman to produce one of the departments. Our on-air Host quit a week into the start-up and I was asked to replace her. I had never been on-air, but had produced enough Talent and coached enough people to know how to do what needed to be done. I also gave a hell of an audition selling a portable chair. When I was made the Host, my producing partner was livid. She felt I had abandoned her (although the Senior Producers had made this decision, not me) and began to ostracize me in our department and create an abusive working environment. During one tense conversation I lost control and argued with her when she insisted she was being supportive. I disagreed and told her, to her face, that she was being horrible and had been a complete B*tch. This was a big mistake on my part. By escalating the fight, using profanity, and inciting her even further, I gave her permission to play even dirtier. She continued to torture me, even on-air, while I was selling products. She would talk into my ear via the mic and distract me during live shows. She would gossip about me and alienate me from group meetings. I realized that by stooping to her level I had lost control and power and given her permission to treat me badly. If I had remained cool and had just done my best and didn't let her ruffle me, I would have had a stronger position within the team. As it was, I did confront her a few months later in a very calm manner. I was one of the top sellers, everyone else at the network liked and respected me, and I told her that her behavior had to stop. That it was counterproductive, that I was doing a great job, and that while we didn't have to be friends, at least let's both be professional. After that she left me alone and seemed to respect me. My lesson learned was to never rise to the bait, always keep my cool, and never let someone see how much he/she had gotten to me.
What advice do you have for any woman who wants to enter your line of work?
It is important in the Media to be competent, of course, but it is extremely important for people to enjoy working with you. This is a business of communication-literally--so you need to understand how to be a good communicator, read the temperature of the room, not take people's personalities too personally, and to have a sense of humor. Hours are strange and taxing, you deal with a lot of different, creative people, and each day is different and challenging just by the nature of the beast. So you need to be a problem solver, not a problem identifier, and you need to be a positive person. No one wants a whiner or a finger pointer. As a woman, you can't be afraid to volunteer and to make decisions quickly. To be a leader, others have to view you as a leader. Hard work is fine, but don't just be the busy little bee. You need to put yourself on the front line taking risks and leading the troops.
Why do you feel compelled to teach Executive Presence for Women?
Women are programmed to try and be perfect and this falls back on how we were raised: dress nicely, have manners, don't make too much noise, be polite etc. All of this is good and helpful, but women are capable of so much more. We are inherent leaders and are great at multi-tasking and great at intuiting a situation quickly and sizing up people. We can do the work and also manage people seamlessly when given the chance. We just need to be more confident in not waiting to be given the chance; we need to create the opportunity or situation to lead. We don't need permission to lead anymore. Some of the greatest leaders are women. We can do everything men can do and many times our emotional intelligence gives us an edge that men don't have. Men can be wary of women in a board room, as a boss, or an advisor. However, if we remind men of their strong wives, or sisters, or mothers or friends, they do realize that strong women are amazing and all around them and they hop on the band wagon pretty quickly.