MONICA WILLIAMS, SVP DIGITAL PRODUCTS AND OPERATIONS AT NBC UNIVERSAL
Monica Williams, Senior Vice President of Digital Products and Operations at NBCUniversal Content Distribution, shares her approach to building outstanding teams and fostering an intentional, empowering, and inspiring culture. In her 16 years at NBCUniversal, Monica has held a variety of roles and led innovative growth in the digital product space. Monica is also the founding member of the private network Chief’s Los Angeles location.
Listen to the podcast
HIGHLIGHTS FROM OUR CONVERSATION INCLUDE
- Monica’s transition from GE Aviation to NBCUniversal (1:43)
- Key lessons from her leadership training (8:31)
- How Six Sigma has influenced her hiring approach (10:54)
- Identifying candidates who will thrive in a quickly evolving industry (11:56)
- Why creative thinking is essential in her world (15:10)
- Monica’s go-to interview questions and red flags (17:14)
- How she empowers and unlocks talent within her team (20:11)
- How her team geared up for the Olympics (26:40)
SHOW TRANSCRIPT – HOW I HIRE PODCAST WITH Monica Williams
Roy Notowitz: [00:00:00] Hello, and welcome to How I Hire. I’m your host, Roy Notowitz, Founder of an executive recruiting and leadership consulting firm called Noto Group, where my team and I have spent the last decade helping to build iconic consumer brands, one hire at a time. You can visit us at NotoGroup.com to learn more.
If you have a friend, colleague or family member who might be interested in this podcast, please let them know they can find us on Apple, Spotify, and whatever podcast platform they listen to.
Monica Williams joins me today on the show. She’s the Senior Vice President of Digital Products and Operations at NBCUniversal Content Distribution. Monica has been with NBCUniversal for 16 years in a variety of roles, and she’s led the business into a new era of digital product innovation. Monica is also the founding member of the private network Chief, for their Los Angeles chapter. Chief is the only organization specifically designed for women in senior leadership roles to strengthen their journey, cross-pollinate ideas across industries and affect change from the top down. Monica and I will discuss her approach to building innovative teams and fostering an intentional culture that empowers and inspires everyone involved.
Thank you so much for joining us on the podcast today, Monica.
Monica Williams: [00:01:25] Thank you so much for having me. I’m excited to be here.
Roy Notowitz: [00:01:28] So Monica, you have an interesting combination of business, operations, and technology experience within NBCUniversal. Can you share a bit more detail about your career path and how you got to where you are today?
Monica Williams: [00:01:43] So I got my undergrad at the University of Michigan as an industrial operations engineering major. From there, I was early identified through General Electric at the time through one of their internship programs. And this is certainly, you know, GE during the Jack Welch days, very much focusing on leadership development. And I joined GE Aviation into their operations management leadership program. Looking back, definitely very thankful and blessed that I had the experiences really, you know, getting that classical GE leadership and business training.
Roy Notowitz: [00:02:15] What a great experience. And then also being able to be exposed to different leadership styles, right?
Monica Williams: [00:02:21] Absolutely. Absolutely. And if I were to think about something, you know, like particular, one of my experiences, if you think about it, as a female, asian American, I think I was 22, 23 at the time, it gave me like a whole new different perspective and, you know, really growing, I would say. I can’t stress enough on that, that the, both the personal and professionally that I was able to really take away from it. And I think the, really the learning, and I was, again, thankful to have early in my career, is that ability to, to adapt. Resilience. And really learn to connect with people among other things. And from there, I landed in a role in engine services, still with GE in Southern California. And then ultimately transitioned to NBCUniversal, which was still under GE ownership at the time.
Roy Notowitz: [00:03:13] Oh, wow. So that’s how you made the transition. But going from the aviation division to the entertainment business, what was that like for you? It must’ve been a huge shock to the system.
Monica Williams: [00:03:24] Yeah, to say the least. I mean, I still vividly remember my first week at NBCUniversal, walking around the lot and seeing animals roaming around. And I think this was the time that they were filming Evan Almighty so, you know, really rightfully so there was like orangutans and giraffes. But you know, just thinking how surreal it was. And I was walking on the lot in, you know, one of the largest studio lots in Hollywood and working for this media giant. And, background: I grew up in China and then Michigan, and really was never really exposed to media entertainment to even dream that this is something that I would be one day be part of, right? So I felt super blessed, but extremely nervous because again, I just didn’t have much exposure. So I was certainly anxious.
Roy Notowitz: [00:04:14] I can imagine.
Monica Williams: [00:04:15] It’s just a lot of the unknowns that comes with it. And to calm myself down I remember thinking the first week of, you know, “Hey, I came from making aircraft engines. How hard could this be, right?” Boy, was I wrong. Sitting in meetings the first week, few weeks on the job, I just remember thinking, “are they speaking English because I’m not sure I understand a word they’re saying”. You know, certainly a humbling experience. But I think what allowed, I guess what I call a successful transition from aviation to media entertainment is that I’d just never shied away from asking questions and spend time and diving into, you know, really to, to understand.
Roy Notowitz: [00:04:56] Yeah, that adaptability from your rotations probably helped significantly.
Monica Williams: [00:05:01] Yeah. Yeah. That’s right. I think that, you know, you’ll probably start to hear some of the similar themes and it continues. From there, I spent a couple of years as more of the internal consultant, supporting studio operations. And this is certainly the earlier days of digital and, and when it was still called new media at the time.
Roy Notowitz: [00:05:20] Wow.
Monica Williams: [00:05:21] So I worked with engineers, you know, to build out this new media operation. And when we were done, the leadership team asked me to run it, given my operational background.
Roy Notowitz: [00:05:30] Cool.
Monica Williams: [00:05:31] And this is really when iTunes and Hulu launch and, you know, certainly crazy times and endless hours. But I would say, you know, as cheesy as it sounds, that’s the time I fell in love with digital and have purposely decided to stay with it ever since.
Roy Notowitz: [00:05:48] It’s been amazing. I mean, just the whole subscription-based content explosion and how that’s changed everything. And it’s still evolving. Like, I, I still don’t even really know how to use my TV fully at this point. It’s pretty incredible. And then, and you’re right in the middle of all that right now.
Monica Williams: [00:06:05] Yeah. Yeah. I mean, it certainly hasn’t slowed down, right? I think we’re, we’re absolutely still in the thick of it all and everything is changing every day. And I felt like that was more of a defining moment in my career where, dove in, made the mark, and really grew that business from zero to 6 million when I left it and really expanded it to over 200 international licensees. And today I head up digital products and operations for the content distribution business unit. So still very much in digital and sort of seeing through all the changes that’s happening in our, in our industry.
Roy Notowitz: [00:06:43] What is it that your business unit is responsible for?
Monica Williams: [00:06:46] Our team is responsible for licensing and securing distribution of our network portfolios. So, whether that’s news, sports, entertainment, kids, across traditional distributors such as Comcast or charters of the world to, you know, in the recent years we’ve seen virtual distributors entering the space. You know, you’re probably familiar with YouTube TV and Hulu. The team I lead is responsible for how people experience viewing of all of our network portfolio content across all these digital platforms. So whether you’re watching, This Is Us, for example, via YouTube TV on your phone or watching the Kardashians on the E! app, my team is involved in, in some shape or form. So what that means is from content delivery, both on demand and linear, through supporting all the different sort of monetization models, whether it’s ad integration or ensuring we have the right to Nielsen measurement in place, and just building products solutions to ultimately enhance the viewing experience, that’s what we do at a very high level. So my world, all of a sudden, went from nascent, to nice to have, to now a very big portion of, you know, the way people are consuming media. So I think all of this is, for us, to continue to just keep an eye on the consumer and really follow where the consumers are going. And ultimately, you know, every day what we do and, you know, kind of how we work is really applying that human-centered design approach and just working with our partners to really innovate and bring out, you know, sort of the new product and experience to life.
Roy Notowitz: [00:08:25] That’s fascinating. So what experiences have shaped your hiring approach and philosophy?
Monica Williams: [00:08:31] You know, I, I certainly have a lot of moments, both in my personal education and professional career that really taught me humility, courage, vulnerability, compassion, empathy, and perspective. Because I’ve been fortunate to be part of leadership training early in my career, it really helps me break down, you know, the understanding, the need of having various personality or leadership or innovation styles, you know, sort of across people and what you need as a team. That basically all speaks to the point that you, you really can’t be successful with just one type of people. You really need all styles so you can see things truly through different lenses to be successful. I think that really has been the key, I guess, philosophy that I base my hiring approach on and just, you know, thinking about, whether it’s in our day-to-day decisions for a work product or as I’m hiring or onboarding new people. I mean, that’s, that’s just, you know, part of making sure that we’re evaluating, not just through our own lens, but considering the lens of others.
Roy Notowitz: [00:09:39] What is your approach to making sure that you have those perspectives and that they’re being incorporated?
Monica Williams: [00:09:44] You know, knowing where we are today, the sort of makeup of the team, where are my strengths and sort of development areas across the team, right. And what problems are we solving for today? And then ultimately, where do we need to go as an organization and the type of problems that we need to solve for. And then that’s when I’m, you know, kind of again, evaluating my current team, and are there any skills gaps, you know, like what are sort of the areas within the team that I need to sort of consider. And that ultimately helps me think about what should I be looking for to make my team whole, if you will when I have the opportunity to onboard or backfill. But I do this on a regular basis just to understand, even if I don’t have a head count I’m trying to fill, but I, you know, it’s good to know your blind spots a little bit.
Roy Notowitz: [00:10:32] Yeah. I mean, that’s, I guess that’s your role as a leader, to really take a step back and look at it from that 30,000 foot level. So we had talked in the past about your Six Sigma training and how that informed your approach to hiring, and that was really interesting. Can you share a little bit more detail around how that knowledge has been helpful or informative?
Monica Williams: [00:10:54] Yeah. I mean, in fact, I think, you know, just even thinking about the hiring approach, that’s probably a huge influence of Six Sigma because it’s really a way of thinking the way to problem solve. So a lot of the Six Sigma philosophy teaches you the, you know, certainly you’re baselining, you have to start off with a baseline. You have to understand where you’re trying to go and then, you know, map out, what’s sort of stopping you from getting there, right? So like really kind of understanding, you know, your today, where you’re trying to be and, you know, looking at the gaps and how do you make the, what are the potential improvements that you can make to get there? And then you, then you have to build control around it. But that’s really the Six Sigma, I would say, approach. And I would say I bring that into every day, whether it’s hiring or, you know, just kind of my everyday problem solving. That’s, certainly, I would say it’s kind of almost like the fabric of who I am a little bit.
Roy Notowitz: [00:11:47] The premium digital content technology and subscription business models are evolving. Generally, what do you look for in candidates and how do you assess that?
Monica Williams: [00:11:56] I would say the pace of change has just gone exponential, especially in those last few years. So for me, what’s important is less about finding people with specific experience to what we need, versus really finding people, somebody who is really not afraid to change, that is willing to learn, and ultimately a great problem solver, meaning they’re able to, you know, see the problem, connect the dots and break it down to be able to, you know, sort a solution. I think that’s really, for me is, you know, kind of think about what I look for in candidates in general, and that ultimately would provide that great balance for the rest of my organization. So we can really bring out everyone’s strength and be able to successfully execute for the business.
Roy Notowitz: [00:12:44] That’s really interesting because when LinkedIn started to become really prolific and people had the opportunity to dig and find people with exactly the experience or the type of job that they’re looking to fill and bringing those people to the table for interviewing and hiring. Now, I’m seeing a more broad approach where people are, like you’re saying, looking for those core competencies, you know, such as learning agility and communication and adaptability and curiosity and the things that are the underpinnings of success. And so, when you’re looking to fill a position, are you looking outside of the industry sometimes, or also just like considering different profiles in a sort of measured way? Or, what’s your approach or strategy to actually looking at the talent pool?
Monica Williams: [00:13:33] Certainly having media entertainment experiences is nice to have, but really there’s just so much transferable skills that we really focus on, right. And ultimately, it’s, you know, for me, it’s really thinking about, can somebody have proven that they’re able to break down a problem? Are they able to think logically and you know, kind of understanding the business need, understanding the consumer to create an experience and, you know, continue to innovate and solve? So I think that’s a lot of what the approach that my team has been, and for me personally, as we’re onboarding.
But even now we’re even more mindful of, from a more diversity, equity, and inclusion standpoint of like geographical location and, you know, college experience. A lot of this is really pushing for, let’s look for really the true skill sets, because then we’re able to really broaden the talent pool and the access to really bring people into an organization to again, give you that broader, different perspective. I think that’s a lot of, kind of where we’re shifting is focusing on, how do we, again, broaden and, you know, just ultimately find talent. And just sort of, we can all be successful together as the business continues to evolve.
Roy Notowitz: [00:14:49] Right. And so, you know, what are the business drivers or culture variables and dynamics that you take into consideration? I mean, NBCUniversal is a big company, but you’re also trying to hire people who are really agile and entrepreneurial and innovative. So what do you take into consideration when you’re assembling your teams in that regard?
Monica Williams: [00:15:10] I think for me, it’s a huge emphasis on the human side of things. I mean, really assembling the team, but when I do that, like learning who they are and all that they are. Right. And as a leader for me, is what can I do and how can I help to unlock the talent that they are and that they have and all of their strength and to, so that we can maximize their potential. And again, it’s someone who’s really not afraid to change as things are moving and shifting so quickly.
And you know, that creative thinking is, is truly important. And in the role that we’re in, I think a lot of folks would say, “well, you know, you’re not in a creative role, so what do you mean in terms of creativity and innovation?” And I would argue, you know, you can really be creative and innovate and strategize in any role that you’re in, right? So, and I think a lot of this is understanding how everything fits together, how you individually contribute to the bottom line, to the business drivers and, you know, understanding how you fit in, you can then really think about, okay, what can you do in your day-to-day to innovate to solutions differently and just think outside the box. I think a lot of that is my approach in assembling the team and always, you know, what I emphasize on the team to take their personal experiences. And, you know, again, why we’re sort of looking to even broaden the access so that we can get talents from all walks of life, because that ultimately is just going to make our product, our process that much better and that much stronger.
Roy Notowitz: [00:16:42] So understanding who they are and how they contribute, and then looking for, you know, that diversity of perspective and opinion and experience, whether it’s personal, professional or wherever they, they might get that. So when you’re trying to interview and understand the human, that person that you’re trying to evaluate or hire, do you have any questions in your arsenal of interview questions that you, you like to ask? Or is there a tough question that you utilize to sort of help you understand that?
Monica Williams: [00:17:14] One is, you know, what’s your biggest fear versus what’s your biggest failure? And it, yeah, like this is something that I just, every time, I think it’s really interesting to hear more about the individual and sort of how they think, and, you know, really getting into a little bit of who they are. You know, for me, and it’s someone who is not necessarily afraid to fail, failure, right? Because we all make mistakes. We’re all human. And I think that’s, again, is the emphasis on that, where, you know, it’s okay, and I would say, you know, especially in the role that we’re in, we’re developing product, it’s okay to make a mistake. But you can’t, you don’t let your ego get in the way, right. So, not afraid to make mistakes, but not afraid to change or to have an idea and then chase it, right. I think all of this, I think a lot of this could come through with how they’re describing their biggest failure and their biggest fear. I think a lot of this is what I listen for is, I don’t want somebody who is shy away from a good idea, just because they’re afraid. I want someone who is able to continue to, you know, challenge the status quo and change up the process. But, if it’s not going in the right way, but also be okay to call it and it’s part of the learning and let’s move on. I think those are the things that I think I listen for and look for.
Roy Notowitz: [00:18:27] I’ve heard people call that concept failing forward.
Monica Williams: [00:18:30] Yeah. If I just even think back in my life, I mean, I think every time I do something right, I don’t think I learned half as much as if I actually did something wrong.
Roy Notowitz: [00:18:39] Yeah. Is there anything a candidate can say in the interview that sparks a judgemental hot button or something that just really turns you off in terms of their candidacy?
Monica Williams: [00:18:50] Yeah, I have one, I would say it’s probably a pet peeve of mine. You know, making up answers when they clearly don’t have any idea of what it is or what the question is asked of them. I much rather someone come out and say, “I’m sorry, I’m not familiar, but I’m happy to dig in and learn and come back to you with a POV or the insights to come back to the question” versus trying to B.S. their way through it a little bit. So, yeah, that’s definitely a, a one that it’s a hot button for me.
Roy Notowitz: [00:19:24] Yeah. I think that’s good interviewing advice for candidates in general is just, you know, you don’t necessarily have to have all the answers. And sometimes I think in the interview process, people feel like that’s what they need to do, to ace the interview. And I think people much rather would know what your true strengths and weaknesses are, because then it really helps them understand you better. And it’s not necessarily a negative thing. It actually helps the stuff that you do know and understand become more solid or believable.
Monica Williams: [00:19:55] Yeah, no, I mean emphasis on the human, right? Like we can’t, we, we can’t all know everything, but.
Roy Notowitz: [00:20:02] So, you’re such a positive person, and you know, how does that tie into your approach to enabling or empowering the team to, to reach their full potential?
Monica Williams: [00:20:11] For me personally, I just, I believe through, really through my core that our job as leaders is to create the best culture in order to achieve the best performance output. So I spent, personally, a lot of time to, you know, cultivate and build and having that right culture in place. And it’s, I would say it’s one of the things that I’m most proud of about my team in that, you know, certainly the work that we do and we create and, you know, sort of produce on a daily basis. But really the family culture that we have, it’s something that, you know, I just, I spent a lot of time on and really making sure that we have this family like culture from onboarding to your daily interactions. I mean, really think about what you would do for your family. You help each other, no matter what, you’re there for one another, no matter what. And that’s really sort of the approach that I have working with our team. You know, really having this space and for everyone to know that, you know, we lean on each other, we’re there to challenge one another and we’re there to learn from one another. And that’s how we sort of come together. And especially, you know, it’s, it’s, it’s been challenging times, right, in the last couple of years, but also as the business evolves and everything is moving so quickly, but we’re there to support one another through the new way of thinking. But you know, also, and most importantly, we got to have fun. That’s all part of it.
Roy Notowitz: [00:21:37] Everyone has sort of the interest of the company or good intentions around what they’re trying to accomplish as a team, as a group.
Monica Williams: [00:21:43] Absolutely.
Roy Notowitz: [00:21:44] Yeah. That’s cool. Is that something at NBC that they talk about, like this family concept, or is that something that you brought into the mix?
Monica Williams: [00:21:52] NBCU certainly has a great culture ultimately, and overall, and every organization is a little bit different, but you know, based on the leadership, but I would say yes, absolutely. I mean, it’s a very culture first kind of, you know, environment. I probably put even more emphasis on that just because I’m such a believer. To me it’s really leadership, culture. I always say it’s like the two sides of the same coin. And I just spend a lot of time. It’s part of, you know, who I am to, to make sure that we have that. But yeah, overall, I mean, it’s very much across the board support in almost every single business unit to, to have a very similar culture throughout.
Roy Notowitz: [00:22:32] That’s great. And how has the pandemic changed or influenced your team structure or your approach towards achieving the business goals?
Monica Williams: [00:22:42] I’d say our goals and objectives really haven’t changed through this last year, through the pandemic and, you know, working remote. I have been challenging my team to think about, I mean, a lot of this is, you know, going back to what I mentioned earlier is what we do is we really have to focus on where the consumers are going. So think about, you know, how did this last year change some of the consumer behaviors? Whether they’re, you know, watching TV or, you know, we’ve started to think about the experience that we have and build, and where is it going to? I think a lot of that is what we’re trying to think through. Did it shift or change, you know, in one direction or not? Did it accelerate in one direction or not? So those are things that, you know, it’s certainly very top of mind for us.
And you know, another thing I’ll mention is sort of what has changed, you know, that is really how do we connect with people and going back to, because I, you know, spend so much time thinking about the culture and that certainly being remote and not in person has made it challenging this last year. And especially, you know, if you think about the year that we’ve had and everything that sort of happened around us, you know, for me as a leader, really thinking about how do we be even more compassionate and lead with empathy and, and how do we communicate more because we’re not together in person. So it’s like really trying to be even more intentional in trying to see what’s going on behind the screens with somebody and what’s happening in their lives. So I think we spend our time to just make sure that the team knows we have a safe space to listen and, you know, to share, to be heard, and we’re here to, you know, really how you could talk to your family is how we can talk to the team. And that’s again, we want to make sure that also, given this last year with, you know, everybody’s sort of blending their personal, professional, and kids at home and you know, all the struggles that we all sort of have gone through together. But you know, also remember to make sure that taking the time to take care of yourself, right. So I think it just, you know, it’s a lot of that that certainly has changed. And, you know, for us to, especially for me as a leader, to be even more mindful and to make sure that we’re spending the time to stay connected. And save the time to have fun, even though it’s virtual right now, but I’m thankful that, you know, that’s sort of changing.
Roy Notowitz: [00:25:08] There’s definitely something missing by not being together as a team. But I think it’s been proven this year, that even for key leadership roles, it can be done remotely. It’s going to be interesting to see to what extent that sticks and how that evolves in the years ahead as we, as we come out of this and same thing with the consumer trends and things. I mean, I think there’s a lot of new habits and different things happening, but you know, a year from now, I wonder what elements will be forever changed and what things will start to snap back.
Monica Williams: [00:25:41] Absolutely. Yeah. I mean, I really hope as, you know, as sort of the society and the global workforce, we can take some of the learnings from last year and keep the positives, right?
Roy Notowitz: [00:25:52] Yeah.
Monica Williams: [00:25:52] Certainly we definitely miss being together in person, but you know, the, the work that we’re able to do and provide people with the flexibility that they need to, you know, whether it’s taking care of their mental health, taking care of the physical health, taking care of the family members, or be closer, you know, be able to have dinner with their kids every day. I hope we are able to still maintain some of that and what we’re able to accomplish this last year, and as we move to sort of the new way of working. But yeah, I’m personally excited and optimistic on that front.
Roy Notowitz: [00:26:24] Certainly changed the recruiting landscape. It’s, it’s really interesting right now. So what are you currently working on that you’re excited about? I know you have probably a million projects and lots of cool things going on, but is there anything you can share with us that you’re particularly excited about right now?
Monica Williams: [00:26:40] I mean, I think the one that’s really consuming most of our time right now is just gearing up for Olympics because it’s getting closer by the day. I think for us, when we got the news that Olympics was postponed last year, it certainly was like a bit of a gut-wrenching experience. And my whole team and I, you know, we’ve been working so hard to prepare and produce and, you know, across the board, right, across NBCU, I mean everybody’s sort of in some shape or form, there’s, there’s an element of how do we support Olympics. But for us really, it almost gave us the extra time to think bigger and provided the ability for us to go bigger in producing some of the new experiences. So, you know, now that it’s inching closer, we are building and testing some of these new experiences and they’re just, they’re no longer a concept on a page. So I’m really excited to see that. But at the same time, it’s certainly giving me a lot of anxiety, but, um, I’m super stoked about it.
Roy Notowitz: [00:27:37] Well, given the landscape, I’m sure being able to have those virtual and content experiences are really important now.
Monica Williams: [00:27:43] And also I would say, you know, Chief launched in LA last year. You know, for those of you who’s not familiar with Chief, Chief is a private network designed specifically for women leaders, anywhere from, you know, rising VP level through CEO level. Really to strengthen their experience in the C-suite and cross pollinate power across industries, and really be able to sort of affect change from top down. So I’m personally excited and thrilled to be part of this amazing organization and learning and supporting women leaders and building the community together across all industries. So that’s another thing that I’ve recently been part of and, you know, super, super excited about.
Roy Notowitz: [00:28:24] That’s awesome. From the first time I connected with you, you were just so gracious with your time and so helpful. And I know just, I’m really excited to follow your continued career success and career path. And in the show notes we’ll put some links to Chief and that organization, as well as NBCUniversal and, and things that people can connect with within your organization, if they’re interested in learning more.
Monica Williams: [00:28:51] That’s great. Awesome.
Roy Notowitz: [00:28:53] Thank you so much for your time and I appreciate you sharing your story.
Monica Williams: [00:28:57] Thank you so much for having me.
Roy Notowitz: [00:29:00] Thanks for tuning in to How I Hire. Visit HowIHire.com for more details about the show. How I Hire is available on Apple, Spotify, Amazon, and all major listening platforms. If you’re enjoying the show, please let your friends and colleagues know about us. How I Hire is created by Noto Group Executive Search. To find out more about Noto Group, visit NotoGroup.com and follow us on LinkedIn. This podcast was produced by AO McClain, LLC. To learn more about their great work visit AOMcClain.com.