March 10, 2005
Excerpts: Naked Truth #28
When women ask me to mentor them, I have to say I find it a false process when done deliberately, with aforethought. The most valuable lessons I have learned came from observing behavior in the office, and vowing to do things differently when I got a chance.
My best mentors have been antimentors, the men whose behavior taught me what not to do. They may be anti-\mentors, but I am not antimen. Some of my best friends, and everyone I have ever slept with, are men. Im sure its coincidental that the worst people Ive experienced in business are men too.
Here are some of the bad boys who taught me so much.
Chris Meigher had been the executive at Time Inc. whose cool, smart questions convinced me in our first meeting that the publishing company was the right partner for the launch of Parenting. He was my partner in the joint venture, and became my boss upon the sale. The years of partnership had forced me to be more independent than would have been my nature, as Chris quickly made it clear that he didnt want to hear any bad newsI was on my own to figure it out. As a boss, he showed traits that I became resolved to never emulate:
- Lack of direct feedback. When I became an official Time Incer after the sale, I joined the companys Annual Incentive Plan a bonus that, depending on performance, was initially set at a target of 50% of my base salary. In February 2001 when the bonuses were awarded, Chris met with me to review my performance (against goals I was then hearing for the first time); he went through the grading system and after a half hour, I was left with no idea whether he was pleased with my performance. I mentioned this to Lisa Valk, and she said, You got a 132 right? I didnt know how she knew this confidential data point. He gives everyone 132. I resolved to spend the time giving my team candid and thorough feedback, and not to wait for the annual review.
- Form over function. No matter the size or complexity or needs of the business, Chris structured our reports to him exactly the same way. We would have group meetings and the same time would be allocated to the head of a money-losing startup as to the head of the group that produced ALL the profits for Chriss division. The message was clear: your importance was measured by less objective factors. It kept everyone in our places. I resolved to manage from the bottom up, responding to the needs of the business (or department, or direct report).
- Politics over performance. His rules of appropriate corporate behavior were hinted at, but not said directly. They were not a helpful or even other-directed set of instructions, which might have initiated me to the mysterious protocols of Time Inc. His motivation was all about his own standing: if a rivals magazine was quoted in the New York Times, he would querulously ask why Parentings profile wasnt higher; if I chatted too openly with another executive, his forbidding secretary would instantly and wordlessly convey my trespass even while Chriss set expression didnt waver. I became careful to separate my desire for a problem-free execution of our plan from the needs of the businesswhich always has problems. My team had to be able to tell me without fear.
Although much of this book reflects my belief that bringing your personal self into the business arena is the best, most effective way to lead, if you are an egomaniac its probably best to park that persona at the office door. The last bad boy in my Time Warner career taught me:
- Ego-driven decisions are the wrong ones. Jim Nelson is brilliant. But he is so impressed with that fact that he cant make room for other peoples ideas. When my successor at Parenting, Carol Smith, resigned in the middle of the magazines most profitable year, her second-in-command, Anne Welch, was a logical choice to take her place. But when Carol gave notice, Jim began to act like a petulant teenager whose girlfriend had decided to go to the prom with someone else. I sent a note (two years after Id left the company) to Jims boss, Don Logan, saying I am not sure if the founders thoughts on succession are relevant, but would be happy to share them if you are interested. Don called and we had a long conversation. At the end, he said I know Jim would do just the opposite if he knew the advice were coming from you. I wished Don well. It didnt take long for me to hear the result of my call. The next day, Jim sputtered with rage Don Logan isnt going to tell me who is going to be president of Parenting. The man Jim chose was the head of newsstand sales at People. He and Anne had begun their Time Inc. careers at the same time, in the same precise position; over the decade-plus since then, she repeatedly had been promoted to higher positions than he had. Don chose not to prevent a moral wrong from being committed in the name of giving autonomy to one of his people. The man chosen to lead Parenting lasted fewer than two years. I stopped reading the magazine I had given birth to a decade earlier. I have never looked at another copy.
About Dylan Schleicher
Dylan Schleicher has been a part of the 800-CEO-READ claque since 2003. Even though he's stayed on at the company, he has not stayed put. After beginning in shipping & receiving, he joined customer service and accounting before moving into his current, highly elliptical orbit of duties overseeing the ChangeThis and In the Books websites, the company's annual review of books and in-house design. He lives with his wife and two children in the Washington Heights neighborhood on Milwaukee's West Side.