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In First Person: Mark Thompson

February 25, 2021

Changing Strategy and Culture inTandem

This article was published in print and online in the Spring 2020 Issue of the Journal of HR People + Strategy.

When I was first contacted about whether I would like to be considered for the CEO job here, I initially said no. Friends advised me not to take the job. They warned that it would be borderline impossible to make progress. My taking the job was an instinctive bet that The Times could change.

As I did more interviews before joining The Times, I became convinced that the Ochs-Sulzberger family meant it when they talked about wanting to lean into the necessary scale of change. I concluded that if the organization could get out of its own way, it could do three or four times better.

I made the leap and took the job, starting the process of figuring out how to get the organization to respond. The company was either going to grow its digital side or it was going to fail. The print side was a mature business. Top-line revenue was falling every year, and there was still uncertainty about whether the digital subscription model was going to work. When I arrived in late 2012, it appeared to be running out of steam and print advertising was falling like a stone. The economics looked bleak.

At the time, people were asking the right questions, such as, “How can I best defend the future of The New York Times and the quality of its journalism?” But no one was coming up with the right answer, and there were a set of interlocking red lines and barriers in the organization. The essential segregation of newsroom and advertising—you can’t have the same department report about a company and sell advertising to that company—had been turned into a broader religious doctrine.

Owning the Change

I didn’t push the issue. After all, you are not going to succeed as a CEO if you try and impose a set of ideas or a new culture on Day 1. It just doesn’t work. It’s got to be owned. It’s more a question of trying to pull it out of the organization rather than to push it in, and that meant trying step-by-step to encourage a deeper conversation about the future.

We tried one or two experiments around the edges, including NYT Cooking, with leaders from the newsroom and business side creating a team together. Another approach was to start the process that led to the Innovation Report, written by a group of middle- to senior-level movers and shakers within The Times who were chosen for their intellectual independence. We simply posed a question: what should we do? I was convinced that, rather than been dragged along by their commercial colleagues, the editors and journalists at The Times should themselves be in the lead in figuring out how to successfully port the best, most thoughtful journalism in the world into these new digital environments.

The publication of the Innovation Report in 2014 was a big turning point for the culture, too. It was intended for a small, internal audience, but it was leaked to Buzzfeed for the world to read. Within 24 hours, the fact that it was made public seemed probably more good than bad. It showed an organization that was up for a candid look at its own performance, that was not complacent, and that was troubled about the question about whether it was changing or moving quickly enough. I thought it said all the right things about the organization.

If you can genuinely allow your colleagues to feel they’re playing a meaningful part in deciding what the change is—they know the practitioners who wrote the Innovation Report, and it wasn’t a consultancy or senior management—that supports the idea that we’re in this together as we shape the future. You can’t invent it in a closed room at the top of the organization, and then think your job is communicating it. That just doesn’t work.

That said, there was a real concern that the Innovation Report being leaked was going to be profoundly damaging to The Times. But the stock didn’t go down, and the honest look at ourselves seemed to win over the commentariat. Our colleagues in other news organizations were jealous that we were working on these hard questions. It was all positive.

But that was just part of the puzzle. The user experience, the journalism, the competitive context, the data background, the product work and modernization is like a Rubik’s cube. They’re all connected, they’re all different facets of the same thing. To get the solution, you’ve got to move everything around. That was going to require a profound team effort for an organization with its unique traditions and bright lines between the news and business sides.

Changing Minds at the Top

In 2015, we started a regular meeting of the Friday Group, as we called it, involving the top leaders from across the organization. We would meet each Friday, from April through to the middle of October, starting at noon and finishing at around 6. I knew that until we could have a genuinely productive and honest conversation at the top, we weren’t going to get anywhere. And I was happy to wait. You have to be quite patient. I’ve seen people come into media organizations and try to get dramatic shifts quickly. They tend to be rejected by the antibodies.

Many people in the Friday Group were skeptical at first and simply wanted to get back to their busy jobs. We started off talking about the challenges, and by the summer, the meetings were becoming difficult and fraught, and not just along the usual church-state lines. A number of people became very focused on the idea that there was a big unlock for the organization around the phrase “subscription first,” as in being focused most importantly on growing our digital subscriber base. That idea presented obvious challenges in how our colleagues in the advertising department would perceive themselves, since advertising had always been the main engine of driving revenue.

As the weeks went by, I came to accept the logic that subscription-first was probably going to work for us and help get the entire organization focused around a shared goal. The outside world would understand what we were doing, what was different and how it might help us reduce our exposure to the advertising power of Google and Facebook. It was a fundamental shift for us, given that advertising had been our key metric for revenue for so long. We believed that advertising would be a vital second revenue stream for us—indeed we thought that building a large base of influential and highly engaged subscribers would help us attract the world’s leading brands—but we thought that subscription-first would both unite our own company but also help us differentiate our offering for both readers and the wider market.

As a CEO, the key thing is not thinking that you’ve got all the answers or that your job is to share your wisdom through internal communications or issue a series of orders over email. You have to be open to having this kind of honest debate that may lead to conclusions that not only are not yours, but that you may even argue against for a time. We went through this trial by fire to end up with a document that we called “Our Path Forward,” and four years in, it still feels pretty good.  Achieving these moments of clarity are hard won. That plan also meant backing Times journalism with investment dollars and increasing headcount in our newsroom, at a time when everyone else in our industry was cutting theirs. Today we’ve got 300 more journalists than when I started.

Making Cultural Progress

You can feel the cultural change in the organization. The digital subscription model is working and the external approbation that The Times has received has had its effect on the culture inside the organization. People want to be associated with a strategy that promises to be successful. What started as a risky gamble becomes the path to the future, so key people want to get on the train. And although we’ve still got plenty more to do, we’re making progress.

The blockers of change tend to be more likely to be found in the middle and top of organizations than in the bottom. The biggest challenges you have, if you’re a CEO, are the people closest to you. But there is always a constituency for change. There might be 20, 30, conceivably even 40 percent of the workforce who, when you come out with some provocative plan, will say, “At last, somebody’s doing something interesting,” and they’ll be a constituency for change.

The best talent below the age of 40 doesn’t want to work in dysfunctional organizations or with dysfunctional managers. It’s a bad user experience. They can’t understand why silos should exist, or why bullying, intolerant, rude managers should exist. The speed of change is faster. What we need next year is different from what we need this year. All of these are really fresh challenges for HR. What HR cannot be is a kind of downstream service department that is doing the mechanics of HR, not least because all those mechanics are being automated. What we desperately need to do is to differentiate and succeed competitively in getting the best talent.

The role of HR in cultural transformations like this is to be upstream of almost everything. Businesses like this business have algorithms, but our algorithms are not the key to our future. It’s a talent-led business, and successful execution is going to depend more than anything on having the right people in the room. It’s about using the human capital in the building to just get on with it. The stretch for HR is that HR should be in the room when the future of organizations is discussed. The way we think about talent—how we win in terms of recruiting and retaining the talent we need and creating a really successful human community that values inclusion—has become more and more important.    

Ellen Shultz, Executive Vice President, Talent and Inclusion, at The New York Times Company, joined the company four years after Thompson, when the gears were already turning to shift the focus of the enterprise from a print-first to digital-first model. She shares how she had to bring the HR function quickly up to speed to help enable the transformation, and the lessons she learned by focusing on small wins and the importance of building trust.

When I joined The New York Times in June 2016, the company was in the midst of transformation, and still is.  Our revenue model was changing, the way consumers access their news was changing, the workforce was changing, and the company needed an HR function to support, and sometimes lead, these shifts.  My mandate was to build a modern HR organization, called Talent & Inclusion, at The Times and extend it across the entire company.  I was struck at first by how many subcultures there are at The Times, in addition to the overriding culture of excellence that permeates the entire organization. As a result, the cultural change was being driven by different groups across the organization who had really good ideas and a lot of drive and interest in advocating for themselves and their colleagues. They were effective in small pockets, not at the organizational level.

Recruiting First

My first initiative would be building up our recruiting function. It had to happen before any kind of creativity around cultural transformation could start because we had to get the blocking and tackling right. Since 2016, we’ve grown by 1,000 full-time employees, so it turned out to be the right first step. We were at the beginning of a huge ramp up, and we needed to build out our processes and systems for posting jobs, keeping track of interested candidates, demographic data and other metrics such as how long it took to fill positions.

Once that was up and running, we could start to think strategically about hiring and building diversity through recruitment. We put in place principles that all jobs must be posted and have a detailed job description. It feels basic, but we started requiring diverse candidate slates with diverse interview teams. We learned through building the recruitment process about how to work better with parts of the organization that weren’t accustomed to HR, like the newsroom.

We focused on small wins and building trust, and that became our approach to everything new that we implemented. We instituted more regular feedback through performance reviews and talent assessments. We started a cycle of regular conversations between managers and their employees throughout the year. We reintroduced performance ratings and made them really easy, replacing the overly detailed calibration system we had years earlier. Because we had started by building trust, people were willing to try the new way of doing things. It’s not been perfect, but we aim to keep all the language in our programs approachable and clear so that everyone understands how it applies to them.

Clear Objectives and Iteration

While we’ve focused on small wins, we’ve also had a process, at the company level, of setting enterprise-wide goals. In addition to our business goals, we’ve had a journalistic goal and a people goal. The goal in 2018 was to become the best place to work in media. My team and I thought about how we would measure being the “best” and that focused us on how to reach that goal. We looked at the areas in the employee survey where we were soft and put in actions over the course of the year.  The goals were annual so we set up a system of measuring inputs so we could monitor progress toward the goal. We’ve started publishing our diversity data every year. We did a pay equity study for the entire company. These bigger, impactful initiatives were made possible by the building blocks we put in place initially.

Another lesson is to have just a few clear objectives and constantly be monitoring and driving toward them. Otherwise, if you’re trying to fix everything at the same time, you’re not really going to get anything done. You have to go fix the biggest problems first and balance them with the quick wins. You have to be very intentional, and that sometimes means saying no to things that parts of the organization may want you to do.

The final point about HR’s role in transformation is that sometimes it’s important to get out of the way. You can’t be so precious about your brilliant idea because a new one is going to come along, and you have to constantly iterate. You used to be able to bake something and put it on the shelf and then just dust it off every year. You just can’t do that anymore. There’s really not a playbook for most things because everything is changing. Employees are your biggest consumer now. They could go take a job anywhere in this market—the unemployment rate is the lowest it’s been since 1969. People can work in the gig economy, they can be entrepreneurs, they can work remotely. There’s so many options for employees that the balance of power has shifted a little bit, and you have to recognize that and cater to them like consumers.

Keeping your eye on the big goals helps with patience. My goal is to build a consistent, one-company approach, and I’m patient about that. Building things that can scale and can repeat, rather than one-offs, is important to me. I like to build for the long haul. In terms of people, I really try to foster an organization where everybody’s voice is valued and can have equal weight. When I’m thinking about balancing what’s urgent versus what is important, I keep those things in mind.