Viewpoint -- All The Lessons Fit To Learn

Dec. 21, 2004
Even if you do not read the New York Times, its management failures are instructive.

In a time when several of the mighty have fallen -- think Enron, WorldCom, Arthur Andersen and Martha Stewart -- there has always been the New York Times. It has been the nation's newspaper of record, the unequaled chronicler of events, the responsible first drafter of history. It has been all these and more -- until recently. Now the New York Times itself must be questioned. Specifically the management of the New York Times must be questioned. How was a young reporter able to misrepresent himself and his work product for so long? Why weren't the "red flags" that some editorial staffers raised taken seriously? Why weren't more red flags raised? Where was senior management? Why wasn't there an immediate and unquestioned sense among management to take responsibility for investigating the allegations of journalistic wrongdoing and to correct both the situation and the record? I have been in journalism for most of my adult life and have been covering business executives and their companies for more than three decades. I have been around long enough to know that the management questions that must be raised about the New York Times also must be raised about other companies. Indeed, executives in manufacturing companies, whether or not the scope of their business is as broad as is the coverage of the New York Times, must ask themselves two pointed questions. First, "Do we have any employees misrepresenting themselves and their work product?" Second, "What must we do to ensure that doesn't happen here?" The first question is a question that only you can answer. The answer to the second question is that you can't be absolutely sure that something similar to what happened at the New York Times won't happen in your company. But you can reduce the chances of it happening by improving communications among management and all other employees, by guarding against management favoritism and arrogance, by encouraging a variety of ideas and not stifling dissent, and by recognizing that in its drive to excel in the marketplace, management will occasionally make a wrong turn. These principles seem so basic to sound business operations; they seem so unnecessary of having to be repeated. But some companies and some executives seem never to learn them and how to apply them. The two senior editors at the New York Times appear to have been among that group. Such failures can not only cost executives their jobs, as happened at the New York Times, but also, contends Sydney Finkelstein, a professor of strategy and leadership at Dartmouth College's Tuck School of Business, set up a business for collapse. Indeed, in a fascinating and powerful new book "Why Smart Executives Fail" (2003, Portfolio) he discusses at length and with lots of real world examples such vital matters as the communication breakdowns that block the flow of urgent information and the leadership characteristics that keep executives from changing their courses of action. What specific things can you do so that you and your company don't become casualties? Here are some suggestions from Finkelstein's book, the subtitle of which appropriately is "And What You Can Learn From Their Mistakes":

  • Deal with worst practices as well as best practices. People are not to be jumped on for describing what didn't work.
  • Communicate the lessons learned from mistakes throughout the company from shop floor to the executive offices.
  • Emphasize critical thinking, innovation and challenging the status quo.
"The name of the game," summarizes Finkelstein, "is to make it as easy as possible for people to count, to be heard, to have a voice." John McClenahen is an IW senior editor based in Washington, D.C.

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