If I can just hang on for another couple of years”

If I can just hang on a little longerI had lunch the other day with an old acquaintance who recently retired from a big management position in a large media company. “Most people,” he said, speaking of top managers, “are just hanging on. They figure if they can just last another few years, they’ll be all right.” This was not the first time I’ve heard that, but it’s something serious that we all need to think about.

Media company executives, from the property level on up, are a very human lot. They’ve worked hard all their lives to reach the pinnacle, each chasing the often elusive goal of retirement. The business is very nomadic, and careers of 30 or 40 years with the same company are extremely rare. A comfortable retirement isn’t guaranteed, and that can mean waiting until the last possible moment to step aside and turn things over to somebody else. In so doing, however, it’s possible to become very short-term conscious, and that can be fatal at a time when companies need to be making long term adjustments.

What’s good for the company in the short run may not be good for the company in the long run, but more importantly, what’s good for the company in the long run may not be good for the company in the short run. It’s the short run that concerns these people. It’s the long term that should concern the company, so the image of a top manager “just hanging on” could be viewed as a conflict of interest.

In Salt Lake City last year, the Mormon Church’s Deseret Management — parent company of the Deseret News, Deseret Digital Media, Deseret Book, KSL Television and KSL Radio — put Deseret Digital Media president and CEO Clark Gilbert in charge of the newspaper in addition to all of the company’s Web activities. Gilbert is a brilliant innovator who has assembled an eclectic and talented team to essentially reinvent the company’s business from the digital core outward. Gilbert has a remarkable background, having been mentored by disruptive innovation guru Clayton Christensen, and he’s also relatively young for a man of such responsibilities. I can promise you that Gilbert’s focus is long range, and that’s just one of the reasons he is and will continue to be a successful leader in the media world. On the human side, he’s 40 years old and has seven kids, all of whom are young and school age. He’s not going anywhere.

But Gilbert also represents a different kind of media executive, because he didn’t grow up in the business. He’s not tainted by “this is the way we’ve always done it,” so his essential nature is to embrace change. Like most leaders, he feels the end goal is more important than the processes needed to get there, so he’s willing to grant some slack in determining exactly what those processes will be. Old school managers will stick with what’s tried and true, and that’s problematic in the chaos of change. We’ll never “manage” our way out of the declining numbers we face. Never. That is a job for leadership, and managers and leaders, as we at AR&D have tried to explain over the years, are rarely found in the same person.

This is why I wrote of Albritton’s decision to dump the management of TBD.com and bring the site back under the control of its Washington D.C. TV station, WJLA-TV. The top new media thinkers of the old TBD.com all vanished when that decision was made, some of whom could have gone on to bigger management positions within Albritton.

Albritton’s loss has been John Paton’s gain, because he’s hired the top people from the former TBD.com. Paton is the CEO of the Journal Register Company, a guy who’s writing the book for newspapers on the concept of Digital First. He’s a leader with a vision that extends far beyond the quarterly numbers, and these new team members will help him execute his plan.

I published an essay in 2008 called Failure at the Top based on Theodore Levitt’s 1960 paper for the Harvard Business Review, Marketing Myopia. That paper is famous for pointing out that the railroads’ failure was their view that they were in the railroad business when they were actually in the transportation business. My essay drew comparisons about media being in the advertising business, not the news or “information” business, and the blame for that misconception lies at the top.

These are challenging times for those at the top of media companies big and small, and while we can easily point fingers of blame at culture, technology or a hundred other things, it’s the responsibility of our leaders to rise to meet business challenges. The only failures that matter, therefore, are those at the top.

And just as it was during the time of those early business challenges to railroads, the demand for what we do has never been greater. More people are watching television and consuming media than ever before, and that affords business opportunities for those who can rise above the fear, the noise, and the tyranny of the quarterly reports.

This idea of “hanging on for another few years” isn’t just dangerous; it’s suicidal. I know this comes off as harsh, but media companies should be asking themselves this question (actually, they should have been already): Is our topmost leadership capable of looking past their personal needs to do what’s right for the company in the long run?

In the answer to that question lies the future of all media.

Comments

  1. Excellent shout out to Clark Gilbert. The Deseret News is one of the 10 newspapers I read everyday I regard it as a good regional paper. I don’t know Gilbert but I once knew his boss, the President & CEO of Deseret Management, Mark Willes. Mark was the youngest VP of the Federal Reserve when I knew him many years ago in Philadelphia. After a stop at General Mills where he served as EVP for the cereal maker, he ended up on the left coast as President & CEO of Times Mirror, publisher of the LA Times. He quickly earned the ‘Serial Killer’ nick name for trying, albeit in vain, to reshape that venerable old-media publication for the future. Willes vision and iron will strikes me as a good blending of talent by LDS leadership. I wish them nothing but success in their efforts.

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