Leadership Advice for the New York Times and Its New CEO

The New York Times Building in New York City Photograph by Ramin Talaie/Getty Images

Who is to blame—and what should be done—when the new CEO can’t even get an ID badge issued before embarrassing his employer? How can a CEO who begins his tenure standing at the bottom of a well—whether it was dug by or for him—restore his reputation and effectively lead? And what is the cost of this going to be to the employer and employee, in this case the New York Times Co. and its new CEO, Mark Thompson?

It seems evident that the board’s due diligence when vetting Thompson was too cursory. Either that or the Times Co. board found it too easy to discount or disregard details that should have served as warnings. In fairness, it isn’t clear yet how deeply the British Broadcasting Corp. buried this information. The real question is whether the board did the right thing after information started to surface by making no public comment and then by allowing Thompson to take office last week.

In our view, boards have to be willing to admit when there is a blemish—or more—on their CEO. In Thompson’s case, the board should have seriously and publicly considered postponing his appointment until a thorough assessment of his role in the BBC scandal could be conducted.

Each day brings a new recounting of the events at the BBC and, as a result, Thompson’s complicity is still not understood. From the way his own account is shifting, however, it’s hard not to feel that he hasn’t been transparent from the beginning. This is the sort of trust violation that would have serious consequence for a CEO.

As the CEO of one of the world’s most powerful newspapers, Thompson’s challenge is rather unique. The Times’ own public editor has questioned whether he should have taken office, and the paper’s reporters are aggressively reporting the story (as they should). Thompson must come clean with his team immediately. The letter he penned to employees that was recently released falls far short; it made no mention of the BBC situation whatsoever. The letter suggests he just wants everyone to soldier on as if there is nothing to the story. That’s not going to work: As Aldous Huxley noted, “Facts do not cease to exist because they are ignored.”

Thompson needs to share an account that is true, sincere, and resonant. If he knows the facts will support him, then he needs to focus vigorously and publicly on the lessons the experience has taught him about leadership, vigilance, and the importance of protecting the innocent from abuse, no matter what the cost. He needs to acknowledge those harmed in the Jimmy Savile case and speak broadly about the special trust those in the media must earn by holding themselves to the same standards to which they hold others. And he must acknowledge the importance of the brand he now leads, and explain how he plans to repair the tarnish he may have brought to it.

If he can’t do that, he should step down on his own and save the board the trouble.

We worry that it’s more likely Thompson’s communication efforts will now be an attempt to walk a narrow line that protects him from legal action while offering enough to his employees to compel them to become his dedicated followers. That’s a path few have managed to find.

Ironically, recent events involving Rupert Murdoch’s media empire, the current scandal at the BBC, and the Times’ experience with Jayson Blair, show that news organizations are shockingly poor at responding to their own crises. You would expect that given the stature of the paper, the board would be more aggressive in protecting its brand than recent events have demonstrated.