Eight Management Lessons From the Mishandled NYT Firing

May 19 (Bloomberg) –- Bloomberg’s Edmund Lee discusses Jill Abramson’s ouster at the Grey Lady. He speaks on Bloomberg Television’s “Market Makers.” (Source: Bloomberg)

While few people agree on just about any aspect of Jill Abramson’s dismissal as executive editor of the New York Times (NYT), 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.

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“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 hotspot 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.”

‘No Excuse’

5. Don’t get personal.

Sulzberger allowed his emotions to color his message, which added to the view that he’d mishandled the situation. In his second statement on May 17, for instance, he complained about Abramson’s “arbitrary decision-making” and “public mistreatment of colleagues,” asserting that she’d lost their support and could never regain it.

“When someone is embroiled in a dispute, you become myopic and you see the world through your own lenses and lose track of how others will view it,” said Davia Temin, head of the New York-based crisis management firm Temin & Co. “There’s no excuse for not taking the high road -- no matter how provoked you feel you are.”

6. Recognize management challenges early.

Executives who are promoted for their technical brilliance and past performance sometimes derail because of personality or management flaws. Some can be helped and retained. Companies including General Electric Co., Boeing Co. and Google Inc. routinely coach talented executives who are having difficulties, which can help both the executives and the companies.

Equal Pay

“When you’re working in upper management, it’s not just about dealing with subordinates, but also peers, and in some cases you need to learn how to temper your style,” said Ray Henson, a management consultant who teaches executive and leadership strategy at Rutgers Business School. “People who have been successful don’t see a reason to change.”

7. Anticipate reactions based on gender and race.

The New York Times failed to foresee the fallout from firing a woman at a top level job and all the issues that are wrapped up in topics such as pay disparity and lack of progress for woman executives, said Gloria Allred, a Los Angeles lawyer who often represents women in discrimination cases.

Once the issue of equal pay was raised, she said, the tone was bound to change.

“When a woman rises to a top job formerly held by men, there’s a concern about whether she is not only being given the title, but also the pay and the responsibility which is similar to what a man in that position has received,” she said. “Management has to be very cautious and sensitive to the fact that women and minorities are very concerned about these issues and need to think about this in advance.”

‘Something Toxic’

The Times’s Murphy said, “The Times was well aware that this was going to be a big story because of Jill’s prominence, although we weren’t prepared to have to respond to leaked salary information that implied this is about gender pay equity.”

Of course, not all of the missteps were on the company’s side. Abramson also made mistakes, management experts said. Among them:

8. Watch your back with a prominent and popular No. 2.

Dean Baquet, who’d been managing editor under Abramson, made little secret of his strains with Abramson and, according to several reports, threatened to quit after learning Abramson planned to bring in another editor with the same title as he held.

“If there’s something toxic going on, someone may have to go in order to keep the other person who’s deemed more valuable,” said Peter Crist, chairman of Crist/Kolder Associates. “It’s painful, but that’s what directors and CEOs get paid to do.”

To contact the reporters on this story: Carol Hymowitz in New York at chymowitz1@bloomberg.net; Jeff Green in Southfield, Michigan at jgreen16@bloomberg.net

To contact the editors responsible for this story: John Brecher at jbrecher4@bloomberg.net Anne Reifenberg, Stephen West

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