Tuesday, January 16, 2007

What Walks Out the Door (when great senior people are let go)

Is the gold watch for thirty years of service something that is gone now forever? Are jobs now like winter hats that you wear for a few years and then trade in on a new one? Is every employee an interchangeable cog to be pulled and replaced without consequence?

As discussed in Decline of Print Media Sales late last week, 250 time staffers continue to wait for the announcement of their layoff. It was announced today that five senior staffers are already gone through early retirement, layoff, or leaving to pursue other interests.

As, Lucia Moses reports in Mediaweek:

--Fred Nelson, VP of digital media for Entertainment Weekly, whose job was eliminated when EW adopted a new management structure. He had been at Time Inc. about 10 years in various positions. His last day was Jan. 8.

--Art Berke, in mid-February after 18-plus years as head of communications for Sports Illustrated. A search for a successor is underway.

--Time magazine's Michele Stephenson, who took early retirement Jan. 5 after 19 years as director of photography and before that, serving as deputy picture editor. Picture Editor MaryAnne Golon was named to succeed her.

--Carrie Welch, vp of communications for the Time Inc. Business and Finance Network, who is leaving Jan. 19 after 25 years at Time Inc. for Lowe Worldwide as executive vp in a communications role. No word yet on a successor.

--And Fortune's executive editor Bob Safian, who left for Mansueto Venture's Fast Company, where he'll be editor and managing director.

I am reminded of an old adage that an agency president once said, “100% of my inventory goes home at 5pm.” The people were his product. He had no widget to sell. The product of his agency was the quality and experience and ability of its people.

Time Inc. may well have been overstaffed and the trimming of these jobs and the hundreds more to follow may well be prudent. It might also have made excellent sense for the board in their duty to the stockholders to maximize profitability and curry wall-street favor. It might even eventually lead to better magazines.

But, I can’t help but wonder what walked out the door with Carrie Welch, VP Communications, after 25 years of service. What knowledge is she taking with her that they will not even miss until silence follows a question she would once have answered? What insights left the building with Michele Stephenson after 19 years as Director of Photography for Time Magazine? What did she know after two decades of selecting photographs for the pages of Time Magazine that wasn’t written in the Monster.com job description?

Perhaps the more profound question is whether or not anybody cares? Is a 25-year veteran easily and instantly replaceable by a 25-year-old college graduate? Can we just move everybody up a chair and a title without impact? And, with the revolving door of celebrity CEOs and the average tenure of a CMO at 22 months, is there anybody that really knows the impact to the magazines?

I am reminded of a story about a woman that was laid off by a Fortune 100 company after a decade of service. Her specialty was that she knew more about the physical configuration of their stores than anybody else. She knew the depth of the shelves, the height of the racks, the clearance of the ceilings, etc. And, since there were dozens of store designs, across dozens of states, this was quite a challenge.

She was well-compensated and managed the group that produced in-store signage and coordinated and negotiated with external print vendors. She was laid off along with dozens of other employees in a cost-reducing move. Some time later, there was a print job that was produced to incorrect specs. Nobody caught the fact that it wouldn’t fit inside the stores because everybody relied on her for such details and she was no longer there. That one mistake with reprinting, reshipping, reinstalling, etc. cost more than ten times her annual salary.

It would be an excellent moral of the story to say that the company discovered their mistake in letting this valuable resource go and hired her back. Perhaps even saying that they hired her back to HELP in their efforts to reduce costs. It would be nice to envision Richard Gere climbing her balcony, a la Pretty Woman, and begging her to return.

As you might have guessed, this was not the case. In fact, the company had already recognized the benefit on wall-street for the layoffs and they just couldn’t seem to find anyone to blame for the mistake. After all, it wasn’t anybody’s fault. Nobody could be expected to know the dimensions of all the different store designs, could they?

In this movie, the Pretty Woman took her severance package, spent some time emotionally recovering from getting canned in her forties for the first time, then got her next job making more money and moved on with her career.

As our peers at Time Inc. might tell us, perhaps in today’s corporate environment, if you want a gold watch, you should go ahead and buy it for yourself.

--Carter Cathey
© 2007

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