Nov. 9, 2009 -- Students lined up across the Joyce Hergenhan Auditorium at Syracuse University last Wednesday waiting to get their notebook's autographed and pictures taken with a Playboy icon: Christie Hefner.
Hefner, 57, is the daughter of Playboy founder Hugh Hefner. She served as CEO of Playboy Enterprises from 1988 until early 2009, when she stepped down, making her the longest-serving woman CEO of any major media company. In 2006 Forbes magazine listed her among the "100 Most Powerful Women."
"I never thought I was going to go to work for my father's company," Hefner said. "I never thought I was going to work for any business."
Flash-forward to today and Hefner now has a hand in shaping a variety of organizations. She does public policy outreach with liberal think tank the Center for American Progress, and says she declined an offer to become publisher of the Columbia Journalism Review in favor of advising them on how to improve their business model. She also works with Canyon Ranch, a resort spa, to help expand the company.
Hefner came to Syracuse to share what she's learned via her journey at Playboy, and reflect on two decades of leading a multi-billion dollar international company.
Here are few pieces of advice Hefner offered to the packed auditorium of Syracuse University students:
Lose the jargon. "Try not to be either intimidated by or a captive of jargon. Even though it's language, and language is about communication, it often exists actually to obfuscate, and to control power, and not to communicate."
Don't ever stop meeting people. "I don't think you can know too many smart people. I don't think you should ever stop meeting people. In the course of constantly trying to meet people, and constantly expanding my network, I met a person named Jim Clark who was the original founder of a company called Mosaic, which became Netscape, which is what turned the Internet into what we know as the Internet. And because I met him I was able to have a conversation about whether it was possible to take Playboy online, without simply turning the brand and the content over to a CompuServe and losing control of the brand and losing control of the creative commercial applications. And he said, because of his rich knowledge, 'Why yes it is. I can build an infrastructure for you where people can simply type in 'Playboy.com' and they will be at your site.'"
Don't ever stop trying to learn. "If you ever get to a point where you stop learning you will find your professional options and your personal satisfaction severely curtailed. Because this world is changing much too quickly."
Read history. "If you do wind up in a position of leadership I would urge not to spend a lot of time reading books about leadership, which I find, in the main, a waste of time, and for sure if it's got a number in the title. You can definitely skip those. Read history. I learned more about leadership reading about Abraham Lincoln than I ever learned reading The One-Minute Manager."
Tips from Former Playboy CEO Christie Hefner
Really listen. "For smart people leadership is harder, ironically, because you're already a step ahead so you're not really listening. There's a wonderful expression that a strategic facilitator I worked with years ago gave me that I love, which is 'When you're in a meeting and someone comes up with a new idea, don't send a heat-sinking missile', and what that means is, you know what the easiest thing to do is? Find the fatal flaw. It's to say, 'Well that won't work because…' What you really want, if you're a leader, is to create a culture in which instead of that being the reaction, what people say is 'Well that's a really interesting idea, I wonder if we just twisted a little bit this way…' So you're nurturing ideas instead of killing them in their infancy."
Learn how to learn. "If I learned to value one quality above all others in interviewing for senior positions, it was actually not IQ, although I do like smart people, it was intellectual agility. Had someone demonstrated an ability to move from industry to industry, or field to field, or job to job, had they shown a capacity for absorbing new information, and functioning in new capacities, because without that this world that is so dynamic right now, is going to be much more limited than it should be."
We are each our own brands. "All the decisions you make, all the interactions you have with people, all the things you do and don't do will accumulate and define what your brand is. I hope you treat your brand well."
Former dean of the S.I. Newhouse School of Public Communications at Syracuse University David Rubin said he brought Hefner to the school because he believes she is the perfect role model for students.
"She had to evolve a company that was based basically on the revenues of a magazine," Rubin said, "in an era when magazines are under enormous stress. How are you going to make the transformation from that company to something that is more multi-platform, interactive, and digital? And then she had to have this iconic bunny brand. The question is: what do you do with it? How do you monetize it? So she has so much that she can bring to us."
Clay LePard, a sophomore at Syracuse University who attended the event, admires Hefner. "Other students asked me 'Why are you coming? She's a controversial speaker,'" said LePard, "but the thing is, she built this company, she took it to a new level, which I thought was just really interesting and I feel like there was a great story behind it." As CEO Hefner created the Playboy television channel and brought the magazine to the Web in 1994.
Hefner recognizes that not everyone agrees with the theme of the magazine, but she says women should be both respected and desired. "The reason that the most beautiful women in the world want to be on the pages of Playboy is because it is an affirmation of themselves. I think the magazine has always tried to take the approach that sex is a good thing and to treat it in a romantic way."