Getting Back on the Beat Michael Armstrong
Photograph courtesy Michael D. Armstrong

Getting Back on the Beat

As a young manager at Viacom, Michael D. Armstrong, ’02, improvised a sweetened deal that hit a sour note.

In 2002, 30-year-old Michael D. Armstrong, brand new to management with a brand-new MBA in strategy and marketing, made a radio buy without doing his research—making a few hundred thousand dollar–mistake in his first managerial job. It nearly derailed his career. Today, as executive vice president and general manager of international brand development for Viacom, Armstrong tells us how he recovered—and shares his hard-won lesson about the importance of research.

I think businesspeople often make the mistake of trusting their gut without realizing their gut doesn’t necessarily have all the information. It’s OK to trust your gut, but only if you know it has enough experience and data to make sound decisions. Otherwise you fall in the trap of believing your own hype.

My biggest career mistake happened back in 2002. As a newbie in a managerial role, I didn’t think I’d survive it. But thankfully I had the mettle from my Booth education to know I could recover. I’d learned that when you make a mistake, you immediately focus on righting it. Mistakes can teach you things that lead to your successes.

 I was 30 years old and had just received my MBA in strategy and marketing. I was brand new as vice president of affiliate marketing at Viacom. Part of this job involved managing how the company worked with our cable partners to drive viewership to our award shows, such as the MTV Video Music Awards. We would partner with them to drive tune-in advertising to our shows while providing consumer promotional fly-away trips to our award shows.

“It’s OK to trust your gut, but only if you know it has enough experience and data to make sound decisions.”

Michael D. Armstrong

That year, just a few months into the job, I decided to sweeten the pot a little bit: not only would we provide the show tickets, but we’d also pay for additional advertising on local radio stations. I figured this would blow the numbers out of the water.

But I hadn’t done my research. I realized how expensive local radio advertising can be once we started receiving whopping bills. My mistake was a hit of a few hundred thousand dollars to my budget. A senior leader was of course very upset with me, wondering how I could have failed to check out the financial implications. 

Inaction after mistakes is really the issue here—because I believe if you’re not making any mistakes at all, you’re probably not working quickly enough or trying hard enough. My misstep taught me that even though you might be a manager who has good ideas, it’s better to empower people on your team to bring in a full set of information and opinions than to try to be instantly transformative on your own terms.

It was a big mistake, one that cost me some pride. It hurt a lot the day it happened— it sure felt like it was the end of my time at Viacom. But in the long run it hasn’t damaged my career. In fact, it scared me into making sure I always do a little more research than necessary when making decisions.

—As told to Carey Dunne