Cohesion: Preferred but Not Necessary
It was my first week on the job as a lawyer for the Los Angeles Times, more than 20 years ago. I was working out in the executive gym and there in front of me was the Otis Chandler.
I’d read David Halberstam’s The Powers That Be. I knew Otis was an icon in the media business, that in the sixties, he had single handedly transformed a poorly regarded, obviously biased Republican rag into one of the great newspapers in the world.
He had turned against his right wing family and written an anti-John Birch Society editorial on the front page, hired Bill Thomas, a fiercely independent editor, brought in Jack Nelson to overhaul the Washington Bureau, all the while keeping the franchise highly profitable and whipsawing the local competition.
So we started chatting. I soon learned that we had both been shot putters, he at Stanford and of Olympic quality, me on a more modest level. But I thought we clicked.
A couple days later, I went to work with some trepidation. I was wearing a grey camelhair sport coat instead of the blue pin strips that everyone else in the office sported. I got on the elevator and was relieved to see the great man, Otis Chandler, in the exact same outfit. So maybe I would fit in, I thought.
Then Otis, who was notorious for not remembering names, turned me to and said "Hello Bill." I paused, and turned to him. "Hello, Otis, but it’s not Bill. It’s Jeff." I was one of thousands of employees, but from that day on, Otis always knew who I was and we are still friends to this day.
There are several lessons in this story. First, and foremost, that leadership can make a difference. One person can radically transform a business, take it to a new level, or inspire it to greatness. Second, for that to be successful, you need to be yourself.
And third, that asserting yourself, even when it means challenging the boss, is important. Indeed, I find that people who work for me who never disagree with me don’t work for me for long. Who wants to be surrounded by people who don’t take risks?
These are all lessons that are part of my common sense approach to leadership.
To manage those who create is different than managing factory workers or paper pushers. Operating a media franchise is more like directing a movie than running a traditional business. Creative people have different needs. Motivating people to do their best in a creative, chaotic environment is difficult; and requires special skills and sensitivity.
Communication skills, particularly listening well, and cohesion, are two necessary ingredients to successfully leading a media property. But in the media business, when we talk about cohesion, about "being on the same page" it requires a different sensibility than in most other businesses.
In business school, it is taught that alignment is important, even essential.
Professors say: "Articulate the strategy, get buy in, get employees to work together on mission statements, value statements, joint goals."
But cohesion isn’t that easy in publishing. We’re different. There is a natural tension between business and editorial concerns, as well there should be, so it makes it much more difficult to get "alignment" as it’s talked about by most MBA’s.
Most business executives would be bewildered with push-back from editors and reporters who don’t seem to care about "greater profits" but are much more interested in telling a good story, breaking an exclusive or exposing wrongdoing.
It doesn’t mean that goals are not necessary, but that to be successful in publishing, you have to learn to communicate well, but live with chaos and understand your organization’s threshold for chaos.
You have to learn to thrive in an environment that values spirited debate, and that understands conflict and disagreement can lead to the right answer.
Which reminds me of a story: President Calvin Coolidge had some friends from home to dinner at the White House. They were worried about their table manners. They wanted to please the President, so they decided the best way to do that would be to follow the President’s lead. When coffee was served, the President poured his into a saucer. So they poured their coffee into their saucers. The President added cream and sugar. They followed his example.
Then Coolidge bent over and put his saucer on the floor for the cat.