On Wednesday, April 7, 1999, I spent the day at E! Entertainment Television Networks in Los Angeles, California. My journalistic assignment? To shadow Lisa Kaye, 36, senior vice president of human resources.
Lisa and her staff of 13 oversee everything from compensation and training to staffing and recruitment. On this particular day, however, Lisa’s focus was the first company meeting since recently promoted acting president Fran Shea reorganized the company. Lisa’s mission: to make sure the 500 or so attending employees understand that E!’s on the cutting edge of many exciting new ventures, and that there’s opportunity for everyone.
A major advantage to writing an article about the experiences of an HRprofessional is that you get an insider’s view of a company’s operations. However, this wasn’t a typical day at E!. My first real heart-to heart with Lisa started at around 1:00 p.m. over lunch at Mauro in the nearby Fred Segal Store. And while I wasn’t able to spend much of the day with Lisa, I did share the most important part of her day:the biannual company meeting at the El Rey Theater in the mid-Wilshire district.
At the time, it didn’t seem like a few hours was enough. But later Irealized there’s a lot more to HRat E! than compensation and training. There’s actually a culture as unique and out-there as the off-network programming the company produces. And fostering a company’s culture takes just as much time and effort as everything else.
Right now I’m standing in the hellishly dark and nearly empty El Rey Theater in the mid-Wilshire area of Los Angeles, waiting for Lisa to finish orchestrating the activities of a half-dozen or so production employees for E!’s first company meeting since acting president Fran Shea reorganized the company.
Lisa stands at the speaker’s podium, without benefit of lights or music or audience, in a theater dominated by musty smells and bordello-red curtains and seat cushions. There’s something about the position of the monitor that’s leaning against a brick that bothers her. "Can we move it?" she smiles, disarming anyone who may object. "I want all the speakers to look natural, as opposed to their heads moving side-to-side between their notes on the podium and the monitor."
A slow count to five, light banter, and one of the production workers moves the monitor. Lisa then exits stage right and damn-near sprints to the back of the theater to double-check that individual presentations are loaded into the computer, and that the music is cued properly. "I want atmosphere. I don’t want there to be dead silence like people are walking into church," she muses.
From E!’s PR material I learn that Lisa joined the company in 1994, after working in HR departments for Ticketmaster and Lifetime Television. She oversees the entire human resources department, which is responsible for staffing and recruitment, benefits and compensation, training and employee development, HRIS, employee relations and organizational change for E!, the new "style." (stet) network and E! Online.
But I think it’s fair to say this isn’t a typical HR day at E!, the celebrity-news cable channel that features such off-network programs as The Howard Stern Show, Talk Soup, and E!’s annual Academy Awards Pre-Show with mother-daughter hosts Joan and Melissa Rivers. For openers, this particular company meeting will give the roughly 500 attending employees their first taste of E! after the reorganization. One of Shea’s first management decisions as president was to put in a new layer of executive vice presidents, including human resources, who now report directly to her.
Yet if there’s one message Lisa hopes to convey during the meeting, it’s this: "The company’s on the cutting edge of so many great and exciting new ventures that there’s opportunity for everyone in this room to make a difference," she smiles. "That’s why this meeting’s so important. It’s not only their first opportunity to see our new leader, but it’s a good time to let everyone know what’s going on."
"They still haven’t raised the sign," Lisa huffs, as she looks back over her shoulder at the El Rey Theater.
Now we’re walking down Wilshire Boulevard toward the 27-story high-rise building that houses 16,000 square feet of E! office space. This is probably a good time to mention that E! is in the process of moving to 300,000 square feet of office space in the Wilshire Courtyard building next door, and that this just adds to the sense of controlled chaos (Lisa’s words, not mine) going on around us.
A lot of Lisa’s focus these past few months has revolved around managing the change and waiting for the new structure to fall into place. "We’re a big company, and we’ve grown considerably," she says, as we head up the escalators to her office on the 4th floor for some last minute phone calls and personal time. "A lot of employees have questions about their jobs, their departments, this company. HR’s like the oil in the machine. We’ve got to make sure everything runs smoothly, that we have the right people in the right jobs, and that we’re prepared for growth into the next century."
Did I mention it’s already been a long day for Lisa? Up at 6:30 a.m. with "nervous energy," she heard a quote on one of the morning talk shows attributed to baseball great Jackie Robinson that she thought would be a nice touch to her own speech: Every man is limited only by his lack of opportunity, or something like this—I’m doing this from memory. By 9:00 a.m., she was going through a dry run of the company meeting with senior executives at the El Rey Theater. Afterward, she made some last minute changes to the meeting, then rushed back to her office to meet with E! president Shea on senior compensation issues. After lunch at 1:00 p.m., Lisa met with members of the operations department and the new vice president of human resources to address competitive salaries within the E! operations department.
It should be noted I was never able to attend any of these highly confidential meetings except lunch, but then E! is a network focused on the bigger picture.
Not only has the company succeeded in weaving itself into the culture and lives of its off-network audience, but it has grown from a fledgling cable channel with roughly 15 million subscribers to a 24-hour network with 55 million cable and direct broadcast satellite subscribers in less than 10 years. E! gradually developed original prime-time programming dedicated to the world of entertainment, which may be one reason why The Walt Disney Co. and Comcast agreed several years back to purchase a majority stake in the company; more original programming leads to higher ratings and higher ad revenues.
Now we’re back standing in the El Rey Theater, watching the mostly Gen-X E! employees shuffle in and take their seats. Some kind of loud, pounding music blares from the theater’s speaker system. Lisa fiddles with a digital camera, checks the podium’s microphone, the monitor, the lighting and E! logos—then she smiles and shrugs. In response to some dogged journalistic querying, Lisa informs me that she feels fine, but maybe, just maybe, she should’ve worn heels. "I feel too short standing at the podium," she laughs.
There’s nothing about the way Lisa looks up close that suggests she’s in any way nervous. The 500 or so attending employees seem, well, it’s maybe close to what you’d call anxious, but not exactly.
Finally, the lights dim and a company-produced video reflects off the theater-sized screen onstage. The opening sequence is a "Saturday Night Live" takeoff of Melissa Rivers and Todd Newton (host of E!’s movie preview show "Coming Attractions") hosting an E! red-carpet pre-awards show. Everyone roars. It reflects what Lisa mentioned to me earlier in the day: "What you see on air is what we are internally." I took this to mean the company’s an exciting and fashionable place to work, and that it’s not above poking fun at itself every now and then.
Now everybody in the theater is squirming to get close to the open bar in the back of the El Rey Theater. I ask Lisa how she’ll gauge the success of the company meeting. "If everyone shows up to work tomorrow," she laughs.
Actually, she tells me later that from the minute the meeting ended, there was a flood of positive responses from employees. "They were wowed by everyone’s presentations and by the focus and concentration of the information about our company under Fran Shea’s new leadership. We’ve made a real commitment to the employees, and we foster an open-door environment. This was probably the most informative company meeting they ever attended. I feel as though we hit a home run."
That’s because she stayed focused on the "bigger picture."
Workforce, June 1999, Vol. 78, No. 6, pp. 68-72.