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Holding algorithms (and the people behind them) accountable is still tricky, but doable
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April 12, 2012, 3:30 p.m.

Arthur Sulzberger’s hiking buddy has leadership advice that news executives should hear

Wharton business school professor Michael Useem has a checklist for making change work in an organization.

New York Times publisher Arthur Sulzberger Jr. is indeed set to go hiking in the Himalayas with Michael Useem, the director of Wharton’s Center for Leadership and Change Management, next month.

Useem is the man one Times reporter suggested was Sulzberger’s “new management guru,” a characterization the Times disputes. Sulzberger and Useem have gone on this kind of excursion in the past (to Antarctica, New York Times spokesman Bob Christie told me). This time around, Christie says, Sulzberger will present a case study to a group of Wharton MBA students about the decision behind publishing material from WikiLeaks and the implications of that decision: “the legal jeopardy, the PR fallout, reader reactions, advertising reactions, and the decisions you have to make as the head of a company with these kinds of controversies.” He’ll also present a case study about the launch of the newspaper’s paywall.

But guru or no guru, change management is a field of research that’s of particular interest to the news business these days. News executives need to figure out how to get large organizations to abandon old habits, build new products, and create new cultures in the newsroom and on the business side. There’s plenty of evidence from other industries on how to manage that kind of a process. What kind of leadership advice might Useem have that Sulzberger — or anyone else in the news industry — should heed?

I wasn’t able to get in touch with Useem, but I did download his latest book: The Leader’s Checklist: 15 Mission-Critical Principles, published by Wharton Digital Press last year. The price, thanks to the market-disrupting powers of ebooks, is just $2.99 at Amazon, which means for the cost of a latte you can have a taste of what Sulzberger may find interesting in Useem’s work.

The top five principles on his list go something like this:

1. Articulate a vision
2. Think and act strategically
3. Express confidence in those who work with and for you
4. Take charge
5. Make good and timely decisions, and make sure they’re executed

Useem also advises leaders to communicate persuasively, to know when to delegate authority, to stay close to those directly engaged with the company’s work, and to help individuals see how a larger vision/strategy will affect them personally. So far so good — these are all easily applicable to a news environment.

He cautions leaders to dampen “over-optimism,” which may not seem necessary in the doom-and-gloom corners of the traditional news industry. But the idea is also about fighting the hubris that accompanies success. Keeping optimism in check also means preparing the organization for “unlikely but extremely consequential events.” Sounds newsy to me.

Throughout the book, Useem uses leadership examples from major corporations, the military, and government agencies. He publishes the transcript from a conversation about leadership that he had with Laurence Golborne, the Chilean Minister of Mines who helped manage the dramatic rescue operation in that country two years ago, and a transcript of an interview with New York Fire Chief Joseph Pfeifer about 9/11 and the lack of information sharing between officials that day.

The upcoming hike location is a fitting choice for Useem: One of the recent books he co-authored is The India Way: How India’s Top Business Leaders Are Revolutionizing Management. He summed up some of the ideas from that book in a 2010 article for The Wall Street Journal:

Indian executives see their most important goal as serving a social mission, not maximizing shareholder value, as in the U.S. They take pride in enterprise success — but also in family prosperity, regional advancement, and national renaissance. When asked about their priorities, Indian executives ranked investor interests below strategy, culture, or employees, much the inverse of what we usually hear from Western executives.

In The Leader’s Checklist, Useem writes that the critical quality that leaders most often lack is remembering to “honor the room.” Here’s a piece of advice for news executives to remember:

In a discussion with one person, a team, a class, an off-site meeting, before you get off-stage, take a moment to tell the people you are with — those who may be ready to follow you — that you know who they are, that you respect what they’re doing, and that you’re extremely grateful for their hard work, upon which you’re going to get your job done.

POSTED     April 12, 2012, 3:30 p.m.
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