A Lesson at Time Inc: How Long Do We Keep Those Out of Touch With the Culture?

Jack Griffin only lasted six months as CEO of Time Inc.
Jack Griffin only lasted six months as CEO of Time Inc.

It was like a surgeon strategically wielding a scalpel taking out the organ that the body rejected.

“I concluded that his leadership style and approach did not mesh with Time Inc. and Time Warner,” Time Warner CEO Jeff Bewkes stated in a memo. And with that, it was over and done with.

The Chairman and CEO of Time Inc, Jack Griffin was fired on Thursday evening by Bewkes. Six months was all it took and the decision was made.

As I worked out on Friday morning, this announcement flashed across the TV screens. My reaction? Wow.

How many times as HR professionals have we seen that happen? Yes, we have seen it at lower levels but not at the top of the mountain. That does not happen very often. There have been times that you have seen employees that you would have cheered for the opportunity to wield the scalpel to, as was done over at Time.

When is it enough?

You have done everything humanly possible in “developing” this employee and it just does not seem to get through. Problem is, sometimes this employee is the “fair-haired boy/girl” and is, quote/unquote, “untouchable” by the powers that be.

We have had employees that we knew we should have done this to, but we waited, and waited, and in some cases they left on their own. In a lot of cases, however,  they stayed on and just infested the workplace.

I give Time Warner credit for acting swiftly, if you consider six months swift. They let it play out until they knew that had to make the move.

What is not surprising is that 40 percent of senior-level external hires fail within the first 18 months of their transitions. But that is not what this is about. I am sure the CEO will be second guessed and people will wonder how he picked this guy in the first place.  Still, hiring is an inexact science and if you make a mistake, it is better to cut your losses and move on.

Culture raises its head

That thing called “culture” reared its head in this case, and for once, culture won.

Just think of the message that sends throughout the organization. That should give everyone “cover” if they have to make a similar decision.

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There will be an aftershock over just what happened. All the Monday morning quarterbacks will weigh in the same as I am doing here. A few newspapers I read gave what they said were an accurate count of the prevailing issues at play here. But that is not what this post is about.

Culture rejection

My question is how should you handle a new hire that is clearly out of touch with your culture? The manager knows it and all the team members know it. Do we keep hoping there will be a turnaround? When does culture win out?

Every company has one, and everyone working there may not be able to explain it ,but they know it when they see it. Culture, however, is extremely important for any type of enterprise-wide change. It has been noted that change efforts fail the vast majority of the time because the culture was not taken into account —  especially the role that it plays within the organization.

If the effort is not put forth in identifying the aspects of your culture that may impact what you are trying to achieve, rest assured you will have a moment like this where culture will raise its head.

Driving change

For new hires that are looking to drive change, it may help to learn the culture to get a clear picture of what you are facing first. You can’t parachute in with or without fanfare and lead without understanding the landscape. You must be able to synch up, at least initially, until you have gotten your “sea legs.”

The other side of the coin revolves around what was missed during the recruiting process? All signs pointed to much success for Jack Griffin at Time Inc. given his prior role in the same industry. It was assumed that his past success could be transferred into a the new environment. But remember that telling statistic again, because what is not surprising is that 40 percent of senior-level external hires fail within the first 18 months of their transitions.

I said that this is not an exact science, but the grass on the other side is different. You must understand the flow, or the culture just may get the better of you.

Ron Thomas is Managing Director, Strategy Focused Group DWC LLC, based in Dubai. He is also a senior faculty member and representative of the Human Capital Institute covering the MENA/Asia Pacific region.

He was formerly CEO of Great Place to Work-Gulf and former CHRO based in Riyadh. He holds certifications from the Human Capital Institute as Global Human Capital Strategist, Master Human Capital Strategist, and Strategic Workforce Planner.

He's been cited by CIPD as one of the top 5 HR Thinkers in the Middle East. He received the Outstanding Leadership Award for Global HR Excellence at the World Human Resources Development Congress in Mumbai, and was named as one of the 50 Most Talented Global HR Leaders in Asia

Ron's prior roles included senior HR positions with Xerox HR services, IBM, and Martha Stewart Living.

Board memberships include the Harvard Business Review Advisory Council, McKinsey Quarterly's Executive Online Panel, and HCI's Expert Advisory Council on Talent Management Strategy.

His work has been featured in the Wall Street Journal, Inc. Magazine, Workforce Management and numerous international HR magazines covering Africa, India and the Middle East.


17 Comments on “A Lesson at Time Inc: How Long Do We Keep Those Out of Touch With the Culture?

  1. Very dangerous corporate behavior that justify sacking of people who do not fit into their culture. Clarify first what the cultural differences are, then why differences could not mesh to enhance the company? If you fit too well culturally, it could mean your values are compromised, you are obedient, licking the boots of your inferior boss, and also, conniving at what is not proper. Great companies accept differences and use it as multiple strengths to grow a staff that accommodates all talents.

  2. Was he brought in to change the culture and failed or was he brought in to enhance/leverage culture while executing on strategies – and failed? In many cases, at such a sr level it is not “culture” as much as getting on the same page (or getting along) with other execs…

    Thanks for the conversation starter…

  3. You need to balance poor fit with having a variety of talent on your teams. If you sack everyone that challenges a team or organization then you will have a recipe for disaster with a team full of yes man automatons with no one to keep you in check.

  4. I think the current population sometimes is obilvious to what their own culture is and tends to describe their version of the ‘ideal’ culture that they think a new hire wants to hear. The best way for individuals charged with hiring is to understand the true culture of the company (good or bad) and articulate it, in no uncertain terms, to a new hire. It will either excite them or scare them but in the end you will hire someone who is fully aware up front. I can at least cut back on fire for poor-culture-fit scenarios!

    Great post – culture often gets overlooked!

  5. I see a number of issues within this story. As stated we do not know what happened during the hiring process but I see communications or lack there of as a major issue. Maybe the culture wasn’t clearly stated or feedback ask for to ensure that it was understood. Maybe the message was foggy in that Mr. Griffin thought he was free to establish his own culture. Then of course the mission of Time comes into play and how meaningful is it really?
    Was there open communications and feedback given to Mr. Griffin during the 6 months? I am sure there are many business lessons here that have been repeated time and again.
    We may never know the details of the whole story but I am sure there are underlying trends that should be addressed.

  6. Firing those that aren’t a cultural fit… This sounds like such an easy thing; within my company, however, you can’t fire someone unless they violate a policy or fail to meet quality metrics. There are several employees that should be let go due to their inability to work with a team or hatred of reporting to someone, but because they don’t fit those afore mentioned requirements, they are still employed. It’s sad, but this small minority causes a large negative impact on our productivity.

  7. The culture that drives business success is outside an organization’s walls. Perhaps Time’s culture resisted Griffin’s attempt to align it with the evolving marketplace.

  8. Interesting article and very true. We have been measuring organizational culture for the past 10 years and yes, everyone has one yet so many are unable to articulate what the culture is. Many organizations fail to weave cultural indicator questions into the recruitment process – which can be as simple as talking about your values. Zappos! does a great job with weeding out candidates that are not a cultural fit and their selection process is very values based driven.

    Your question on how to handle a new hire that is clearly out of touch with your culture – the answer is they should have never been hired in the first place. Sure, sometimes employees can slip through the selection process, but if an organization is crystal clear on who they are or more importantly who they are not, then they can attract, retain and repel the right cultural fit.

  9. Interesting article. My question is this: How well was Mr. Griffin vetted? Obviously during the vetting process, especially at that level, the issue of “cultural fit” still plays an important role. So, I think Time Inc. is equally at fault for Mr. Griffin not working out, if it was solely based on that reason.

  10. It’s one thing to articulate organizational culture, it’s another to live and breathe it. One of the exciting aspects of being an external recruiting partner is the ability to peer into the inner workings of client organizations. One can almost predict the eventual success of a candidate by dissecting the search process. When a company “walks the walk” (their true working culture matches the messages they send to their internal and external markets ) they will encourage engagement between their search partners and candidates with many different professionals within the organization. The search process shouldn’t focus on the immediate group with whom the successful candidate will be working but also with those with whom the candidate will need to engage, persuade, etc. If the company’s true culture is imbued throughout the organization, the search process will act as a sieve to not only highlight candidates who can do the job, but those who will fit in and be cultural ambassadors for the organization. The search process may take a little longer, but the outcomes will likely lead to choosing the right person. It is always a joy to work with clients who know who they are. Thanks for the article, Ron.

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