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Richard Parsons is no stranger to change. He counts among his achievements basketball player, lawyer, banker, global media executive, wine maker, father, grandfather and jazz musician. As the CEO of Time Warner, he made significant changes to improve the financial standing of the company. Parsons stepped down in late 2007 and now serves as chairman of the board. Since then he has been navigating a new period and thinking about what his next change might be. In this episode of Change Nation, Parsons talks about life after running a major media company and how he deals with change.
Was there a reason why you worked so hard to get to where you were?
I am not a particularly ambitious person, believe it or not, and I am certainly not a driven person. I am a hard worker—I was always told by my parents that luck was the residue of hard work. So, I was a hard worker and I always was interested in things that created new options as opposed to [closing off] options. [My career] is more a testimony to serendipity and happenstance than it was planned for.
What has been the hardest part since you left the CEO role at Time Warner?
Probably the thing that has been a bit of surprise is that simply stepping down isn’t enough. I mean you really have to remove yourself forcibly from some things. If you don’t do something different, [people] still come into your office and you still get 5,000 emails a day. I have told my secretary that starting April 1st, I’m not coming into the office on Mondays and Fridays. Because you have to force that kind of change in order to really get into a different groove.
Is there one piece of advice you gave to Jeff Bewkes, the new CEO, when you did the handover?
Do what is right.
When you look back on your tenure as CEO, what do you think is the best change you made for the company?
I became CEO on the back of a merger of two very different cultures, two very different companies. There was almost an open range war going on within our shop. And, over the course of time we were able to get settled down. Then, we focused people on pursuing the business, whether it was new technology or the old media businesses, and they regained a sense of pride in their company.
I think that’s important. I think people want to be in a place where they not only enjoy and have respect and admiration for their colleagues, but they feel good about what they are doing and they feel good about the enterprise. I think the company is actually in pretty good shape and people feel good about being there. And, its prospects are bright.
When you look at the future of Time Warner, do you get a sense of what changes the company still needs to make?
One of the things Jeff is wrestling with is how to make the company more user-friendly. He has already talked about perhaps separating the cable company—a distribution platform—from the rest of the company, which is basically a content-creation company. That’s something he and I talked about even before I left and I think that in the fullness of time you’ll see that happen. The next major challenge he has is to figure out how AOL fits in the whole mix. That is something I wrestled with for six years and I’m still not sure I got it right. But, he is a smarter guy than I am so I wish him luck.
What would you give as advice to CEOs or even the public at large with so much change going on whether it is in the economy, politics or the environment?
Change is inevitable. I think that it is in [our] DNA to fear two things. One is change and the other is failure, and they are related obviously because once you master a skill or get comfortable with a set of activities and comfortable that you are succeeding at it, change brings about the potential for failure at whatever is next. And, I guess my advice to people in general is to understand that change is inevitable.
What has it been like taking more of a backseat as chairman of the company?
It is hard sometimes to sit and watch things happen—particularly if they are happening to people who are your colleagues [and] you have rendered yourself powerless to intervene, because you have to get out of the way of the new guy.
I try to stay out of Jeff’s way in terms of the operation of the business but be available to him for counsel. And, I try to work with him on making sure the board is informed and supportive of him and feels comfortable with the direction that [he] is taking the company.
How do you answer if you sit next to a stranger on a plane, and he or she asks, “so what do you do?”
I used to say to people ‘I’m a media executive,’ but now I’ve gotten comfortable with the following: When they say ‘what do you do?’ I say, ‘I’m a suit.’ And they say, ‘well what is a suit?’ ‘A suit is a business guy who isn’t talent, because in the media world it’s divided into two classes or species of human beings. You have suits and you have talents. The suits run the money and do the business and the talent stands in front of the camera or behind the microphone and conducts interviews or acts.
What is one of the craziest jobs you have been offered since you left?
Someone asked me if I would be interested in being the head football coach at Syracuse University. [Someone asked] if I wanted to go on television as a commentator on one of these morning business shows. The usual suspects [have come along]—like teaching, taking over another Fortune 500 or Fortune 50 large conglomerate—but none that I have particularly zeroed in on. Right now I have other things I would like to do.
What is the funniest rumor you have heard about yourself?
There is this persistent rumor that I am going to run for mayor…It is not something that I want to do at this stage in my life. I mean I might have done it at an earlier stage in my life. That is a hard job. That is one of those jobs you put into the category of 100 hours a week—24/7 really—and you have to have a passion for it. You have to really derive what I call a lot of psychic income from being in that kind of position of authority, recognition, adulation, exposure, all of that stuff. None of that [seems] very attractive to me right at the moment.
Is there anything that would push you over the edge to do that?
You know, you can never say never. Who knows what the future holds? As I survey my options right now, that one doesn’t come up. It doesn’t make my top-10 list.
So what does make your top-10 list?
Well, I am a new grandfather, so I have a responsibility there. I spent this weekend teaching my grandson—his name is Jack—how to crawl.
I’m talking to some people here in town about being a disc jockey. Having a late evening jazz program would just be a hoot. I would have enormous fun with that. I am going to do a little teaching, probably down at Howard University where I have been on the board for [a] number of years. But, none of these are full-time gigs, and then of course I have more time to look after my vineyard in Italy and learn more about the art of making wine. I have been involved on the periphery, but now I would like to get more deeply involved.
So, I have a few things that are going to take some time in the short term and in the longer term, I would like to have some period of time where I [am] out of the pressure cooker to think about whether to get back into another pressure cooker and if so, which one.
So the vineyard in Italy—did it find you or did you find it?
I found it.
And, how has this vineyard changed how you see life?
Well, it’s interesting. It’s an interesting country with interesting people, not necessarily known for their efficiency or their effectiveness at implementing business strategies or any of that sort of thing. But, they mastered the art of living well, of focusing on the things in life that are truly important, relationships with other people, good food including good wine and just enjoying the blessings of a day—the things that money can’t buy. And, I really plugged into that.
Do you think that made you be a better suit—a better businessperson?
It made me a happier person. It made me a more contented person with my life. It is possible that since having this experience some decisions I have made have been different than they would have been. I [can’t point to any particular ones], but I have been more at peace with my soul.
Are you thinking about capturing your life [and] your experiences in a book?
[I am] thinking about it.
Would it be something that you would do alone?
I would probably take a shot at doing it on my own, because it is hard for someone else to speak in your voice. I used to be able to write, when I was still a lawyer. So, it would be good to try and exercise those muscles again.
Is there a cause or an issue that worries you the most?
Well, there is one that engages me the most, and that’s education. You know, I am a product of the New York City public-school [system] and I am convinced that was the reason my lot in life was different from my father’s or from his father’s. Education is the ticket. And, you see so many people who are exposed to our educational institutions who don’t get an education. You wonder about not only what’s going to happen to them, but also why that happened in the first place. So making public education more effective for more people is something I have a lot of passion [about].
Whether it is an education or any of the other issues that the country faces, are you optimistic?
Fundamentally I am an optimist. Dickens probably had it right. We always live in the “best of times and the worst of times.” But I’m an optimist. I think people are actually becoming more civilized over time, less brutal, less destructive and that if we can just sort of hang in here for a while we might one of these days get it right.
If you had a theme for [the year], what you want 2008 to be about?
For me, 2008 is going to be a theme of chilling [out] and reflecting on future options. I am trying desperately not to make any serious decisions in 2008, because I want to decompress and understand what options I have looking forward.
What is the belief you personally go to in times of change?
That I can get through it.
The best thing about change is…
…it introduces something new.
What is the best change you have ever made?
Going from a single rascal to a married gentleman.
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Boy, talk about a change agent. I'm going to bookmark his story.