How former SBS CEO Michael Ebeid rose to the top despite racism, homophobia

This month, former SBS boss Michael Ebeid did something that, a year ago, wasn't possible.

He was married to his partner of fifteen years, Roland.

The small, non-religious ceremony, and guests (Ebeid, 52, had a best man and his partner had a 'best person' – his female best friend) weren't even told the venue until the day.

The honeymoon, much like the wedding, will need to be delayed. "Having just started a new job, my honeymoon is I've got Monday off!" he tells Executive Style. "But Roland's from Hobart, so we'll got there over Christmas, and to a Greek island in mid 2019."

New beginnings

It'll be a well-earned break for Ebeid. He recently left SBS after a 7.5 year tenure as Managing Director with just a week's respite before starting his new Telstra gig (during which it constantly rained, poo-pooing his plans "to sit under a tree in Centennial Park doing as little as possible"). He has his work cut out for him: Telstra's share price fell 40 per cent over the 2018 financial year; profit dropped eight per cent.

But if any executive in Australia is up to this challenge, it's surely Ebeid. His SBS record doesn't just speak for itself; it sings. Advertising / sponsorship revenue almost doubled under his leadership. He secured FIFA World Cup rights. He innovated with products such as Viceland and SBS On Demand, which now has 5 million users (and which, most importantly, brought us the genius of The Handmaid's Tale).

It's worlds away from his first Australian school report: he failed every subject and was told to learn English (Ebeid's parents moved here from Egypt in 1969 when he was three). At Epping Boys' School, he and his older brother were given the nicknames "Blackie" and "Little Blackie" – even by teachers. When launching National Indigenous TV on SBS, Ebeid was thankful we live in different times where "all races can be properly reflected".

The media landscape

Even his biggest SBS challenge (which he describes in a single word: "Canberra") culminated in a roaring success. His effective courting of five different Communications Ministers resulted in $14 million in extra funds for SBS this year.

It all juxtaposes sharply with the ABC, who had their funding cut this year, and have recently gone through turmoil as MD Michelle Guthrie was sacked and Chairman Justin Milne resigned.

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"ABC staff deserve better leadership" Ebeid says. "When your Chair and MD communicate well, there's no stopping the organisation. I had three brilliant Chairs. But when there are personality and trust issues, you spend time on unproductive things."

Seeking authenticity

Being an authentic leader is something Ebeid returns to frequently, whether that's being an out gay leader or "being vulnerable" as he could be with his his first Chair in sounding out ideas, leading to better discussions.

With his staff, he wanted lead by example: "I know CEOs who think they have to behave a certain way during day and then they're themselves after hours. I think that's sad. Most employees see through it."

Work/life balance "wasn't something I aimed for" because he had so much fun at work, confessing to spending the first two hours of each day of his holidays with Roland checking emails before logging off to sightsee.

It wasn't always easy to be authentic. In his early 20s, a boss at IBM warned him, having heard a rumour he was gay. "He said, look I don't care if you are or not, but stay in the closet – or nobody will hire or promote you." Ebeid found the advice "devastating," thinking his career was over. "It was a different world then" he says. "But it drove me harder to be a better professional."

One SBS highlight was getting Australia into Eurovision: "You can call me a Eurovision tragic" he says. "I felt like a proud father every time an artist was showcasing Australian talent on that world stage." He's excited for the next step; after him and a producer picking all previous artists, this year's Australian entry will be chosen by the public.

Major moves

He's proudest that staff engagement levels rose from the mid 40s to almost 80 per cent. Unlike some ABC staff who cheered when Guthrie left, SBS staff seem to adore Ebeid and his legacy. Journalist and Presenter Patrick Abboud tells Executive Style: "He has from the day we met been incredibly nurturing. I'm so indebted to him for giving me the platform to tell stories the way I've been so privileged to do. He's the best big boss I've ever had in my working life.  And he'll always be a cherished friend."

But Ebeid remembers staff in tears during the postal survey on marriage equality. "It was downright awful. I saw homophobia like I hadn't seen for 30 years." He overcame the "real challenge" of being an impartial public broadcaster with his desire to be a strong 'out' leader and publicly advocate for equality, thanks to a "wonderfully supportive" Board. "Like many, I was personally attacked on Twitter. My SBS social media manager said, Mike, can I do you a favour? She grabbed my phone and deleted Twitter, saying it's not healthy for you to be on here for the next few weeks of the debate."

"Of course," he says smiling, "that's ancient history now."