A fascinating piece by former Emap director Colin Morrison dissected the provenance of the demise of his former employer.
Morrison is a seasoned media executive. In addition to his spell at Emap, he was deputy CEO of what was then Reed Business Publishing (now Reed Business Information ), headed up Axel Springer and is to this day a non-executive directive of Centaur Media. He has seen and been leadership in numerous media entities.
Leadership is at the heart of his analysis of the demise of Emap from being the Apple of media companies — rising at one point to be one of few media companies in the FTSE 100 — to being broken up and sold.
He argues that the when Robin Miller and David Arculus left the business, the two main executives at the company, the character of leadership changed and the business lost its way, most notably by indulging in the ill-fated acquisition of the Peterson empire in the US.
It turns out that the Emap culture of creativity and local decision making was more a result of its leadership style than in the business itself. When the leaders left, it was as if the cultural arm that had made the business successful had been amputated.
Changing times, leadership required
Reading Morrison’s analysis should give us pause for thought about what leadership means in the 21st-century media company. The challenges faced today are far greater than those that Emap had to endure in the post Arculus/Miller era.
There are four kinds of leadership style and they all have their merits, but only one is truly fit for purpose in an industry challenged by shifts in technology and consumer behaviour, increased competition and economic uncertainty.
Not always blessed with the best judgement, and often more in love with themselves than the business they run, the charismatic media leader can command great loyalty (or fear) and be sure that their view of the future is dominant in decision making. They do not always fail, but the risks are huge. The true charismatic leader brooks no challenge and can often, through the force of their personality, win a strategic argument even when they are wrong. A charismatic leader can be malevolent (think or Robert Maxwell ) or benign (like Greg Dyke ). The problem for staff and investors is that distinguishing between the two is normally only possible with hindsight.
Some charismatics think they are visionaries — these are the most dangerous kind. At a time of crisis, do you really want your business run by someone who has visions?
The creative prophet
These leaders are not really leaders at all. They require strong management teams underneath them to implement and filter and nuance. The greatest of them all, Steve Jobs . They do not try to foresee the future, they are the creators of the future. If your business is led by one of these you will be in riches or rags. There is no middle way.
It is not uncommon in recessionary times for media companies to find their helm grasped by the finance department, or as in the case of both Emap and Centaur, that the former CFO becomes the CEO. The nature of processors is that they manage all that can be measured – normally a good thing – and even in times of change a necessary condition for success. But when creativity and taking risk is required, this may not be enough. Processor leaders are naturaly risk averse and for many media companies the time for that has passed.
These leaders surround themselves with creative and strategic thinkers and operational managers with balls. They challenge everything, even their own assumptions about what is the right way forward. But they understand it is better to do something than to be do nothing in fear that it might be wrong or imperfect.
As the history of Emap tells us, success now is no guarantee of success in the future. Great businesses require great leadership to stay great.