Five Ways to Avoid Being Fired in Five Months

Posted 02.22.2011

Jack-griffin The New York media world was abuzz last week with news of the termination of veteran publishing executive, Jack Griffin, from his job of CEO of Time, Inc. a little more than five months after he got there.  Just to make sure the situation was clear to all involved, Time-Warner CEO, Jeff Bewkes released a statement that said,  “Although Jack is an extremely accomplished executive, I concluded that his leadership style and approach did not mesh with Time Inc. and Time Warner.”  None of that leaving to pursue other opportunities and spend more time with his family stuff there.

If you’re interested in the back story, you can read all the details in the New York Times or Howard Kurtz’ column on The Daily Beast.  The quick summary is that Griffin quickly got himself cross-ways with an entrenched and proud culture at Time, Inc.  Julia Kirby of the Harvard Business Review offers six lessons from the Griffin episode. In the spirit of leadership learning, I’m offering my Five Ways to Avoid Being Fired in Five Months.  Here they are:

1.    Do Your Homework:  Any senior leader who gets booted out of an organization less than six months after arrival probably hasn’t done his homework on what he’s about to get himself into.   When you’re preparing to take a new job, conduct some due diligence on the history, culture and political environment of the new organization.  What you learn should inform your strategy upon entry.

2.    Pace Yourself:  Unless your new job calls for driving the lead fire truck in a four alarm turnaround situation, you need to pace yourself when you get there.  Take the time to ask questions, listen to people, observe the written and unwritten rules of the road.  Figure out from first hand observation what you’re dealing with and who you’ve got before making big changes.

3.    Genuflect When Necessary:  When you take over the top leadership job of an organization with a long and proud history (like Time, Inc.), it’s a good idea to publicly genuflect before some of the visible markers of that history.  You don’t have to get married to it, but you do need to acknowledge and explain how you want to build on it.   The pride in the history is likely to be a big reason why people have stuck around.  Don’t discount it.

4.    Build Allies:  Work hard early to establish the relationships that will lead to long term alliances.  At a minimum, figure out who’s going to be opposed to what you’re doing and try to follow the old advice to keep your friends close and your enemies closer.  The fact that Bewkes announced that Time will be run by an interim management committee of three long time executives suggests that Griffin didn’t build the necessary alliances.

5.    Don’t Paint Targets on Your Back:  Soon after he arrived, Griffin ordered a change in the mastheads of all Time, Inc. magazines so that his name would be listed at the top of each.   That was a really effective way to paint a target on his back.  So much so that whoever sourced the New York Times article felt it was worth mentioning.  When you’re new to the job, try not to do things that set you apart from the team.

So, Jack Griffin is far from the only executive in history to be asked to leave soon after arrival.  You’ve probably seen some of these situations yourself.  What other short term survival tips would you offer leaders who are new to an organization?