As Chief Executive Officer (CEO) of Liberty Global, the world’s largest international TV and broadband company, Mike Fries ’88 heads a company that provides broadband, entertainment, voice, and mobile services to 25 million customers in more than 30 countries across Europe, Latin America, and the Caribbean; employs more than 40,000 people; and has annualized revenues of $18 billion.
Now, as new member of the Board of Overseers, Fries brings his innovative leadership and understanding to the complex and ever-shifting global media landscape to help shape the future of Columbia Business School.
A longtime supporter of the School, Fries recently made a generous gift to create the Michael T. Fries Professorship of Media and Technology, the School’s first endowed professorship in media. An active alumnus, Fries regularly speaks on campus and hosts School events in Colorado, where he lives.
Fries sat down with Columbia Business after the October 16 Board of Overseers meeting in Uris Hall.
As a new member of the board, what are some of your top priorities for the school going forward?
Well first of all, as a new member, I will tell you I’m extremely impressed with the progress the School has made since I was here 30 years ago. The students seem smarter, they seem more engaged, and they certainly seem more worldly. The challenges and the opportunities fall into a couple areas for me. First of all, making sure we’re connecting students to alumni, to mentors and to the outside world, as well as to business opportunities and capital. These are the things that make the education come to life. Without that, it’s just a great education. So I think the work that Dean Hubbard is doing, that the Board of Overseers is doing around connecting students to that outside community is absolutely critical. I love the fact that both faculty and students have a much more robust interrelationship with the outside world. Whether that’s research that faculty are doing or internships, the myriad of opportunities you have to engage with things that you’re passionate about and interested in - it’s a much richer, much fuller opportunity than it was decades ago. I couldn’t be more impressed.
What do you think some of the levers are that the leadership has to make more of for these connections happen?
Well, I think the alumni network is critical. You have to engage that alumni network first and foremost. There’s 45,000 of us. I’m somewhat recently engaged. So, finding the alumni, engaging the alumni, explaining to them the benefits they will receive both in terms of helping young students and improving the brand of the School. It’s a virtuous circle. So that’s certainly one of them. Clearly money drives a lot of what happens in higher education today. And I think with the new building and the new campus, which is incredible, you’ve got to make sure you’re also putting money into financial aid so you can get the most diverse set of students into the program, and into all the other things that make the diploma work for students. So those are probably two big opportunities in areas where I’m sure they’re going to be focusing.
The new Manhattanville buildings are going to be a really great resource for teaching students in a very modern way. How have you seen management education change from the time you were here 30 years ago to what it is now?
I think the new building will certainly help students and educators become more modern, if you will, in how the experience works. Big differences in the last 30 years – it’s much more applied and hands on than it was. I mean, when I was here it was marketing, finance, and accounting. There were some other issues and topics I studied, but I didn’t really branch out as much as students have the opportunity to do today. I think there is a tremendous amount of programming that exists. Just look at the opportunities that arise when different departments work with the rest of Columbia University faculty and departments. The offering of content is much more vast today for students. And I think having a new campus is going to open that up and make it come to life even more with space, with facilities, with all the resources that it brings.
What advice would you give students as they enter the workforce and into leadership roles?
I tell folks coming out of college, “just get a job.” Figure out what you’re good at, what you’re not good at, the kind of people you want to work with, the things that you excel at. But after graduate school, you should have a better idea of that. So I try to convince young people to get a job in an industry where you have some connection to the work beyond just a great paycheck and a nice place to live. So if you’re focused on social issues, working in social entrepreneurship, or activist investing, or things that give you a cause to get up every day - then do that. If you are fundamentally focused on developing healthcare opportunities, go work for a healthcare private equity firm. But try to stay true to the things that make you tick. It’s easy to say, and I know many are just looking for employment. But to the extent that you can do that, you will be more credible in an interview, you will be more passionate and authentic in your work, you’ll be happier and more productive, and you can get up every morning with a can-do attitude. And that’s a big part of the battle I think.
What are some of the core leadership attributes you’re looking for in people that you’re hiring at Liberty Global?
I’d say the number one attribute we look for is confidence. And that doesn’t mean outspoken, it means confidence in terms of knowing who you are and what the value you can provide to us is. That’s number one. Next is collaboration. It sounds cliché, but we’re a large matrix organization with 41,000 employees across 30 countries. It’s important that people understand how to work together. You can be the smartest individual in a particular area, but if you can’t get along with your peers, and you can’t manage up and down, and you’re not facile working in teams, it doesn’t matter to us. So I think that’s a big part of it.
On top of that, I think an appreciation for what we’re trying to do is important. And what we’re trying to do essentially is bring credible digital communication experiences to consumers. It’s important to understand the power that we think we bring to this evolving landscape, which is one of the most incredible when I think of the ecosystem of technology, digital engagement, communications platforms, and social media experiences. I mean, we’re literally at the center of all of that. And then perhaps, lastly, is an awareness of your capabilities, of what you’re good at and what you’re not good at. You can tell when someone is self aware. It doesn’t mean, again, that they’re always self motivated. But I think if someone’s self aware, then they can self correct, they can listen, and they can absorb the things around them and put it to good use. It may not be at the top of every recruiters’ list, but I think for me, that’s an important thing.