When Michael Ebeid takes to the stage to accept his award as CEO of the Year at the 2017 Executive of the Year Awards, a hush falls across the 550-plus crowd as he starts to speak. Eloquent, engaging and even a little emotional, his acceptance speech, which is about just that – acceptance – strikes a chord with his fellow attendees, not just because of the day itself (same-sex marriage has just been legalised) but simply because it’s so authentic and honest. It gives every person in the room a glimpse of what Michael Ebeid, CEO of SBS, is like as a leader.
Some days later, 24 hours before he’s due to fly to Russia on business, I’m lucky enough to witness his leadership qualities up close and personal during our interview. In a few short minutes, it becomes quite evident why SBS is enjoying such success under his guidance – and not just at its bottom line, but on its front line – with impressive statistics like 78 per cent employee engagement. This is not a CEO who likes to simply colour conversations with words like ‘equality’ and ‘inclusiveness’ – he lives and breathes them.
The CEO Magazine: So, tell us, how did it feel to win CEO of the Year?
I’m still quite speechless, to be honest. I didn’t expect to win so it was a lovely surprise, particularly when you look at all the other nominees. I’m also incredibly proud because it’s been an amazing five/six years at SBS and we’ve transformed the business. I think this recognition is really a result of what we’ve achieved. I couldn’t have done any of it without the people at SBS, so I feel like I’m sharing it with the organisation.
What makes a good leader?
The most important traits are around trust, and being able to motivate and inspire people to be their best. Being yourself, both in and out of work, is important. I see a lot of leaders who put on a professional persona particularly at a CEO level; they think they've got to behave a certain way. However, employees know when you’re not being authentic. One of the things I’ve always tried to do in my role as CEO is be as transparent as I can and share as much as I can, so that people can trust me.
Why is trust so important?
I often see CEOs join a company and they try and change too much too soon. They still haven’t got the buy-in and the trust of the workforce, and I think that’s when you start to see things go wrong. As a leader, they wonder why people haven’t come on the journey with them, but their team is still trying to figure them out.
When I look at my journey in SBS, one of the first things I worked on was the organisational culture. I got to know people right across the business in all different divisions so they could get to know me too. I wanted them to understand what drives and motivates me. I think it’s really important to show that you’re as vulnerable as everybody else and, at the same time, that you’re confident in where you’re going and what you’re doing.
Are you a natural leader or do you work at it?
There’s no doubt that you have to work at it, but there are natural traits that a good leader has. I’d like to think that, yes, there are some natural leadership qualities to my personality, but also I’ve had to work on developing them over years. Whether it be how to have difficult conversations, how to motivate or how to develop trust in relationships, all of it is really important.
Are you an introvert, an extrovert, or a little bit of both?
It really depends on the situation. If I’m on stage giving a talk, then I have to be somewhat of an extrovert. If I’m standing in front of the organisation, talking about our vision and direction, I absolutely have to be an extrovert. However, if I’m in, say, a meeting where I want to learn and understand, I tend to become more introverted so that I can listen and evaluate. I do tend to go from one to the other.
What’s the one thing you’d change about the media sector right now?
I think it’s incredibly macho, and often when I talk to overseas executives, they’ll comment on how competitive Australia is compared to other markets. A lot of that, particularly in television, is due to decades of the sector being owned by media moguls. There’s been a lot of strong, competitive testosterone in the industry, and that still lingers today even though a lot of those moguls don’t own the networks anymore.
There’s not enough cooperation with each other at the moment, but there’s room for it, particularly when you look at how competitive it’s becoming with major international players like Netflix, Amazon and Facebook buying up a lot of content. I think the industry needs to find ways to cooperate and share the back end – the non-competitive side of the industry. Of course, we should still compete domestically, but we’ve got much bigger headwinds in terms of the big international players – we can’t afford not to cooperate.
When you became CEO in 2011, SBS was struggling with financial instability. What steps did you take to turn that around?
It was threefold. One, I looked at our commercial revenues to see what we could really do there to improve how we sold our advertising. I didn’t think we were selling our unique differences as well as we could, so we started to approach our commercial revenues and our sponsorships differently and find new revenue streams.
Two, I looked at our government revenues because the organisation had not received an increase in government funding for well over 15 years. Three, I looked at opportunities to save money internally so we could return it to content.
As a result, we had increases in commercial revenues, government revenues, and our efficiencies. All of that could then be reinvested into content and our digital platforms. The organisation has never received any funding from the government for digital platforms and that’s a huge part of our future so we had to free up money and earn our own funding to invest in digital.
Since joining SBS from the ABC, what achievements are you most proud of?
A couple of things really stand out for me. One is the culture at SBS; we’ve had a massive corporate culture change program in the organisation that has seen enormous improvements. These have enabled us to operate at a higher level and, as a result, we’ve increased our employee engagement and our confidence in senior leadership.
Another part would be around our digital services. I’m really proud of where we are in terms of our online offerings because we’re seeing new audiences that have never engaged with SBS before on our digital platforms. Our reach, our engagement with Australians, has increased dramatically from where it was five/six years ago, and I’m really proud of that because people talk about SBS a lot more now than they used to.
You mentioned employee engagement. What have you done to improve this?
A good company culture is based on having a sense of achievement as well as accountability. So, we really focused on these two things within the workplace. We also introduced a leadership program for our top 100 executives. It’s common knowledge that the majority of people who resign do so as a result of their boss. Therefore, we felt that it was really important we lift the skillset of our managers across the business.
Often companies don’t invest enough in leadership, and I think we’ve got a bit of a leadership vacuum in many organisations across Australia. We take somebody who’s a fantastic professional, we promote them and say, ‘Congratulations, you’re now in charge of 10, 20, 30 people’. But we don'’t do anything to help them learn how to motivate, manage and inspire those people, or teach them how to have the tough conversations when required.
As part of the program we went through several key things. One was around mindfulness. I know that’s a bit of a buzzword but for us mindfulness is about more than just being in the moment. It is being in the moment at work – putting aside all of the other stresses that you might have and focusing on what the employees are trying to tell you. Another module was learning how to develop relationships because everybody’s different and you can’t have one approach for everybody. Other topics were how to clarify and execute ideas, and how to motivate and inspire people.
We’re really proud of our leadership program and the results have been fantastic. I’ve received feedback from managers saying, ‘Wow, this has really helped me in how I lead my team. I now feel more confident as a leader’.
Then on SBS’s diversity, we’re proud of the fact that 51% of our organisation is female, to 49% male. And within our top 100 executives, 54% of our leaders are female. In my direct reports it’s 50/50. I did not set out to actively have 50/50. I always hire the best person for the role but I think it’s about having the mindset when recruiting that the funnel is bringing in the diversity you need, both in terms of gender and cultural diversity, as well as experience.
I’ve hired people from non-media sectors who have brought a very different perspective to what we might be doing. I think it’s important that you look at diversity in its full gamut, in terms of sector, gender and culture as well. A lot of people just focus on it as a gender diversity but I think it’s a lot more than that.
Given recent events regarding marriage equality, how can business leaders play a better role around social issues and social inclusion?
I’m a strong believer that leaders play an important role in social issues because, at the end of the day, organisations are part of our community, our society and our economy. If you don’t get your social issues right, it is going affect your organisation and your bottom line. Something simple like marriage equality does affect the workplace. If something affects a person in a social sense, whether it be anxiety, depression, or feeling like a second-class citizen, you don’t leave those feelings at the door when you go to work. You’re going to bring them into the organisation, and those things will affect you and how you operate, your level of confidence in life.
If we can create a level playing field and a really inclusive environment, I think we’ll get the most out of employees. A big part of any CEO’s job is to create a really good inclusive and productive environment at work. I often say that my job is to help everybody be their best, and you can’t do that if you haven’t got the right environment.
How can CEOs create a more inclusive environment?
You should start by asking your teams: What is needed in our organisation? What is the underlying culture? Are we as inclusive as we think we are? Sometimes I think CEOs might be surprised with what they learn.
When I started our culture journey at SBS, one of the things I did was create focus groups right around the business. I mixed teams up and had some divisional teams as well and I asked a couple of key questions: What do you see our culture as today? How does this compare to six years ago? What do you think our culture needs to be for success in the future?
From those things, we could work out what we needed to do to get to that culture that we all wanted. It’s because of this that I try once a week, or once a fortnight, to block out a couple of hours in my diary where I will just walk around our floors and talk to people. I find I get a lot of value out of that and learn things that I would have never found out otherwise.
It’s a double benefit because a lot of people get to ask me questions about what's really going on, and I can tell them first-hand, or dispel any rumours or myths that they might have heard. And it’s amazing how many times people have heard something and it’s actually nowhere near the truth. So, it gives me an opportunity to answer the questions on people’s minds, which I love doing. I find those interactions invaluable.
Television networks are measuring success differently than they were a decade ago. How do you measure the success of SBS, now?
Six years ago it would have been a morning ritual to look at the ratings. Increasingly, I don’t do that anymore. With a lot of our content and documentaries, people will engage with it online now and On Demand, rather than appointment viewing. So I tend to now look at consolidated numbers – the overnight numbers plus our On Demand numbers. If you just look at TV only, it’s a completely unrepresented, distorted number.
I think for Channel Seven, Channel Nine, and Network Ten, it’s probably a little bit different. They’re still very much focused on the overnights. But increasingly for us, because SBS On Demand is such a big part of our offering – and a big part of our future – we’re now seeing some pretty sizable numbers. We peaked at more than 30-million video views in a single month and that’s off a base of around three-million registered users on SBS On Demand.
We only started our registration process in September 2016 so in just over a year we’ve had three-million people register for our content. I’m really proud that we’re striking a chord with audiences. We’re obviously giving audiences content that they are enjoying and want, which is great.
There’s no doubt SBS is enjoying much success under your leadership, but how do you measure personal success?
My personal success is around my own happiness and the impact that I can have on others – whether that’s my partner, my four nephews or my team and the people at work. I love seeing the impact I have on others. I also love encouraging people to learn and develop. I think one of the joys of being a CEO is giving people the opportunity to grow. It’s a real privilege and a pleasure to watch somebody grow in their career.
I’ve seen it so many times where I’ve had to talk people into taking a job that they thought they couldn’t do and then watch them years later eat it up and do incredibly well. I’ve got a lot of stories that I’m very grateful for. So that’s a real privilege of being a CEO. By the same token, I’ve had several people in my career who have given me amazing opportunities, so it’s great to pay it forward. I really get a lot of joy out of that.
The other thing, in terms of personal satisfaction, is watching the impact that some of our content has on Australians. We did a drama called Sunshine, which was all about the Melbourne suburb of Sunshine and the South Sudanese Australians who had been given a really hard time by the media. They have always been negatively stereotyped as criminals and drug gangs.
We did this amazing drama and we humanised the South Sudanese Australian community. On the opening night we showed episode one at the ACMI Theatre in Melbourne, and it was like a red carpet Logies night for the South Sudanese community. They came out in full cultural attire and they were so proud to be represented in such a positive light. The impact that that had on that community just made me incredibly proud, but also, the impact that it had on non-South Sudanese Australians – the rest of the country – was amazing.
Here we’ve got these South Sudanese faces, who have broad Australian accents, who are just wanting to be accepted as Australians. A lot of people have said to me, “Wow, I never thought about the struggles that some of them have gone through, particularly as refugees. I now have a different appreciation for what they’ve gone through.” Those sorts of moments, being able to get the average Australian to just broaden their horizon a little bit, gives me enormous personal satisfaction. That’s why I love what we do at SBS.
We recently just published a feature in the magazine about Ikigai, a Japanese term which means finding your purpose. I feel like you’ve found your purpose in a way – it must be so rewarding.
It is, and I think that’s what drives people at SBS; it’s the purpose. We were talking earlier about culture, and one of the biggest things for us was unifying the purpose for the organisation to bring us all together. Our latest statistics said that 91% of SBS employees were really proud to work at SBS. That’s an incredibly high figure – together with our 78% engagement level – and I think that’s because people can see the impact that our content has.
Let’s say you’re a radio broadcaster and you’re broadcasting in a language that is helping new migrants understand Australian values, Australian culture, Australian news and current affairs, in their own language. That means that individuals can now participate in Australian life better. Whether it be on TV, whether it’'s a drama or documentary that we make or acquire, just broadening people’s horizons is amazing.
Then, of course, in the news and current affairs space, our journalists are really driven by the fact that they can tell stories with a slightly different angle. That’s what we try to do. We might report an issue in Australia, whether it be refugees, marriage equality, energy, climate change, but we won’t report on it in the same way that the mainstream media might.
We might say, “Well, okay, what are these issues? How’s the rest of the world dealing with these issues?” And we’ll try and share with our audiences how the rest of the world is looking at, say, marriage equality or energy or climate change, and then look at where our place in the world is.
I think journalists love that ability to give Australians a different context – a global context – and that's how our news is differentiated.
Wherever you work in the business, everyone contributes to that. We say that our purpose at SBS is ‘contributing to social cohesion’. I think that’s what makes it so powerful as a purpose.
When should you learn to compromise?
Compromising isn’t something you should do all the time because then you end up with two parties who are both unhappy with the outcome. I think it really depends on the situation.
Certainly in a business negotiation, everything is a compromise to reach a situation you’re both happy with. Some of the worst negotiations are when somebody doesn’t compromise at all and you end up with a win–lose situation.
If it’s a supplier arrangement, there’s no point not compromising so the supplier ends up at a loss and you end up with a win. It doesn’t work.
Sometimes depending on the situation, and if you’re really confident of what you need as an outcome, you can’t compromise. It really does depend.
I think you have to have really high emotional intelligence to be able to understand when you should stick to your guns and not compromise, and when a compromise will actually result in a far better outcome than you just getting your way. Often, I think getting your way is a bad result overall. You might be happy for a brief period but not in the long run.
What does the future hold for you?
I have a year and a half left on my contract – by legislation we have two terms – so there is an end point for me here, unlike for other CEOs. I’d like to do 10 more years in another organisation, maybe slightly out of media. If you look at my career, I’ve had 10 years in technology, 10 years in telecommunications, 10 years in media, and I think I’m young enough to do another stint in another sector; reinvent myself again.
I think it will be exciting because one of the things that I have loved about reinventing myself in those three sectors so far has been the learning process. The learning curve, and then bringing your learnings to other sectors, I think that’s really invaluable. So I’ll probably return to the commercial sector whenever that day is. I very much enjoy the B2C space; the digital transformation space. I love leadership and I love technology, and if I can get something with those two it’ll be happy days.
What advice would you give your 20-year-old self?
I would say, ‘Have a lot more confidence in yourself.’ I had a lot of people say to me that if I came out at work, my career would go nowhere, so that destroyed my confidence for several years. However, I think it made me more determined in the end, to prove that I could work and operate and be as successful as anyone else.
I’d also say to my 20-year-old self, ‘Don’t try and map your career out because you’ll probably get it wrong.’ Nobody knows where their career path will take them – just be open to opportunities as doors open. Particularly today, people have several careers in their lifetime and 20-year-olds will often spend far too much time trying to figure out what they want to do. I’m happy to admit I still don’t know what I want to do – I’m still figuring it out.
Quick six with Michael Ebeid
- What was your dream job as a child?
I wanted to be a lawyer. I watched a lot of legal dramas and, as my mum used to say to me, I was good at putting an argument forward.
- How do you unwind?
Morning walks with my dog and enjoying time on Sydney harbour – I love the water and boats so any chance I get I go out sailing. There’s also nothing wrong with a good glass of red from time to time either.
- What the biggest risk you've taken that's actually paid off?
Probably accepting the SBS job. I was really nervous about going into a semi-public sector role but it has paid off really well I’ve loved my time with SBS. It’s an absolute delight to work here.
- What’s best piece of advice you've ever received?
If you don’t ask, you don’t get. I am never one to not ask if I think I need something, or want something. I think in terms of leadership, I’d say hire really slowly, and fire quickly when you know it’s not right.
- What keeps you awake at night?
Canberra, politics, and the leadership of our nation worry me. I also worry about making sure that SBS as an organisation is sustainable and relevant going forward. I see my role very much as a caretaker in many ways, and I want to make sure that SBS is relevant for future generations; that it’s strong.
I have no doubt that SBS is much stronger now than it ever has been, so I feel confident that whenever the day comes that I’ll leave the organisation, it will be in a strong position. I always want to make sure that it will be really relevant and sustainable for the future.
- Who’s your greatest mentor?
There have been several people over my career who’ve really influenced me and who I’ve admired. Joseph Skrzynski AO, he was my first cheerer at SBS; and a guy called John Filmer who was my first director at Optus and has since retired. Another person who I admire enormously but hasn’t necessarily mentored me is Ann Sherry [!chairperson!]. She has led very different types of organisations and reinvented herself across different sectors. She’s a great leader and I find her quite an inspiration.