JUDITH MCHALEDiscovering secrets to success
In 1987, when Judith McHale left New York and a job as legal counsel at MTV to go to the tiny Discovery Channel in Landover, Maryland, most of her friends thought she was crazy. MTV was the hottest network on cable, and Discovery, back then, had 35 employees and an uncertain future. John Hendricks had originally called the company the Cable Educational Network. But even with the new name, Discovery seemed like a snooze.
McHale signed on as the only lawyer but helped shape the fledgling enterprise as it launched Discovery in Europe and acquired the Learning Channel. At Discovery, McHale worked closely with founder Hendricks and president Ruth Otte. Still, she felt hamstrung by her legal label. “Don’t think of me as just as a lawyer,” McHale told Hendricks and Otte. “There are other things I can do.” The general counsel was soon in charge of human resources and information technology.
She’s a lot more than a lawyer now. Named president and chief operating officer in 1995 and CEO in 2004, McHale runs a global media and entertainment company that includes the Travel Channel, Animal Planet, Discovery Health Channel, the Nature Company stores, Discovery Channel stores, and an alliance with the BBC. Discovery has 6,000 employees and operates in 160 countries and territories, reaching 1.3 billion subscribers.
McHale says that in its early days cable television offered more opportunities for women than network TV because it was seen as a risky business, and women were willing to take the risk. The secret of her own success? “If you’re interested in doing other things, raise your hand. It makes people look at you differently.”
When Discovery had a major programming position open up, McHale was surprised that no women applied. She learned that many women thought that if they were qualified for the job, a manager would have asked them to apply. “Have confidence to take the first step,” she advises.
A working mother, McHale makes it easy for women to combine work and family. Discovery’s work/life initiative provides flexible hours and lots of opportunities to work from home. A Women’s Leadership Group offers guidance on coping with a career and a newborn. Discovery is often on lists of best companies for women—and men.
But McHale would not have stayed at Discovery for its enlightened culture alone. “A job should not just be a paycheck, it should be a passion,” she told the American University graduating class of 2005.
And it shouldn’t be an unrequited love affair. “Don’t stay in an organization that is not meeting your goals and objectives,” McHale says. “Find an organization that really works for you.”
For Linda Cropp, 57, politics began at home.
A social-studies teacher and later guidance counselor at DC’s Eastern High School—whose husband also taught there—Cropp was determined to keep her children in DC public schools even though she was dissatisfied with the neighborhood school, Powell Elementary School in Ward 4. Cropp got so involved in the PTA that after DC got home rule, neighbors encouraged her to run for the ward’s seat on the new board of education. She won in 1981, when Floretta McKenzie was the new school superintendent.
Student test scores were rising, but school buildings were falling apart. “We demanded that Mayor Barry replace 100 roofs on schools,” Cropp recalls. “We sued him, and we won.”
Cropp became head of the school board in 1987 and four years later won a seat on the DC Council. In 1997, she became council chairman. She has no problem with the “man” in the title. “It’s ‘chairman’ by act of Congress and signed by the President as part of the home-rule legislation,” Cropp says. “They never thought a woman would be in this position.”
Her chairmanship began when the city grappled with unbalanced budgets, junk bonds, and the financial control board. “We have a cash reserve now, and I’m not about to let this city turn around again,” she says.
Cropp describes herself as a consensus builder rather than a crusader—a leadership style that has left her open to criticism. She admits she’s had to use her old skills as a teacher and guidance counselor to keep the council moving forward. “Consensus doesn’t mean you lack vision,” she says. “Until you get other people to buy into your position, you cannot move forward.”
On a council with 13 strong personalities, controversial issues, and several members running for council chair or mayor—including Cropp—consensus can be elusive. Her secret of success: Play chess instead of checkers. “You have to look out five moves ahead,” she says.
And Cropp is not afraid to go it alone. When she felt Mayor Anthony Williams hadn’t cut a good enough deal with Major League Baseball, Cropp dug in her heels until both sides agreed to more private funding for a new stadium. The headline in the Washington Post the next day read, at the end of the day, cropp owns the deal.
At 39, Olga Viso would qualify as a “woman to watch” but for the fact that she isn’t on her way to the top—she’s already there. Ten years after coming to the Hirshhorn as an assistant curator, Viso last year was named director of the museum. She has turned a childhood passion for making art into an adult passion for nurturing and celebrating artists. “This museum is dedicated to encouraging and exhibiting the art of our time,” Viso says.
Viso grew up in Florida, the only child of Cuban immigrants. Her mother had had her own business but had to start from scratch when she emigrated here. “She always encouraged me to be respectful, disciplined, but a free thinker,” Viso says.
At Rollins College in Florida, Viso proved herself as entrepreneurial as her mother. While studying art and business, Viso asked permission to exhibit works by students and faculty in the campus library. “I did six or seven exhibits there a year,” Viso recalls. By this time, she had concluded that she lacked the talent to be a professional artist.
After graduation, Viso tried marketing for a development company but wasn’t happy. From there, she went back to school for a master’s in art history at Emory University in Atlanta. She also started working at Atlanta’s High Museum of Art and stayed on after graduating. In 1993, Viso moved to the Norton Museum of Art in West Palm Beach, where her interest in contemporary art and living artists flourished. She was specifically qualified to curate the exhibit that brought her national acclaim—the work of four female Cuban artists called “Transcending the Borders of Memory.” Two years later, Viso came to the Hirshhorn as an assistant curator.
As curator for contemporary art, Viso led the museum’s Directions program to showcase emerging artists. She has expanded the museum’s reach to include artists from Asia and Latin America. “We have an opportunity and a responsibility to be even more global,” she says.
Viso says being young has been more of a barrier than being female: “I’ve had to be more persistent. I’ve also had exceptional mentors, mostly men, who gave me encouragement.”
Her relationship with the other Olga—Olga Hirshhorn—is also close. “The Hirshhorns had a strong personal relationship with artists,” Viso says of the museum’s founders. Olga Hirshhorn’s highest accolade about an exhibit: “Joe would have liked this.”
What does it take to succeed in the arts? Viso has followed her mentors’ advice to network and be visible. She gives lectures and gallery talks all over the East Coast, writes for scholarly publications, and is active in international arts organizations.
When her appointment was announced, she started hearing from women. “I symbolize a shift for women, particularly for Latina women,” Viso says proudly.