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The smartest question Shonda Rhimes ever asked

September 25, 2014, 11:00 AM UTC

Tonight, Shonda Rhimes takes over primetime.

The creator and executive producer of television’s enjoyably messy Thursday night dramas—Grey’s Anatomy and Scandal —is adding one more show to her repertoire. How To Get Away With Murder, a legal series starring Oscar-nominated actress Viola Davis as a criminal law professor, will join ABC’s Thursday night line-up.

Rhimes didn’t create the new show—Scandal co-executive producer Peter Nowalk did. But her production company, Shondaland, is listed in the credits.

Over the years, Rhimes has gained a huge fan base for her knack for writing conflicted, yet likable characters. She’s as much of a Hollywood icon as the stars of her shows.

But what first led to Rhimes’ success was her ability to make the Disney (DIS) and ABC execs happy without sacrificing her creative integrity. Many writers scoff at the idea of listening to business executives when developing an idea. Not Rhimes. Shortly before Grey’s premiere, she was working with ABC Studios on a pilot about female war correspondents. Then the country went to war, and it was no longer such a good idea.

Rhimes, who was No. 50 on the 2013 Fortune Most Powerful Women in Business list, told me last year that ABC then asked her to develop something else.

“I very astutely said, ‘What does Bob Iger want, what is he looking for?’” Rhimes recalled, referring to Disney’s CEO. She was told he wanted a hospital drama—and so Grey’s was born.

Though the basics of that first pitch were very different from what eventually aired, Rhimes remained true to her early vision. The war correspondents script featured women who “were really good at their jobs, really worked hard, had a lot of fun, and loved what they did.” The women on Grey’s—and, for that matter, Scandal—do, too. Rhimes created a space that pleased her boss, while still giving herself plenty of room to bring to life the strong characters and tumultuous storylines that built the foundation for her immense success.

At the 2014 Fortune Most Powerful Women International Summit in London, Donmar Warehouse producer Kate Pakenham and Southbank Centre artistic director Jude Kelly echoed the importance of balancing art and business. Both have a rather practical vision. Kelly told the audience that the most valuable artists have an end goal of getting their work into production. Pakenham agreed and said that corporations can provide a safe space for minds to run free, while also providing some framework for artists’ imaginations.

But, of course, the suits and the talent will always dance delicately. After creating a pilot that fit Iger’s request, Rhimes ignored script notes that she didn’t agree with.

“I remember somebody saying to me, ‘I don’t know if America’s going to like a woman who has sex with a man the night before her first day of work as a surgeon,” Rhimes said. She recalled not knowing how to respond “because, well, that’s what was going to happen.” (And anyone who’s seen the first five minutes of Grey’s knows that, well, it did.) “That first year I was doing Grey’s,” Rhimes said, “I didn’t know it was possible to fire the creator of a show off their own show, so I didn’t behave like somebody who was afraid of being fired.”

She didn’t get fired and continues to grow her empire. That tiny question – “What does Bob Iger want?” – may have been her smartest yet. But ultimately, it’s her endless well of ideas and her ambition that have catapulted Rhimes into Hollywood’s upper echelons. She says her parents—both academics—raised her to believe she should be accomplishing something.

“I don’t know how people don’t have that idea,” she said. “Having a strong sense of self is fundamental to you, no matter what you’re doing. I don’t care if you’re a stay at home mom raising kids or if you’re the CEO of a corporation. It’s really important for your survival.”

And I have a feeling that Meredith, Olivia, and the newest member of her T.V. series family, Annalise Keating, would all agree.

Read more from Colleen Leahey’s 2013 interview with Shonda Rhimes here.


“From the MPW Co-chairs” is a daily series where the editors who oversee the Fortune Most Powerful Women brand share their insights about women leaders.