Disney’s Anne Sweeney talks authenticity, acting, and autism

July 19, 2011, 10:34 PM UTC

FORTUNE — As the most powerful woman in children’s television, Anne Sweeney meets a lot of girls who wish they were Selena Gomez or Miley Cyrus or tomorrow’s superstar.

But Sweeney insists that she sees plenty of accomplished women in business who do that very same thing.

“I see a lot of women of every age trying to be something else,” says Sweeney, the co-chair of Disney Media Networks and president of the Disney ABC Television Group. “I see them trying to imitate behaviors that they think belong to successful people.”

Trying to be the smartest person in the room, or vying to be first with the answer, can easily lead to defeat, Sweeney warns. Particularly for women since studies show that there is, at every level of the business world, a narrower band of acceptable behavior for women than for men. Women, quite simply, are judged more harshly.

Sweeney, who began her career at Nickelodeon (VIAB) and launched the FX channel for Fox (NWS) before arriving at Disney (DIS) 15 years ago, is known as a team player. That’s a trait she developed, actually, in her youth when she was passionate about the theater and in every school play. Whether you’re putting on a show or building a business, she advises, success often derives from “being the best team player you can possibly be because the goals are that big and require so many people to reach them.”

She’s also stresses the power of “I don’t know.” Saying those three words “is a sign of an honest person,” she says. “Sometimes you need the questions.”

Sweeney, 53, is the daughter of educators—her mom taught grade school in upstate New York and her dad was a school principal. She is No. 15 on Fortune’s 2010 Most Powerful Women in Business list. But it is as a wife and mother of two children that Sweeney has truly learned the value of asking questions. Sixteen years ago, after struggling to help their son, Christopher, with speech and cognitive developmental issues, she and her husband, a Los Angeles attorney named Phil Miller, learned that Christopher is autistic.

“The greatest tip is to be open to accepting help,” says Sweeney about raising an autistic child. “Don’t believe you can do this on your own, because you can’t. Accept help. Find other parents. Find experts.”

Christopher, now 25, lives with five other guys in a group house run by The HELP Group, which treats kids with learning disabilities and communications disorders like autism. With skills that he’s learning currently, Sweeney hopes that he will get his first job early next year.

Meanwhile, Sweeney’s 21-year-old daughter, Rosemary—“the younger sister who became the older sister,” mom calls her—is majoring in education at Brown University and is interested in teaching.

“Of course, my mother is just glowing,” says Sweeney, laughing. “I was the black sheep who went into television, but her granddaughter is the one who’s continuing the great legacy.”

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