Debra Lee: The power of saying 'no'

There's no textbook on how to be an impactful CEO.

Former CEO of BET Debra Lee never saw a C-suite role in her future.

She completed a dual program at Harvard Law School and the Kennedy School of Government, thinking she would pursue a career in politics. However, after spending five years at a law firm Lee made a major career shift, deciding to go in-house with a media company, joining a small client by the name of BET.

While her co-workers and family were confused as to why she would leave a prestigious firm for an unknown media corporation, Lee decided to bet on herself and figure it out along the way, advice she still recommends for all young professionals.

"I tell young people, you don't have to know what you want to do in your career right now. There's plenty of time for that. My career is illustrative of that. I came out of law school thinking I was going to go into government, I never went into government," Lee said.

And while she was trusting her gut, and was passionate about her new job, that doesn't mean her transition was smooth.

"It took me a long time to make relationships with the other executives and to convince them that I was there to help them, not to be a hindrance and not to stand in their way," Lee explained of her first years with BET.

Lee said her budget at the time was around $100,000 with $50,000 of that being used as her salary. To compare, the average budget for a counsel at a company of BET's size is a couple million dollars, Lee said. "I was the only attorney. I had no way to ask outside counsel for help, I had no budget to hire anyone, so for the first couple of years I prayed a lot."

As the company grew, so did Lee's career. She went from being the only member of the general counsel, to executive vice president and general counsel, and later to the first ever COO of the company and then CEO.

Although, Debra had been with the company for 19 years before taking on the head role, she says the transition still required a learning curve and an understanding of how to manage people.

"It takes experience and learning how to motivate executives and how to put together a team and how to make sure the team is invested in your success, how to have a vision," Lee said of her early years as CEO.

Of course there were hardships along the way with learning the ins and outs of the role, but there was also the realization of how impactful her decisions now were, she said.

Lee experienced protesters from a local church at her house, "primarily because he did not like hip hop music and probably like 65 percent of what we were doing at that time was hip hop," Lee says.

"I felt like I was carrying the weight of all these young black hip hop artists who were saying what they felt, but wasn't exactly appealing to women or to companies or to governments, and that was a stressful time," Lee explained of some of her first decisions as CEO.

And while trying to appease fans and deal with the external consequences of running a business, there was also internal conflict that employees looked to Lee to resolve.

"You can't make everybody happy. Every decision you make someone's going to be a loser. I used to think, 'Oh I'll get everyone to the same point,' no never happens," Lee explained of the decision making process.

"I call it the good girl syndrome. A lot of women were raised to be good girls and to be well liked and not to make decisions that could be perceived as harmful to other people," Lee said.

Lee explained one of the hardest decisions of her career was when Chris Brown was supposed to perform in a tribute to Michael Jackson, after he passed away. Brown had pleaded guilty to a felony assault on his then-girlfriend Rihanna, but had not yet served his time.

"It was a real hard question for women. What message would I be sending to young women if I let Chris Brown perform so soon after the incident with Rihanna? And I decided not to let him perform, and I heard from a lot people including the label that he was with and they were not happy," Lee described of her decision.

After spending 32 years at BET, 13 of them as CEO, Lee made the decision earlier this year to hand over the reins of BET.

"I felt like I had taken the company as far as I could take it, and I felt like I had a great team in place," Lee said. "They knew my values. They knew the company's values. And there were a lot of things in place and I felt those would continue to work."

It was a decision she didn't take lightly, but one that has given her the ability to explore new passions.

"I'm so identified with BET that it was like walking away from a child, but I decided it was the right time…I was lucky that I was passionate about BET, that I loved every minute of it, and I loved that career. But now I can think about, are there other things I want to do? And it's really, it's a fun time," Lee said.

Hear more from Debra Lee on episode 114 of the "No Limits with Rebecca Jarvis" podcast.

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