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Taran Swan at Nickelodeon Latin America Essay

Background

Nickelodeon is a cable channel for kids 2-11 years old. It started out in the US in 1979. Nickelodeon produced cartoons, live action, comedy, drama, music, sports and game shows. In 1996 it was the most popular kid’s TV channel in the US. The international channels had their own names, but relied on US programs that were voiced over. The channels were launched by a team from corporate the company called the Nickelodeon International Swat Team. They would build the channel and transition it to local management. By 1998 Nickelodeon was in more than 30 countries.

While Taran Swan was the director of Business Development for Nickelodeon International, she had begun to look into opportunities in Latin America. But in 1993 when Swan first looked at Latin America the market seemed too volatile and Nickelodeon was more interested in Australia and Germany. Swan became the launch director for Germany where her team built the channel from scratch and turned it over to local management in 1995.

When Swan returned from Germany she turned again to Latin America. She found that the Cartoon Network and Fox Kids Network had already launched in Latin America. Swan felt that now was the time to enter before the market was saturated.

During the three years Swan spent with Nickelodeon International she had studied entry strategies for ten countries, but Latin America was her favorite. Viacom, the owner of Nickelodeon, needed to see a proven business plan from Swan to be convinced to enter the Latin America market. MTV Latin America was struggling and Viacom did not want to invest unless there were strong indicators that it would succeed.

Swan had to build the channel knowing she could lose funding at any time. She had to get distributors to give her time slots even though the channel did not exist. To save money, Swan shared infrastructure staff with MTV Latin America in Miami. She would not be able to hire anyone new without approval with the exception of her swat team.

Swan was worried that the staff at MTV was used to a very different brand and would have trouble with the kid’s channel. Managing this new team was difficult. Selling the channel was difficult because Swan could not compromise on the price or quality, but many distributors had a monopoly and negotiations were challenging.

The number of cable channels was increasing, there was a lack of accurate market data, and only 10% of the population had cable. This made selling to advertisers difficult. The team decided to launch two separate feeds to allow advertisers to target more local markets. Swan had to build the brand in a crowded market. A member of her team, Friedman, suggested spending a good deal of the advertisement budget through a kid party at Jornadas, the cable trade show. She also decided to do “Grow Down” workshops to build the brand.

Finally, in September 1996 Nickelodeon Latin America achieved its minimum distribution targets and Swan was awarded full corporate approval. Unlike Germany, Swan was asked to stay another two years. She was happy to stay and began to hire her team. She then went on to programming the channel. On December 20 1996, Nickelodeon Latin America launched a 24-hour channel in Spanish, Portuguese, and English that reached over 2 million subscribers in 16 countries.

Swan ran into a problem when advertising sales were slow. She decided that having the same sales people for MTV and Nickelodeon was not working. She reorganized the sales team, but the implementation was not smooth due to problems between the new managers. Swan was focused on the bottom line, mostly the business plan she had developed. She hired Rey del Valle from Federal Express to head the finance department.

Swan had built the channel and had hired new people to manage various parts of the team. There was some tension between managers. Some of managers were new to the industry, some were from MTV and others were Nickelodeon. Different styles and personalities became a challenge for Swan to manage.

Current Situation

Swan had developed the channel from the envisioning phase in the early beginning to a strong second-year, up and running network. Swan’s enthusiasm and philosophy of open communication and ownership of tasks had brought the Nickelodeon team together. Latin America was very segmented. Regional dialects, customs and languages needed required attention. Rey del Valle was brought in from Fedex to help keep the network on budget. Even though he had no experience in entertainment, Swan was particularly concerned with the bottom line. With this move, and others, money was being spent on gambles but the reasoning behind them was well informed. Investments in quantitative and qualitative studies were recommended by Del Valle, further aligning them with their immersive business strategy.

The sharing of employees between Nickelodeon and MTV in Latin America was an immediate obstacle for Swan. Early, sharing Viacom employees was the only option to have a support staff for Nickelodeon Latin America. The extreme differences between the networks confused the advertisement and sales departments. Viacom employees were being asked to sell two networks instead of one, without being given extra incentive to do so. Swan has approached this obstacle by sharing her enthusiasm for Nickelodeon with the Viacom staff via her ‘Growing Down’ meetings. The important ‘childhood’ culture was communicated in the meetings along with their marketing that included the ‘Ayuda tu Mundo’ (Help your World) and the ‘Nick en Vivo’ campaigns. Communication was very important to Swan.

With constant travel and a stern watch on the bottom line, there were few skirmishes amongst the team. The disagreements between Neuhaus and Byrne was quickly handled by Swan who saw the strengths and benefits of each manager and had them work independently. As new leadership would cycle into the team, Swan pushed them to immerse into the culture even though some likened it to ‘brain washing’. Swan utilized conference calls, memo reporting and biweekly town halls to minimize the impact of distance between the teams. Whether in the offices in Miami or in their respective locations in Latin America, the Nickelodeon Latin America staff was informed and cohesive.

The networks second year posed the following decisions that would shape the direction and the future of Swan’s team: * Argentina Expansion – would allow Nickelodeon entry into the Cablevision/TCI carrier which represented the second largest cable provider in Argentina (one million homes). * Brazil Entry – Nickelodeon had been developing Portuguese programming to expand into the largest country in South America. This was seen as one of the more critical projects. * World Cup Special – in coordination with the world cup, Nickelodeon Latin America was planning a marketing campaign in time for the World Cup. The campaign would include kid profiles along with interviews with soccer stars. * American/Spanish Nickelodeon – Shared programming of Nickelodeon Latin America programs on United States channels and time slots was being explored. Telemundo, the largest US Spanish Station had been identified as a potential carriers.

Analysis

Swan’s formation of her team was an intensive process of selecting the right people for the right job. In spite of the her attempts of trying to hire the best and the brightest there are several stages of development that teams must go through before they can work together successfully. Swan’s team went through the Team Development model of forming, storming, norming and performing which was presented to us in our textbook. The forming period of the model is when members learn about each other and determine how they fit in into the team as well as what is expected of them. Setting performance expectations was important to Swan, often she would question her people to see what they were doing and how they were going to accomplish their goals, if they ever deviated or there were inconsistencies in their explanations Swan would continue to question them. This really helped each team member to understand what they had to do and what their role is on them team.

Storming is when team members stop being polite and start experiencing interpersonal conflict with each other. This conflict helps to establish norms of appropriate behavior and performance standards. Nehaus and Bryne was an obvious example of interpersonal conflict because they could not agree on various issues and as a result were unable to work together. This conflict caused Byrne to insist that she could no longer report to Nehaus. Swan agreed with her request and ended up playing referee between the two. Another aspect of storming is the establishing appropriate behaviors and performance standards. The team found it difficult to work with Byrne because of her explosive temper; during one confrontation she flung an object across the desk. These disagreements and inappropriate behaviors were not in line with the team norms of appropriate behavior and it was decided by Swan that Byrne would be replaced.

Cohesion and consensus begins to form around team based objectives as the team starts to share mental models; this is the norming stage. Meetings were paramount to the norming stage for the team so that they could review various projects and make decisions on them as a team. This way everyone was aware of what the other team members were doing and could discuss expectations so that everyone was on the same page. Per the case a department head had referred to the team’s meetings as “lovefests”, one could easily conclude that this is a good example of team cohesion. Although the team did not always agree and there were tensions among members one thing that did bring them together was the objective of making the business successful. This was evident from the mental models the team shared when they consistently were asking tough questions of each other in terms of business strategy.

Performing is the stage when team members have learned to efficiently manage and resolve conflicts between each other. Cooperation and trust come much easier at this stage in the team’s development. The increase in trust was evidenced when Swan’s questioning began to diminish because she had confidence in her people because of shared mental models. At one point McCarty had moved to Miami full time instead of commuting back and forth, this only would have been done if the team members did not trust one another to do a good job. Although team did not go through these four stages exactly in order but went through them at different times depending which team members were involved. This model is just that, a model, but gives a good indication of what new teams can expect to go through when they first form to the steps can be taken to reduce problems such as interpersonal conflict and instead promote positive qualities like team cohesion.

Evaluation of Alternatives

Swan has three alternatives for transferring leadership following her departure. First, she could appoint a single interim director in her absence. If she peruses this option, she’ll need to select the best candidate, get buy-in from the company, and effectively communicate the reasons behind her decision to the team. There are several potential candidates including McCarty, Greider, and Friedman, each of whom have unique strengths. All three had been part of the original Swat team that had developed Nickelodeon Latin America. McCarty was high-energy, had excellent communication skills, and was familiar with Latin American culture. Greider had previous experience with international development and Nickelodeon, was considered a creative genius, and also had familiarity with the Latin American culture.

Friedman was passionate about evangelizing the brand and was known as an out-of-the box thinker. The second alternative is to divide the interim director responsibilities among two or more people. Swan found success with this approach when she divided the vice president of marketing role between Friedman and McCarty. Potential advantages of this alternative are opportunities for to benefit from multiple viewpoints and diverse skills. This approach may also help lighten the load for the individuals who are selected to share the position. However, this option carries some risks. Multiple managers sharing the same position could lead to communication problems.

The two candidates selected as co-interim directors would need to be cautious about the consistency of their message and division of responsibilities. Additionally, as team work tends to encourage social loafing in cultures with high individuality, sharing responsibilities for this role could have similar consequences leading to poorer performance overall than if a single individual were to fill the position. Finally, Swan may elect not to appoint an interim manager and instead choose to perform her duties remotely as part of a virtual team.

The team is already familiar with communicating remotely with team members in different countries. The effectiveness of the group under her leadership has already been proven and this alternative would minimize changes to the team and help to keep them in the performing stage of team development. Of course, this option should only be considered if it does not jeopardize the health of Swan’s unborn child. Other disadvantages to this alternative include the possibility that her medical condition requires that she immediately and unexpectedly stop work in which case the resulting power vacuum with no trained successor could damage the team.

Recommendation

It is recommended that Swan continue lead the Nickelodeon Latin America from her home in New York as her health allows. Her passion for the business, brand enthusiasm, strong will, and management style helped her create a mature, well-rounded, cross-functional team who respond to her style of leadership. In order to ease the transition and reduce the risks for her pregnancy, Swan should delegate as many day-to-day tasks as possible to the team. She has already started this process by appointing her administrative assistant as the “gatekeeper” for communication and having McCarty deliver her Town Hall speech. Swan should continue to receive daily status updates from her team, participate with the Nickelodeon management meetings, and handle higher-level strategy and leadership tasks.

In order to mitigate the risk of Swan suddenly be unable to work due to her health and to prepare for her eventual absence for childbirth, it’s critical that she develop a contingency plan and begin training a potential interim manager. Elevating one of her direct reports may create some tension between members of her executive team in the short term but nevertheless she should deliberate carefully and select a successor in order to maintain a clear chain of command and continuity of leadership in the event that she becomes incapacitated in the future. The best fit is most likely Steven Grieder because he is intimately familiar with the Latin American market and has the leadership style most similar to Swan’s.

Their similar management style could smooth the transition for the team. Additionally, he possesses substantial creative drive and is the only person noted in the case to be trusted by Swan who recognizes his efficiency when she notes, “He was the best and that made the business best.” Of all the candidates, he is most likely to transition to a permanent leadership role at Nickelodeon Latin America team in the future, should the need arise. In order to minimize the disruption the change in leadership could cause, Swan should socialize his role as successor with the rest of the team and corporate. In the meantime, working remotely and in a more limited capacity, Swan can continue to be the coach, cheerleader, and in short, the glue that holds the team together.


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