How long should a pubmedia executive serve?

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How long is enough? How long is too long? As I start my fifth year at the helm of Current, I’ve been facing the reality of just how long it takes to transform an organization and have the impact you hope to achieve. There’s much more to do to secure Current’s future as a relevant, essential and sustainable service to public media. And so I’m in it to win it, and I consider it an honor to serve you.

During my tenure as Current’s first executive director, I’ve had many conversations with longtime executives and rising stars about leadership in public media. I’ve met with many leaders in our system who have not only kept their institutions alive, but have moved them forward by leaps and bounds. They’ve modeled ethical, inclusive leadership and the kind of bold risk-taking that innovation requires.

But in some of these conversations, I’ve heard complaints and concerns that our leadership isn’t as inclusive or as bold as public media needs at this moment of profound disruption and competition. Critics charge there aren’t enough executive leadership training programs or opportunities to advance into top jobs.

In 2016, Current produced a special edition on diversity in public media. To prepare, we connected with the CEOs and GMs of color in public television at a PBS Annual Meeting. As I recall, the list of nonwhite leaders in the 50 states had 17 people on it — less than 10 percent of public television’s executive branch. What’s up with that? Three years later, I worry whether public media will get woke enough to embrace the profound demographic changes underway in the American workforce.  

Still, 2019 is a golden chance for the public media system to take giant steps in the right direction. The long-rumored “gray wave” of retirements seems to be coming ashore, with more than a dozen announcements of executive-level retirements to come this year.

Some of those leaving their posts have spent their careers in public media, and some have been in their current positions for a very (very, very) long time. Not that there’s anything wrong with that. Or is there?

Obviously, the best way to diversify the top tiers of public media is for those in power to cultivate the next generation of leaders, then step aside and let them have at it. But I don’t see that conscious cultivation or succession planning happening on the kind of scale required to align our system with our mission.

In 2016 the New York Times published a groundbreaking interactive called “The Faces of American Power,” a dramatic visualization of the extent to which white people dominate the leadership of top corporations, corridors of political power and media companies that influence culture in the U.S. Imagine what such a visualization of public media’s leadership would look like. It’s true that public media deserves kudos for shattering the glass ceiling by advancing so many women into prominent, powerful roles. Yet let’s remember that some of the worst revelations from the #MeToo movement happened during this period.

So let me return to my first questions: How long is enough? How long is too long?

Transformation takes time. It can take two decades for an oak tree to produce acorns and several years for some trees to bear fruit. On the station level, it makes sense for an ambitious, high-performing leader to stick around for a decade. As leaders of vital community institutions, it can take years for them to grow relationships that will produce results, whether that’s courting major donors; launching successful local programming initiatives; engaging audiences in solving local problems; building open, inspiring and accessible facilities; or changing internal culture. This is the work of local public media leaders. It’s not surprising that a decade might not be enough time.

Our national leaders deserve admiration and appreciation for their dedication and savvy, their eloquence and their effectiveness. But maybe it’s time for public media to be even more public: more transparent, more inclusive and more reflective of the country we’re supposed to serve. That means change from the top down, and not just from the bottom up. I am not alone in looking forward to the day when public broadcasting’s national institutions — CPB, PBS, NPR­ and America’s Public Television Stations — are all led by people of color. But I worry it will take so long to get there that, by then, these very institutions may have lost their relevance or will have ceased to exist. Public media must get ahead of that curve. That’s the definition of leadership.

7 thoughts on “How long should a pubmedia executive serve?

  1. Your premise neglects the critical element in leadership decision-making; boards of directors or college deans. Those entities/people make the decision as to who leads, and how long. Boards will tell you that their oversight will yield data regarding the current performance of their organizations which in turn is used for such decision-making.

    • Thanks for your comment! You are right, Tim. Although I suspect that many boards, over time, are made up of people selected by the executive. They do review the data presented to them. But, few board members have a real understanding of public media (unless they read Current, of course!). They fund raise and provide financial oversight – which is their responsibility if they are a governing (as opposed to advisory) board but they typically aren’t aware of things like workplace climate concerns. Do these boards actively track diversity in hiring and hold executives accountable? Perhaps some do. Most likely, like everything, 80 or 90 percent of the board members do very little and only 10-20 percent are actively engaged in the station and its affairs. Am I wrong about this?

  2. I think one could argue that a major reason why you don’t see a lot of changeover in many of these leadership positions is because non-profits tend to operate pretty close to the bone. Leadership changes are inherently very disruptive, and that kind of disruption can hurt revenues pretty badly. And a lot of these stations can’t afford to take those revenue hits.

    So perhaps a reframing is in order: it is borderline unconscionable how much back-end duplication of effort there is across the public radio member station ecosystem. Mostly in development and donor management, but also promotions, engineering and I.T. And the vast majority of it is due to stations…

    A: feeling they’re being trapped into such arrangements by the politics of their parent college, which is a failure on the part of management to manage their parent college relationship properly…and they’ve got bigger problems than just back-end duplication; whether they realize it or not.

    B: completely unreasonable (and egotistical) paranoia of the “hands off my donors” variety.

    or C: also completely unreasonable (albeit somewhat more understandable) reticence of the “but our station is different and special and needs this unique way of doing things” flavor. It’s not a valid excuse, but you can at least understand it since these places ARE running so close to the bone that you don’t feel like you have the slack to undergo a major, “unproven” shift in operations that could “threaten” revenues.

    If you wrung all the inefficiencies out of these arenas, you probably could increase net revenues by 20% at most small and medium market stations. Just look at CoastAlaska & Alaska Public Media, among others.

    That kind of additional money is the slack these stations need to get off their duffs and take diversity seriously.

    I realize this is a very big thought and it relies heavily on buy-in and commitment from a lot of parties with conflicting (or at least non-congruent) agendas. But to me it seems the most logical place to start. Are we going diversity in leadership seriously as an network or not? Because it’s going to take serious efforts to get there.

    And, I might add, this would be a perfect hill for the new NPR CEO to die on. This would go a long, long way to repairing the still-burned-to-the-ground trust bridge between NPR central and the member stations. Mohn at least didn’t pour gallons of gasoline on it like Knell and Schiller did. (although the Oreskes debacle sure didn’t help) But he did *nothing* to repair the damage, either.

  3. True, Brad. Leadership transitions are very disruptive. But media is in a state of constant disruption. That’s the name of the game now and we are best served when we disrupt ourselves. That doesn’t necessarily mean changes at the top. The one constant we can count on is the mission of public media, the “North Star” that guides our work.

    I poked around for the average tenure of CEOs in the business world and found statistics that ranged from 5-9 years. So, I’m pretty sure public media has much greater longevity than that. And probably University stations are the least likely to make transitions so long at the station isn’t causing too much trouble, continues to serve the educational mission through internships, and doesn’t require much out-of-pocket investment.

    To your point about station’s claiming specialness: every station is like all other stations, like some other stations and like no other station. One size doesn’t fit all because communities to be served are not monolithic. I think it’s important to put audience needs front of mind in business decisions. (And I should listen to my own advice!)

    I agree with you that back-end duplication of services means a lot of wasted resources that could be invested in mission: local programming services. It applies to public TV, too. But some smaller stations have a second family vibe; people (and the station) have grown up together and it’s hard to cut loyal, hardworking development or engineering or business staff when they are your friends and really helped build an institution.

    I can tell you from my own experience as a leader that it’s often harder to decide what to stop doing than what to start doing. But eventually, those decisions will be made for us if we can’t summon the courage to do what’s got to be done.

    • To be fair, the comparison in for-profit should be made with companies between 10 and 100 employees, not CEOs of major corporations. My strong suspicion is that we would find the average tenure of those managers, directors, presidents, whatever title would be much longer than 5-9 years. because many are closely held, not publicly traded, and thus much more similar to public radio stations.

    • Oh god yes, you are SO right about it being much harder to STOP doing something than to start it. I feel your pain! Although the worst is when it’s both: stop doing something big AND start doing something else to replace it. That’s when the long knives inevitably come out for leadership.

      FWIW, to explore your point further: there’s constant disruption and then there’s constant disruption. I know many, many university departments (or perhaps “siloes” is a better word) that claim to be functioning under “constant disruption” when really what they’re doing is muddling along, lurching from one crisis to the next, and not really “handling” anything so much as they’re just putting out fires on a 24/7 basis. I think it’s reasonable to assume that many pubmedia outlets (esp those that’re part of a college) are in similar boats.

      In situations like that, there’s still no tolerance for the disruption of a leadership transition. The absence of total collapse in the face of adversity is not the same thing as a graceful transition that leverages strengths and minimizes weaknesses.

      So what you don’t see is leadership willing to disrupt itself in order to better serve the ultimate mission, especially when it comes to increasing racial diversity of the leadership for the sake of increasing racial diversity of leadership (which, as we’re finding, has tremendous impact (mostly positive) across so many aspects of the station’s operations, but it’s difficult to point to anything especially concrete and say “this is why we’re doing this”.

      That reticence is mostly driven by ego, I suspect, but there’s plenty of reasonable-sounding justification in that “we can’t handle the disruption right now”.

  4. I am retiring after a career that began at North Country Public Radio in 1980, with a promotion to station manager in 1985. Public radio was very different then. Younger, in all senses. We were creating a new industry–which included building up funding sources to enable important work, work that now reaches tens of millions of Americans every week. It took time–and continuity–to bring the industry out of its infancy and adolescence to maturity. Part of what remains to be done: diversifying leadership and content producers. Women played a somewhat larger role in public media over the last 4-5 decades because the pay was often to low for men.

    There are pros and cons re: leadership longevity. It depends on the community, the people running the stations, the work being done by the station, and the rest of the staff. Hard to generalize except to say this to my fellow managers: if you haven’t done anything new in a while, if your younger staff members are bringing ideas to you that you don’t understand or like, if you’re feeling behind, instead of ahead, of the media environment, move on. If your shop is hopping and great things are happening, sure keep working. But, remember, it’s always better to leave when people want more…I have great faith in the people who will take the station forward. I can’t wait to see and hear what they do.

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