‘What Makes Business Rock’ — What You Can Learn from MTV

Guest Author Blog: To Go Global, Go Glocal by Bill Roedy author of,"WHAT MAKES BUSINESS ROCK: Building the World’s Largest Global Networks"


There was a time when an executive at an American company could basically ignore the rest of the world.

Many people spent their entire career at one company focusing only on the domestic market.

When I started looking to bring MTV international 23 years ago, it wasn’t unusual — particularly for American-based companies — to think “one market/one product.” The US was a big, diverse, robust market, and you could get away with doing that.

The United States still is big, and one can get a head start even now, but increasingly it’s critical to think beyond US borders to have a successful product in any business or industry.

Beyond that, you need product innovation. Before, you might have offered one product — ice cream in three flavors, or several models of a car. Today, customers are looking for multiple products and choices. To become a successful manager in an increasingly global business community it’s absolutely imperative that an executive understand the way the rest of the world does business.

In an international environment, many economists and companies think they can organize their companies as they did in the US. In reality, the international market consists of approximately 180 different countries and you have to think uniquely toward each of them. You can’t “export America” to them all.

And because you’re growing the business outside the US, you will have to think entrepreneurially. Even if have a mature product in the States, you need to think as an entrepreneur as you go around the world, starting a new business in each country. What does that mean?

You can go your own way

This is my mantra: “Never accept no for an answer” and “Break the rules.”

The subtext of breaking the rules is taking risks, and innovating your product for the culture. Never accepting no for an answer addresses the fact that when you’re navigating this incredible maze around the world, you’re always going to be presented with an obstacle, a constraint, or someone who will tell you it can’t be done. Keep charging forward. One of my heroes is Winston Churchill, and one of my favorites among his speeches is, “Never, never, never, never quit.” I think he should have added a few more nevers in there. Keep driving forward, without letting an obstacle or a "no" stop you.

Respect the one you’re with

That thought process — never accepting no and breaking the rules — needs to be balanced with another key success factor, which is, respect and reflect the local culture. That has been the key to MTV’s success from Day One. Now it’s more common, but 20 years ago it was radical to design a product that actually respected and reflected the local culture. Product design and the creative thought behind product design become key components as you go around the world.

When you work with constituents internationally, you sometimes encounter resistance because there’s a love/hate with America in the media world — love the culture, sometimes question the policy. That’s just the way it has been over the years. Therefore, one of the key messages is, “We’re not importing American culture, but instead, we’re exporting your culture out to the rest of world.” It resonates with your constituents, because they are not interested in importing cultural imperialism.

MTV was in a great position because as we expanded around the world into a global operation, we were uniquely able to expose the culture through program innovation to the rest of the world. We could take elements from countries around the world and exchange them with other MTV channels around the world.

Military mindfulness

I graduated West Point, served as a Second Lieutenant in Vietnam and commanded three NATO nuclear missile bases in Italy, so I often am asked: “What does West Point have in common with MTV?” They have nothing in common, of course, but there are military principals that I believe do work in the business world, and that I used in building MTV into a global organization.

One of these was organizational design. The military is made up of fighting units on the ground. Setting up the MTV organization internationally, I felt strongly that we should have small fighting units, to accomplish several objectives. You’re able to fight the competition much better in local fighting units. You are able to respond more quickly. And as an operation gets bigger, unfortunately it adds layers of bureaucracy. By having a decentralized operation, your small units are able to respond at the local level without getting bogged down in bureaucracy.

Small units also enable you to create a local culture. In a group of 50 to 200 people, everyone knows your first name, you have a cohesive group, and you’re more able to cultivate easily an environment of high morale, as long as you keep communication lines open.

Going small and going local was a risk early on because the MTV brand was strong and closely guarded in the US. To build decentralized units to bring the brand to local audiences internationally we had to hire good people and trust them. Mistakes were made. From my military experience, I was able to apply organizational design lessons that helped me.


Stand by me

When you have crises around the world, and invariably we had a crisis almost every day as I look back, managing an operation with 175 channels, it’s important to be on the soil — I like to say, “First on the battlefield, last to leave.” You need to go and stand side-by-side with your battalion or in this case your channel, and help resolve the issue.

I think it’s common for business people, because the world’s so big and we’re all so busy, and we have the advantage of technologies like videoconferencing — to try to cut travel. I believe that it’s important to be on the ground and have your team on the soil. Not only to establish relationships externally and show how important a particular market is, but also to learn much more about your market. A common mistake that business people often make is that when they do travel, they go the airport conference room and hotel room. You have to go out and discover the culture, and not be afraid of travel.

What’s worked for me in the past, being on the ground, was having the opportunity to meet very senior people — over 30 heads of state, Nobel prize winners —with help of the owner of Viacom , Summer Redstone. They all made for terrific experiences and for good stories, but also I think benefitted the business because I was able to establish a credibility at a senior level that opened doors.

Going hand-in-hand with that, I think a good leadership principle is to be quick to accept blame, and slow to take credit. Good morale is critical to missions in the military and in private enterprise, and sharing the credit builds morale, as does creating an environment to which people bring their best game. In the military, this involves engendering a sense of pride and unity, promoting an ability to “take the hill” and accomplish the mission. In the workplace, shaping the setting and gathering a team that people want to be part of increases their productivity, enabling them to take a different sort of hill — again, accomplishing your mission.

No waiting on the world to change

And finally — social responsibility. Together, we rise. I think it’s imperative, particularly when you’re in international business and you are a guest of the countries, that you have a strong social conscience and “think global, act local” — be “glocal.” Be involved in something that actually helps and gives back to that local society and culture.

For us at MTV, it’s been very much about fighting the AIDS epidemic, about global health, disaster relief after the ’05 tsunami, earthquake relief in Pakistan and Haiti, and addressing human trafficking and climate change. In my work outside MTV, I would always tell businesses, you should do it of course for the greater good, but also it’s better for your business and it’s good for your brand. Take up a cause that your particular audience has a passion for, and the benefits follow. You are taking care of your audience or customers, and you are also very much taking care of your employees, who can take more pride and joy in coming to work knowing that they are making a difference.

Bill Roedy was most recently Chairman and Chief Executive, MTV Networks International (MTVNI). In this role, he ran all of MTV Networks’ global channels and multimedia operations for dozens of brands including: MTV, Nickelodeon, VH1, VIVA, TMF: The Music Factory, Game One, Comedy Central and Paramount Comedy. His book What Makes Business Rock: Building the World’s Largest Global Networks was published in May 2011. Follow Bill on Twitter.

Email me at bullishonbooks@cnbc.comAnd follow me on Twitter @BullishonBooks