Time Warner COO: For Media, Corporate Diversity Is About Business

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I just had lunch with Jeffrey Bewkes, Time Warner’s soon-to-be CEO. Okay, so technically speaking, I was in a large room with many other people eating sandwiches in the presence of Bewkes. The luncheon was arranged by A3, Time Inc.’s Asian group, and ably hosted by my friend Stephanie Mehta, a senior writer at Fortune.

The lunch was mainly off the record, but I’d like to share some of the conversation with you. Corporate diversity’s been on my mind a lot lately, and how often do we underlings get to grill our top corporate officers on the subject, mano-a-mano (or, at least, many-a-mano-a-mano)? More importantly, the company I work for happens to be the world’s largest media company, and though diversity matters in every sector, I think our outsized influence makes it matters here more.


Jeffrey Bewkes is my boss’s boss’s boss’s boss. In other words, he’s the president and COO of Time Warner./ Photo courtesy of Time Warner.

Bewkes is a guy with a lot on his plate. He was named president and chief operating officer of Time Warner in December 2005, and as such oversees Time Inc., HBO, Turner Broadcasting (CNN, TNT, TBS, Cartoon Network), Warner Bros. and New Line Cinema, Time Warner Cable and AOL. He spent most of his career at HBO.

Our current CEO is, of course, Dick Parsons, who is perhaps the best known and most powerful CEO of color in the country. But dig a few levels below, and the palette is decidedly more monochromatic. Still, it appears diversity is something Bewkes has spent some time chewing over.

Mehta asked Bewkes to make a business case for diversity. He responded: “”We need to produce relevant content for an increasingly diverse population. We are ever fragmenting–and by that I mean not just in ethnicity and nationality but in interests.” He went on to describe the extremely diverse programming at HBO–diverse not just in color but in content and tone–and how that’s helped it become such an entertainment leader.

One piece of advice he had for up-and-coming workers that I thought was useful: make your (white, male, older) boss criticize you. Studies bear him out: research shows that supervisors find it far easier to give honest feedback to people who resemble them, whether in gender, color or background. “Whatever he’s telling you, it’s worse,” he said, to laughter in the room. “Make him tell you what you’re lousy at.” FYI, he used language a little saltier than “lousy.” But it’s a good point, I thought.

As for retaining and promoting minorities to the top, I hope that in his future role he’ll give serious thought to assigning some sort of systemic accountability–the only proven management tactic for change. (Read my article in TIME on this topic.) It matters, not just for those of us who work here but for our millions of viewers, readers and consumers. Like Bewkes says, it’s about business.