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It’s no secret that women have been grossly underrepresented in the executive ranks of the music industry, as in fact they have in just about every facet of entertainment. But if recent years have seen major incursions into the record industry’s boys club, it’s no coincidence that much of the progress has occurred at a single label group, under the watch of one person.

Since becoming chairman/CEO of Universal Music Group in 2011, Lucian Grainge has overseen a noticeable shift in the demographics of the industry leader’s C-suites.

Under Grainge, Jody Gerson ascended to the chair of Universal Music Publishing Group a year and a half ago, making her one of the highest-ranking female executives in all of the music industry.

In 2013, Grainge lured Michele Anthony away from her management practice, making her UMG’s executive VP of recorded music. That same year, following UMG’s $1.9 billion acquisition of the recorded music assets of EMI, Grainge hired Michelle Jubelirer to help organize those assets into the Capitol Music Group, two years later making her COO. And upon relaunching Motown Records as a stand-alone label in 2014, he named the then-35-year-old wunderkind Ethiopia Habtemariam as president, as well as making her UMPG’s president of urban music.

Asked what these executives — not to mention UMG Distribution executive VP/GM of sales Candace Berry, UMG exec VP of partnerships and content Cynthia Sexton, Harvest Records president Jacqueline Saturn, and UMG Nashville president Cynthia Mabe — have in common, Grainge is concise. “They’re all absolute, total killers,” he says.

It’s that attitude that has led Variety to present Grainge with the 2016 Empowerment Award, honoring an executive who champions female leadership.

He is hesitant to say that the growing feminization of UMG’s executive ranks has been by design.

“Whether it’s intentional … I don’t [know],” he says. “But I’ll tell you, what’s intentional is to get the best people and to empower people to do the things that I think they can do, and to grow.

“I think that I run a meritocracy. I like and admire professional, authentic people. And I think that several of the characteristics that women have in this context are professionalism and authenticity. And when you add that to my instincts of just wanting the best, most capable, most competent people around me, they’re the kind of people and executives who I’m attracted to and like working with. I like winners.”

For Gerson, Grainge’s hands-off managerial approach was a key motivating factor in taking the helm of the world’s second-largest music publisher, after previously serving as No. 2 to Martin Bandier at Sony/ATV.

“I learned about being a great executive by working for Marty; I learned how to be a global CEO working for Lucian,” she says. “He has given me support on every level to be able to run this company the way I see fit. He’s there when I need him, but he doesn’t micromanage me. … What I’m most proud of is that I’m able to be a global CEO of the company as me, and not on any level have to compromise who I am to do the job.”

“What’s intentional is to get the best people and empower people to do the thing that i think they can do, and grow.”
Lucian Grange

Grainge’s trust in his team comes from his own experience. “We run a very decentralized company,” he says. “I don’t get involved in every detail. I know how difficult their job is. And the reason I know how difficult it is is because I’ve done it. And when you see success, you know how tough it’s been in order to actually create it.”

For Grainge, watching women fight for a place within a traditionally patriarchal hierarchy is nothing new. During his childhood in north London, he saw it firsthand with his mother, who worked as a CFO for the London Zoo, the University of London’s School of African and Oriental Studies, and the British Heart Foundation.

“She was one of the first CPAs to qualify in the U.K. in the very early 1950s,” Grainge remembers. “So my mother providing in those times when things were difficult for my father; my mother keeping the family together … those are the experiences that I saw as a 5-,6-,7-, 10-year-old.”

A working mother herself, Gerson is no stranger to the subtle strains of sexism that can hobble women seeking a support system as they begin their careers. For example, in her early days at Warner/Chappell Music, she recalls looking to a female executive for guidance. “I remember walking into her office, and she barely let me through the door. I said, ‘I’d love to get some advice,’ and she basically said, ‘You’re on your own,’” Gerson remembers.

Grainge has made deliberate strides to change the company’s tenor away from the sort of male-dominated cigar-and-golf social structure that has served to hold women at arm’s distance.

“I think a fish stinks from the head,” he notes. “And I think that’s where a company’s corporate culture comes from. And that comes back to the value system. When I say someone is a ‘killer,’ that means they just want to win. And they want to win in the right culture. Leadership is about being ahead. The women that work with us in the most senior leadership positions in the company, they want to be ahead. They want to make a difference. And if you want to be ahead, then you’re going to win, by definition. You have to have the desire, the ego, the competitiveness in order to continue to be ahead, and at the same time the value system to create and define the correct culture.”