Re. The New York Times Jill Abramson Story – Some Management 101 Observations

There’s a scene in one of the Bourne movies (I think the second) when the character played by Joan Allen walks into a room full of folks in front of their computer terminals, looking for Jason Bourne. The character played by David Strathairn asks them all to introduce themselves, and the Allen character shuts that down in a hurry. They have a job to do – find Jason Bourne. No time for introductions…

That’s a snap shot of too many circumstances in today’s arena. We are all so busy dealing with crises, putting out fires, trying to stay alive, that there is no time for niceties like introductions. We don’t have a minute to spare…

And yet, every nicety that is tossed aside takes another corner out of team spirit, that needed esprit de corps that is needed in every team throughout an organization.

(Consider the item from the WHO Surgical Checklist – the surgical team members need to take a minute to introduce themselves. The benefits far outweigh the cost of waiting a minute or two to begin the surgery).

In other words, such “we don’t have a minute to spare” pressure puts too much pressure on the people doing the work. They simply do not do as well when they don’t know each other; when they don’t have time to acknowledge the team, to treat the team members like human beings.

“We lead by being human, not by being corporate” wrote Paul Hawken.

We see this played out in the New York Times Jill Abramson firing. I’ve read countless articles about the firing. Here’s what I think, so far:

#1 — Jill Abramson, now the former editor of the New York Times (the boss), looks like she was something of an abrasive manager, a little insensitive to human needs. And, she was looked down on for her style, maybe more so than the men who preceded her, who had similar management flaws.

#2 – Arthur Sulzberger, Jr., The Times’s publisher (the big boss), looks like he is something of a clueless, insensitive manager himself. Even if this change needed to be made, he sure botched the way he handled it. The New York Times seems to be acknowledging this (in an article in today’s Times, by David Carr, Abramson’s Exit at The Times Puts Tensions on Display“Still, Mr. Sulzberger, working with Mr. Baquet and Mr. Thompson, may have failed to understand the impact Ms. Abramson’s firing would have, both internally and with the public.”)

Ms. Abramson was not praised much for her accomplishments; she was given no opportunity to say goodbye to her staff. And, one result was (from Mr. Carr’s article):

When The Times’s publisher, Arthur Sulzberger Jr., stood up at a hastily called meeting in the soaring open newsroom where we usually gather to celebrate the Pulitzers and said that Jill was out, we all just looked at one another. How did our workplace suddenly become a particularly bloody episode of “Game of Thrones”?

#3 – Getting management right is hard. Getting management right when things are tough is even that much more difficult.

I had breakfast with a man this morning who has a high-up management position in a relatively small organization .We discussed the Jill Abramson firing. In the midst of the discussion came this phrase: if you handle a management decision poorly — even one that needs to be made — then:

your enemies list grows
your friend list shrinks.

Handling a difficult decision in such a way that you keep the enemies list to a minimum, and the friend list as intact as possible, is one tough challenge. But it may be the most important part of handling a difficult decision.

So, I’m not much of a fan of how Mr. Suzlberger handled this decision – even if the decision itself might have been the right one.

One other thought that came out of our breakfast conversation:

Yes, mangers manage people. But, the smart managers always have someone they can trust ready to offer counsel when they are making their own management decisions.

In other words,

Managers are (first, and always) managed…
And then
Managers manage…



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