Stars and companies fall from grace. Because of the public hanging, the fall is never pretty. And it’s far easier to explain what happened in hindsight than predict with foresight. Still, looking backward is how we learn our lessons. So here’s my take on NBC’s shocking change in fortune.
Breaking your brand promise destroys trust. News anchors must convey the objectivity, rationality, and truthfulness their viewers demand. CBS’s Walter Cronkite is the gold standard. When your chief newsman appears on late night shows and tries to be funny or raises his hand to be Jay Leno’s replacement—as Williams did—you have a potential branding issue to manage proactively.
Restlessness places brand promises at risk. Restlessness emerges when the status quo produces a feeling or reality of stagnation. John Stewart is exiting the Daily Show as he felt his viewers did not deserve a host with the “slightest bit of restlessness,” as he stated on his show. NBC appears to have had a restless anchor on its hands and mistakenly looked past it.
CEOs also get restless. They seek more boards and more public exposure. Boards also get restless for new leadership. Is this wise? If you recall, Good to Great author Jim Collins found great companies have less publicly visible CEOs, and these CEOs usually emerged from within the company. One exception to the external board role is when the board is strategically important to an organization (e.g., a Google senior leader sits on UBER’s board).
Companies can also get restless in pursuit of revenue growth. When the target for new revenue is consistent with the brand promise, this restlessness is great. Toyota’s move into hybrid engines under the Toyota brand was a great expansion. Toyota leadership was also restless to enter the luxury car market. But it wisely branded its luxury entrant, Lexus, independent of Toyota since the Lexus brand promise and therefore its business model were so different from that of the other car models.
Williams needed to find ways to stretch that were consistent with NBC News’ brand. Just as Toyota could not be luxury and basic, Williams could not be NBC news anchor and protagonist in his embellished stories. Great journalists are usually invisible in the story. Writing scholarly articles, moderating symposiums, etc. would could have challenged Williams and been consistent with a news anchor’s brand.
Address restlessness head-on, before it leaks out in dangerous ways. Often leaders enter periods I call “competent stagnation,” a situation in which they are performing adequately but feel restless, as they have lost their inner drive and spiritual passion. Like a virus, competent stagnation on the part of a leader can infect an entire organization, before an affair, depression or another symptom of underlying distress appears, with considerable organizational damage along the way such as a drop in staff morale or unwanted exits. Far better to raise your hand and say you are restless and decide proactively on how to manage it, than to act out in ways that may not be consistent with what your role and company need. We can forgive Williams’ desire to be more than a talking head. But there were many more places for him to grow, consistent with his brand, than moving to late night story telling.
When a crisis hits, control the public messaging from the highest level. Willams’ situation was worsened by his meek initial apology. NBC needed to take control of the situation earlier.
Governance and culture matter. A Washington Post column reveals that newsroom staff regularly raised eyebrows about Williams’ story embellishments. But who in the newsroom would raise his or her hand to complain about Williams when Williams, also serving as head of the newsroom, controlled which stories made it past the cutting room? Too often, companies give too much power to leaders without built-in checks and balances, or without the fluid communication channels that enable workers’ voices of concern to be heard by their bosses’ bosses.
When leaders are also the rainmakers, as Williams was, they can become more important than the organization’s values and brand promises. Stephen Paskoff, CEO of ELI, often writes about his problem. Big Shots, as he calls them, get away with adverse behavior because companies are frightened of losing the revenue they bring in. I admired Williams’ boss who said in announcing Williams’ departure, “We are bigger than any one person.” Any company is. Dismissing Williams sent the right message to the newsroom staff and the public. The statement was step one in rebuilding trust.
Which of these lessons apply to you?
© Mary Kay Plantes, 2015