Filling the void after a death at the top

This column appeared in the PANPA Bulletin September 2013

There is a safe deposit box in St Petersburg, Florida, containing an envelope to be opened in the event of the untimely death of the chairman and chief executive of the Tampa Bay Times. In it is a sheet of paper on which he has written the name of his nominated successor.

This is unusual on two counts: It is rare for the chief executive of a news media company to be in a position to say who will succeed him or her; and such contingency planning is atypical to say the least.

The right to appoint a successor is the fulfillment of the wishes of Nelson Poynter, who bequeathed his shares in what was the St Petersburg Times in order to endow the institute that would later bear his name. The envelope-in-a-box is a safeguard because Poynter believed “a publication is so individualistic in nature that complete control should be concentrated in an individual” and the best person to decide the right successor to the role was his or her predecessor.

Something else had a bearing on the convention: Nelson Poynter died from a massive cerebral hemorrhage in 1978. He had already named his successor but there is still a sense of shock in the Times Publishing Company and the Poynter Institute at the suddenness of his death…and a lesson to be drawn from it. No matter how distasteful the thought, newspaper companies should be mindful that a senior executive could suddenly be pulled from their midst.

A tragic example occurred in June when APN’s New Zealand group advertising director, Andrew McNally, died suddenly at the age of 45. McNally had been recruited from News Ltd in 2012 as one of three new executives charged with helping to re-invigorate the New Zealand Herald publisher’s cross-media and digital strategies. In only 18 months he made a significant impact on both the strategic and operational sides of the business.

Only nine months earlier the chief executive of the Pacific Media Network, Tom Etuata, died from a brain aneurysm. The 46-year-old broadcaster had been an instructor in an Auckland gym and had been described as “super-fit”.

When such sudden losses happen, a company’s first thoughts and actions are for the immediate family of the deceased, followed closely by managing the grief and sense of loss experienced by staff and close associates. In the days following a death these actions are all consuming and unquestionably important. They may be followed by a review of the company’s health monitoring plans to ensure their adequacy

However, there is no disrespect in managements then turning their thoughts to coping with the consequences of a senior executive being taken out of the business equation. Inevitably there will be decisions that had been made but not yet recorded, meetings held but not documented, undertakings given but not communicated elsewhere.

Operational detail can usually be reconstructed from weekly reports, management meetings and emails. Certainly, the numbers in the business equation are now well managed and the frequency of reporting requires daily input and collation. Can the same be said, however, when it comes to the forward-looking aspect of senior management?

Newspapers are expert in gathering knowledge and recording the thoughts and aspirations of others but how good are they at capturing the strategic thinking and aspirational conversations within their own organisations? I suspect that the industry is so preoccupied with its systems for tracking and disseminating other people’s knowledge assets that it pays insufficient attention to its internal needs beyond financial reporting and formal strategic planning. What efforts are made to capture what is in our people’s heads?

First reactions to that question are probably “can’t be done” or “too ephemeral”. Certainly, there is no way in which strategic thinking can be preserved. That is a dynamic, real-time ability to assimilate, analyse and use information in a particular way and it passes with the strategic thinker.

However, in the news media’s Age of Uncertainty, strategic thinkers are expected to project themselves and their organisations into the future and to think long and hard about the paths they should take. It is blue skies imagining that is articulated in random ways and may not be captured by the well documented, splendidly PowerPointed strategic plans that results from some of this thinking. It is important that these other thoughts are shared.

All newspapers need an Omnibus (as in Flanders and Swann’s “big six-wheeler”) Plan that takes account of the undeniable fact that stepping off a kerb can be dangerous. Capturing those strategic thoughts may mean devoting a recorded planning session to “my final memo” or a purposeful directing of coffee conversations that can be translated into diary notes or a culture of thought-sharing or the instituting of a comprehensive knowledge management system.

My Omnibus Plan is contained in a notebook into which I periodically jot the products of a rambling mind. I have given it a title shamelessly stolen from H.G. Wells. It is called The Invisible Man.

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