Val Boreland has worked at some of cable television’s top entertainment companies. From Lifetime, to Comedy Central, to working with Sean “Diddy” Combs to launch Revolt, Val knows the ins and out of the entertainment industry all too well. Today, she is currently the Executive Vice-President of Content Strategy at NBCUniversal where she oversees content scheduling and acquisitions for USA Network, and Syfy. For those of you anticipating Unsolved: The Murders of Tupac and the Notorious B.I.G premiering on USA February 27th, you can thank Val for that.
This University of Michigan alum has climbed the corporate ladder and it goes without saying she’s earned her seat at the table. Her Agenda recently had an opportunity to speak with Val and gain insight into her career, her thoughts on self-care, and the fearlessness that comes along with being at the top of her game.
Her Agenda: When you were graduating from the University of Michigan, could you have ever imagined that you would have help to launch a network with Diddy?
Val Boreland: I had no idea. Graduating from school I was so ignorant to what my opportunities within Communications would be. I kind of fell into what I did. Even then I was never able to see that far ahead of me as far as ‘what’s next?’ I was lucky that the what’s next came to me before I craved and was desperate for it. It was a nice pace of career growth. Working in any executive position and with Diddy is nothing I could have expected. I remember hearing that Sean (Diddy) wanted to launch a cable network a year before they called me for the job. He has a clothing line, Bad Boy, and now he wants to get into cable? That’s crazy!
A year later I got a call and thought, ‘sure I will come in for an interview.’ It all happened very quickly. It was like a leap of faith and I couldn’t have planned that. It’s hard to imagine what has all come together. That’s why I try to make an effort to speak to students as often as possible to let them know of the possibilities available to them that they might enjoy and is an actual career. The biggest lesson I learned from that experience was realizing that I can do anything. It was a big role with new responsibilities with things I was always involved with but was never responsible for like production. I took the job and convinced them I could do it, but then I had to convince myself. I remember one person specifically saying, ‘You will be fine. You will get it and what you don’t know you can pick up the phone and call me and ask.’ Once I was in there, I realized I got this. She was right and I really can do anything. Coming out of that, the one lesson is that there is no job I should be intimidated to take because I know what I’m doing, and I can figure out what I don’t.
Her Agenda: I have also read that you have worked for Lifetime, Comedy Central, and now NBCUniversal, how do you jump into a new corporation and overcome the learning curve?
Val Boreland: That happened in my first transition from Lifetime to Comedy Central and I realized that it takes time. They have different show, processes, systems, short hands and ways of doing things. It was very uncomfortable because I was the person everyone came to for answers and now I have so many questions.
I confided in my boss and said I don’t think I’m living up to your expectations and he explained that it was going to take me about a year to truly feel comfortable. I didn’t think I had that long, but I came to find out he was right. After about a year, I truly felt comfortable. I had the same experience coming to NBCU. I gave myself time to get over the feeling that I was failing if I was still asking questions two months into the job. It has helped me adjust to new positions better because it takes the anxiety away. If I don’t know the answers to the question, I know exactly how to figure it out. It doesn’t matter how senior you are, you should never be afraid to ask questions.
Her Agenda: In your role now as EVP of Content Strategy for USA Network and SYFY, how do you see the future of television consumption changing?
Val Boreland: Because there’s a number of new shows coming out every year, and there are so many platforms putting out content people will become a little more particular about how they spend their content consumption time. When there were fewer things to watch, consumers would just watch whatever was on. That doesn’t fly anymore. If you aren’t on top of your game as a content creator, you are going to fail because you have to stand out. There are somewhere around 490 shows that are on any platform, and that is a lot of content. I have heard people say ‘I have too many things to watch, I can’t get to that show.’ I think that’s what is going to make it more challenging for us as content providers to make sure we are stepping it up and putting out the best thing. You have to really be provocative, original, exciting, and compelling to have people want to come back week after week or day after day to watch your content. There are only so many hours in a day or a week and everyone’s a little more critical in how they spend their time.
Her Agenda: As an African-American and a woman who has climbed and excelled up the corporate ladder, how important has it been for you to maintain your authenticity while navigating a male-dominated industry?
Val Boreland: I have always lived as my authentic self. I’ve never really tried to be anything less than who I am anywhere and it’s worked for me. I know there are people who feel uncomfortable in their own skin and feel as if they are forced to fit themselves into the environment. I have been fortunate enough to have several bosses who are women, and it’s an interesting path where I haven’t had to feel that way. I have looked around the room and noticed I was the only woman or the only African American, but I have never allowed that to intimidate me or make me feel uncomfortable.
Her Agenda: What has been your secret to maintaining relationships at a high level?
Val Boreland: There’s no real secret it’s just like maintaining relationships with anyone in your personal life. I compare it to maintaining your relationships in college. Everyone is right there and accessible and we take that for granted. Then when everyone graduates people disperse you have to work a little harder to maintain those connections that are important to you. The same applies to professional relationships. When you move on from an organization, you have to make the effort to maintaining those relationships because you are not able to walk down the hallway and ask how they’re doing, you have to pick up the phone. You are going to keep in touch with those people who are most important to you both professionally and personally. If it’s been six months just pick up the phone or email to check on them. It just takes a little more work and it’s important because once you lose touch, it’s just that much harder to catch up. If you haven’t spoken in a couple of weeks, you can pick up the phone and have a quick conversation. If you haven’t spoken in two years, that conversation could require more time.
Her Agenda: How important has mentorship been in your career?
Val Boreland: If there is an official mentor/mentee relationship, the onus is always on the mentee to maintain the relationship. The mentor can reach out to you, but if they aren’t, you check in because as the mentee you are looking for advice and guidance. If it’s an unofficial mentor/mentee relationship, it’s on both people to stay in touch. Also, you shouldn’t be reaching out just because you need something. Sometimes checking in when there’s not a problem that needs solving and you forget to check in when something good has happened. It’s about communication and I think it’s the sole solution to so many problems.
Her Agenda: In what role does practicing self-care play into helping you reset so you can give your best at work?
Val Boreland: I wish I focused on it more. We all have a certain amount of vacation time set by a company and more often than not we don’t take it. We could see it as not having enough time or being too busy, but it’s important for us to realize that life goes on while you’re away. It’s important that you zone out while you’re away. When I’m away, I tell my staff not to email me into conversations. My rule is if it’s timely text me and if it’s urgent call me. I don’t need to feel the pressure to check my email all day while I’m on vacation or have 500 emails waiting on me when I get back. Also, the staycation is great too. You don’t always have to go somewhere in order to take time off. I find it important to sometimes stay at home for a day or for a week to clean your closet, re-do your wardrobe, or go to the doctor. Just take care of yourself and relax.
Her Agenda: For millennial women who see your career and desire to take a similar path, what would be the advice you give them on how to reach high levels in the TV industry?
Val Boreland: There’s no one path. But it’s important to have patience to figure out what your career can evolve into. If you want to learn how a certain company comes together, set up informational interviews to learn more. Also, the advice I would have is to take that seat at the table. Sometimes as women, especially when they are on the junior level, they feel as if that no one wants to hear their opinion and they have to sit on the side. That is the exact opposite of what you should do. Speak up and ask questions even when you think they are stupid questions. Don’t be intimidated to lean in. Also, never run away from work or an opportunity to take on another project. The worst thing someone can say is ‘that’s not my job.’ If you work for a company, everything is your job; and every opportunity is an opportunity. When you work on something outside of your job title or description you could discover something that you don’t do every day that you actually enjoy doing.
Her Agenda: What’s a motto you live by?
Val Boreland: It was something someone told me when I was early in my career. I wasn’t happy with a situation and was complaining a lot. I think this person heard me complain one too many times and they told me, ‘If you’re not happy, then leave.’ It was like, oh yeah, right, I have to take control and make it good or figure out other options. So the motto I say to myself would be that if you’re not happy, then make a change.
[Editor's note: This interview was published on February 12th, 2018. It has been edited for length and clarity.]