The Accidental Interviewer

by Alex Lajoux, Chief Knowledge Officer, NACD

Cunningham (left) interviews General (R) James L. Jones, President Obama’s National Security Advisor

Jeff Cunningham is professor of Business and Journalism at Arizona State University’s Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and W.P. Carey School of Business. He is a faculty advisor on media disruption, corporate governance, and as he puts it, an assortment of odds and ends.

Cunningham is host and creator of a new digital video interview series that will launch this Spring: “Iconic Voices”, candid discussions about the everyday work of extraordinary people. Warren Buffett will be the first interview and will be released in early March 2015.

Cunningham was formerly publisher of Forbes Magazine and an internet venture capital investor before founding Directorship Magazine and its website, Directorship.com (both now the official publication of the National Association of Corporate Directors).

You are known for interviewing high profile movers and shakers. Who have you done recently? These notables are so unique in their accomplishments, and frankly, their determination to change the world for better, I’m humbled when I sit across from them and hear their story. I have done about 30 interviews, and so I’ll pick a few randomly. Lloyd Blankfein, CEO of Goldman Sachs, has to stand out as among the smartest and funniest of my cast. Then I would have to mention Mark Bertolini, CEO of Aetna who just announced a ‘no-minimum wage’ policy for the company. Then Labe Jackson, Audit chair at JP Morgan who talked to me about the London Whale crisis and Jamie Dimon’s immensely successful handling of that situation. General James Jones, of course, Obama’s National Security Advisor, who claims we have already begun WW III — especially in the cyberthreat area. Walter Robb, co-CEO of Whole Foods, which is to be published shortly. Professor Joel Kotkin on what’s bugging the middle class in America. And just a few weeks ago I finished filming Warren Buffett on his take on journalism and business in America, which will air late March at the Cronkite School at ASU and on our digital channels like YouTube, iTunes.

What was your background that led you into the media world? To start off, I was a 70's hippie who was ready to major in anything that had no practical value. So I became an English Lit major and didn’t start to think about a job until my 8th semester (at SUNY Binghamton). I found a job that promised travel and publishing, only to discover it meant travel to industrial cities to audit trade magazine circulation. So much for truth in advertising. From there it went uphill, I suppose. McGraw-Hill was my first stop, then Forbes, back to Business Week (now Bloomberg). I became Forbes publisher and followed Caspar Weinberger, former SecDef, in the role. Once the internet hit magazines, I left for the presidency of CMGI, an internet venture capital incubator. From there I stayed with technology and venture investing as well as serving on ten public company boards including Data General, Schindler (of Switzlerand), Bankrate and Sapient, both as chairman, and TheStreet.com.

How did you start out interviewing after having worked on the business side of media most of your career? After my internet career, I decided to take the entrepreneurial track and started Directorship Magazine — first more as a hobby until it became a career or even an obsession which I couldn’t put down. I never had a thought or pretension to becoming a writer until one day I found myself running the ship alone due to a disagreement that publishers often have with editors but are usually forgotten over a single malt whisky. This one went too far. So I picked up the reigns with some tutoring from my former Forbes editor, Jim Michaels, whom Warren Buffett considered the top editor of any business magazine in history. The issue turned out okay and I just continued on in that fashion, now editor in chief of my own publication. At least no one was going to fire me.

But the interviewing part? That was easy. I started to write long, pensive features on subjects like cybersecurity, the financial crisis, and other areas where I had some inside knoweldge, but frankly it was hard work for an old space salesman. Instead I reasoned, what people really want is to read the thoughts of the great men and women that run our nation’s business organizations. How they met challenges and fended off competitors, that sort of thing. Well, interviewing was a natural for me, and frankly, half the work. The main challenge I had was recognizing that my thoughts weren’t the subject of the interview. At first, I kept having these fascinating conversations, but I was using up most of the copy.

Let’s talk about your non media career; you’ve served on a number of corporate boards and you’ve written about corporate governance. How do the two differ? I think the boardroom is particularly influenced by empirical data, and my board service has led me to think pragmatically about corporate governance in areas that others see as black or white.

What makes a great company leader? Inside the boardroom, great leadership is always going to be in the mind of the beholder, which is to say, other board members. Over time, great leadership can be recognized by a wider audience, and you see this in the case of stellar CEOs like Steve Jobs or Jeff Immelt. Martin Dempsey [current chair of the Joint Chiefs of Staff] gave us the best definition: “Great leadership reconciles the ends, the ways, and the means of corporate strategy.”

What about the qualities needed in fellow board members? The best board members are great listeners and great questioners, and so they drive intense debate about company issues, which reduces risk and surfaces opportunity.

Who has been your most important mentor? Malcolm Forbes taught me that you could achieve anything if you had determination and were able to convince the people that make up your universe that you are worth their self-sacrifice.

In 2005, you founded Directorship magazine, converting a legacy newsletter into a full-blown institution. Why? By that time, I’d served on some 10 public boards, and the corporate governance media was pretty mediocre, so I felt the boardroom deserved something more dynamic.

Tell us about your new video interview series at Arizona State, which you are calling Iconic Voices. I received my appointment as professor to both the Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and the W.P. Carey School of Business. Thinking about the intersection for both colleges, I came up with this idea to bring disruptor voices to campus. It went through some twists and turns as all start up ideas do, and turned into Iconic Voices (@IconicVoices on Twitter for those who want to suggest questions or provide comments). It is a digital video series of interviews that discusses the everyday work of extraordinary people. It will be part TED talk and part 60 Minutes. We’re looking to interview a broad spectrum of leaders — people such as Warren Buffett, Michael Milken, Hank Greenberg, and a number of high-tech CEOs.

I sense that when you interview someone, you get a gestalt of their qualities. I’m a sucker for a good story.

In parting, would you care to comment on a current boardroom issue? I was thinking about boardroom diversity. One has to look at this with cold calculation, as the board plays a role as a vital economic driver for our country. First, I believe strongly that portfolio mix is crucial to managing risk — in other words, the board version of “the more, the merrier.” Second, I believe it is virtually impossible to measure board performance other than on a micro level. Whether a company does well or poorly may not be traceable to the board. That is why it is critical that we take every step to ensure the right people are available for board seats when the need occurs. The first thing I would do is fix the talent pipeline by setting up a well-compensated and highly talented advisory board of women and minorities in mid-career stages. Their job would be to counsel the board on what is happening in their respective communities. The ulterior motive, of course, is that as board openings occur, there is a ready pool of outstanding candidates.

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Jeff Cunningham is Professor of media and business @ASU Cronkite and WP Carey Schools. He is creator/host of @IconicVoices, a digital video interview series on leaders, innovators, and disruptors. He was formerly founder of Directorship Magazine, publisher of Forbes Magazine, and has served on numerous public company boards. Twitter or LinkedIn.

This article also appeared in Directorship Magazine, the official publication of the National Association of Corporate Directors, by Alex Lajou, Chief Knowledge Officer.