We are all works in progress; even the successful women you see owning it on Instagram faced stumbling blocks along the way and continue to work hard to stay at the top of their game. In this series, we're sitting down with the people that inspire us to find out: How'd they do it? And what is success really like? This is "Getting There."
Joanne LaMarca Mathisen, the executive producer of TODAY with Hoda & Jenna, got her start at NBC as part of its famous page program back in 1987.
Throughout the more than three decades that followed, she worked various jobs in media, although most of her career has been with TODAY. Mathisen recently announced that she's leaving NBC this fall to spend more time with her family. But before she goes, TMRW had to find out what it's been like to spend more than 30 years at the company — and what she's learned about success along the way.
TMRW: Did you always want to work in TV?
Joanne LaMarca Mathisen: No! I wanted to be a fashion designer when I was little. I went to college for fashion. By my sophomore year, I'd realized that people don't need to have pants in 14 different colors — they just need to have pants. Then I thought I would be a teacher. I took some teaching classes and I volunteered at an elementary school, and I remember coming home and saying, "I'll never have kids of my own if I become a teacher." So that went out the door. Then I decided I was going to be a psychologist, but that was too boring. I took a class in television for fun. I would stay in the studio for hours and hours and I would never look at the clock. I thought, OK, if this is this much fun, this must be what I want to do.
You became a page in 1987 and ended up working for TODAY. What are some of the cool experiences you remember from that time?
The first year, I just traveled all the time. I got to go to Seoul for the Olympics, which was the coolest thing for a 24-year-old. I got to travel with the show to Atlanta. The old motto was "Join the TODAY Show, see the world," and it was true.
I'll never forget my first Grammy Awards, which was at Radio City (Music Hall). We did red carpet and it was pouring. We would shoot and I would take the tape and I'd run it back over to 30 Rock in the pouring rain. We were all dressed up. I was soaked. I thought, all my friends think I'm at the Grammys and how glamorous it is, and I'm really running tapes back and forth from 30 Rock to Radio City.
TV news can be a difficult, competitive industry. How did you find success?
I place a lot of value on work ethic. If this is something you want to do with your life, you have to just be prepared and know that you're going to miss dinners and you're going to miss weekends with friends and you're going to miss holidays. But in return, you get to be in the middle of everything happening. There's excitement. You feel like you're giving back. I always say, "If we can change one person's life with a little bit of information, we've done our job." The payout for what we give up is immense.
We have a job where every day is different, and every day we learn. That, to me, is such a gift.
What has been the highlight of your career so far?
I have been a huge Cher fan since I was about 5 years old. We had Cher on the show one day with Kathie Lee and Hoda and they called me on the show with them. We were live. And I thought, "Oh, my God, the little 5-year-old me would never have dreamt that I would be on national television standing next to Cher."
But the real gift and highlight of my career has been the relationships: the friends I've made and the family I've created. Especially through the pandemic, as we welcomed each other into our homes. The bonds are ones I'll always hold onto. Leaving everyone is going to be the hardest part for me.
What has been the most difficult part of your career so far?
Having to choose between my family and work. Trying to give 100% to work and trying to give 100% to home.
That's why I left NBC in 2017. My son was going to middle school and I felt like I'd missed so much of his life. I wanted to be there for the tough years. I volunteered and got involved in his school. Fast-forward two years, and Hoda called me to come back. I knew it wasn't going to be forever, but two and a half years have gone by, and I just realized, he's got three more years in this house with me and then he's off to college. I wanted to be around more. It was just the realization of how fast life goes, and as much as you want to slow down time, you can't. But you can be present.
Speaking of motherhood, what advice do you have for moms who want to be present for their children but also want a successful career, and are struggling to find that balance?
With COVID-19 and the revolution that is taking place in the workplace, I think that will give moms a lot more ability to be the mom that they want to be, and a lot more time. I think that was the breakthrough that we needed to have a more balanced life.
My advice would be work when they're young, because they don't need you as much as you need them when they're young. As they get older, they don't think they need you, but they do. When they're younger, they have babysitters who cater to their every whim when you can't. When they're older, they're kind of on their own.
(For more of Joanne's thoughts on parenthood, be sure to read her essays on the TODAY Parenting Team.)
Should parents feel more comfortable taking a break in their careers if they need to?
If you have the luxury of being able to take a break, and that's where your heart is, that's where you should be. Psychologist Dale Atkins, a contributor for TODAY, taught us that you have three brains: one in your head, one in your heart, one in your gut. Listen to the one in your gut. When you have a baby, people always say, "You don't get that time back." You don't understand what that means until you're down the line a little. If you can swing it, you should totally take a break. Because if you're good at what you do, you'll come back.
You've left NBC before and come back. Does that mean that when your son goes to college, you'll come back again?
If they'll have me! I hope so!
Most of your career has been spent at NBC, although in various roles. I think a lot of people today feel that they need to jump around to different companies in order to grow their career. What do you think?
I believe that it's good to get as many experiences as you can. I say to our staff, "If there's an opportunity to do something — if you can go on a special assignment and learn something new — you're more valuable when you come back." I don't think you need to jump around every two years, but I do think that eventually moving to different places, whether it's in the company or out of the company, is really a great advantage.
We get so used to doing things the way we do them. But when people can say, "When I was at so-and-so, this is how we did it, and it was so much more cost-effective," or, "it was so much more creative," or, "it helped facilitate things better," your value goes up. If you're not growing, gaining knowledge somewhere other than where you've been for five years is a benefit.
What's the best advice you have for a recent grad who wants to work in media?
Learn everything possible. Be really open. Sometimes what you want to do is something that you're not that great at, and sometimes stuff that you're great at is not something you want to do. Talk to as many people as you can. I would never turn anyone down who has an enthusiastic love for media and wants to talk to me. I used to watch the credits and say, "Hmm, what does a grip do? What does a producer do?" The more people you talk to, the clearer it will become. Networking is important.
This interview has been edited and condensed.