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Doomed to Fail, These Leaders Embraced Their Sinking Ship

A bittersweet management lesson from the fickle industry of news media.
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Leadership and corporate success are usually looked at as directly correlative. If the leadership is strong, a project will succeed. And if the project succeeds, leadership was probably strong.

This may often be true, though it runs directly into a competing trope--the idea that companies need to get over their fear of failure. These ideas clash because things are rarely so directly correlative. Good leaders can fail and bad leaders can succeed. Good companies put out bad products and vise versa. You get the idea: Reality's messy.

All of this is a necessary preamble to a story showing that great leadership can be seen in how a company or a project handles its own failure. It's (relatively) easy to look like a good leader when things are going well. But considering that only 30 percent of businesses live to see their 10th anniversary, this lesson in graceful decline might be of use to more entrepreneurs than we'd like.

Thurderdome's Stormy Waters

In an article for Poynter, news industry leadership consultant Jill Geisler tells the story of Project Thunderdome. The ambitious project was launched by Digital First Media about three years ago, and served as a national news service meant to augment and support Digital First's large roster of local newspapers.

The idea was that by putting national news coverage into a dedicated team's hands, the journalists at all those local newspapers would be freed up to focus on that core competency--local news. Meanwhile, Thunderdome could also serve as a testing pot for the incredibly fickle industry that is digital media.

By most accounts Thunderdome had a good run, attracting a roster of talented web journalists and securing partnerships with several prominent media sites.

But the media industry hasn't had a terrific go of it in the last decade, and hastily-declining print advertising revenues made the ambitious startup that Thunderdome represented untenable, Nieman Journalism Lab reports.

Things fell apart quickly. Within the last month, Geisler writes, Thunderdome's leadership was told by the higher-ups at Digital First Media to prepare for the pulling of the plug. Last week, those leaders told the team about the bad news. And this week, the axe was lowered.

Leadership Under Fire

It would be easy for Thunderdome's leaders, on what is now officially a sinking ship, to jump overboard. But Thunderdome's management,  took a different approach. As Geisler writes:

In past week, the Project Thunderdome offices in New York became a job placement center. According to [Thunderdome editor Robyn] Tomlin, she and [editor-in-chief Jim] Brady have been on the phones, working their wide network of contacts to let other organizations know about the soon-to-be-available talent on their team.

Staffers on that 55-person team have been conducting sessions for each other on resume writing, salary negotiations, and even doing mock interviews. They’ve encouraged each other to polish up their profiles and portfolios on Insidethunderdome.com’s “About Us” page, to make it easier for prospective employers to vet them.

That employees are also involved in helping one another land on their feet speaks well to the culture and atmosphere the Thunderdome team was able to build in its three-year run. That its leaders are spending the project's final days to show "hustle amid heartbreak" on behalf of employees, as Geisler puts it, should be inspiring to managers anywhere. Leaders lead, and that means in both the good times and the bad.




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