Courteney Monroe, Chief Executive Officer, National Geographic Global Networks

Monroe leads by communicating straightforward, ambitious goals and executing them flawlessly. She believes that unified efforts toward a goal start by communicating a shared vision—what she calls “the castle on the hill.”

January 2018

Chief Executive Officer of National Geographic Global Networks explains how she builds on unprecedented organizational storytelling success in an ever-changing media climate. 

Throughout the course of our conversation with Courteney Monroe at the National Geographic Headquarters in Washington DC, we couldn’t stop looking at this framed picture of her and Morgan Freeman on one of the tables by the door of her third-floor office. Undoubtedly, it was somehow related to The Story of Us with Morgan Freeman, a Nat Geo-produced series in which, according to their website, “Morgan Freeman travels the globe in search of an answer to one fundamental question for humanity: what are the common forces that bind us together?” Coincidentally, we were in Monroe’s office to get her take on that same question. 

Monroe has a unique grasp on how to “bind people together” through stories as she led the marketing operations for well-known storytelling organizations like HBO and Cinemax. She could be given much of the credit for the notoriety of pop-culture icons like Carrie Bradshaw of Sex and the City and Tony Soprano of The Sopranos, due to her leadership on award-winning marketing campaigns for both shows, among many others. She also brings Carrie’s subtle wit and Tony’s “buck stops here” attitude with her to the C-suite. 

As CEO of National Geographic Global Networks—overseeing all of the television content for National Geographic Channels, Nat Geo WILD, and the Spanish-language network Nat Geo MUNDO—Monroe leads by communicating straightforward, ambitious goals and executing them flawlessly. She believes that unified efforts toward a goal start by communicating a shared vision—what she calls “the castle on the hill.” Monroe has found that reminding stakeholders what the end goal looks like helps keep her organization, its stakeholders, and its users focused on the brand promises of a world-renowned organization. 

More than ever before, brands are being forced to compete in a more saturated media climate. Users are now more easily able to access pictures and stories of the world through use of the internet, and therefore, storytelling organizations, like National Geographic, are finding new ways to gain access and influence to dynamic and rapidly emerging digital markets. One example of unprecedented effectiveness in the modern media climate is National Geographic’s Instagram channel, which Monroe called “the greatest brand communication showpiece that National Geographic has.” With 83.1 million followers, @natgeo is the most followed non-celebrity account on Instagram, and the seventh overall account in terms of followers. With such unrivaled access to a growing user base, National Geographic is able to communicate its stories to millions of engaged users instantaneously. 

Monroe attributes the success of National Geographic’s Instagram channel to a “tremendous level of authenticity” that has been intentionally cultivated. While most organizations treat Instagram—and social media platforms in general—as a sales tool, she sees it as a platform through which National Geographic can inspire viewers with visually spectacular, true stories of the world. Early in the adoption cycle of what is now one of the world’s most popular social media platforms, National Geographic handed the keys to its Instagram account over to its extensive network of photographers gathering content across the world. This on-the-scenes look at the world from the perspective of some of its premier photographers and videographers has created a truly unprecedented brand following on a rapidly changing digital medium.  

National Geographic’s brand messaging and the stories told through the eyes of its photographers on Instagram are inextricably linked, according to Monroe. “Everything we do, if we’re doing our job right, is a piece of brand communication… because a lot of the proof points of the National Geographic brand are the stories we tell or the pictures we take,” Monroe said. The sum of these messages helps remind its base of the educational and high-level missions of the organization as a whole, i.e., Nat Geo’s castle on the hill.

The billion-dollar question, however, according to Monroe, is how to leverage this following to help realize the bottom-line business goals of a complex multinational organization. Her philosophy is that a large audience produces invested listeners and begets real investments from stakeholders of all types: viewers, readers, subscribers, Instagram users, talented storytellers, advertisers, and many others. Being your authentic self—both as an individual and an organization—is the key to cultivating these meaningful engagements and lasting success.  

In order to continue to drive this type of success, Monroe builds teams and organizations that are energized by change. Particularly as an organization functioning in the modern media climate, it is critical to be able to chase really big swings in business function and execute these changes without hiccups. In a massive organization like National Geographic, there may be frequent short-term decisions made that seem to interfere with the long-term goal. Therefore, a lot of Monroe’s communications aim to give context to those types of decisions and drive home the point that they are all still moving toward the castle on the hill. Distinguishing between short-term strategies and a long-term vision as a leader is critical to keep people invested in the brand.  

Most importantly, Monroe believes in cultivating and communicating a true story. Whether it’s a story of the world, National Geographic, or a person, Monroe feels that when you are not your true self, people see right through it. In order to tell these authentic stories, Monroe said the following on how she leads teams: 

“I believe in the art of the collective, and I think any leader who doesn’t is going to get slaughtered in today’s marketplace. I absolutely don’t think I have all of the answers, and my leadership strategy for my career has always been to strive to surround myself with people who are way smarter and way more creative than me with really strong opinions, who aren’t shy about telling the truth, and will tell me when they think I’m wrong. Having these people on my side makes it much easier to determine the best path forward.”  



Interview By Kelley Moore & Dave Dykes

Fast Facts

Washington, DC
Number of Years in Current Role
Previous Experiences
National Geographic Channels U.S., CEO
National Geographic Channels U.S, Chief Marketing Officer
Home Box Office, Executive Vice President of Consumer Marketing & Digital Platforms
American Express
Salomon Brothers
Leaders She Admires Most
Peter Rice, CEO of Fox Network Groups
Jane Goodall, Primatologist and Humanitarian
Malala Yousafzai, Human Rights Activist and Nobel Prize Laureate

Browse Conversations

Cristina Gonzalez
Cristina Gonzalez, Director for Client Experience & Change of IBM
David Prosperi
David Prosperi, First Vice President of The Options Clearing Corporation
David Snyder
David Snyder, Publisher of Crain’s Chicago Business
Deborah Rutter
Deborah Rutter, President of John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts
Drew Lydecker
Drew Lydecker, Co-Founder and President of AVANT Communications
Ed Wehmer
Ed Wehmer, President & CEO of Wintrust Financial Corporation
Edwin Eisendrath
Edwin Eisendrath, Former CEO of Chicago Sun-Times
Gabriela Franco Parcella
Gabriela Franco Parcella, Executive Managing Director of Merlone Geier Partners
Gary Kelly
Gary Kelly, Chief Executive Officer of Southwest Airlines
Gary Sheffer
Gary Sheffer, Former VP of Communications & Public Affairs of General Electric
Greg Cameron
Greg Cameron, President & CEO of Joffrey Ballet
Harry Kraemer
Harry Kraemer, Executive Partner of Madison Dearborn
Howard Tullman
Howard Tullman, Former CEO of 1871 of & General Managing Partner of G2T3V, LLC
Iris Ware
Iris Ware, Chief Learning Officer of City of Detroit
Jack Reed
Jack Reed, U.S. Senator of Rhode Island
James L. Madara
James L. Madara, CEO of American Medical Association
Jeff Winton
Jeff Winton, SVP, Chief Communications Officer of Astellas Pharma US
Jennifer M. Smoter
Jennifer M. Smoter, Former VP of Public Affairs & Brand of AbbVie
Jennifer Mauer
Jennifer Mauer, VP, Enterprise Transformation & Change Strategic Communications of Bristol-Myers Squibb
Jeremy Martin
Jeremy Martin, Director of Public Affairs and Outreach - National Capital Region of Bell Helicopter
Jim Murray and Peter Rahal
Jim Murray and Peter Rahal, President & Founder of RXBAR
Jodi Fyfe
Jodi Fyfe, Chief Executive Officer of Paramount Events
John Canning
John Canning, Founder & Chairman of Madison Dearborn Partners
John Heffner
John Heffner, CEO of Drybar
John R. Ettelson
John R. Ettelson, President & CEO of William Blair & Company
Jon Harris
Jon Harris, Chief Communications Officer of ConAgra Foods
Jonathan Weiss
Jonathan Weiss, CEO of HealthEngine
Julie Howard
Julie Howard, Chairman & CEO of Navigant
Karen Durham-Aguilera
Karen Durham-Aguilera, Executive Director of Arlington National Cemetery
Karen Tripp
Karen Tripp, VP of Communications and Public Affairs of ENVIVA
Kate Bensen
Kate Bensen, CEO of The Chicago Network
Kathy Beiser
Kathy Beiser, Chief Communications Officer of Kaiser Permanente
Keith Alper
Keith Alper, CEO of CPG Agency
Kelly McGrail
Kelly McGrail, VP, Strategic Business Communications of Mars, Incorporated
Kent Nielsen
Kent Nielsen, Co-Founder of Fort Knox Studios
Kim Feil
Kim Feil, CMO & CSO of Aspire Healthy Energy Drinks
Kym White
Kym White, Global Practice Chair, Health of Edelman Consulting
Lauren Dunne
Lauren Dunne, Co-founder and CEO of Varnish Lane
Lisa Osborne Ross
Lisa Osborne Ross, President of Edelman - Washington, D.C.
Luke Saunders
Luke Saunders, Founder & CEO of Farmer's Fridge
Marc Schulman
Marc Schulman, President of Eli's Cheesecake Company
Mary Jo Herseth
Mary Jo Herseth, SVP, Head of Banking, U.S of BMO Private Bank
Matt Shattock
Matt Shattock, Chairman and CEO of Beam Suntory
Maureen Cragin
Maureen Cragin, VP, Communications of Boeing Defense, Space & Security
Merrillyn J. Kosier
Merrillyn J. Kosier, EVP & Chief Marketing Officer of Ariel Investments
Necole Merritt
Necole Merritt, Chief Communications & Marketing Strategist of Entergy Services, Inc.
Nido Qubein
Nido Qubein, President of High Point University
Pam Rose
Pam Rose, Co-Owner of Swirlz Cupcakes
Paula Davis
Paula Davis, VP of Corporate Affairs and Communications of HARMAN
Pedro A. Guerrero
Pedro A. Guerrero, Chief Executive Officer of Guerrero Howe Custom Media
Peter Marino
Peter Marino, Chief Public Affairs & Communications Officer of MillerCoors
Raaja Nemani
Raaja Nemani, CEO & Co-Founder of Bucketfeet
Rick Wetzel
Rick Wetzel, Co-Founder and Chairman of Blaze Pizza
Rob Clark
Rob Clark, VP of Global Communications of Medtronic
Shari Runner
Shari Runner, President & CEO of The Chicago Urban League
Sid Bala
Sid Bala, CEO of alligatortek
Sonny Garg
Sonny Garg, Former Chief Innovation Officer of Exelon
Terry Brady
Terry Brady, President of Underwriters Laboratories (UL)
Tiffany LaBanca
Tiffany LaBanca, SVP of Global Internal Communications of 21st Century Fox
Tom Yorton
Tom Yorton, former Chief Executive Officer of Second City Works
Tonise Paul
Tonise Paul, President & CEO of Energy BBDO
Tony Weisman
Tony Weisman, CMO of Dunkin'
Victoria Podesta
Victoria Podesta, Former Chief Communication Officer of Archer Daniels Midland Company
Alexander Pissios
Alexander Pissios, President of Cinespace Chicago Film Studios
Andrea Zopp
Andrea Zopp, CEO of World Business Chicago
Anne C. Toulouse
Anne C. Toulouse, VP of Advertising & Global Brand Management of The Boeing Company
Anne Pramaggiore
Anne Pramaggiore, Senior Executive Vice President & CEO (Former CEO & President of ComEd) of Exelon Utilities
Aylwin Lewis
Aylwin Lewis, Chairman, CEO & President of Potbelly Sandwich Works, LLC
Bill Bartlett
Bill Bartlett, Vice President of Organizational Development of Novant Health
Bill Kurtis
Bill Kurtis, Founder & Owner of Bill Kurtis Productions & Tallgrass Beef Company
Bridget Coffing
Bridget Coffing, Former Chief Communications Officer of McDonald’s Corporation
Carrie J. Hightman
Carrie J. Hightman, EVP & Chief Legal Officer of NiSource, Inc.
Chris Dornfeld
Chris Dornfeld, President & Co-Founder of Bonfyre