Tips from the Top: Karen Wishart

Karen Wishart, the Executive Vice President and Chief Legal Officer for TV One, joined TV One in January 2005. As a member of the senior management team, she oversees the business and legal affairs department, as well as the human resources department for the company. Her responsibilities include the negotiation of agreements for all of the company’s business units, as well as corporate governance, risk assessment and strategic planning. In addition, she is responsible for business development for the company and is the Secretary to the Board of Managers.

Wishart joined TV One from Scripps Networks, where she was Vice President of Business Affairs, serving as a negotiator of business agreements for the company’s domestic and international television and production units, including Home & Garden Television, Food Network, DIY-Do It Yourself Network, Fine Living, Shop At Home Network, and Scripps Productions.

Before joining Scripps as a Director in 1997, Wishart spent the first five years of her career as an Associate Lawyer in the entertainment and administrative law division of Cassels Brock & Blackwell in Toronto, Canada. In 1994, she joined YTV, Canada, Inc. & GRC Productions as a Director in the business and regulatory affairs department.

Wishart graduated from McMaster University in Ontario, Canada, with a B.A. degree in honors psychology. She earned a J.D. from the University of Windsor in Ontario Canada and a MBA from Emory University’s Goizueta Business School in Atlanta.

What advice do you have for attorneys who would like to make a career in entertainment law?  

I think that it’s a tough industry to break into. The first thing I would say is why do you want to be in the industry? A lot of young lawyers state they want to be in entertainment law to hang out with entertainers. Be very broad about your approach. I have had lawyers who are litigators and when there is a job opening, they want to apply, but I do not hire litigators. So, it is a matter of taking your particular skillset, whatever you are good at and converting it to the entertainment industry. Subscribe to the daily journals. Join organizations such as the Black Entertainment and Sports Lawyers Association and the American Bar Association’s entertainment law group which has a really good conference each year. It is really about just getting out there and pounding the pavement – volunteering for a local theater group. Since it is perceived as being a really sexy industry, lots of attorneys want to become a part of it. Also, network. The more people you know in the industry the more you will find out about any job openings. They are the same principals which apply to any industry.  

Particularly, young lawyers are often told they are not hired because they lack experience. How does one overcome that perception?

I think there are two issues there. One is the person who really does not have the experience in the area they are looking. The second is the person who does have the experience. If you do not have experience, then when you are in law school, you should obtain the experience. There is another set of people who interview and still are told that they lack the experience. They are not interviewing well. That’s when you have to look at who you are presenting in the interview. They don’t know how to interview. If you are not presenting well, then you should find someone who has interviewed others and practice. Don’t oversell/but don’t oversell. You will know that everything they have done was great because they oversell their experience. Some undersell their experience. For example, I interviewed someone who had a joint degree who did not include it on his resume.

Also, how does one overcome the perception that they cannot “hit the ground running”?

You have to determine whether you are the type of person who can hit the ground running. There are some people who cannot operate from day one. Someone in that situation should have in their mind a very clear plan as to what they would do if they got the job in the first 30 or 60 days. As soon as I was given this offer, I would ask to get copies of pivotal issues you are dealing with. It all depends on what level of attorney you are. In my first week, I would have a summary in place of the issues and what needs to be done. For the interviewer, you appear as someone who plans ahead and this is obviously someone he can trust with the work. You want to demonstrate what you are going to do to learn this area by yourself. You are someone who one can give things to and it will be finished.

How do you balance your professional life and personal life?

I am married with two children who are now adults. We had our son when we were in law school.  We had them when we were quite young. Looking back, I would say, “We were so brilliant.” What it has allowed me to do as I have become more senior and my children have become older, is to really focus on work. When I started at TV One, my son was starting college and my daughter was in high school. I was advised by a partner at one of my firms, to work close to my office and that my children’s school was close to my home. Therefore, I can attend school events and then go back to work.  I have been very blessed to have great supervisors who have been very supportive of the requirements of family. I pride myself that both of my kids were athletes and I only missed one event because I was working on my MBA at the time.  It also means that I have had to stay awake until 3am to get things done because I slipped away for those few hours to attend school events.

What is the best decision you ever made? What is the worse?

I think the best decision that I have made relates to my career and it is having children early. We had both kids out of the house when I was in my 40’s. My son went to school in London and has been working there for a while. I think my worse decision (and something that women tend not to be good at) is not being able to toot your own horn. I think that what a lot of women do - if it was a big deal and I know that my input helped to take the deal to completion - is to state that the team did it.  If you look at the difference between men and women – men state I did this and it was my strategy and I was able to close the deal.  That is how you get ahead.  I wished I had understood the importance and developed the skill of doing this much earlier in my career.  It is almost being very matter of fact with your accomplishment without giving the appearance that you are better than anyone else, while letting people become aware of your accomplishment.

How do you measure that you are continuing to grow?

I think there are a number of ways to measure.  You can look at whether you are being promoted. At a firm, are you on the partnership track. If you are a partner, are you given additional responsibilities within the firm. Those are objective measures.  Subjectively, if I am not asking the question: “how do I approach this?” I am not growing. Are you doing the same thing over and over again or are you given more complex cases to work on? Are you given more independence to work on these cases? If you are, you are growing. If not, and you are doing the same thing, then you are not growing.  

How do you cultivate positive relationships at work?

I think the strongest tool that I have - and it comes becomes I am introvert – is that I will listen to people. A lot of times people want you to listen. As a lawyer, you have to do good work, issue spot, address issues and make (your client’s) business life as seamless as possible. On the human side, get to know the person as an individual. I try to go out to lunch with different people. For example, I may state let’s go get some frozen yogurt. I try to get around and spend a couple minutes speaking with everyone. I am just making sure that my department provides really good service, quick turnaround, professionally done and that they are sensitive to the business person’s needs.

How do you build these strategic relationships when you are very busy at work?

You have to make a concerted effort.  If you have to schedule the time to do it, then schedule the time. One of the things I have with the legal team, at least one a day, I ask that they walk around the office and talk to people. There are days when you are busy and too busy to stop. However, this is not every day, so it is something you have to make the time for.

How do you create opportunities for yourself?

I think that you can always go into business for yourself.  However, if you are looking for an opportunity at a company – ask what it is that they are missing.  No one is going to hire you because you are a good person or a smart lawyer.  If they feel that you can fill a need that they have, they may hire you.  Networking can be effective because that allows you to become aware of the opportunity.  

Catalyst posted an article on-line regarding the disparity in the advancement of men versus women in the high level positions. How do women obtain parity with men in terms of advancement?

I think that women have to get over that they need to be liked or respected.  You are here to do a job.  You always try to be respectful when you do the job.  The higher you get up in the hierarchy, you have fewer friends.  I have found that if you treat people the way you want to be treated and have that hard line when you need to have a hard line, you will be respected as well.  If a woman loses the temper, she can be called a “bitch”, when a man loses his temper, he is strong. Women need to lead differently than men.  I tend to be a bit biased, but I think that women lead better.  The only way to obtain parity is to support women in leadership.  We have to get to the point, when it is not a big deal that the head of a company is a woman. It is going to take some time and we have to get numbers up there.

What are your thoughts in terms of how to recognize an organization’s true commitment to diversity?

I am somebody who deals with law firms and I demand diversity from law firms. They all say they are committed to diversity. I think you have to peel back the layers and see.  For example, I would say how many diverse attorneys you have. I do not count women because some firms will skew the numbers while including women. I would like to see that there is equality in the genders.  I look at their partners and associates. Firms will try to get attorneys in the entry level, but some do not develop mid to senior level associates.  That to me is very telling. If we have first and second year, but no fifth and sixth year associates, then they are doing something wrong and have not identified it—then that tells me there is no true commitment to diversity.

What are five tips you can provide for women who are aspiring to succeed in the profession or in a non-legal career?

1. If you want a family and you have a family, then have your job in close proximity to your home and family.

2. Either get an MBA or take some general business courses, so that you truly understand business. (This is important because as general counsel becomes more pressed about how they spend money, the best lawyers are those that can understand the business, the financials, and what drives that business.)

3. Network. Network. Network.  Do not just go out to get business cards.  That contact will be of no value unless you have a relationship with the person.  With everyone in your Rolodex, you should be able to get your call returned.

4. Get a mentor or board of directors. You need a group of various people that you can go to for advice. It should be a group that you go to for different things. If I have a legal or ethical conundrum, there is someone I can tell what is going on and get advice. There is a person I can do to for career advice. There is a person I can reach out to for life advice. This cannot be one person.  You need a group of people which can be called a board of directors.  It is a group of people who all have different purposes.  Make sure when you call you are not always asking for a favor.  

5. Dream and dream big.  Always dream big.  Dream about what is that next thing which is out of reach and then set other goals which are achievable.  When I have not set my annual goals, I have kind of drifted during the year.  When you set goals, have stretch and super stretch goals.  The stretch goals will keep you continually learning.

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