01 Apr 2002
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Pamela Thomas Graham

Making News at CNBC

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After ten years of working at McKinsey & Co., where she had become the first female African-American partner, Pamela Thomas-Graham (MBA '88/JD '89) was ready for a change. "Consulting is an excellent way to learn management and strategy skills," she says, "but after a while, I got a little antsy giving advice and not being in the position to actually execute it." Today, as president and CEO of CNBC, the financial news network viewed in almost 200 million households worldwide, the Detroit native's job is all about execution. Her dual role includes overseeing advertising revenues and planning fifteen hours of live programming, five days a week.

"It's a pretty full plate," she admits in an interview at the network's Fort Lee, New Jersey, headquarters. The CNBC offices clearly favor function over form, with dozens of reporters packed into cubicles and a plainly appointed waiting room for television guests. As unassuming as her modest surroundings, Thomas-Graham is composed, polite, and thoughtful even as she answers questions in rapid-fire style.

The switch from consultant to top TV executive may seem dramatic, but the move came about through two constants in Thomas-Graham's life: hard work and the influence of mentors. "My family's values were always centered around education and giving back to the community," she says. "Detroit in the '60s was a challenging environment for raising children, so they made sure my brother and I were focused on school from an early age."

At the height of the civil rights movement, Thomas-Graham's parents held up Thurgood Marshall and other lawyers as role models who created peaceful change at a time when racial tensions were running high. "Our family heroes were African Americans like Martin Luther King, Jr., who had a vision for a much more inclusive, merit-based society," she recalls.

As a Harvard undergraduate, Thomas- Graham majored in economics and briefly considered entering the Ph.D. program, but realized she was most intrigued by law and business issues. The joint degree program was a perfect fit. At HBS, Thomas-Graham found an important role model in Rosabeth Moss Kanter, her professor for an organizational behavior elective. "The subject matter was fascinating, and I really admired her as a high-ranking tenured faculty member who was also a woman," she says.

Thomas-Graham met her husband, Lawrence Otis Graham, at Harvard Law School. The two moved to New York after graduation, and Thomas-Graham began her career at McKinsey, consulting on projects for retail and financial-services companies. In the 1990s, as the Internet juggernaut picked up speed, that range expanded to include e-commerce, media, and entertainment firms, establishing the foundation for her eventual move into television and the executive suite.

In 1999, feeling "the ten-year itch," Thomas-Graham talked to a longtime mentor who recommended that she meet with Jack Welch, then CEO of General Electric. "It was a great conversation," she remembers. "Being a partner at McKinsey, I had spent a lot of time around CEOs, but there's nobody like Jack Welch." Welch suggested that she meet with NBC chairman and CEO Bob Wright. Not long after their meeting, Thomas-Graham was offered the position of CEO at CNBC.com. Previously a marketing tool for the financial news network, the Web site was being relaunched as a separate entity with its own services and special features. "It was an amazing opportunity to come out of the consulting world and lead a business unit," she says.

The hardworking Thomas-Graham thrived, and eighteen months later, she was asked to head CNBC. Currently, she is overseeing the network's evolution at a critical juncture when the political and economic climate is strikingly different than it was five years - or even one year - ago. "During the '90s, CNBC was the voice of the bull market," she observes. "When I took the reins here in July, we were in a much different environment, and September 11 certainly exacerbated the sense of the market's fragility. Right now we're repositioning ourselves for the next wave of growth by addressing a new set of concerns our viewers have about the financial world." Capital Report, a post-September 11 addition, is one example; Thomas-Graham, who frequently talks to executives about their information needs, says the show aims to satisfy a greater overall demand for coverage focusing on the intersection of political and economic issues. That shift is reflected in Capital Report and other new programming launched in February, which also includes more live, in-depth analysis of market activity from the Nasdaq and NYSE.

As the story of Enron's collapse continues to unfold, Thomas-Graham is hesitant to predict how the debacle might change the business world. "I would not position myself as a forecaster of future events, but there's certainly going to be more discussion regarding regulatory issues," she says. "If anything, this has highlighted the need for information - the lingering notion that you could buy a stock, hold it, then retire without any monitoring or involvement on your part has completely vanished."

It's difficult to imagine a more eventful year to enter the world of business news. At the time of her appointment, some noted that Thomas-Graham, 38, had no direct experience in the television industry, a fact she acknowledges openly. "I think it illustrates the importance of mentors," she says. "If Bob Wright hadn't been willing to take a chance on me, I wouldn't have this role. Change occurs when people of goodwill take a leap of faith and give others the support they need to be successful." As she sizes up the task at hand, Thomas-Graham is realistic, yet upbeat. "This is a very challenging time for CNBC. I'm responsible for what happens, but I have a great team working with me. I think we're going to succeed."

- Julia Hanna (send e-mail to the author)

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