Debra L. Lee, former chairman and CEO of BET Networks, is a trailblazer within the entertainment industry. Over the span of her three-and-a-half decades-long career, she has been able to innovate, lead, and remain a dominant force.
As people get to know her, Lee describes herself as a businesswoman, mother, daughter, and friend. “I also just think of myself as Debi who grew up in Greensboro, North Carolina, who is concerned about my community and finding ways to give back,” says Lee.
In May 2018, Lee stepped down from her role at BET after 32 years of leadership.
“I’m sketching out the next phase of my life which looks like it will be filled with board work, not-for-profit work, and overlooking the foundation I started, Leading Women Defined,” says Lee.
As a philanthropist with strong business acumen, Lee serves on the board of directors for Marriott International, Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater, and she was recently named to AT&T’s board of directors. Lee has also served on the board for Twitter and is a past chair of the Advertising Council and a trustee emeritus at Brown University.
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Lee is a natural leader, and she says that it all started the moment that she was elected class president on the first day of sixth grade. “That forced me into a leadership role. I think that says a lot about Greensboro and the type of black community they had there, and the way they supported and pushed each other. Going to an all-black school really had an impact on me.”
Nearly 40 years ago, Lee began her career as a lawyer after graduating from Harvard Law School and worked on a communications team as a lawyer for Steptoe & Johnson, a Washington D. C. based corporate law firm, who at the time had BET as a client.
After making the decision not to continue her work as a lawyer in Washington D.C. as President Ronald Regan was set to take office, BET asked her to spearhead the legal department for the network after working closely with her for six years as a client. Lee seized the opportunity and was named vice president and general counsel.
She didn’t have a master plan but she was ready
Some would consider her experience working for the firm and transitioning to BET Networks as fate, but Lee says that it was a matter of being prepared.
“I pretty much knew I didn’t want to be a lawyer forever. But I did want to have an impact,” says Lee. With the intention to influence the way that business was done at the company and her ability to learn, Lee climbed the corporate ladder in a timely manner with innovation as one of her main priorities as she led teams and collaborated with other executives.
Lee served throughout the company in many capacities and served as the president and COO of BET Networks for nearly 10 years and made it a point to learn as she led.
“I had seen the company in action and learned a lot about the areas that I was most unfamiliar about, like advertising and programming. I knew a lot about deal-making and legal issues, but I hadn’t worked very much in programming and advertising. But by the time I became COO, I was ready to do that,” says Lee.
As a result of her leadership, Lee was named chairman and CEO of the network shortly after BET was acquired by Viacom. “That was a different kind of leadership and responsibility to be able to represent BET at the senior staff meetings for Viacom and argue for resources and budget increases to get the kind of budget I needed to produce the quality programming that I knew our audience deserved,” Lee adds.
With excellence as a standard, she made sure that she and her team learned their industry intricately so that they would stay on the cutting edge.
Together everyone achieves more
“It was clear early on that for the team to be successful, we couldn’t get to a place and be satisfied with where we were. We had to keep innovating. Technology was changing every day. We didn’t want any other company to come in and take our audience because of new technology or a new platform.”
That mindset coupled with her ambition was the formula for successful and original programming such as Being Mary Jane and the New Edition Story, business ventures such as the launch of the Centric network, acquiring the hit show The Game from the CW Network, and creating quality content that resonated with its intergenerational and international audience.
In the spirit of true leadership, Lee believes in nurturing top talent and recognizes the importance of building strong teams. “I’ve been very fortunate to have a career that I was passionate about, not only the mission of the company, but also hiring, grooming, and mentoring young African American executives.”
With power comes responsibility
And as a woman of power, she is mindful of how she uses her voice and influence.
“I had to get comfortable with the fact that I was a powerful woman. Power is not necessarily something that I thought came with the position. But once I had it, I had to decide what I wanted to do with it, what I wanted my legacy to be, what issues I wanted to change, and how I wanted to use resources to help with those issues,” says Lee.
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Lee also makes room for other women at the table and has been able to build tables of her own as well as the community with Leading Women Defined, which has brought thousands of executive women together for the past 10 years including Michelle Obama and Sen. Kamala Harris.
When looking back on her career, Lee says that she wishes that she would have been more confident and found her voice earlier in her career. “I would tell my younger self, ‘Do not worry about being wrong. There’s no such thing as being wrong… Because it’s my life, my opinion, and my experiences. I [understand] that more and more every day. And that’s one of the exciting things about being on AT&T’s board and other boards that I’m on. I bring my experiences to that environment and I know I have something to add because I’ve had a lifetime of a career and experiences.”
For those who want to lead with intention, Lee offers this advice:
- Find your voice and speak up. Make it known you’re in the room. Don’t sit there quietly; speak out on issues that you care about.
- Build authentic relationships. It’s very important to have people to share concerns with and learn about the company.
- You don’t have to operate like a man in order to be a success. You do have to find your own management style and find ways to deal with issues when they arise.
Want more advice? Here are 17 career books written by black women to help you level up professionally.