How Bonnie Hammer Turned ‘Uncommon Common Sense’ into Book to Help Women Navigate Life in the C-Suite

For Bonnie Hammer, work has always been a team sport.

The NBCUniversal vice chair thrived in her career as a cable programming pioneer, leading the executive teams that transformed USA Network, Syfy Channel, E! and other channels. More recently, she galvanized the troops that got the Peacock streamer off the ground.

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For years, Hammer also nursed the idea of writing a book that would capture her decades of experience navigating business, financial and personal pressures at the highest levels of Big Media’s C-suites. The pandemic and her job transition to vice chair in 2020 gave Hammer the time she needed to make the book a priority. “15 Lies Women Are Told at Work…And the Truth We Need to Succeed” was published this month by Simon & Schuster.

One of the biggest challenges Hammer faced in getting the book to the finish line was having to work solo as a writer for such a long period. It was an adjustment that she says forced her to be honest with herself and to drill down to the essence of the advice she hopes to pass on to Gen Zers and beyond.

Here, Hammer elaborates on her motivation for writing the book, how the workplace has changed for women and where things stand in the battle for gender parity and those all-important seats at the table.

I know how long you have wanted to write this book. Congratulations on seeing it to fruition. Soup to nuts, from writing to editing, what was the experience like for you?

It’s very much an isolating experience. It’s incredible that you can just get it done and make it happen. It’s also scary. In a television series, you see a pilot, you adjust the pilot, you test the pilot, you have focus groups on the pilot, you change a cast member, then you put it out. And before it’s even out, you have a gradient about what is going to do, right? You get some early reviews, and there’s been so much research done on it, you have a sense of if it’s going to resonate or not.

Let’s step back. What was your motivation for writing “15 Lies.”

For me what it’s doing is paying it forward. I’ve been very lucky. I’ve had enough visibility in my life. That’s not why I did it. It really is to [encapsulate] what I’ve been doing for years on a one-on-one basis in the office. To reach people who I will not ever have contact with and maybe help make their life navigating the world a little bit easier. That’s what I care about.

How did you settle on the format? The book’s chapters have a structure of deconstructing the cliches, offset with practical and granular advice for advancing in business.

When I was thinking about how I wanted to give out the information, there were several things going on in my head. One was, it needed to be clear advice given in a way that a would be compelling to somebody, and not just be a bunch of philosophical blah, blah, blah. So what I started thinking about was, what are the things that I was told when I was young navigating this world? And how did I feel about it? And then, when I thought about what things I was told, they all crystallized into these cliches, these mantras, these pithy maxims that were, frankly, bullshit. And the first title I had mind, to be honest, was “I Call Bullshit.” But Simon and Schuster went, ‘No.’

So when I started thinking about it, I then realized that it was all connected to these mantras. “Fake it till you make it.” “Follow your dreams.” “It’s what’s inside that counts.” All the things that were just kind of wrong. And even if there was a piece of it that was valid, there’s so much about it that just wasn’t. So I then thought about it as, let me do the cliche, and do the counter-cliche, or my version of it, to help women navigate it — frankly, women and men. And what I’m finding is that men are responding to this more than I expected.

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How did you produce your initial drafts – on a laptop? Legal pad? Dictation? I never tire of asking writers how they like to write.

I’m not a good laptop person. I have to be sitting in front of a big computer. I’m better at hearing other people and bouncing things back and forth rather than just sitting alone for hours and hours and hours. I’m more of a write it, read it, send it back and forth to get somebody’s point of view on it. I’m very much about sharing where I have to have somebody’s point of view. Otherwise, I get caught up in my own voice and it can be repetitive.

What have been the starkest or most significant changes for women in the workplace over the course of your career? And where do you think things stand now?

It’s much better in most ways, of course, but there are a couple of downsides that we didn’t have before. The positive is there more of us. There are also, finally, women who are senior enough who can mentor other women. Because there are more of us, the negative competition is slowly dying, but it’s not as dead as it should be. I still think there are too many women who look at other successful women as competitive rather than as, let’s all get there together. I’m a big proponent of bringing other women up along with you. And realizing it’s no longer one or two seats at the table. Now, we’re not going to own the world, it’s still pretty much a guy’s world, but it’s now open to us too. So we’re no longer competing for that one seat at a table. There’s plenty of room now. So help others.

What are the downsides?

it’s hard to talk about it in general terms. In some ways, HR departments have gotten much better. But in some ways, it can be a little too easy for people to look to HR rather than develop their own thicker skin and their own ability to navigate and use their voice to deal with tough situations. I think we run the risk of handicapping the younger generation, male and female, with the belief that there’s always a safe space to go rather than to figure out how to use their voice in a good, healthy way to have a conversation or to push back if they need to. And I’m not talking about the sexual stuff or the abusive boss – that is NOT what I’m referring to. I’m talking about dealing with growth and handling criticism and navigating your way. I think it’s important that we don’t soften the work environments so much that it’s easy to run from anything that’s difficult.

You share a lot about your life and personal experiences in the book. What do you most want readers take away from “15 Lies.”

In my heart of hearts, I want to help women to find a way into the C-suite. And so what I am really trying to get across is what I call the “uncommon common sense” — stuff that seems so basic to me in hindsight. Take the “fake it” mantra — just pretend you know what you’re doing, show confidence, and they’ll buy you, they’ll promote you. And it’s just wrong. My thing is “Face it to make it,” because the minute you get caught in a lie, it’s over. You’re not going to get that trust back. And what I also realized over the years is that as soon as you empower other people to help you, they want to help you. And if you ask for help, if you say, “I really don’t understand, can you explain a little bit more or can I talk to you later, I’d like a little bit more information.” It basically empowers people to want to help you.

(Pictured top: Universal Studio Group chairman Pearlena Igbokwe and Bonnie Hammer celebrate the publication of “15 Lies” at SoHo House Holloway on May 23)

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