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Timeless lessons from Time Inc: How Griffin set the stage for his own ouster

George Bradt is managing director of PrimeGenesis, a consultancy focused on transition acceleration and executive onboarding. He is the author of The New Leader's 100-Day Action Plan (Wiley, 2009).

Even though 40 percent of executives fail in their first 18 months, few do it as publicly as Jack Griffin did after just six months as CEO of Time Inc. The advantage of this ouster being so public, though, is that it gives us a real-time case study in why so many senior executive transitions go wrong--and so fast.

New leaders must choose how they engage their new organization's context and culture, thinking through whether they should assimilate, converge and evolve, or shock at the start. In this situation, it was necessary for Griffin to significantly change, or shock, the culture at Time, even though the company was not ready for it.

As Griffin put it in his opening memo to Time's employees, their "navigating the numerous transitions required by the digital revolution" was indicative of a strong need for change. Time's culture was more centered on the individual magazines than on the corporation. The previous CEO, Ann Moore, had grown up in the magazines and been with Time for 32 years. Essentially, this was a collection of strong, independent-minded leaders probably not ready for the wholesale cultural shift that was needed to drive future business growth.

The root of Griffin's demise was not his decision to shock Time's culture, it was his failure to understand just how dangerous it was to do so. After a decade at Meredith, he was an insider there. He could lead change and people would follow. At Time, he was an outsider. Not everyone followed his lead.

To be fair, Griffin did much right. He talked to a few of Time's senior executives before his first day. He thought things through and determined what and how he was going to communicate before day one. However, he did not build a strong enough base of supporters before he started making changes. Having conversations with executives (including your boss) is not the same as securing their support.

Perhaps he was blinded by his previous successes, thinking the Meredith ways would work at Time, but Griffin went halfway in managing his message. He set the stage with his day one opening memo that laid out direction for the company and operating principles. However, sending this out on his first day communicated that he didn't need to hear what anyone else thought before he showed them the way forward. Then he hedged his bets, describing Time as "the Nirvana that people are looking for," quoting the Washington Post's Rick Stengel, while trying to set the context for change at the same time.

Add to the mixed messaging the fact that Griffin appeared to quickly take power away from the organization's current leadership. He brought in outsiders and consultants, while also creating corporate heads of marketing, sales and digital. He split news and sports, and put his own name at the top of the mastheads of every magazine. This subordinated the individual magazines' relative independence. All of these changes made him the lightning rod for discontent.

To fix this, Griffin would have needed to change the balance of supporters and detractors. Yet he didn't find enough early allies to help win over some of the convincible watchers. And he also waited too long to try to neutralize the detractors, which he could have done either by turning them into watchers or making them go away. This failing isn't unique to Griffin: The No. 1 thing experienced leaders regret is not moving fast enough on people.

Now that Griffin has left, the figures he brought in from the outside and anointed from the inside are all vulnerable. There is going to be a backlash against the counter-cultural things Griffin did. In fact, there is going to be backlash against nearly everything he did--as people will assume that most of his changes were counter-cultural, even if they weren't. Expect his new structures, new polices and new people to get undone.

Griffin's failure in shocking the system will also make it that much harder for his successor. Griffin's detractors will feel emboldened by their success in rejecting Griffin and will be much more inclined to flex their muscles to defend the culture against any other intruder from the outside. Remember, this is a culture operating in a context that requires change. Although Griffin is now gone, this story is not over for Time.

By George Bradt

 |  March 1, 2011; 3:57 PM ET |  Category:  Business Leadership , Change management , Corporate , organizational culture Save & Share:  Send E-mail   Facebook   Twitter   Digg   Yahoo Buzz   Del.icio.us   StumbleUpon   Technorati  
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