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So What Do You Do, Susan Lyne, CEO of Gilt Groupe?

Lyne opens up about how women can break into the CEO ranks and why you should never get too comfortable at a job

By Gail Shister - May 12, 2010
Susan Lyne can do anything, and she has. After 20 years in the print world, she jumped headfirst into television, at Disney/ABC. With zero TV experience, she rose to president of the entertainment division, where she oversaw development of Desperate Housewives, Lost, and Grey's Anatomy. Then she was fired, and they all became big hits. But Lyne didn't sweat it for long: "Stewing over things is a huge time waster. You spend all your energy on either getting back your job or explaining how it wasn't your fault. It's never attractive."

With that experience now firmly in her rearview, Lyne is employing both her business and creative sides as CEO of the cult luxury shopping site Gilt Groupe. Ahead of her appearance with other women in tech and media at Mediabistro Circus, the resilient leader spoke with us about breaking the glass ceiling on and off the tube.

Name: Susan Lyne
Position: CEO, Gilt Groupe, New York
Resume: Began her career as managing editor of City, a San Francisco alternative weekly, then moved to the Village Voice. In 1987, founded Premiere magazine. Spent eight years at Disney/ABC, rising from head of movies and mini-series to president of the entertainment division in 2002. Joined board of Martha Stewart Living Omnimedia in June 2004 and named president and CEO in November '04. Named CEO of Gilt Groupe in September 2008
Birthday: April 30, 1950
Hometown: Boston
Education: Attended University of California-Berkeley, George Washington University
Marital status: Widow. Two daughters, ages 21 and 24.
First section of the Sunday Times: Real Estate.
Favorite TV show: Glee. "It's brilliantly executed. It's so hard to combine a musical and a one-hour drama. I smile from the moment it starts until it's over. I wish it was my show. It's kind of risky. A lot of people would have run from it. I've downloaded every number."
Guilty pleasure: Scrabble. "I play every day. I'm addicted to iPad Scrabble. It's a sickness at this moment. I will tire of it, but right now I'm heartbroken because I left it at the office last night."
Last book read: The Help, by Kathryn Stockett
Twitter handle: "Don't use Twitter."

How do you feel about not having a college degree?
I left school ultimately because I wanted to work. It bothered my parents a lot. It bothered me much less. I always had amusing moments. When I'd work for some company and they'd want to update their website or put out a press release, they'd keep coming back to me about my education. I would say I have no degree. They would never believe me, because I was so far along in my career at that point. It was hard to imagine someone moving into a senior management position without a degree.

"I'm always more alive and happier in a startup, or a company that needs to be turned around. You have the ability to have a greater impact."

You've moved from print to TV to media conglomerate to eCommerce. What are the upsides and downsides of changing industries so frequently?
The upside is that I am always learning. I can never get too comfortable in one spot, so my mind has to work that much better and harder. It's easy to get excessively comfortable in a world you know really well. You can phone it in. You can't do that when you're learning a new language. I get itchy staying at the same place. I'm always more alive and happier in a startup, or a company that needs to be turned around. You have the ability to have a greater impact. I'm not necessarily the right person to move into a large, successful company.

The downside is you have to literally learn a new language with each new industry. When I first went to ABC, I didn't really know what a rating point was. I had no idea what the rhythms of the TV season were or what 18-to-49 demos were. It was a huge learning curve. You have to learn a new culture every time, too. When I came here [Gilt Groupe], no one had an office. It was an open floor plan. For the first week, I thought, 'There is no way I can do this. Everyone will be listening to my phone calls. There's noise all around. I'll never be able to concentrate.' One or two weeks in, I was no longer hearing noises. I'd never go back.

How are sales doing at Gilt Groupe?
Our sales in 2009 were $170 million. We're projecting $500 million for 2010. Our sample sales [every day at noon] are so popular that the system has crashed, so we keep upgrading our platform.

Are you engaged, creatively?
We put on a live show at noon, seven days a week. It's incredibly creative to mix sales, curate sales, figure out how to describe items. What goes into each sale is hugely creative in building the brand and figuring out how to expand the category mix and draw in new members. I'm having a really good time.

Why did you leave Martha Stewart Living Omnimedia?
It seemed like the right time. I took on the job for multiple reasons. I joined the board and really fell in love with the company. It was surprisingly robust for a company that had been through a year of trauma. I thought, 'I could really have an impact here.' I also knew it was not something I would be doing the rest of my life.

"If you specialize too much and stay in one piece of your business -- marketing or content or finance or operations -- it's significantly harder to get the leadership job."

With women increasingly breaking into the CEO ranks, what advice do you have for those looking to reach the top?
You have to learn every part of the business you're in. There are very few good women CEO's who haven't worked their way through and up the industry they're in. If you specialize too much and stay in one piece of your business -- marketing or content or finance or operations -- it's significantly harder to get the leadership job. You need to really understand most of the moving parts. I've worked in most of the core functional areas at some point in my career as I've moved through different industries. Another thing: If you can work directly under a good CEO, it's extremely good training.

What are some of the common mistakes women make in business?
I'm not sure there's a huge gender gap there. The mistake everyone is realizing is easy to make is not getting under the covers and asking questions deep into the company about how it works. We saw this in the financial crisis.

At ABC, you helped launch two female-driven smashes, Desperate Housewives and Grey's Anatomy. What do you think of TV's presentation of women these days?
Most of the characters on TV are highly exaggerated. I love 'Nurse Jackie,' but her faults are magnified as well as her skills. I like Damages and Real Housewives of New York. Extreme characters seem to work on TV right now. It's a different era. I just don't think TV provides a way for women to be themselves, which it did 20 years ago.

It's not good or bad. We go through cycles in TV, wanting realism, then wanting heightened drama. We're definitely living through a heightened drama period. It might be because cable has raised the bar on that. It's very hard for slower shows or less hysterical shows to get attention.

How did you deal with getting fired by ABC?
I was devastated for 24 hours. Then I decided I had to move on, and I just didn't sweat it. You can look at something like that either as a disaster, and rage at the world, or you can look at it as the opportunity to take the summer off, which I hadn't done since college, and choose what you want to do next. It was the first time in my life I hadn't reacted to offers right away. [The ability to focus on the future] is genetic, I think. It can be a blessing or a curse. I rarely look back.

Do you miss anything about TV?
I miss pilot season. That's it. I love the process of going from hearing an idea to seeing a fully-formed show, or at least the first episode, in four months. It's a hugely creative period. So many things can go wrong. When you come out with something great, it's pretty thrilling.

We hear that your younger daughter declined your offer to buy her a TV when she moved into her apartment. True?
Yes! She looked at me like I was from Mars. I couldn't believe it. She didn't want to pay a cable bill. To her, a TV is an old-fashioned piece of hardware. She watches everything on her laptop.

Do you want your own company some day?
Not really. I loved every job I took, at least for a good long period of time. When I didn't, I moved on.

Susan Lyne tackles "Business Refresh: From Media to eCommerce" in her upcoming presentation at Mediabistro Circus on May 20 in New York.

Gail Shister is a TVNewser columnist.

© WebMediaBrands Inc. 2010. All Rights Reserved.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity. The foregoing is the sole property of WebMediaBrands Inc. The opinions and views expressed in the interviews and/or commentaries are solely those of the participants and are not necessarily the views of WebMediaBrands Inc., its affiliates or subsidiary companies.

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