Excellence by the Graham

CNBC President and CEO Pamela Thomas-Graham is worth her weight in gold as the highest-ranking African American in the ultracompetitive cable news industry

Co. hired Thomas-Graham as an associate in 1989. She worked her way up through the prestigious yet reserved firm, eventuallybecoming one of the heads of its media and entertainment practice. At McKinsey, she developed the ability to synthesize data, work with teams of people, and make wise, if quick decisions–a set of skills that has stood her in good stead.

Her biggest challenge, though, was proving that she could make partner, which entailed serving as advisor to Fortune 500 CEOs. “No one was really sure if it could be done,” if those high-level executives would accept a black woman in that capacity, says Thomas-Graham. She overcame her anxieties with support from her professional network and her husband, and went for the position. In 1995, she became the firm’s first black woman partner.

Peter B. Walker, who counts himself as “a big fan” of Thomas-Graham, recognized her talents early on at McKinsey. “Pamela has a line manager mind-set, and really knows how to connect with clients and their needs,” says Walker, director of McKinsey’s New York office. The two worked closely on various projects during her 10-year stint at the firm. “She is highly entrepreneurial and extraordinarily pragmatic. She focuses on getting the job done.”

At McKinsey, Walker often served as a sounding board for Thomas-Graham, who has garnered the help of several mentors throughout her career. In 1999, she expressed interest in moving up professionally. One of them arranged for her to meet with Jack Welch, who was then chairman and CEO of General Electric Co., which owns NBC and its cable networks, CNBC and MSNBC. (Welch retired in early September 2001).

Knowing that she “wanted to run something someday,” Thomas-Graham met with Welch at GE’s Fairfield, Connecticut, headquarters, and the two clicked. They discussed his search for someone to head CNBC.com, and her career plans. Her qualitative, decision-making skills impressed him, and he told her he’d put in a call to Wright at NBC. She was surprised by the rapidity with which Welch acted. “By the time I got back to my office in Manhattan from that meeting, I had a message from Bob Wright on my answering machine saying, ‘When can you come in and see me?'”

A few months later, Thomas-Graham began putting her entrepreneurial talents to work as president and CEO of CNBC.com and as an executive vice president of NBC. Her status as an outsider–to GE and to the cable TV industry–wasn’t much of a problem. “I knew I had to prove myself coming in,” she says. But remembering her time at McKinsey, she knew she could–and would.

There was a lot on the line. When she joined CNBC.com in October 1999, it lagged woefully behind competitors CBSMarketwatch.com and CNNfn.com. According to Jupiter Media Metrix, 381,000 users visited CNBC.com, that month, fewer than one-third of the 1.3 million visitors to CNNfn.com and one-fifth of the nearly 1.9 million unique visitors to CBSMarketwatch.com.

Thomas-Graham drew on her McKinsey experience researching growth trends in Internet media outlets. By early 2001, she had grown

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