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Leaders: Don't Be a Bull in a China Shop

Leaders Dont Be a Bull in a China ShopSooner or later, you're likely to end up at a company with a deeply entrenched culture that's alien to you. When that happens, your survival will depend on your ability to adapt, right? Not exactly.

What if the culture's dysfunctional, the company's sinking, and you've been hired to fix it? What then?

If you act like the new sheriff in town to shake things up, executives will feel threatened and you'll risk alienating them or worse. If, on the other hand, you indulge the status quo, you're not doing what you were hired to do. So what's the solution?

Well, here's a story that demonstrates just how difficult the dilemma can be and provides some advice for a positive outcome.

Last August, Time Warner CEO Jeff Bewkes hired Jack Griffin to restructure troubled Time Inc. - publisher of Time, Fortune, Sports Illustrated, People, and Entertainment Weekly. Griffin had done a spectacular job as a top executive at Meredith - publishers of Better Homes and Gardens, Family Circle, and Ladies' Home Journal - and Bewkes had high hopes for his new chief executive.

So it came as a real shock to the media world when Bewkes abruptly fired Griffin last Thursday. Nobody was more surprised than Griffin himself. According to the New York Times, he was "stunned by the news" that he was being forced out after only six months on the job.

According to a memo to employees, Bewkes said the reason for dumping Griffin was that "... his leadership style and approach did not mesh with Time Inc. and Time Warner." Well, that's one perspective, but the Griffin camp sees things very differently.

According to someone close to Griffin, "Jack's exit had nothing to do with management style and everything to do with the question of whether Time is manageable so long as entrenched interests fiercely resist the change necessary to position the organization for the future."

On Friday, Griffin himself shot back, "I was recruited and hired by Time Warner to lead the business transformation of Time Inc., based on my clear record of success and results in the industry. Every action I took over the past six months was made with that ultimate goal in mind. My exit was clearly not about management style or results."

Hmm. So, why was Griffin really fired? According to various reports, Griffin may indeed have helped to dig his own grave when he ...

  • Swaggered into town - like the proverbial new sheriff - with his own plan for restructuring the company. In fact, he brought in consultants to help implement the reorganization instead of enlisting existing executives to carry out his plans.
  • Made rapid and sweeping changes that included eliminating key posts and moving executives around. That apparently didn't sit well with "a small number of people who felt extremely threatened," according to an Adweek source. That small group may have included Time editor in chief, John Huey.
  • "Didn't care what anybody else thought," according to a Time exec, "Ninety percent of the senior executive talent was extraordinarily unhappy." In fact, someone who used to work for Griffin said he was "unimpressed" with the "self-aggrandizing" culture at Time Inc.
  • Made politically incorrect remarks (other's characterization, not mine). Examples: Saying he was finally at a company "where I can actually read the magazines," referring to the womens magazines of his former employer. Also referring to his catholic faith in meetings and other interactions with his management team.
  • Forced out or lost - it's not clear which - the company's most senior women and African-American executives.
Now, I have little patience for political correctness or executives with egos that are far bigger than their talent. It sure seems as if Time's culture is rife with that sort of stuff. That said, I think Griffin was something of a bull in a china shop. While that reference may sound unflattering for Griffin, I don't think much of the "china shop," either.

So what's the solution to the dilemma? Well, the lesson for all of us, I think, is this:

If you're planning to swagger into an organization with a deeply entrenched culture and unceremoniously turn the place upside-down - leaving key executives feeling threatened and powerless - don't naively expect everyone to go gentle into that good night.
Instead, think the implications of your actions through, up-front, and make sure you and your CEO, board of directors, or whoever your boss is, are in sync on your "change mandate." And above all, don't be a bull in a china shop.

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