Why I Turned Down The Chance To Be CEO

Illustrated by Isabelle Rancier.
Susan Packard has been on the ground floor and helped to build powerhouse media brands like HBO, CNBC, and HGTV. She the cofounder of Scripps Networks Interactive and former chief operating officer of HGTV. Susan is the author of New Rules Of The Game: 10 Strategies For Women In The Workplace (Perigee). Ahead, she shares her personal story on two of the most difficult decisions she made during her career. Over the course of my career at Scripps Networks Interactive (SNI), I’ve negotiated hundreds of deals, most of them worth millions. Some of the hardest moments came when I had to say “No” and walk away from the negotiating table. Looking back, those times were a cakewalk compared to deciding to decline two major career opportunities. The first one was a few years back, when I was working like a maniac building some media businesses. My boss, Ken Lowe, then chairman and CEO of SNI, came into my office and told me he was being promoted to run our parent company, the E.W. Scripps Company. At the time, I was his chief operating officer, and he wanted me to know his job would be opening up. Was I interested? Did I want a shot at the brass ring? I told him I’d think on it. A few days and sleepless nights later, I declined consideration. As a woman who’s made the climb to the senior ranks of business, I asked myself endlessly how high I wanted to go. It was only when I had neared the very top that I had the answer. I needed to stop at number two if I wanted any work-life balance. While this was my choice, I recognized it might be a death sentence in terms of future CEO roles. Weighing that, it was still the choice I needed to make. Something happens when one gets into senior management that’s not much talked about. You’re in meetings, strategy sessions, and budget debates, and it’s revealing of how others around you — and especially above you — work. One of the first things I observed was the difference in time and accountability between my CEO and the rest of us. Yes, all of us were on 24/7, but ultimate accountability stopped with him. Ken encouraged a very collaborative culture, but even with us doing a lot of the heavy lifting, he was never off. Managing shareholders alone is a huge job, even with investment relations people in the trenches to help. In short, CEO work is an engrossing but all-consuming job, one that fits many women and men. I just wasn’t one of them.

I recognized it might be a death sentence in terms of future CEO roles.

Over the next five years, even though I was not CEO, I led efforts to grow a variety of new business areas. Under my leadership, HGTV became one of the fastest-growing cable networks. It was an exhilarating ride. As my career advanced, I found myself increasingly pulled toward diverse, broadening interests. I did many new things while maintaining my work duties: I ran a marathon; traveled to fascinating international destinations; and volunteered in our downtown homeless shelter. All of these were hugely enriching. I am a member of the Committee of 200, a powerhouse of the highest-ranking businesswomen in the world, which fosters and works to advance women into leadership roles. The organization did research on phases of life, and found contrasting opinions between men and women. For men, life was three distinct phases: education, work, and then fun/retirement. For women, we saw these three as an overlapping continuum. I saw that data reflected in my own life, in my desire to do so many different things, both personally and professionally.

After 12 years with SNI, I felt a different pull — to get off the road and become more active in the rearing of our pre-teen son.

After 12 years with SNI, I felt a different pull — to get off the road and become more active in the rearing of our pre-teen son. Two years earlier, my mother and sister died unexpectedly within a month of each other. That painful time was a reminder of the fragility of life. But it would be a huge change to step down from my executive duties to step up in parenting. Naturally, this career choice took quite a bit longer to make than the first one. Those close to me posed many challenging questions. My husband: "Are you sure you really want this kind of lifestyle change?" Me: "Not entirely." (Are we ever entirely sure in such matters?) My best friend: "Won’t you miss the intellectual stimulation?" Me: "Yes, that’s likely." Other friends: "I thought you loved your work!" The truth is I did, but I knew I couldn’t sustain the pace while becoming a more active parent. It required making a choice.
Courtesy of Perigee.
After two months of talking and getting advice from trusted friends and family members (sometimes more than I wanted) and reflecting on the decision, I proposed a new position — president, brand outreach — to my CEO. It was a role that would allow for less travel. After many discussions, he reluctantly took the idea to the board, and they agreed — albeit with a new, lower compensation package. My husband and I had seen this coming, so we cut down on expenses and moved into a modest home. What I hadn’t anticipated was the emotional fallout: I no longer had a line of people at my door needing my help, and I experienced some ego-bruising. Such is the case with choices — they all involve compromise. Here’s what matters: When I think back to all of the choices I made in my career, I feel very fortunate that I had the opportunity to make such choices. Corporate America has a very tough time with the kinds of zigs and zag I did over the years. Fortunately, SNI did not, and my corporate career has been hugely fulfilling. Our workplaces need to figure out how to support such choices, because the data is in: Companies with women in senior roles have better financial results than companies without them. Moreover, we’re beginning to see how flexible work environments are important to millennials, too. It’s high time for corporate leaders to tackle this growing culture change. When women can be equally free to navigate their careers as I did, true to themselves and not held back by today’s corporate intransigence, it will be cause to celebrate how far we have really come.

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