CNBC senior talent producer Lori Ann LaRocco built her success in the TV industry by creating a "trillion-dollar Rolodex"—an unparalleled network of trust with relationship industry leaders who give her the stories first.
In Opportunity Knocking, LaRocco talks about how she created this network and succeeded in a competitive industry using what she calls the Opportunity Pyramid.
The pyramid has seven levels. LaRocco uses an industry leader (or, in the case of BlogHer, a group of leaders) to explain how each level plays out in the business world. It reminds me of Maslow's hierarchy of needs (except the needs addressed by the Opportunity Pyramid are all about knowing yourself and reaching success).
LaRocco's quick read will center your head firmly in the business of making your own luck at work, whether you’re starting at the bottom and just figuring out what you want from your career, or sitting on top and preparing for world domination—just like BlogHer co-founders Lisa Stone, Elisa Camahort Page and Jory des Jardins, the subjects of her final chapter.
Rita Arens: You talk about how you use the same success strategies as a mom and as a journalist—can you elaborate on that point?
Lori Ann LaRocco: I am a mom of three very active children. My son Nick, who is 12 and a half, plays on three hockey teams; my 9-year-old son Declan plays baseball and basketball; and my 8-year-old daughter Abby is an equestrian who competes. To add more "fun" into my schedule, I also teach religion class for second grade and work a job where I'm on call 24/7. Needless to say, it's busy. My mornings are even crazier. Since my husband, Michael, is the morning drive co-anchor for WCBS-880 am in New York, he leaves the house by 3 a.m. It's all me in the morning to get myself and my three kids ready and get out the door for work. I use The Opportunity Pyramid strategies every day. I know my strengths and weaknesses. My profession lives and dies by the clock (you need to be on time in news for your hits and stories), so I plan the night before how I will map out my morning so I can achieve my goal of getting out the door by 7:35. My strength is staying true to the clock, and my weakness is trying to do too much multi-tasking. I'm type A, and I think I can do it all sometimes, but that can backfire. I have learned over time to focus on one goal and achieve it. If I want to prepare dinner in the slow cooker or write a column before I leave to work, I will wake up early so I do not disturb my strategy and timeline. I also tell my kids the night before what to expect (if I'm leaving early, or if they need to get up early)—that avoids any potential meltdowns or problems.
Moms know it is a learning process to see what works and what doesn't work when it comes to kids. There is no right way or wrong way to do something. One of the biggest nuggets of knowledge I have gained in being a mom is that it is okay to say no. I had a hard time saying no when I was a new mom. I felt I like I was letting people down or that I was weak. To be a better mom, I knew had to pay attention to all the details. If you are doing a hodgepodge of projects, you are distracted, and something will fall through the cracks. Heaven knows I have done that. Once I had so many things on my plate I actually mixed up the dates of a birthday party for Nick and when my husband went to go drop him off the birthday party had been the day before! That was seven years ago, and when I see that mom to this day I get red with embarrassment inside. I think all moms can relate to that. I use The Opportunity Pyramid to focus on my strengths and plan how I can complete my tasks in a timely fashion, not rush and be half-crazed. It's been a journey, to say the least.
In my job as a journalist for CNBC, I have used The Opportunity Pyramid and crafted it to my goal of keeping what has been tagged "the trillion-dollar Rolodex"—my roster of industry leaders I've interviewed or worked with. I may not be on camera any more, but that does not stop me from having contacts call me in the middle of the night to inform me of billion-dollar deals. It's my reputation of being a trusted journalist that has garnered the respect of many on Wall Street.
When I was graduating college, I created The Opportunity Pyramid to see which area of broadcasting I would pursue. Television was my strength, my passion. Radio, on the other hand, while I could do it, did nothing for me. It literally was a job. You spend the majority of your life working, so what would you just take a job? In order to excel at a job, you have to love it. You need passion. So I wrote down a list of my strengths and weaknesses, and I was honest with myself when I asked the all-important question: What will make me happy? I decided to put all of my attention into television broadcasting. In order to differentiate myself, I knew I had to learn all aspects of the news-gathering process. That would make me more valuable. I got hands-on experience running an assignment desk (digging up and following up on stories), producing (writing scripts), lighting, shooting, editing, studio cameras and even running a TelePrompTer. The behind-the-scenes knowledge gave me perspective and appreciation of what goes on behind the lens. When I made the transition to being on-camera, I was able to communicate effectively with my camera person on shots and how to tell the story. Remember, you can tell a good TV story when you turn down the volume and can still follow the story and know what it's about. Having the right video elements is crucial.
My passion for my job lead me all around the country. I even lived in a basement of a home in Nebraska, where my bedroom was the tornado shelter! The studio I worked at was next to a pig farm, so when I anchored in the morning ... you can use your imagination about the smell inside the studio. I loved my time living in different parts of the country. It enabled me to pop that bubble and meet and experience the different cultures in the U.S. Those experiences today have shaped my news judgment and my knowledge of how to present a story.
RA: Do people progress up the pyramid in a linear fashion or do they slide back and forth (as in the stages of grief)?
LL: I believe you progress up the pyramid in a linear fashion. If you are honest with yourself from the get-go, you shouldn't have to slide back. You can stall in a level—there is no set time frame on when you will achieve "world domination." As I noted in my book, BlogHer co-founder Jory des Jardins made several attempts at entrepreneurship before she finally had the confidence to leave her job. With The Opportunity Pyramid, you set the rules, the agenda. You just have to want it so bad that the benefits of leaving outweigh the risks. "Eventually you make the leap,” Jory told me. “It’s always the end goal. Not, ‘I’m going to take this small step, see if it works, and then I’m going to be an entrepreneur.’ You always have that leap as your end goal. It may take longer than you think, and you may stay in a corporation for a long time or do something other than your new business, but it’s always your end goal to leave and do your business full time.”
RA: What do you think about back-up plans? Do you need them all the time? Is there ever a situation in which you should just leap without a back-up plan?
LL: Opportunity presents itself to you, as chairman and CEO Ron Kruszewski of Stifel Financial Corp. told me when I interviewed him for the book. You can't create opportunity. Take for example Jory, Elisa, and Lisa—they knew what they wanted to create, and they set out on a journey. Jory said, "You can't get too wedded to what something will look like. You just have to go with change while remaining true to your mission. Give up on what it looks like and let it go." If you have that type of commitment to your mission, you don't need a back-up plan. The difference between a successful entrepreneur and a not-so-successful entrepreneur is that the successful leader isn't afraid to go all-in.
BlogHer's founders sacrificed a lot in order to achieve their goals. “We bootstrapped it for a really long time," Elisa told me. "I went through my entire two years' worth of savings, opened a home equity line of credit, and racked up credit card debt. We were paying a lot of people and not always paying ourselves. We saw this growth and knew there would be more growth. It was obvious we needed to make a living, and [that] we could grow this company, but we needed the manpower and infrastructure to support it." True leaders do not have fear. They make calculated risks, they see the reality for what it is and their knowledge and passion gets them through it. There is no Plan B.
RA: How does one temper ego enough to be both self-confident and also open-minded and able to take criticism?
LL: I have met my share of arrogant CEOs, and I have found the difference between self-confident and obnoxious is compassion and the ability to relate to people ... or lack thereof. One of the biggest lessons I learned in conducting interviews for this book is the need to be a good listener. In my field, you need to be. I go with my gut and listen to what people are telling me. I find that too often people are so consumed with what they are going to say next that they fail to listen to others. Listening is crucial in connecting with someone.
You also need to listen to people in the community in which you will be doing business. What do they want? What can you do to set yourself apart from the competition? That's what Jory, Lisa and Elisa did when they set out to create the first BlogHer conference. They listened to what their community wanted.
All three founders will tell you that at BlogHer’s foundation lies in their ability to listen. “You have to learn by listening,” Lisa said. “When we started BlogHer, people were asking us, ‘Where were the women blogging?’ We knew they were everywhere, but the only way you could possibly get the word out was not by talking about it, but by showing it.”
Listening is also important because it helps you measure your ideas—a good idea is one that grows and attracts others. Jory stressed to me, “Rather than telling bloggers what the sessions were going to be and how the experience would be, it was this constant curation. What we did was simply build a business based on what we would have wanted as bloggers ourselves.” Lisa added that this counter-intuitive approach was their key to success: “We said, ‘Okay, online community, what do you want? What is your motivation? What do you want to accomplish with your blog?
With your family and with your life?’ And based on that, we developed different opportunities for them to communicate, which also became a great business model.”
RA: How can people learn to look at their weaknesses honestly?
LL: I think you have to be mature enough to take the criticism. We unfortunately live and work in an era of little accountability. You have to be able to look at yourself in the mirror, faults and all. Just because you have a weakness doesn't make you a lesser employee, manager, owner. In fact, look at it as a way to improve yourself. Acknowledging what you need to work on will make you even better!
RA: Everyone you interviewed talks about the importance of working in teams or with other people. What about entrepreneurs, such as bloggers, who work largely alone?
LL: You may blog by yourself, but your environment and relationships with people influence you. In some aspects the community you are writing to is your team. Teamwork is about supporting, pushing, and guiding people. As a blogger, you get all that from the comments your posts generate. It may not be a traditional "team" per se, but the feedback you are getting from your community in essence is your team.
RA: Right after the Olympics, I started thinking about the importance of good execution. So many of those athletes had the strength and skill but missed a detail that cost them a medal. How do execs learn to improve upon their business execution?
LL: The journey of an entrepreneur is lifelong. In order to focus on the details, you have to be hyper-focused on your mission and the steps you are taking. You have to carefully and strategically map out your plans and anticipate possible problems that might pop up. All actions and decisions must satisfy the endgame you want to achieve. A strong culture needs to be in place where the employees all believe in the mission. You want your team to have a sense of ownership and pride, which translates into commitment. If you have that, the attention to detail is there.
Remember that you set the example for your team, even if that team is your audience. You have been the creator of the culture and the mission statement, the source of passion, focus, and determination. Why would you want to cut corners when you have painstakingly kept an eye on the details, enriching your staff with knowledge and confidence? I chose Jory, Lisa, and Elisa to represent the apex of The Opportunity Pyramid because they were not afraid of world domination. They wanted it. All the strategies I have spoken about they have used effectively. Paying attention to all the details and mastering them during their journey has enabled BlogHer to be what it is today. As Jory said with determination and confidence to me, "If someone were going to achieve world domination in this space, it was going to be us and not someone else."
Do you have a plan for your career? For your blog?
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