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Around the Water Cooler With C-Span's CEOs

Stephanie Steinberg

You might expect C-Span's CEOs to spend all day in their side-by-side offices, their TVs flipped on to the latest spat between Minority Leader Mitch McConnell and Majority Leader Harry Reid on the Senate floor.

But Rob Kennedy and Susan Swain aren't just passive C-Span viewers. Kennedy, for one, is the disc jockey behind the classical tunes that play during congressional breaks. Meanwhile, Swain spends time in front of the camera, hosting the channel's special TV series like "First Ladies: Image & Influence."

Swain points out the irony of the role reversal on set, when the director and producer become her boss, but says she doesn't mind the power change. "I've stayed close to the product, and it's something that I think every boss really has to do," she says.

Kennedy and Swain have worked together at C-Span the last 20 years, as they served as co-COOs and co-presidents. The duo became co-CEOs when the former CEO and founder Brian Lamb stepped down to become executive chairman in April 2012 after leading the Cable-Satellite Public Affairs Network since it launched in 1979.

Kennedy says he and Swain have talents that "mesh well," as he's versed in finance and technical operations, while Swain's strong suit is communications. Together, the two oversee a team of 280 employees who are tasked with everything from filming long-winded filibusters to driving the C-Span bus that travels across America.

U.S. News chatted with Kennedy, 57, and Swain, 58, both Virginia residents, to get their advice on leading a company with another person and how they keep the network relevant in a time when audiences may check Twitter for news of monumental votes before it lands on TV. Their responses have been edited.

Do you have any advice for divvying up roles and responsibilities equally so one person isn't swamped?

Swain: I would say we learned a little bit by trial and error. In the early days, we probably did too much of the same work. We realized how inefficient that was, and began to say this doesn't make a lot of sense, and moved to a good communication method. Our basic rule is no surprises. In other words, Rob tells me what I need to know and things I might be interested in, and I do the same with him, but I don't burden him with lots of things he doesn't need to spend time on, and likewise in the other direction.

Kennedy: Obviously, excellent communication is really important, and trust, and respect for each other and sharing key decisions. We also both make it a point to be out and help in any way we can. We have a saying here that "there's no job too small," and we'll pitch in wherever is necessary.

[Read: Around the Water Cooler With Whole Foods' Co-CEO.]

C-Span uses TV as its main platform. But how has it evolved with the times to disseminate information, and are there lessons from this that other companies can use?

Kennedy: Television is C-Span's primary platform, but what C-Span is really about is giving the public access to information that hasn't always been easily available outside of Washington, which is video coverage of congressional floor proceedings, congressional hearings and so forth. That can be done in other ways than television, but I think what we've worked at and have been successful at is adapting that mission of giving the public access using other platforms as they've come along.

Swain: We have a number of long-term employees who are really devoted to the company and its mission of informing the public, but obviously they, Rob and I have had to adapt to the changing marketplace, and one of the ways you do that is to stay current with media usage trends and make sure we're being observant of how quickly things are changing and the generational shift. So we sometimes say, "It's not your father's C-Span," but the reality is we have to today be both our father's C-Span and our grandson's C-Span, because there are all kinds of people who are interested in what happens in this town, but they're interested in accessing that in different ways - through the Internet, Twitter and mobile devices such as their smartphones - and we want to be there for them. We also recognize that the television still is the primary screen in people's houses, and we want make sure that product stays current.

Most Americans don't come home after work and flip on C-Span though. What can businesses with a niche target audience like yours do to expand their consumer base?

Swain: We've done some things I think we pioneered in. For example, 20 years ago we bought a million-dollar big bus that travels around the country as a mobile billboard, but it goes into cities, to history events and schools, so that's right in people's faces and hands-on marketing demonstrating what C-Span does.

There's another thing we love here, which is a contest called StudentCam. We ask high school and middle school students to do short documentaries about Washington using C-Span content. We give away $100,000 in prizes and get thousands of student entries every year. It's a really innovative and exciting way to introduce C-Span at an early age when they probably wouldn't be thinking of watching C-Span.

[Read: Around the Water Cooler With a General Motors Vice President.]

Kennedy: I think it goes back to something Susan said earlier about your father's C-Span and grandson's C-Span, which is that consumer tastes are changing, media consumption habits are changing and it's important to keep abreast of those and to experiment with some of the new tools that are out there. Years ago we couldn't have done the StudentCam contest because it was very difficult to produce documentaries. Now anybody with a laptop or even a smartphone can produce a documentary, so we were able to use that change to promote C-Span in a different way.

What's the best career advice you've each received?

Kennedy: I've had a lot of good bosses over the years, and I think something I've always tried to do is learn from them. One thing I've learned from Brian Lamb is always to consider your audience and who you're talking to, and to respect your audience whether it's a large group, a one-on-one meeting or a small group meeting you're conducting. Listen more; talk less; try to understand things from their perspective; don't waste their time. Remember all these conversations are a two-way business, and try to put yourself in the other person's shoes.

[Read: Top 16 Pieces of Career Advice.]

Swain: Mine also comes from watching Brian Lamb over the years. He's an incredible listener, and he's much more about receive than transmit. He gets a lot of really valuable information from that. He always comes back to us with things from listening and asking good follow-up questions. So I'd say the best advice is always be a good listener.

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