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The BBC and George Entwistle – Get Ready for the Case Studies

November 12, 2012

Poor George Entwistle.

Appointed to the top job at the BBC 54 days ago, and blown away by two successive scandals in which the organisation played a part: Jimmy Savile and the alleged involvement – subsequently shown as false – of a senior politician in the abuse of children in care homes.

As many commentators have pointed out this morning, Entwistle’s career was over the moment he limped out of the interview with veteran BBC inquisitor John Humphrys. Basically, Humphrys skewered him. The Daily Telegraph runs a transcript of the interview here.

Unfortunately for Entwistle, he will be the star turn in a case study that will be used by business schools for years to come. He is likely to be portrayed as an exemplar of the Peter Principle – a man promoted into one job too far.

Leadership theorists will no doubt dissect his handling of the twin firestorms that have engulfed the BBC. Some will use the affair to illustrate four of the most widely recognised leadership styles: transactional, laisser-faire, situational and transformational.

Let’s look at the Entwistle saga through these four lenses.

Transactional: the transactional leader typically presides over an organisation where requirements placed upon employees are clear, processes tightly defined and compliance with rules and procedures and instructions is at a premium. The transactional organisation rewards defined results and punishes failure to achieve them.

The BBC is clearly a strongly hierarchical organisation. In the Humphrys interview, Entwistle says, referring to the decision to broadcast the allegations about the senior political figure:

“But from the enquiries I’ve been able to make so far this was a piece of journalism referred to senior figures within news, referred up to the level of the management board and had appropriate attention from the lawyers.”

So the issue seems to have been one of judgement. And this is where transactional leadership can fall down. Issues of judgement muddy the waters. You can have a watertight process. But if that process says “if any programme has the potential to generate political controversy, it must be referred directly to the Director-General”, then for that process to work effectively, someone in the hierarchy needs to make a judgement call. And on that call potentially rests a career.

Another danger of a transactional approach is that too many decisions can go up the chain to the person at the top, a situation Entwistle was keen to avoid. An editor-in-chief who edits everything is someone who will soon lose a sense of perspective. But in this case, he missed the one issue that should have arrived at his desk.

Laissez-faire: laissez-faire leaders tend to trust their people to get on with the job. Their door is usually open. They typically react rather than pro-act. They will take the view that their organisation will bring problems to them if needed. Otherwise they tend to be incurious about the machine they preside over.

This perhaps best describes the way Entwistle led the BBC, if the Humphrys interview is anything to go by. Strongest evidence of this approach is the D-G’s description of “the system”:

“The editor-in- chief has to take complete responsibility for the BBC’s journalistic output but that does not mean the editor-in-chief sits and signs off every single piece of it.

The organisation is too big, there is too much journalism going on.

The way the system works is that things brought to the attention of the editor-in- chief are effectively handed over to him – responsibility is given to him at the moment.

If the system is not referring things it should be referring things it should refer to the editor-in-chief then it’s not working properly, this is one of the things that we have to look at.”

So unless I’m taking Entwistle’s comments out of context, he relied on “the system” to call matters to his attention. This suggests that he regarded himself as the ultimate cog in a well-oiled machine. Incurious George.

In another part of the interview, he states that:

“I run the BBC on the basis that the right people are put in the right positions to make the right decisions.”

It’s hard to escape the conclusion from these comments that he did not run the BBC – the BBC ran him.

Situational Leadership: A situational leader recognises that there is no optimum leadership style. It all depends on the situation that requires leadership, and on the maturity or capability of the organisation or group being led. So inexperienced or lower-skilled members of a team will typically get more attention than those more capable of acting autonomously. A situational leader will typically be prepared to focus proactively on problems and crises, and on struggling groups or individuals.

Entwistle clearly didn’t pay sufficient attention to the Newsnight team. After getting the editor to step aside after the Savile affair, he then relied upon the deputy editor to make the right calls, and on the chain of command to sign off on the second programme. What’s more there was only one editor in place out of a normal team of three. He could have put Newsnight under crisis watch, and insisted on getting advance visibility of the subject matter of each programme until the investigation over the first programme was completed.

Hence Humphrys’ question:

“Can I just be absolutely clear? Nobody said to you, or to anybody on your staff who would then report it to you at any time look we’ve got this Newsnight film going out – Newsnight should already light a few bulbs with you – but we’ve got this film going out on Newsnight that is going to make massively serious allegations about a senior, a former senior political … Nobody even mentioned it in the context that we understand, nobody even mentioned it?”

To which Entwistle’s answer was “no”.

Transformational Leadership: transformational leaders are typically associated with change. They are visionaries, idealists, exemplars. They inspire people with their vision. They personally encourage people. They are rule-breakers. They manage by walking around. In their most extreme forms they can develop a cult of the personality, in which they as individuals see themselves as the human manifestation of the organisations they lead – l’état c’est moi. When they leave, they can create a vacuum unless they have successfully created a cadre of leaders with values and charisma similar to their own.

Viewed from afar, the BBC does not do transformational leadership. Ask any person in the street to name one of Entwistle’s predecessors as BBC Director-General,  and I suspect you would be hard pushed to find anyone capable of coming up with a single name – until now.

In fact, many transformational changes have taken place in the BBC over the past couple of decades. Outsourcing of whole areas of programme making to external production companies. The addition of specialist radio and TV channels. The creation of a very substantial web presence, including a superb news website. The creating of a commercial arm to exploit the BBC’s intellectual property – selling books and DVD box sets of popular series.

But these changes have taken place without massive fanfare, and under the watch of a series of rather grey leaders, some well-liked and others deeply resented within the organisation for the changes they forced through. With the exception perhaps of Greg Dyke, they have been perceived outside of the media industry as apparatchiks.

We will never know how George Entwistle might have turned out had he not been swept away by a tsunami of scandal. One of his high-profile supporters, arch-inquisitor Jeremy Paxman, suggests that the BBC is an organisation full of time-servers in key management positions, and that Entwistle was in the process of addressing the problem.

The Chairman of the BBC Trust, to whom the Director-General reports, is Lord Patten, a former cabinet minister and the last Governor-General of Hong Kong before the handover of the colony to China. His reaction to the crisis is that the BBC needs root and branch reform. A natural politician’s response. Maybe he is right. But is root and branch reform necessary to fix what appears to be a localised issue with a specific news department – one of many? Or will that reform seek to fix a bigger issue within the organisation – the culture?

The problem is that when you seek to make widespread changes in the wake of a crisis, you are in danger of fixing what is not broken. And you also risk focusing on the wrong things. A crisis can be the catalyst for positive change, especially when that change – which may not be directly related to the crisis – would otherwise be difficult to bring about.

But here’s a question for the management gurus: would it not be better to replace the roof before it starts leaking, rather than wait for the flood? Taking an example from the business world, should Nokia, a company renowned for its powers of reinvention, have changed its business model and products before its phone business bucked under competition from Apple, RIM and Samsung? Well yes, of course it should, just as it evolved from rubber goods and pulp mills into to a telecoms giant over 50 years.

Which is where the transformational leaders come in. There is a difference between crisis management and transformation. And if I were to so bold as to advise the BBC and its masters, it would be to stabilise, fix the obvious problem, improve morale, look at the organisation outside the context of a crisis and only then look at transformation.

Transformation of the BBC can only be a long process. It is not a commercial business. There are powerful forces against change amongst the organisation’s stakeholders. Speaking as a Brit, I can say that I millions of other Brits feel a sense of ownership of the corporation. And theoretically speaking, as licence payers, we do own it. Our views count. So do those of the trade unions, the employees and the politicians. So to make the necessary changes, a high degree of consensus will be needed.

The BBC is the proverbial tanker that takes a long time to change direction. The danger is that hasty and radical change could rip the heart out of the organisation by driving out the talented as well as the dead wood. Equally, announcing root and branch reform, and then taking five years to implement it, could produce a dangerous perception of uncertainty within the organisation that could also result in talented people jumping ship.

So understandable as the demand for radical reform might be from a politician’s standpoint, for an organisation stricken by crisis such reforms could be the road to disaster, just as Nokia’s recent measures to catch up with its competitors is seen by many as evidence of a death spiral.

So what happens now is critical. And now is not the time to bow to demands for fast action except in the areas that are obviously broken. The BBC has many virtues. Whatever the media might claim, its stock is still high in the UK and the rest of the world. So let heads roll, as they inevitably will, but as a stakeholder of the BBC, I sincerely hope it will not throw out a whole bunch of beautiful babies with the bathwater.

And feel sorry for George Entwistle – a product of “the system” – evidently a decent man who has paid for the mistakes of his predecessors and found himself unable to cope with the perfect storm.

From → Business, Media, Politics, UK

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