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From Investment Banking to SpongeBob — A Leadership Talk Katherine Liu

Updated: Jan 16

For Katherine Liu, Chief Operating Officer of the International Markets Division of Paramount Global, a major turning point in her career came at age 22. After graduating with a bachelor’s degree in Finance and Accounting from Georgetown University, she got a job at an investment bank. 

She was assigned to work on a deal, and she was on it round the clock, working overtime and sleeping in the office every night. She even canceled vacation plans. The pressure was intense and her nerves were frayed.

“We [were] killing ourselves for this deal,” she recounted in a recent Leadership Talk with FUTURE NOW Founder and CEO, Peggy Kim. 

But, after all that, the deal fell through. It was crushing, but it was also the wake-up call Liu needed to change her life. 

She had pursued the banking job because “it was the nice, safe thing to do,” and she joked, due to a “lack of imagination.” 

But the failed deal forced her to dig deep and ponder, “What if the deal went through? I mean, was that going to change my life? Really? What’s the end goal of this whole thing? Am I changing the world? Am I even changing anything that I’m going to notice?

“It made me realize that if I was going to throw myself into something, it had to be for something that I could at least relate to.”

Liu decided to leave the job and take a timeout to travel around Asia.  While still trying to figure things out, she also went and got an MBA from Harvard Business School.

She knew she wanted to live in the United States and be near her family, but her experience in Beijing and Hong Kong piqued her interest in working globally while still being in a “consumer-facing space.” 

As an avid consumer of media and entertainment, Liu was always fascinated by “the choices that people make day in and day out with their time and their leisure.” So, she decided to make a career pivot into the media industry, where she could bring her finance, strategy, and business development acumen to bear in a meaningful way.

She got her foot in the door at News Corporation as a Corporate Development Analyst, then as a Business Development Manager at STAR Television, before moving to MTV Networks International to work in strategy and business development. 

Liu has been at Paramount (formerly ViacomCBS, Viacom) for 17 years now, rising through the ranks to her current role as COO of the International Markets Division.

Today, she is laser-focused on creating strategic value across all of Paramount’s businesses and oversees the international functions of Finance, Business and Legal Affairs, Strategy, Technology, Research and Insights, and Operations. Just as in her investment banking days, Liu still cuts deals—only now the deals often include a sponge who lives in a pineapple under the sea.

Screen image of Spongebob Squarepants and his pineapple house

Liu described her current role this way: “You’re trying to get the trains to work on time with the right number of people on the right track going to the right place and stopping at the right time.” 

To navigate these moving parts, Liu said, “Ultimately, you need to get in a room with people who may or may not have anything to do with you, who may not even like you, and you’ve got to get something done. And I think that’s at the heart of every job.”

When Liu first joined the company, it was focused on high-definition linear channels.  Social media platforms like Facebook and YouTube were startups that were barely a concern to the long-established major media companies. But, things would soon change.

The speed of technological advancement and innovation was increasing at a rate never seen before, and it would be disruptive, positive, negative, exciting, and more business as usual.

“In many ways, the evolution of the industry has mirrored… the evolution of our culture,” Liu says. The digital wave kickstarted by YouTube “democratized a lot of things about the industry” by lowering the barrier to entry.

Traditional business models and ways of doing things have been disrupted and changed forever, forcing companies to rethink and reimagine the future.  However, there are still underlying constants. 

At the end of the day, Liu said, “Entertainment… is all about the way people consume, communicate, talk about each other, how they see themselves. I think there’s a lot we can learn about people based on what they do in their free time.” 

However, how people spend their leisure time varies from market to market, Liu told attendees. A big question that drives her work is “What does your brand mean in the market?” Do customers want localized content, or do they have an affinity for US-produced content? What are their cultural tastes and preferences? 

As an example, Liu explained that Japanese consumers tend to prefer non-humanoid characters such as SpongeBob and shy away from humanoids like Dora the Explorer, even though Dora was one of Nickelodeon’s biggest shows when it aired.

And, despite the massive sea change from linear to streaming in the U.S., some markets, like South Africa, still prefer linear channels. 

From a professional perspective, working internationally as a woman in oftentimes very patriarchal cultures also has its interesting moments.

Liu shared a story about one client who spent most of the dinner trying to set her up with his nephew.  Instead of getting offended, she let his comments slide and focused on securing the deal. “Part of you could get… very offended by this and walk out in a huff, but you know, it’s a big world… This guy had grown up in a very different environment.” 

“You learn to do business the way you need to do business—obviously within the bounds of good taste and your values,” she says. In the end, “we’re human first. And you try to just be there on a human level with someone.” (Liu recommends Erin Meyer’s book, The Culture Map, which discusses how to connect across cultures in a rapidly globalizing world.)

As a global leader, understanding different cultures and their different business approaches and professional norms is critical to success.

Liu also keeps the ‘human first’ mindset to connect with her team. “I try to get to know everybody on a human level and encourage… whatever they need to keep that side of their lives very much healthy and in a good place.” 

She regularly checks in with her team, and while she prioritizes face-to-face interaction, she allows everyone the flexibility they need to get their work done and stay healthy, both physically and mentally. 

“You have to make time for those things,” Liu emphasized. “You only have twenty-four hours in a day and you only have so much time and energy and money, and you [have to] expend that energy and that time in very specific ways to get done what you need to get done but also to live the kind of life that you need to live.” 

For Liu, being clear about your values can help you find your North Star. “What drives you as a person?” she asked attendees. “What makes you really interested in something? [When have you read or watched something and thought], I want more of that?”

Liu also shared that it's also important to “pay attention to times where you’re like, ‘This sucks!’” Every opportunity can help you “learn about yourself and…bring you closer to whatever it is that you want in life."

For those who are looking for a job, Liu has some sage advice. “I want to hire people who are going to make my life easier,” she said. “Show that you have solved problems, delivered outcomes, and made something easier for someone.” 

A résumé “should be a list of what you got done” and should “show… the outcomes of what you did. It shouldn’t look like the job description.” When sending in a résumé or cover letter, or when preparing for an interview, she strongly recommends that you not only emphasize how much you want the job, but what you will do to be an asset to the team. “How is this going to help me, how is it going to help the company?” Liu posited.

And for those whose parents might be pushing for a more traditional career path—like investment banking—Liu acknowledged that “as a parent now, I sort of see it from the other side.  It’s all driven by obviously a deep love of your kids, but also… you want to keep them from the crappy stuff. You want to make sure they’re secure, you want to make sure they’re taken care of… In many cases, your parents just don’t know how to communicate their wishes and their fears and their concerns for you, because it’s very difficult for them.”

Liu encourages students to try to understand their parents’ fears.  Are they afraid you won’t be able to pay your rent? Are they afraid you won’t be able to pay down your student debt?  She advises having concrete answers on how you might address their concerns. “I guarantee that will make them feel better,” Liu said.

To cap off the talk, Liu referred to an article by her old business school professor, Clay Christensen, which had a profound impact on her, called “How Will You Measure Your Life?” 

In the article, Christensen writes, “Don’t worry about the level of individual prominence you have achieved; worry about the individuals you have helped become better people. This is my final recommendation: Think about the metric by which your life will be judged, and make a resolution to live every day so that in the end, your life will be judged a success.”

Words to live by.



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