01 Apr 2002
Pamela Thomas Graham
Making News at CNBCTopics:
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
form, with dozens of reporters packed into cubicles and a plainly
waiting room for television guests. As unassuming as her modest
Thomas-Graham is composed, polite, and thoughtful even as she
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
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)
Class of MBA 1988, Section H