Trailer Episode

Accounting for Variability with Jessica Holscott

Jessica Holscott didn’t always have a clear route to a public-facing C-suite role. She had spent many years in different industries — from lighting to vehicle manufacturing — transitioning through a variety of positions to become the well-rounded businesswoman she is today.

Most recently, she served as executive vice president (EVP) and chief financial officer (CFO) of WarnerMedia Studios & Networks. Prior to that, Jessica held several leadership roles, including EVP and CFO at HBO, senior vice president of investor relations at Time Warner, and CFO of NBCUniversal’s TV Stations division, where she brought a wealth of experience and knowledge in financial management, strategic planning, acquisitions, and more.

In this episode of The Modern CFO, Jessica talks with host Andrew Seski about the playbooks that guided her throughout her career and how she transitioned into the public-facing media landscape. An avid networker with deep roots in the entertainment industry and blue-chip consumer companies, Jessica also shares invaluable lessons for aspiring CFOs seeking mentorship.

Show Links


Please note that the transcript is AI-generated and may contain errors. The content in the podcast is not intended as investment advice, and is meant for informational and entertainment purposes only.

[00:00:00] Andrew Seski: Hello, everyone. Welcome back to another exciting episode of The Modern CFO Podcast. Today, I'm thrilled to be joined by Jessica Holscott, and we're gonna be covering a number of really, really great topics. Jessica's been a leader in the financial industry for a long time, from GE to WarnerMedia to HBO. She's covered the full gamut of being able to be a leader coming up through some of the most storied financial organizations in the country, some of the alum which now run Fortune 500s, and we'll dive into all of that and more. But first, Jessica, thank you so much for being here.

[00:00:42] Jessica Holscott: Thank you so much for having me, Andrew.

[00:00:44] Andrew Seski: So before we go into the world of GE, I just wanted to take a minute to kind of restructure this conversation and maybe kick things off with something a little bit lofty and broad before diving into some of the nuances and opportunities for growth in your career. So if we could just start off with something that you feel is truly underestimated in the world today, I'd love to know what you think about.

[00:01:05] Jessica Holscott: Yeah, that's an interesting question. You know, I read a New York Times article once that, you know, comes to mind, which is that convenience is the most underestimated force in the world. The article is probably six or seven years old, but I think that holds true today. You know, when you think about sort of more efficient and easier way to do things, I think convenience sort of decides a lot of our actions. You know, brewing a cup of coffee versus an instant Starbucks cup of coffee versus now having the Starbucks app. Thinking about how we used to wash clothes by hand many, many years ago, and now you obviously have laundry detergent and now they take a step further with those pods, right? We could go on and on with sort of this idea of convenience and what it means. You know, I think about my daughter coming home from school and microwaving a mac and cheese container in the microwave, right, so versus doing it over the stovetop versus sort of, you know, we can go on and on sort of about how convenience sort of dictates our lives. And certainly for me, near and dear to my heart, streaming TV versus sort of having to watch it at a specific time. So I think convenience will continue to be sort of the most underestimated force in the world from now until sort of eternity, right?

[00:02:23] Andrew Seski: I absolutely agree. I think we're gonna see a lot of automation take place in the next few weeks, even just with the pace of AI today. One of the things that's interesting in terms of maybe not convenience but streamlined growth, let's talk a little bit about early career at GE and what are some of those playbooks that maybe replace, you know, an MBA curriculum and some of the things that have resulted in some of these incredible leadership positions held today by GE alum.

[00:02:50] Jessica Holscott: Yeah, it's a great question. So what GE was really good at was leadership development, and it was putting you in a situation where you had to solve a problem. So sort of in my early twenties, I did a program called the Audit Staff. What they did was they put you in a different country in a different industry with a group of people to solve a business problem. And I did that for, you know, 5, 6, 7 years. And it could be anything from how to improve pricing in the plastics business to reinsurance at the insurance business to integrating NBCUniversal together. You know, it was really having to solve sort of different business problems as they arose. And I think what it taught, not just me, but sort of a lot of, you know, the people that went through the organization is how to quickly understand an industry that you've never been a part of, how do you problem-solve with and lean on everyone's strengths. So as we were solving these problems, you had people on your team from — with a legal —background, with a technical background. I had a finance background. So how do you lean on different members of the team to problem-solve? And then third, doing it in a country which you don't speak the local language. You know, the processes and procedures may be slightly different than what you're accustomed to. So it's getting out of your comfort zone and trying to figure out how do you acclimate and solve that problem. And they gave you about four months each time to solve it. And so I think, you know, that then to your point, you know, there's so many sort of leaders out there who leverage that skill set to sort of accelerate their career at places outside of GE.

[00:04:27] Andrew Seski: That's really interesting. It's like if case method were to some sort of nth degree with more real-time cross-functional and global dynamics all in play. So it's interesting because there aren't very many opportunities in the world to go practice that level of decision-making.

[00:04:46] Jessica Holscott: Exactly. And the organization was huge. It was 600 people. So you would sign up for the country and the business and the problem that you wanted to go and solve. So, you know, it probably was around for a hundred years, the organization. And to your point, it spun off a lot of sort of the CEOs and CFOs today in Fortune 500 companies.

[00:05:07] Andrew Seski: That's fascinating. So during that time, were you developing an idea that you'd be targeting a CFO position in the future? Or talk me through sort of the strategic chronology of your career. Or did you just try to experience as much as possible? Because I know you're a very avid networker as well.

[00:05:26] Jessica Holscott: Yeah, no. Look. The other thing that I would say my experience at GE taught me and taught many of us is that they believed in this concept of core building blocks before you become a CFO. So — and they did the same, frankly, before you become a CMO, before you become a CTO. So for finance specifically, it was you have to do a role in controllership. You should do a role in FP&A. You should do a role in IR or treasury, something that's externally facing. And you would sort of build all of these building blocks. And then ultimately, you know, you'd have your chops at sort of a smaller CFO role. For me, in my late twenties, that was something at NBCUniversal. I was CFO of the stations division, and that was after I'd done FP&A at the credit card services business. So there's definitely a logical progression that takes place in sort of getting those core building blocks underneath you.

[00:06:20] Andrew Seski: That's really interesting. So you had your Legos of financial acumen all stacked neatly. And then, explain to me how you transitioned into sort of the more glossier public-facing media landscape. Did you have media interest or did that come organically?

[00:06:38] Jessica Holscott: I was super lucky, as I mentioned. NBC at the time was owned by GE and had the opportunity to do a rotation at NBC — or sorry, a job, two or three or job at NBC. From there, I met Jeff Zucker, who ran CNN; Howard Averill, who was the CFO at NBC and then went to Time Warner. So the two of them brought me over to WarnerMedia.

[00:07:05] Andrew Seski: Got it. I'm curious to learn a little bit about the role of focus and distraction, whether it's in an investor relations context and you're communicating some of the work that you're doing with the C-suite or maybe to the board, or if it's in a more distracting environment, like being more public-facing, you know, with celebrities, with, you know, hit TV shows. How do you operate and what's a framework to operate in in terms of deep focus and getting rid of distractions when you've got so many disparate types of stakeholders?

[00:07:38] Jessica Holscott: Yeah, it's a great question. Look. Communication is something that I've worked on my entire career, open communication. And I think it's centered around, Andrew, building trust. So building trust with the senior leadership team and investor relations, building trust with the investor community. It's knowing that people can trust sort of what decisions you're making and you're communicating those decisions openly. You know, I think, you know, I was reflecting sort of on my time in investor relations and the importance of sort of talking to investors, but also the importance of being transparent and scenario planning. So, you know, always sort of being upfront and honest about what the risks are, where the company's trending. And I think if you build that trust with the shareholder base, you know, I think it goes a really long way. And I would say it's the same with the senior leadership team — having open and honest communication about where the company's trending, what the risks are, where do you see opportunities, and building that trust.

[00:08:40] Andrew Seski: I'm thinking about how that trust is established over different market cycles. And I'm curious as to what you've learned during pandemic time. We've had a few booms and busts that they seem to be consolidating quite a bit more recently but over terms of massive growth and excess versus very lean and, you know, sort of more frugal and austere times. I'm curious as to, you know, are there different strategies that other CFOs can deploy in terms of managing expectations, scenario planning, overcommunicating? And how you can pull the levers of EQ and IQ as to when is appropriate and how to communicate it effectively?

[00:09:19] Jessica Holscott: Yeah, I mean, without a doubt, the one thing I've learned is to get the bad news out quickly. And for me that's internal and external. Like, when appropriate, externally, obviously. You know, I think this idea that the economy's turning, I have concerns on sort of the financial outlook, I'm gonna try to work through this myself and figure out like what can be done — I mean, yes, there's, you know, a day or two where that makes sense. But I certainly think getting the bad news out quickly in a downturn with the senior leadership team to then have them on board with you about, you know, what are sort of opportunities that are out there, things that we can do to sort of help, you know, make sure that the plan stays intact. So I think getting the news out quickly internally. And then certainly in investor relations, it's also incredibly important to get sort of news out when it happens externally as well. The quicker you could do that, I think obviously the better.

[00:10:18] Andrew Seski: So I'm curious as to how you recommend others act in terms of major technological shifts as well. I think right now, we're in a really interesting period where there is a lot of promise of automation occurring. And I know that every CFO today has to be literate in a number of different technologies. And that is sort of table stakes again within, you know, the financial acumen as well. I'm curious as to where and when you think it's appropriate to do a paradigm shift or if you basically always have to be in a constant reprioritization pattern and just account for variability from day one.

[00:10:54] Jessica Holscott: I think you always sort of have to account for variability on day one. I think every day there's something new and different that you're learning, and so I don't think — especially a paradigm shift and it's more, you know, every day becoming smarter about, you know, the evolving technologies. And it's funny you mentioned AI sort of in that first shared a couple minutes when we kicked off the podcast, and then we talked about sort of the building blocks of becoming a CFO. And, you know, I was reflecting on those two conversations and one of the things I was gonna mention about is not just having the building blocks to become a CFO, but sort of always having the desire to learn what you don't know and this tenacious sort of or I don't know what the right word is but just this hunger is the right word to learn new and different areas. And AI is one frankly that I'm just sort of feeling like I'm coming up the curve. So what does that mean for me? You know, I wanna look at sort of are there courses I can take online, can I hop in on a course at NYU to learn more about it, you know? And I think that's what makes a good CFO is that ability to say, "Hey, look. I don't know as much as I should about AI, and so that's something that I'm gonna, you know, invest some time in here in the coming months to make sure I'm up to speed." So just sort of linking those first two conversations together.

[00:12:09] Andrew Seski: Yeah. I love the idea of — it sounds to me like you're explaining kind of a fearless curiosity where —

[00:12:14] Jessica Holscott: Yes, exactly.

[00:12:15] Andrew Seski: You've got the humility to say, "I'm not an expert in this, but I'm gonna find the best resources available." And I know you also — I mentioned that you're an avid networker, but are there other examples that you find have found that have been really helpful throughout your career? I know that you say you appreciate having a great network that you can rely on across, you know, different industries and across different financial leaders as well. What are some of the things that we wouldn't think about that you've been doing for a few decades now that you'd be willing to share?

[00:12:44] Jessica Holscott: Yeah. Well, look. It's something that I've learned from the people that I've been around. And so Richard Plepler, who ran HBO, he's famous for hosting dinners very early in his career and has done it forever where he invites thought leaders to the dinner table to talk about sort of various topics, right? So like we could take AI as an example. Who would be an interesting invite to a group lunch to sort of debate and have a discussion about, "Hey, what are you learning about AI?" One, it's sort of a networking piece, but two, you know, everyone learns from each other about what they're learning about in the marketplace. And so he coined sort of this concept that I think a lot of us have leveraged, and that's something that I learned from Richard. You know, I think if I reflect back on my earlier career days, Howard Averill taught me, you know, making sure you're blocking time off a couple days a week to sort of, to your point, you know, have coffee or breakfast or dinner with someone to make sure you're staying up to speed on what's happening in the marketplace, but two, just how you can help sort of pay it forward for others in their careers. And so I think, you know, those are two things that I've learned from two key leaders that I've worked for around sort of networking.

[00:14:03] And then, to your point about sort of this idea of continuous learning, you know, I've actually spent a lot of time, believe it or not, you know, I listen to a lot of TED Talks. I definitely more of an audible learner versus, you know, reading. And so for me, it's how do I leverage podcasts? Like, as we're doing podcasts now. Like, you know, so how do you sort of — everyone knows how they learn. For me, it's definitely, you know, I'm not as avid of a reader as I am sort of a listener. And so I've used just whatever tools I can find out there to sort of come up to speed on things that I may not know enough about. And I frankly get a lot of those topics from those one-on-one lunches and those dinners, those group dinners. That's how I sort of get my list of things that I need to make sure I'm researching and staying on top of.

[00:14:56] Andrew Seski: Well, you just gave me the best idea ever for the modern CFO Jeffersonian dinner of bringing all the CFOs that we've had a chance to learn from.

[00:15:04] Jessica Holscott: You should.

[00:15:05] Andrew Seski: That would be quite a ride. So maybe we get dinner together. Love to find a way to do that because we've got such incredible guests from such diverse backgrounds, and we're in a very rapidly changing world. So thank you so much.

[00:15:17] Jessica Holscott: What can we learn from each other? Yeah.

[00:15:19] Andrew Seski: Absolutely. So on some of those notes for aspiring CFOs who are trying to understand how to be invited to one of those dinners or seeking mentorship, where would you suggest that they start turning? It sounds like you had a lot of really great mentors through GE, through NBC, through HBO. What were some of the defining characteristics, and are you actively, you know, involved with a lot of mentorship as well?

[00:15:46] Jessica Holscott: Yeah, so look. I think peer-to-peer networking, by the way, is incredibly valuable, too. So not just thinking about networking as sort of leveling up. I think, you know, there's a lot of sort of — I've learned an incredible amount from my peers and actually spent a lot of my time with my peers, right? So whether, to your point, CFOs at other companies, but even when I was more junior in my career, I'm in an FP&A role. Like who else is in FP&A roles that I can, you know, reach out to on LinkedIn or reach out to — they know someone that I know and sort of I would love to sort of hone in on my FP&A skills and learn best practices. So how can I coordinate sort of two or three people and make the topic something like, to your point, automation and FP&A and gather a few people around for a coffee at Starbucks, right? So I think it can happen at any level in your career. So I would — I think peer-to-peer and peers across industries and that you can find on LinkedIn is incredibly important.

[00:16:44] Andrew Seski: That's really helpful. That's a great point of not just trying to go and, you know, reach out to somebody who's in a C-suite position, public or private, or just make sure you've got a great network across your peers and maybe even start to mentor others even.

[00:16:59] Jessica Holscott: Exactly.

[00:17:00] Andrew Seski: I think that's great advice. I'd love to talk about some of the intricacies of just as a personal interest of some of the media financing. I think there's a lot of perceptions that we just had a really interesting conversation with the CFO of the Phillies about how sports teams are financed. I think we all have an understanding or we all think that we have an understanding of how the world of TV is financed and how projects work. But in a way, I could say that I was completely humbled by being completely wrong about a number of aspects of sports. I'm sure I would be wrong about what I think is transparent that might be opaque and vice versa. If you were to characterize some of the more interesting intricacies of financing TV shows and about building brand equity that, you know, a typical person watching Succession right now probably wouldn't think of, I would love to hear some of those unique insights. I'm sure our listeners are curious as well.

[00:17:55] Jessica Holscott: Yeah, and I could talk about it both on the film and on the TV side. Look. I mean, while we'd like every show to be profitable, I think the reality is that we look at more of a genre of shows or groups of shows together, you know? Obviously, like you can look at sort of how shows do that lead into other shows, so you can look at them sort of as a segment, you know, on a night, a segment of a day, and how those shows do together. But honestly, there's also sort of other factors besides profitability that matter. You know, you want to attract the best talent to come to your — whether it's HBO or your Netflix or, you know — everyone wants the best talent, the best writers, the best actors, the best actresses. So other things come into play. It's how you treat them. Do we think the show's gonna win awards? And do we think these shows will help build the ultimate brand? And so there's other factors that come in than sort of a single show profitability. And so I think it centers around, as I mentioned, you can look at it like a day part view, which is a very tactical view. And then, you can look at some of the sort of softer things like awards, how you treat talent in the press, how you launch the show in terms of the premieres, you know? All of that factors in as well. And, you know, and I would say on the movie side of things, it's similar. I mean, look. You definitely want movies to be profitable. You're spending a significant amount money to launch a movie, but you also, you know, if it's part of a franchise, sometimes you look at the franchise in total, you know? If you think about a movie, you also think about consumer products. So if you have the consumer products arm, so you have a Wonder Woman movie, and then that launches products for a consumer products division on Wonder Woman T-shirts and other things that factor into the profitability. So sometimes, building a franchise is equally important as sort of a single movie profitability.

[00:19:53] Andrew Seski: That's really interesting. So I think that most people from the outside looking in think about success as binary — profitable versus not profitable. So to turn that into a question, when you look back at your career and there were things that were huge growth opportunities that on paper may have looked like setbacks, were there opportunities in those setbacks? And then I guess from a CFO framework and a personal framework, how do you measure success?

[00:20:23] Jessica Holscott: Yeah. Look, I think an example that we just talked about — and I think this is probably true for a lot of sort of on the industrial side and other areas like new products, new product introductions. So, you know, I was talking sort of about on the TV and film side, how you have a show and maybe the first season isn't great and instead of sort of killing the show and saying, "Hey, it wasn't profitable," I'm gonna give it another two or three or four seasons. And you see those shows sort of start to blossom in season two and season three. And frankly, then you look back and you say, "Thank goodness we didn't cancel it after season one," right? And so I think it's sort of can be applied to a lot of different areas. You know, you launch our product and maybe it's not taking in the marketplace, and so you tweak it and do different things with it and keep it, you know, do a relaunch and keep it going. And so, I mean, I personally have seen a lot of patience with a lot of leaders that I've worked with to sort of give things more time specifically in the media space for those hits to happen.

[00:21:22] Andrew Seski: Yeah, that's really interesting. So I'm curious as to then how you define success as a CFO when you know you're doing a great job. If it takes patience and there are a lot of moving pieces, how do you define success there? And then maybe even in your personal life as well, what does the marriage of success look like between the two?

[00:21:40] Jessica Holscott: Yeah. As a CFO, you know, as we talked about, like, you know, you can't measure a single show profitability. But with that being said, especially if you're I think if you're in the public space, you have to still have to hit your number and so, you know, I define my success as a CFO at, you know, were we able to sort of hit the projections that we said we were going to hit, and I do that in partnership obviously with the leadership team. And so to me, success looks like I partnered with them to come up with ideas and things that we could do to grow the business even when something didn't go our way. And at the end, everyone will look around the table and said, "We did this together." So it's not just that I own the numbers; it's that we all sort of own the numbers and so it's collective. At the end of the year, we had an incredible year. We, you know, achieved sort of all the strategic objectives that we wanted to, and we hit our financial plan. And so success is defined as sort of everyone feeling that they were a part of that, not just, you know, you know, we did it together.

[00:22:43] Andrew Seski: That's great. And then are those tenets similar in kind of how you manage personal life, your goals outside of work? I think —

[00:22:51] Jessica Holscott: Yeah.

[00:22:51] Andrew Seski: We've talked a lot on this show that CFOs have massive burdens of reporting, communicating effectively, but that some of the most successful CFOs I know have incredible dedication to outside hobbies, family, friends, and they seem to be able to juggle it all. But curious as to if the tenets are similar.

[00:23:12] Jessica Holscott: Yeah. Look. I mean, so I should have opened this up. Like, my greatest achievement is I have a 16- and 14- and 10-year-old who keep me incredibly busy. And so, you know, and they are my sort of what I usually open everything up with is something about the three of them. And so they are my number one priority. I balance, you know, work with making sure that they know that they are my number one priority. And then, you know, thinking about sort of to your point that there's sort of a lot of stress and things that happen in the CFO world and how that impacts CFOs. Like again, very sort of type A-ish probably personalities, which a lot of CFOs probably have. You know, I set goals at the beginning of the year across categories and, you know, health and fitness and giving back to the community and sort of, you know, what are sort of those are my six buckets and I make sure that I'm sort of focused on those because that is sort of what makes me well-rounded and sane at the end of the day.

[00:24:07] Andrew Seski: Yeah, that's great. That's nice to hear that you can achieve all of that balance. And I know that we talked about having to kind of constantly reprioritize. I know that when life takes a big hit or work takes a big hit, just having the perspective, knowing that, alright, one of these buckets is filling up more than the other and you can be able to rebalance them. But I think CFOs are typically really good at this because they are so self-accountable, which in turn makes for great leaders, you know, because you can lead by example in showcasing how to be accountable for others. So that's really cool to hear that that can translate into really great personal skill sets as well.

[00:24:41] I wanna zoom out a little bit about what may be most exciting to you in the next 12 months versus maybe three to five years. And this can be in career and focuses so it can be about what you'd love to read or maybe some of those goals you've got this year. But really curious if there's anything in the world or in your life that is particularly exciting right now, and then maybe we can just zoom out a little bit as well.

[00:25:04] Jessica Holscott: I mean, I could be wrong about this and as I say this, I'm gonna knock on wood a little bit here. I'm superstitious, which is that, you know, I think we're finally have COVID behind us or at least, you know, it feels that way. I know the economy feels really uncertain right now. Recession, no recession, recession. It just feels like we're flipping back and forth. But I'm most excited about having COVID behind us, like what that means for travel and for spending and for people sort of getting back out there into the world. That's what excites me right now.

[00:25:35] Andrew Seski: Yeah, that's great. I mean, I was thinking about this as well. There are so many things that even we were in transition out of for so almost a year or two. So to have the opportunity to travel and to spend time with friends, families, loved ones, it seems like a finally a bit of return to normality and more importantly, we can all start to plan again more strategically about our futures.

[00:25:57] Jessica Holscott: Yeah, exactly. And businesses, you know, I was thinking I was reflecting on sort of as we were talking, you know, you know, the theatrical business in my last role, you know, took a — definitely, you know, obviously took a pretty big hit in COVID. People weren't going to the theater. So I'm just excited for sort of, you know, I recently saw a Broadway show with some of my girlfriends and another one with my family. And it's just you could feel the energy and so I'm excited about moving forward.

[00:26:25] Andrew Seski: Excellent. Well, I know that we're gonna stay in contact. I know that you have a lot of exciting things that are in the works right now that I'm sure we'll be able to talk to talk about in the near future. So I hope we can have our first Jeffersonian dinner together in the near future.

[00:26:39] Jessica Holscott: Sounds great.

[00:26:40] Andrew Seski: Hope we can record again maybe in the next year or so. But thank you so much for all your time and I'm really looking forward to that.

[00:26:47] Jessica Holscott: Thank you for having me.

[00:26:48] Andrew Seski: This has been another episode of The Modern CFO Podcast. As always, I'm your host, Andrew Seski. Feel free to take an opportunity to like and subscribe wherever you listen. And thanks again, Jessica. I'll talk to you soon.

[00:27:03] Jessica Holscott: Talk to you soon.

Get new interviews with leading CFO's in your inbox each week.

Thank you for subscribing!
Oops! Something went wrong while submitting the form.