Time Inc's CEO, Jack Griffin, just became one of the 40% of executives who fail in their first 18 months of onboarding, getting fired 6 months into the job ostensibly for poor leadership skills.

"Although Jack is an extremely accomplished executive, I concluded that his leadership style and approach did not mesh with Time Inc. and Time Warner," Time Warner CEO Jeff Bewkes said in a memo to Time Inc. employees.

Context and Culture

The context in which Time is operating mandates significant changes to deal with industry changes including the ongoing migration from paper to electronic media.

Time's culture is probably not ready for change given its history of success and his predecessor Ann Moore's 30 year tenure at Time.

Crossing those two suggests that this was a culture that needed to be shocked.  That's exactly the transition management approach Griffin took.  What went wrong?

Dead Heroes

History is full of heroes who went out on a quest, paved the way for the future, and died.  Think about the Greeks at Thermopolae, holding off a much larger force of Persians and giving the rest of Greece the belief that they could win in the end.

Like those dead heroes, leaders shocking a culture often come to a bad ending.  Sometimes, that initial shock paves the way for their successor to complete the cultural transformation.  So, even if the first transformational leader fails to change the organization, all may not be lost.

The Key to a Successful Shock

Successfully shocking a culture requires support.  If you do it on your own, you're setting yourself up to be a dead hero.  In David Cameron's case in the UK, he formed an alliance and has consistently managed expectations at every step along the way.  (See my article on this on Forbes.

Griffin may not have ever secured Bewkes' support.  If he did, he lost it.  Furthermore, he did not build a strong enough coalition within Time to fend off the inevitable back-lash against his changes.  Shame on him. (See my article on this in the Washington Post.)

Shame on you if you try to shock a culture without support.  You will fail.  The people you bring in will be in trouble.  The organization will lose time.

Instead,

  • Get a head start by building a base of support for your plans with key constituencies in advance
  • Manage your message throughout the transition, knowing that some people will not want to hear what you have to say.  In some cases, it may be better to let others deliver the bad news.  Candidates could be your predecessor, established insiders who see things the way you do, people brought in on a temporary basis, or outside consultants.
  • Build the team by identifying and cultivating early supporters.  It's essential to get those early supporters to bring in a critical mass of convincible watchers before the detractors drag the watchers their way.
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