THR's Women in Entertainment 2012: Power 100
I'll be honest with you: This is the only job I'm focused on right now. And I love it." Anne Sweeney deftly has deflected yet another inquiry about her aspirations for the top job in the Walt Disney Co. empire when her boss, chairman and CEO Robert Iger, steps down in 2015. A nudge for a more revealing answer proves futile. Sweeney laughs and begins to repeat herself: "This is the only job …"
It's quintessential Sweeney: careful, deliberate, unfailingly polite.
Certainly her present job -- as co-chair of Disney Media Networks, and president of Disney/ABC Television Group -- would require no small amount of focus. She oversees nearly 10,000 employees at ABC (the entertainment and news divisions plus daytime), eight local stations, seven cable networks (including ABC Family, Disney Channel, Disney XD and Disney Junior), Hyperion Publishing, Radio Disney, ABC Studios and Disney's 50 percent stake in A+E Networks. This year, Disney Media Networks saw revenue increase 4 percent to $19.4 billion while operating income grew 8 percent to $6.6 billion. She receives 300 to 500 e-mails a day ("I read through them quickly, and I delegate well"). Most of each day is spent in meetings ("But lucky me, I like everyone on my team"). And she travels to New York (where ABC News, Hyperion and various other businesses are based) about once a month.
"I believe in having total clarity around our goals," she says. "I believe in creating these goals together as a group and making sure they're aligned with Bob Iger's goals for the Walt Disney Co. And more than anything, making sure people understand that they have a responsibility to one another. And when one of us has a great victory, it is a result of everyone working together. And quite honestly, we share the failures as well."
THR's most powerful woman in entertainment for a third straight year, Sweeney, 55, a married mother of two who had early aspirations to be a teacher (her mother and grandmother were teachers, and her daughter is pursuing a master's in education at Stanford University), says she never plotted a high-powered career trajectory for herself.
"I really moved through my career based on curiosity about something," she says. "I never looked at a title and said, 'I want that.' "
Nonetheless, Sweeney's achievements would seem to reveal canny career management in addition to smarts and an ability to delegate and inspire.
"She has a unique combination of professionalism and warmth," says Katie Couric.
Sweeney was instrumental in the deal that brought Couric to ABC Daytime and also made her a special correspondent for ABC News. "There's something very appealing about someone who is a straight-talking, direct executive, who I think was genuinely excited about the prospect of me coming to ABC," adds Couric. "I never felt like there was that unctuous quality that you sometimes see in executives who are trying to lure you to come to a place."
Sweeney was in the studio audience Sept. 10 for Couric's first show (it was the most successful talk show launch in a decade, since Dr. Phil). And she still watches Katie, just as she watches all of the morning news shows and ABC's entertainment lineup (which still boasts the top-rated comedy and drama on TV with Modern Family and Grey's Anatomy, while Entertainment chief Paul Lee has ordered full seasons of freshman series Nashville and The Neighbors). She was at the Good Morning America staff meeting July 9 after Robin Roberts announced on air that she was suffering from a rare blood disorder and would undergo a bone marrow transplant. And she was on the phone before 6 a.m. with ABC News president Ben Sherwood the morning GMA snapped Today's 16-plus-year morning news win streak.
"We found out at 8:31 a.m. on April 19," says Sherwood. "I would say she found out around 5:31 a.m. [L.A. time]."
Sweeney has been invaluable in the news division's joint venture with Univision, says Sherwood, who credits her experience launching networks earlier in her career at Nickelodeon then FX. And she spearheaded Disney's Day of Giving, a companywide effort that has raised $19 million for the Red Cross to help those affected by Hurricane Sandy. She was in constant communication with the news division when an ABC crew was briefly abducted in 2011 during the demonstrations in Cairo. And she checked in on an ABC News employee who during the Thanksgiving holiday choked on a grape in the cafeteria and had to be saved by the Heimlich maneuver.
"She's the leader of a 10,000-person organization," says Sherwood. "And she leads it with real vision for where she wants the company to go, and she leads it with a real personal touch."
Collaborative and available, Sweeney is a natural mentor, especially to other women.
"I was in a meeting in her office a couple of months ago, and I looked around, and it was all females. It wasn't because we were dealing with a female enterprise; it happened because every position of leadership in the room were all women," recalls Couric. "And I'm not anti-man. But I do think some of the highest positions have been and continue to be closed off to women. I think until you get women at the highest positions, that's when you start creating a truly level playing field. And I think it's only a matter of time until the very top is occupied by a woman as well."
As a kid I was always: A great reader who kept reading even when the lights went out with a flashlight under the covers. I loved good stories. I knew when a character was a good character. That was the beginning of all of this for me: great storytelling.
Favorite way to unwind: Binge-watching Revenge and Scandal on multiple devices.
Totally starstruck around: There are a few: Julie Andrews; Richard Sherman, who wrote the music for Mary Poppins; and Dick Van Dyke. I was in a meeting with Julie years ago, and she started to read to us from one of her children's books. I almost put my head on the table.
Proudest moment this year: The Day of Giving we put together across every ABC show for victims of Hurricane Sandy. We raised about $19 million for the Red Cross.
What I'd tell my 22-year-old self about working in Hollywood: "Relax."
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