Sunday, January 2, 2011

Finally, an Analysis of Cathleen Black's Corporate Skills - Or Lack Thereof

 Here's a Black critique from the pro-Joel side of the tracks. But we've been hearing she was kicked upstairs and also many of use weren't willing to accept as gospel she was a brilliant innovator or manager. The word out in the publishing industry to describe her and why she was brought in is obvious to us: union buster.

" Say what you will about Joel Klein, who has held the job since 2002, but the fact is that 40 percent of all kids in Harlem now start their education at a charter school...It required an audacious, rule-breaking spirit to accomplish, not cautious tinkering. But everything about Cathie Black's management background screams "incrementalist." She has never been a change agent."

Another take on why Black doesn't qualify...

Why Cathleen Black Was the Wrong Choice to Head New York City's Schools

As usual, the press and the complaining hordes are focusing on the wrong issues. Everyone assumes that Cathleen Black, who starts her job next week as New York City Schools Chancellor, is a fine choice from a management perspective, but what's lacking from her resume are any educational credentials.

I challenge that. What the New York City school system needs is bold and imaginative thinking that breaks out of the calcified structures that have imprisoned it and its students for decades. Say what you will about Joel Klein, who has held the job since 2002, but the fact is that 40 percent of all kids in Harlem now start their education at a charter school. This is a stunning statistic. It could never, ever have happened under a Black-led regime, It required an audacious, rule-breaking spirit to accomplish, not cautious tinkering. But everything about Cathie Black's management background screams "incrementalist." She has never been a change agent.

First, what do we really know about her management skills? Since Hearst is a private company, we don't know her "metrics." I put metrics in scare quotes because one of the huge fights raging now in the New York City school system is over whether teacher performance data should be made public, and whether the Klein Era has put too much emphasis on teaching for the test. Ironically, we have no view into Cathie Black's own performance record, even though it is her management skills that Mayor Bloomberg cited as the reason for her selection.

When you look at her tenure at Hearst, it was marked by two essential successes – the creation of O magazine, launched in April of 2000, and the expansion of Cosmopolitan globally. She also launched Food Network magazine.

None of these were innovative or game-changing. Martha Stewart Living was launched ten years before Oprah. All Cathie Black did was Xerox the concept of an eponymous lifestyle magazine, and successfully pitch it to Oprah Winfrey. So Ms. Black's big resume item was a copycat idea whose success was due to the galactic appeal of the most powerful woman in media.

I'm not minimizing her ability to sell. That's her calling card - she started as an ad salesperson and climbed the ladder to publisher, which is nothing but a salesperson with a bigger office, town car, and wardrobe allowance. So let's be honest about her accomplishments. Most people outside of publishing and the media don't understand what Cathie Black did, they don't know the difference between editors and publishers, and often attribute an un-earned aura of creativity and imagination to the publisher business card. Publishers have a simple mission – to sell ads and cultivate relationships with big advertisers.

Ms. Black's other big success was the global expansion of Cosmopolitan. A fine tactical move, but considering that the UK edition of the magazine was launched back in 1972, it doesn't exactly take a visionary to say "Hey, why don't we take our successful formula of 'fearless sexuality' everywhere?" The current #1 featured story on the Cosmopolitan website: How to Give Him a Lap Dance." That'll help prepare students for the jobs of tomorrow.

She also had flops. Talk magazine, in partnership with Miramax, and Lifetime magazine, cost the Hearst heirs many tens of millions. And it's not like these flops were noble failures based on innovative ideas that were ahead of their time. Both Talk and Lifetime were small (at best) twists on existing magazine formulas.
But the biggest shortcoming of Cathie Black's tenure was her failure to recognize and stay ahead of the tectonic shifts that the Internet has brought to the traditional publishing model.

Hearst was every bit as Paleolithic as its publishing peers. Which means they were slow to bring their magazines online and slow to recognize the power of Web 2.0 and the social aspects of sharing and community. There isn't a single meaningful web innovation that has come out of Hearst. Even now, their digital revenue, according to MediaWeek, is only "slightly better" than the industry average.

Further, under Mrs. Black's leadership, Hearst was abysmal when it came to recognizing its internal limitations and, in turn, using its massive bank account to make smart strategic acquisitions. Hearst failed to identify and invest in entrepreneurial start-ups and early-stage companies in any significant way, either. They haven't built anything real, or bought anything important. Their digital acquisitions include a cheesy question-and answer company called, a company that tricks you into buying vitamins by asking you what your "real age" is ( and, a third-rate shopping site.

Her newspaper experience is no better, perhaps worse. She was President and CEO of the Newspaper Association of America from 1991 through 1996. These were pivotal, critical years for the industry, its last chance to redefine newspapers for the Internet era. Anyone who has witnessed the carnage of the last few years in the industry – the gutting of staff, the closing of venerated newspapers, "for-rent" signs being hammered on bureaus around the world – is painfully aware that the newspaper industry was shockingly negligent in planning for its own future. Even with the standards of social promotion, you'd have to give Mrs. Black an "F" for that tenure.

Mayor Bloomberg defended his secretive selection of Mrs. Black by describing her as an "expert manager." But even that is a whopping overstatement. Hearst isn't a complicated business to run. No publishing company really is. There's a sales force and an editorial group to manage. And newsstand distribution. That's essentially it. There's no R&D, no complex supply chain, no complicated retailer ecoystem, no buying and hedging of commodities, no manufacturing, no giant employee network, no unions. It's wildly misleading for Mayor Bloomberg to elevate Mrs. Black to the level of a real world-class manager, say someone like Alan Mulally, who transformed Boeing and moved brilliantly to Ford, where he was the only auto CEO who didn't need bail-out money.

But even if she was an expert manager, the New York City school system, with its massive bureaucracy and entitled constituencies, requires far more. And besides, expert management should exist at many levels below the chancellor position, especially after eight years of Joe Klein and his culture-changing leadership.

To deliver high quality education to every student, to lift up the still-suffering performance of minority students and dozens of schools, cries out for someone with a history of seeing ahead, with a passion for new ideas who takes genetic pleasure at upending conventional wisdom.

Joel Klein said his biggest regret wasn't being "bold enough." When you can point to something profound and inspiring that happened at Good Housekeeping, Popular Mechanics, Redbook or Hearst itself, then you can tell me that Cathie Black has the necessary boldness for the job.

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