Lights, Camera, Empowerment: Warner Bros’ Gillian Zhao Shares Her Directorial Approach to Leadership

Gillian Zhao, President of Warner Bros. Discovery China, takes center stage in an exclusive Q&A with the AmCham China Quarterly. In this captivating interview, Zhao reveals her inspiring journey and shares insighatful perspectives. From breaking stereotypes to shaping the industry, she showcases her unique leadership style and offers a behind-the-scenes glimpse into China’s evolving media landscape.

Gillian Zhao is the President of Warner Bros. Discovery in China, overseeing the company’s business strategy and leading various functions in Theatrical, TV Distribution, Home Entertainment, and Local Theatrical Production. She is a highly influential and respected media executive, known for achieving consistently strong box office performance in China and enhancing the role of co-productions. Gillian joined Warner Bros. in 2016 after serving as Senior Assistant to the President of Wanda Culture Group and CEO of Wanda Pictures. Previously, she held senior executive positions at Bona Film Group, Celestial Entertainment China, and Star TV (China). Before her entertainment career, Gillian spent nearly two decades in the technology industry, including roles at Apple China, Microsoft China, and IBM China.

Photo courtesy of Warner Bros. Discovery China

As a leader with experience across several industries, can you speak to your leadership style and approach? How has it been shaped by personal experiences?

Gillian Zhao: When I was a fresh graduate, I landed my first job at Hewlett-Packard, one of only a handful of Sino-US joint ventures at the time. It was a significantly male-dominated industry, and one of the first activities they had us do was team building. Getting to know the team, including understanding everyone’s unique personalities, was a vital interpersonal skill that I still value to this day. Learning how to work with people with contrasting personalities and ensure the best results is still an experience I remember and value. In senior positions, I believe a combination of emotional intelligence and interpersonal skills, especially when surrounded by strong personalities, is very important.
Time management, including a sensitivity to time, is another quality I think a leader should possess. This is particularly important when in a senior position within a fast-paced environment, where being able to efficiently manage time is vital. Even in my current senior position, every day I make a checklist of what I must do. Tasks that require multiple people are done first to create an efficient workflow.

In your opinion, how do you think women can successfully overcome obstacles in their career development?

Gillian Zhao: Women should convey a sense of self-confidence and not underestimate themselves in the workplace. As an employee, regardless of your gender, you are entrusted with an important role, and you should try to complete tasks to the best of your ability. Within a work context, I don’t spend much time focusing on my gender. Rather, I think an important reason for my success to date is a personal commitment to being empathetic and always trying to think about the other party’s expectations to create win-win situations.

Especially important when working in an environment with strong personalities, is being brave and having the confidence to back up your own solutions. This goes back to my earlier point about interpersonal skills, understanding and having empathy for your boss’ obstacles and KPIs, and knowing how to convey solutions and ideas in a way that they are most receptive to. It’s about establishing a common language between people. For example, some managers need hard data, whereas others are more receptive to humor.

What are some insights you have about tackling career development in different life stages while dealing with personal changes?

Gillian Zhao: I believe that no matter what stage you are in, whether it’s in your professional life or personal life, it is important to maintain a sense of curiosity and penchant for learning. Also, having a natural drive is important. Personally, I don’t need a pat on the shoulder, or words of encouragement to motivate me. For me, the key to making continuous progress, either in a single industry or several, and especially relevant to those who work in various cultural environments, is to always explore and learn different things from different people to make up for experiences and knowledge that we lack.

During my career, as I continued to climb the corporate ladder, time management was not only important to my work life, but to my personal life as well. Regardless of gender, I don’t believe having a family and a career are mutually exclusive. I am my mother’s daughter, my daughter’s mother, a sister, a friend, a colleague and a leader. There are many important roles I play in addition to my job.

I think career burnout is another important yet often overlooked aspect. Why does one get burnout? Are they tired of repetitive work? Tired of a career path? Tired of the current lifestyle? That’s why learning and curiosity is so important. Whether it is avoiding burnout by trying a new job or industry, or finding something in life, curiosity is the foundation to master new skills or knowledge to succeed.

Gillian Zhao speaks at a Warner Bros. Discovery event
Photo courtesy of Warner Bros. Discovery China

What initiatives has Warner Bros. Discovery implemented to support and promote gender equality and female empowerment in the workplace?

Gillian Zhao: Diversity, equity, and inclusion are a top priority at Warner Bros. Discovery. Supporting a safe and inclusive workplace is not just the right thing to do but it also makes smart business sense. This is clearly demonstrated in the company culture we foster, the way we nurture our workforce, as well as our commitment to representative and inclusive content.

It is also reflected in our leadership team and our Board, and we have female leaders across most of our creative businesses, including our US Networks, Warner Bros. Picture Group, and Warner Bros Television Group.

Operationally, Warner Bros. Discovery has several initiatives and practices in place to drive long-term change, spearheaded by the Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion leadership team. Some of these include regularly conducting diagnostic work to identify potential barriers to equity, pay equity reviews and ongoing analysis of the representation of women and people of color in succession pipelines.

You were appointed president of the China market in fall 2022. Can you talk about your new role as president of Warner Bros. Discovery’s operations in China and can you share any plans about the company’s growth and expansion?

Gillian Zhao: Warner Bros. Discovery is a leading global entertainment company. In China, the business spans films, television, local productions, consumer goods and gaming. I lead the strategic growth of the company’s theatrical, TV distribution, home entertainment and local theatrical production businesses. I believe we can better leverage a combination of our assets and IP, as well as expertise in storytelling, to expand our influence and brand value in the China market.

We have an established local production team who have a deep understanding of the market and have created successful films such as The Meg and White Snake. Our global network also enables us to share stories across our platforms internationally.

This year is also a special year for Warner Bros. Discovery as we celebrate the legacy, heritage and success of the 100th anniversary of Warner Bros. Studios. In its vast century-long history, Warner Bros. has continuously brought film talents to Hollywood and has created groundbreaking films that have left a permanent mark on the world. Our core long-term strategy has remained unchanged throughout, namely that we will always believe in the power of storytelling. In the future, we will continue to work with creators from all over the world, including China, to bring more exciting and touching works to audiences.

How has the media landscape in China evolved during your career, and what do you see as the biggest trends and opportunities in the market today?

Gillian Zhao: The global film industry, especially the streaming market, has experienced rapid transformations and new challenges because of the COVID-19 pandemic. Similarly, if you look at the history of Hollywood films in the last century, many milestones and major turning points often coincide with industrial and technological revolution. Such changes have inspired filmmakers to create art beyond human imagination, and propagated the development of the techno-film industry. In the last 100 years, Warner Bros. has continually served as a technological leader in film, such as pioneering the era of sound films.

In today’s world, I think AR/VR and metaverse technology will have a major impact on the entire film and TV industry. I believe it will change the industry in three ways: change the content itself, change the medium we use to watch content, and change the way we create content. While AR/VR tech are still in its infancy, its accelerating development coincides with the recent metaverse boom in China, and this powerful combination can create new and unique opportunities for Chinese film making. I hope to use this chance to reduce the distance between China and Hollywood. However, as a part of the entertainment industry, we cannot deviate from the human essence that drives our innovation and creativity, and here at Warner Bros. Discovery, we are a firm believer in the power of stories.

In what ways do you think China’s media landscape has evolved? How can WBD stay ahead of the curve?

Gillian Zhao: The COVID-19 pandemic has brought about a lot of new changes that make it very difficult and unlikely for our industry and society to return to the way it was before. Consumer options for watching movies continue to diversify, and audience preferences are changing too. While imported films remain popular, we’re also seeing more and more consumers engaging with domestic films, with the aim of finding touching stories that can act as an emotional catharsis. With the ongoing demand for local productions, we are focused on working closely with local creatives and filmmakers to continue developing more high-quality domestic films to better meet the needs of audiences.


This article is from the AmCham China Quarterly Magazine (Issue 2, 2023). To access the entire publication for free, sign up on our member portal here.