The A, B, Cs of the Cathie Black Blunder…

April 8, 2011 at 6:42 pm

Those of us outside of New York City may be familiar with Cathie Black from her days as Chairman of Hearst Magazines or President and Publisher of USA Today. But most recently New York City Mayor Bloomberg appointed her to the role of New York City Schools Chancellor. This appointment was met with much controversy and agitation from day one for a host of reasons. On day 95 she stepped down from this position and was replaced by lesser known New York City Deputy Mayor Dennis Walcott.
Aside from the newsworthiness of this story and the criticism being thrust on Mayor Bloomberg for this mis-step there are valuable lessons that can be learned from this event:

A. Bring in the experts.

Mayor Bloomberg appears to have selected and appointed Cathie Black as Chancellor of Schools on his own. She came from his social circle and after the previous Chancellor abruptly quit Mayor Bloomberg approached Black about the job. Personal networks can sometimes supplement a strategic and objective search process but for something as high profile and important as the New York City School system Mayor Bloomberg would have been wise to conduct a proper search and consider a variety of candidates who had been properly screened and evaluated as their qualifications related to the huge job at hand.

B. Skills are not always transferable

In the business world there has been repeated evidence of successful leaders who come from outside of the industry where they ultimately achieve their success. For example Alan Mulally the current CEO of Ford Motor Company came from Boeing and did not have any automobile experience when he took over at Ford. His choice as leader of what was at the time a very beleaguered company was widely criticized because of his lack of industry experience. But under Mulally not only did Ford avoid bankruptcy (unlike their competition) but it experienced a major turn-around with sales increasing over 30% since 2008 and staggering losses when Mulally arrived were turned to profit of $6.6 billion last year. Not bad for an “aerospace guy”!

But this strategy of appointing a leader from a different industry must be applied cautiously and only after great deliberation and consideration of all the alternatives. In the case of Cathie Black the skills and experience accumulated from a lifetime in the publishing industry were not really transferable to the demanding and complicated world of public school education.

C. It is very hard to get the job done with few supporters

Do not underestimate the value of selecting a leader that is believed in by the people he/she is to lead. While this is not the major criteria when selecting leadership its importance is often underestimated. What chance does a leader have when his or her constituents fundamentally disagree with his/her appointment. The efforts required to turn around an indignant and resentful group certainly takes away from one’s ability to get a job done.

D. It is ok to pull the plug.

There is a huge cost both financial and physic associated with making leadership changes. But this needs to be balanced by the risk of keeping a challenged or ineffective leader in place with the hope that the situation gets turned around.

How long does one give it before making this decision? Mayor Bloomberg
gave Black three months but there is no magic number and each situation
must be analyzed according to its own unique set of characteristics. There is definite value however admitting error and not letting a bad situation go too far.

E. Big names are not always the right solution.

When making all types of decisions it is always tempting to go with the name brand, the big name, the name that is recognizable. We feel that this minimizes the risk of making an error. We feel that if there is in fact a mistake or a less than ideal outcome it is not our fault because we selected or purchased the best.

This line of reasoning can be faulty because (a) there is no guarantee that the best will continue as such and (b) this is a very subjective way of making a decision. A much better approach includes an objective definition of the problem with an enumeration and evaluation of a variety of solutions. The challenge at all times is to maintain objectivity.

So while the situation with Cathie Black and the New York City School system will be looked back upon as a mistake the good news is perhaps we can learn something and therefore the situation was not in vain.


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