Casey Wasserman, 30, has already made a name for himself in sports business, civic and philanthropy circles. His Wasserman Media Group spans five firms working in production, management, music and marketing as well as the Los Angeles Avengers of the Arena Football League.
In the first of two columns, WMG’s chairman-CEO discusses the lessons learned from his grandfather and mentor, Lew Wasserman, the legendary MCA/Universal chairman and CEO. Coming next week: how the Wasserman Media Group conducts business.
Q: What are the advantages and disadvantages of being born into a prominent entertainment family?
A: My first venture into the world of sports was to buy an arena football team at the age of 24. My being Lew Wasserman’s grandson allowed me the opportunity to make that decision. It stopped there. I wanted to do something where I would be judged on my own success or failure. Either was OK so long as it was based on what I did, not on what somebody perceives somebody else helped me to do.
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Being Lew Wasserman’s grandson didn’t help me sell a single season ticket. It didn’t help me sign a single football player. It didn’t help me build any of the business that we’ve got here. Having said that, to me, there are no disadvantages.
Q: For those who don’t have the benefit of an extraordinary individual as a mentor, how might they go about seeking one?
A: When I bought the Avengers, the first thing I did was to call every owner or president of every sports team in L.A. to go to lunch, because they were doing it and knew a lot more about it. People in positions of success usually had mentors in their lives and are often receptive to young people who want that opportunity.
Q: How did your grandfather deal with you when you made mistakes? Do you handle your subordinates in a similar manner?
A: The thing that was important to him — with anybody, including me — was: If you make a mistake, be honest about it upfront. Be quick to recognize it and be quick to react to it. Our No. 1 rule at WMG is “No surprises.” Good, bad or ugly: no surprises. We spend most of the time anticipating, preparing for and reacting to anything that may go wrong. Every single day in every business in the world, something goes wrong. The people who are successful are the ones who are better at dealing with it.
Q: Are there any business transgressions that you consider unforgivable?
A: Dishonesty and a lack of loyalty are by far the two which are totally unacceptable. If you look at my grandfather’s career and pick a word, loyalty might be the most common theme in terms of how he dealt with employees. The stability that it created enabled a lot of the success that occurred at MCA.
Q: The Boston Red Sox finally won the World Series with a general manager whose first name seemed to be “Young Theo” Epstein. To what extent does age matter in the sports and entertainment business?
A: The only thing a young person doesn’t have is the experience base from which to make informed decisions. Everything else — intelligence, aggressiveness, intuition, innovation, energy — all those things young people have, frankly, maybe more than some others. You can’t buy, and you can’t learn, experience in a textbook. The only way to fill in those gaps is do it every day.
Q: Football coaches are known for working such long hours that they often sleep on cots in their offices or in the lobby. Should the rest of us follow that model?
A: The reason they sleep in their offices is because no amount of preparation is enough. My grandfather, in his attempt to help raise me, was never one to say, “Do this. Don’t do that.” He taught much through stories, and you were supposed to draw your own lessons from those stories. Above all others the one word he always said to me was “anticipation.” Anticipation requires thinking about all the angles. If you’re a football coach, you watch games all week so you’re prepared both to attack and defend every opportunity in every situation. The guys who are better prepared and therefore get their players better prepared for all situations, are the ones who win.
Unger is a leading exec recruiter. At various times, he led the media and entertainment practices of the world’s three largest executive search firms. He can be reached at email@example.com.