8 Management Lessons from the Firing at the New York Times

Daily Herald (Arlington Heights, IL), May 25, 2014 | Go to article overview

8 Management Lessons from the Firing at the New York Times


Byline: Bloomberg News

While few people agree on just about any aspect of Jill Abramson's dismissal as executive editor of The New York Times, there's general consensus on this: The company didn't handle it well.

What could the Times have done better? Here are some ideas:

1. When ousting a prominent executive, make one statement and get off the stage.

New York Times Co. Chairman Arthur Sulzberger may have fueled the uproar last week by issuing two statements -- the first on May 14 and the second three days later. All his explaining and efforts to justify his decision only prompted a rash of Twitter hashtags from Abramson supporters.

"You never want to keep battling back and forth in the press; you want to announce a change at the top and then keep quiet and move on," said Kay Koplovitz, a director at Ion Media Networks Inc., CA Technologies and Kate Spade & Co. who has served on dozens of other boards.

2. Link the management change to the company's strategy.

None of the statements issued by the Times about Abramson's dismissal tied the change to the company's plans or challenges. That may have encouraged Abramson's supporters to protest that she'd been unfairly treated as a woman.

"Among all the communications issued, not one addressed the strategy the Times is pursuing and why a change in editors makes sense," said Gary Hayes, a founding partner at management consulting firm Hayes Brunswick in New York. "You always need to tie a decision about one person to the broader strategy of the company."

'California Wildfire'

3. Control the narrative.

Because the Times didn't successfully execute Nos. 1 and 2, it allowed Abramson's supporters to be the first in the door with well-placed leaks that established a clear and compelling narrative: Abramson was the victim of unequal pay who wouldn't stand for it anymore. That may or may not be true, but the direction of the story was set and the Times found itself controlling the damage instead of the narrative.

"This has become like a California wildfire where you never know where the next hot spot will flare up," said James Post, a professor at Boston University School of Management.

Eileen Murphy, a spokeswoman for the Times, said the organization worked hard to handle the situation well.

"A lot of what we did do and say has been lost in the noise," she said.

'Complimentary Things'

4. Try to accentuate the positive.

The Times's action lacked enough of a sense of gratitude to Abramson, who was a veteran employee who'd made important contributions, including winning multiple Pulitzer Prizes during her tenure as executive editor. In his original announcement, Sulzberger thanked her for "inspiring" the newsroom and called her an "outstanding journalist," but said her management of reporters and editors "wasn't working out."

"There was really no grace at all in this announcement," said Barbara Hackman Franklin, a director at Aetna Inc., one of more than a dozen public company boards on which she has served, who also led the first White House effort to recruit women for high-level jobs as a staff assistant in 1971 to President Richard Nixon. "It's as if no one really thought of the communication piece of this. It was bound to be scrutinized and get a lot of attention heaped on it."

The Times's Murphy said, "Arthur did in fact say complimentary things about Jill Abramson both in his public statements and in remarks to the newsroom. …

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