In 2019, when Ann Sarnoff became the first female Chair and CEO of Warner Bros. in the company’s nearly 100 year existence, the Massachusetts native was given the full red-carpet rollout on the storied studio lot. From The Big Bang Theory to Casablanca, many of your favorite TV series and films have been brought to life on the Burbank property, but there was one set in particular that Sarnoff couldn’t wait to see up close: Central Perk.
“I’m a super fan,” Sarnoff says of Friends, which filmed at Warner Bros. from 1994-2004 and is one of only five soundstages to be renamed in its honor. “I’ve definitely sat on that couch and it makes me smile.”
But getting there wasn’t easy. “I didn’t have a lot of professional role models in my life growing up,” Sarnoff tells Glamour. “I had no idea how television shows or movies were made back then because I didn’t have exposure to those kinds of careers.” She did watch a lot of TV—Gilligan’s Island, The Brady Bunch, to name a few—mainly because it was like a second family. “I was a latchkey kid, so in second grade I’d come home to an empty house. TV kept me company.”
But even then, becoming a studio executive was the last thing on Sarnoff’s mind. “My family was very musical, so for quite a few years, I wanted to be a singer-songwriter. It just seemed like a fun thing to do.” Once Sarnoff entered high school, her goals changed, and a career as a creative exec at an ad agency became a more likely path. “I thought I was clever and could draw a little bit, so I thought I would come up with ways to create ads.”
But what Sarnoff didn’t realize was that she was already working jobs that would set her up for the demands of the entertainment industry. She was a camp counselor at a local day camp starting at 14, and then two years later, starting waitressing at East Coast-staple Friendly’s Ice Cream in addition to her camp job. “I worked like 15-hour days,” she says. “It was crazy. But I’ve always worked a lot.”
Sarnoff was also an athlete, serving as captain of three varsity sports in high school. “It’s not like we had any money or could join a country club when I was growing up,” she says. But a competitor’s drive for excellence combined with dedicated leadership qualities was worth more than money could buy. Sarnoff—who is still an avid golfer—went on to graduate from Georgetown University’s McDonough School of Business, and then received an MBA from Harvard Business School.
What followed is an impressive, head-spinning resume: president of Dow Jones Ventures, COO of the WNBA, executive vice president for consumer products and business development at Nickelodeon, president of BBC Studios Americas, and now, Chair and CEO of WarnerMedia’s Studios and Networks Group, a promotion she earned a year into first joining Warner Bros. as Chair and CEO.
And yet, even with the enormous responsibility of her position, Sarnoff makes it sound pretty simple. “Our job is to connect the talent with their fans and be the most effective kind of conveyor of the great stories that the talent tells, and bringing them to life through Warner Bros. movies, Warner Bros. television, HBOMax, HBO, games, products, etc.”
Make no mistake, it’s still a grind, but one in which Sarnoff has prepared for her whole life. So, for Glamour‘s latest edition of Doing the Work, the self-proclaimed night owl (“I’m more productive in the evenings. I prefer to start out slower in the mornings,” she says) brings us up to speed on how Warner Bros. is changing the game, and the advice she always carries with her.
How I define what it means to be a good boss
Luckily I had bosses who understood what you could bring to the job, and they bet on you. They helped you grow your skill set. And that’s what I try to do with people who work for me. I want to stretch them, challenge them. When somebody’s allowing me to do that instead of just looking to see what I’ve done in the past and repeating that, that’s when I’m happiest.
My favorite part of my job
The range of things I get to do, the quality of the content that we’re making, and the incredible team that I get to work with across multiple divisions and types of media is what I love most. The Warner Bros. studio lot is an incredibly magical place that exudes the history and legacy of the company. You can feel it in the hallways and on the sidewalks. I sit in [Warner Bros. founder] Jack Warner’s old office, so I feel that incredible legacy in the bones of the building. I love the fact that I can bring my perspective to it.
The one thing I’m a perfectionist about
I like to finish what I start. That doesn’t mean doing everything immediately, but I like to make sure I live up to my commitments, whether it’s company goals or promises to friends or family. I think I am somebody who’s dependable and gets the job done. I don’t know if that’s a perfectionist quality as much as a responsibility to live up to your promises.
The most misunderstood part of my job
I think it’s about how broad it is, and also, how challenging it can be to change legacy behavior. One of the things I was hired to do is to break the silos in Warner Bros. and kind of reorient how people work. And most importantly, bring people together to work more collaboratively, rather than division by division. That’s a huge new muscle for a corporate culture, but I love that because I feel like that plays to my strengths of understanding the different businesses…whether it’s building franchises or looking at how we work with talent or how we super-serve our fans.
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