2-9: "The Honest Leader" - Mark Thompson

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"The Honest Leader"

Mark Thompson has been the CEO of the New York Times for the last six years.

For the eight years before that, he was Director General of the BBC.

He acts with intention, values the knowledge that comes from mistakes, and cares passionately about the institutions and the ideals they represent that he is entrusted with.

Under his leadership, the New York Times has expanded its number of digital subscribers from 668,000 to over 3 million and its total subscriber base to 4 million.

These numbers are the reflection of a strategic choice - to focus the purpose of the New York Times on news, not paper.

He oversaw a similar evolution at the BBC, guiding the storied and historic broadcaster into the digital age.

When you run organizations with the kind of public profile of the New York Times and the BBC, you come under scrutiny. But against historical norms, it takes a certain kind of leadership to stand in the face of relentless attacks from the president of the united states.

In the era of so-called #fakenews, and at a time when the truth is suddenly up for debate, the characteristics necessary to lead any organization through a time of radical strategic change, including creating the room for people to make mistakes, would be easy to put aside. 

So, this week’s theme is Courage. You can read more on that here.

And this week’s episode is called, “The Honest Leader”.


Takeaways

  • Be a champion of the ideals of the organization. 

  • Understand what the end user wants and needs from the organization.

  • Act with intention.

  • Bring an open mind.


"FEARLESS CREATIVE LEADERSHIP" PODCAST - TRANSCRIPT

Episode 2-9: "The Honest Leader" - Mark Thompson

Hi. I’m Charles Day. And this is ‘Fearless’.

Welcome to 2019. 

Mark Thompson has been the CEO of the New York Times for the last six years.

For the eight years before that, he was Director General of the BBC.

He acts with intention, values the knowledge that comes from mistakes, and cares passionately about the institutions and the ideals they represent that he is entrusted with.

Under his leadership, the New York Times has expanded its number of digital subscribers from 668,000 to over 3 million and its total subscriber base to 4 million.

These numbers are the reflection of a strategic choice - to focus the purpose of the New York Times on news, not paper.

He oversaw a similar evolution at the BBC, guiding the storied and historic broadcaster into the digital age.

When you run organizations with the kind of public profile of the New York Times and the BBC, you come under scrutiny. But against historical norms, it takes a certain kind of leadership to stand in the face of relentless attacks from the president of the united states.

In the era of so-called #fakenews, and at a time when the truth is suddenly up for debate, the characteristics necessary to lead any organization through a time of radical strategic change, including creating the room for people to make mistakes, would be easy to put aside. 

So, this week’s theme is Courage.

And this week’s episode is called, “The Honest Leader”.

"I was wrong," is quite important, I think, for leaders. Not, "We were wrong." But, "I was wrong." Sometimes we were wrong as well but in other words and one of the things I very strongly feel is if you're not making a lot of mistakes, you're not making enough of the right kind of calls. And I think the classic, defensive, obfuscatory senior leadership behavior won't cut it. One of the weirdnesses of 2018, and I don't particularly want to personalize it. And it's not a company I've got anything personally against. But I think Facebook and the leadership of Facebook have got a curiously old-fashioned way of dealing with big problems. Which somehow tries to push them away and make them somebody else's responsibility.” 

From a leadership standpoint, a willingness to make mistakes comes from one of two places.

Low standards.

Or courage.

Courage is one of the words that’s hard to define. What is easy for you may be cold sweat inducing for me. 

I’m with leaders every day. And I have come to see that there are three reasons why a leader is able to do things that most people would walk away from.

First, is that they want to find out what they are capable of. Where are the limits to what they might be able to achieve. 

Second, they feel a sense of personal responsibility to the people affected by the decisions they make. They don’t want to let people down.

Third, is that they are clear about the difference they want to make. I’ve talked about this in some earlier episodes, and the importance of intention.

Each of these characteristics can drive change. And at various stages, each of them can be valuable.

But the second and third are the attributes of what is increasingly coming to be described as ‘servant leadership.’ 

I don’t love the term. It conjures up images of asking for permission. 

And today, leaders must act. Sooner and faster. They must make room for and encourage mistakes - in themselves and others. And they must take steps that in the cold light of day would make any outsider’s stomach churn. 

But, I have come to believe that the concept of servant leadership is correct. It is the only sustainable form of leadership that I see. Provided that it is applied properly.

The problem I often find  it that servant leadership is more complex than most people think. Because most focus the idea of service only on the who.

Great leaders are clear about the audience - they know whose lives they are trying to change.

But they add another element of service to their frame. What. What kind of change are they trying to bring about.

When you marry crystal clear understanding of the who with the what, servant leadership does two things.

It encourages you and rewards you for making room for mistakes - in yourself and others.

And it will take your breath away as you start to discover that instead of running from the gunfire, you are drawn to it. 

Here’s Mark Thompson.


Charles:

Mark, welcome to Fearless, thank you so much for joining me today.

Mark Thompson:

It's a pleasure.

Charles:

First question for you, what's your relationship with fear?

Mark Thompson:

Fear is ubiquitous, particularly in undetermined state, going through the forest at night where you don't what's there or for that matter, trying to take a company through the digital revolution. Fear is inevitable and it's almost like the productive channels for flowing your own fear and also helping others to try, and get the most out of, out of fear.

I don't think you can ... I think it's wrong to think you can suppress it or end it because I think it's a very natural response to scary situations or a situation where you're not quite sure what's going to happen which is frankly the common law of most companies, most of the time that is.

Charles:

How often are you conscious of it in your life?

Mark Thompson:

I deal with it every day, I think fear and stress, I think are ever present in my head but I think of them in some ways as friends and I think maybe one distinguishing factor of people who are going to enjoy leadership is people who get off on, in a sense, being comfortable with that and leaning into those emotions rather than trying to either pretend they're not there or to try, and massage them into non existence.

Charles:

Yeah, to your point I'm struck by how many people I've talked to actually use it as a stimulus in fact, are looking for it as a validation to check, am I actually pushing this far enough, do I feel that thing? Yes, I'm nervous about the act or I'm afraid of this but that's what actually says, yeah this is the right thing to do therefore.

Mark Thompson:

I want to say, my background as a journalist and that weird journalism thing whereby ... and I had exactly this experience of hearing a loud sound, gunfire or whatever and everyone around you moving in the opposite direction and you're training is to move towards it, not away from it is interesting as well.

How do you respond to it? I definitely think an ability to continue to function and make decisions even in the context of pretty high and justifiable anxiety is useful, given the revolution we're going through.

Charles:

Yeah, exactly. Were you a risk taker as a kid?

Mark Thompson:

I'm an eldest child and I would say that wasn't obvious to me, that I was at the time, maybe yes, is the answer. Maybe yes. I'm quite gung ho and broken and sprained limbs so yeah, I'm one of the kids who would tend to lead with my chin, try, and climb rock faces which are too difficult to climb, I'm a very bad climber but again, very enthusiastic and I think that business of enthusiasm and incompetence is my brief sporting career.

Charles:

What's your first memory of something showing up in your life as creative? Going all the way back to being a kid, when do you remember creativity first being a construct in your life?

Mark Thompson:

Very, very early. Storytelling and play acting and really, I was quite a small child acting at school and I was again, quite an enthusiastic kid and would get big parts and literally from five, six onwards and early on, I don't do it now but the visual arts and all of that.

I would say it's been the biggest surprise to me in my life that my career moved away from hands on creativity. That's been the surprise and in some ways disappointment and I still have a quite strong instinct to go back to that as being in a way more valuable and more what I was built for.

It feels like a base case, I don't feel like a non-creative person who has had to try and understand creative people, I feel like a creative person who's been slightly miscast as an executive.

Charles:

Why do you think that happened? Where did that move away start to happen?

Mark Thompson:

My excuse would be that if you stand long enough in an office eventually they give you bigger jobs, it's kind of like a ... if you're around long enough, opportunities, they're going to, the understudy moment at the Met opera inevitably happens.

There's a day when you're it and you have to do your stuff and then that opens a door and particularly if you've got the other thing which is the other eldest child thing which is, a deep sense of duty. That's easy for organizations to play on and, you really do need to do this and your country needs you as a sort of ... that's been another feature of my career.

Charles:

That sense of responsibility.

Mark Thompson:

Yeah, yeah.

Charles:

What drew you to journalism?

Mark Thompson:

I thought when I left college, when I left university I was going to essentially write, write fiction and all of my contemporaries were applying for impossible to get jobs at the BBC and it almost came as a surprise to me, actually I'd done quite a lot of journalism in college, I'd actually done a lot of journalism as a school kid as well and had been obsessed with things like, Watergate, particularly Watergate, so kind of an awakening to political journalism in the 1970s and so by the end of the 70s, 78, 79, I just thought I better do what everyone else was doing which was applying for a couple of jobs and to my considerable surprise got one of the jobs at the BBC.

It kind of felt like at the time like I was stumbling into it and it was a bit unfair that people who were much more focused on it than me had not been offered jobs by the BBC or anyone else and I had been but I think in retrospect, it turns out it was quite an abiding interest of mine already.

Charles:

I'm curious, coming out of journalism, there's obviously a gap between that and then jumping into the BBC and then join the BCC from a managerial standpoint, how did that transition happen?

What drew you to focus or being drawn into that place because your point, you bring an energy and vitality, you bring a sort of mindset that says I want to find the story, I want to get out and actually find the story.

Mark Thompson:

That's right, essentially what happened is after my first couple of years in journalism at the BBC I started moving quite quickly through the ranks and in a weird way I kind of ... by the time I was 30 I was the editor of the main news, television, news program in the UK and I was running the news operations and very big stories like Tiananmen Square.

The sense of progression and my immature need for fresh challenges every 18 months or two years meant that when other possibilities came up I took them and in particular, once I'd been a senior editor and was making decisions for new programs and running quite big teams, the idea of perhaps expanding from journalism out into drama and entertainment and comedy felt quite attractive and movies.

I moved laterally or diagonally into general programming and got some level of mastery of how you think about and how you commission and discriminate at the script level and at the concept level between good and bad comedies and dramas and all the rest of it.

I slightly spread my wings there and at that point then, you are ... I didn't really think of it quite like this but you then become eligible for the running of television networks because you've got a group of many different kinds of programming and you start then thinking systematically about audiences, which in the end opens up something else which is that exciting, intellectually quite exciting business of the encounter with the viewer or the encounter with the reader, who are they, what do they want, how can you draw them in a journey where if they've enjoyed one thing you can get them to watch another one.

Scheduling is a, in a sense, an attempt to guide an audience through an evening and that, I think fascination with the mechanics of that and the kind of techniques. The surveys, the meters measuring audience behavior, the focus groups, the ethnographic research, the stuff which is really, I guess we'd say now social anthropology and social psychology in a way are the disciplines.

All of that came to really fascinate me and that then starts leading to strategy which in a weird way I think is a greater discipline. Strategy generally isn't but it can be and I think discovering that you've got some level of strategic imagination.

In other words you can be one of the people who thinks of a new way of considering or understanding the situation and therefore new ways of meeting strategic challenges. That, which I guess I was beginning to get to in my middle thirties, that's really been the theme for the last 25 years which is looking at the puzzle and trying to figure a way through the puzzle and then beginning the task of trying to encourage others to do the same.

Charles:

I think your comparison to strategy and creativity resonates hugely with me. I think creativity is about opening up possibilities isn't it and editing them down to find the thing that actually makes the thing work. I think strategy is very much the same kind of process.

I'm curious listening to that -

Mark Thompson:

The other majority of people ... what's interesting about strategy is that most people quite understandably and it's not really criticism but it's like, they look at a particular strategic puzzle and assume there's only one answer and it's typically an answer that somebody else has already found. You've seen a couple of instances of a particular answer and you think that's all there is and it's almost like the ... if you can just spend another half an hour, another hour. Go away and think about it, come back and look at the puzzle again. The crossword clue you can't do, go away, don't think about it, in the shower the following morning, bang and the answer will come to you.

To me, it's like give the puzzle a chance to speak to you and maybe it'll say something different then the same old, same old answer people have already come up with.

Charles:

Yeah, I think that's so right because the time is important as a means to get the other parts of your brain to actually disconnect and the right parts of your brain to connect. I'm interested in listening to your description of your journey through that period. How do you learn? When you walked into those new situations, were you thinking about these are the things I need to know to be successful or were you drawn to the things that naturally made you curious that you wanted to know the answers to?

Mark Thompson:

I want to say, my character, my personality is, I think, slightly to parody it is to crash into a given area or topic with immense confidence, largely ill placed by the way and with a kind of, how hard can this be sort of thing.

A lot of the learning is really a kind of rueful, getting out of my own way and stepping back and having the humility to listen to others and of late really, I think to end up thinking that the job of a leader is not to ... when you're young you think leaders, it must be like Napoleon.

There's a man or a woman with a rolled up map and a plan and they're going to give orders and everyone's going to rush to their posts and advance at 5:00 A.M. and the battle will be won because the plans a perfect plan and increasingly I've thought of my role as more of a kind of challenge to a group of people in an organization where you want to try, and express the challenge in a useful and coherent way but then it's really to try, and encourage the group of people collectively to come up with the strategy.

One example I've very pleased about in the New York Times, is it's not my strategy actually, in a weird it doesn't need to be my strategy, I think we have a good strategy but it's a strategy which a group of people, of whom I was one, came up with collectively and my job at this organization was more to do with insisting that we needed to have a strategic conversation, we needed to have a strategy, like a real ... I mean, deep, that we all felt deeply and which we, because we'd made it together we would really profoundly share which meant hours and hours and hours of argument.

The key moment in this organization, we met on a Friday afternoon, noon, spent six hours together arguing, came back the next Friday and the next Friday. We did that from April through to October, same group of people, the executive editor, the head of the opinion department, the head of digital, the head of print, the CFO and me, all gathered around, the head of technology, in the same room and much of the time thought we weren't actually going to get anywhere. We were so divided and the trade offs in the strategy were ... we thought we might have to make were so painful, it felt like an awfully long slog and maybe with no end in sight but by late 2015 we had a strategic hypothesis which three years later, we still feel very good about and which is working well for us.

Charles:

What was the challenge you were trying to solve in all those meetings? Can you boil it down to a single question or is it ...

Mark Thompson:

It's who are we, what are we trying to do and how are we collectively, in a sense, going to deal with a fundamental challenge and the fundamental challenge is, to figure out a way of delivering digital news to America and the world in a way which could build a stronger business than print had ever done.

The print platform, the print newspapers a wonderful thing, it's a mature platform, it won't be with us and it's under inevitable circular decline. How can you work as a group to build a digital business quickly enough to more than offset the decline and ultimately death of print and what do you have to believe?

We said we would be a subscription first business. Now, I would say in 2018 that's becoming more popular for publishers to say that. In 2015, it was, we were I think the only legacy news organization saying that, subscription first.

We were going to be a destination in 2015, a lot of digital publishers like BuzzFeed for example were really saying well it doesn't really matter where the ... as long as the monetization travels with the content, who cares whether you bump into it on a Facebook feed or on our own website and app. We're saying, no, we want people to come to us to have an experience and have a relationship with us.

We ended up thinking that habituation and frequency were important, that people coming to us ... this is very much reaching into the past of the New York Times, the indispensability of the physical paper, you get up, you go and get the paper, you bring it back to the bed or you sit in the kitchen with a cup of coffee and you read the New York Times. That kind of sense of indispensability and becoming an essential part of people's lives was going to be critical and so on.

We set up a set of hypothesis which is, we don't think we can be distributed endlessly on other people's platforms without losing, possibly losing everything but losing a lot. We have to be something that people come back to day after day after day.

In the end we want relationships with engaged users and we want many of them to become subscribers and we have to focus not on the top of the funnel and millions and millions of unique users but on building a growing, engaged audience around the world.

Probably the single most important thing is, our thesis was, the whole thing's based on having a great product and great journalism and what that said to us is, it's a really obviously point, it's the point that Reed Hastings and Netflix knows every day, you have to invest in great content.

It sounds almost insane but both legacy and digital publishers are still largely proceeding on the idea, you should spend as little money as you can on journalism and if in doubt cut back your newsroom. Well, we have exactly the opposite view, we should be investing as much as we possibly can, usefully can in journalism and our newsroom is getting bigger and bigger and bigger because we think that great journalism is the best way to build a great business.

Charles:

It's fascinating to hear that, to hear that explanation because looking back like all great evolutions, it looks obvious, right? It looks like, well of course they did that, why wouldn't you do that but sitting at the beginning of that, to get people to actually move into this lateral thinking would have required someone in your position to keep stretching the possibilities. What were you conscious of in those Friday meetings? A sense of -

Mark Thompson:

I'll give you a really good example, one of our very best executives, she's now Chief Operating Officer, Meredith Kopit Levien, one of her responsibilities in 2015 was advertising and an idea started to surface in the group about saying, we're going to be a subscription first business.

The advantage of saying you're a subscription first business is it focuses you very much on engaged users, on how you're going to engage them more deeply, how you're going to get whole user and customer journey to work for you.

It's a great way of uniting, particularly because engagement was something that our journalists and our product people and our engineers and our designers could all really relate to. Very powerful, unifying idea.

What about the advertising department and Meredith quite recently said, " You can't say that, you can't say that because our colleagues in our advertising department and by the way our advertisers will lose the will to live. What are they? Chopped liver sort of thing?" I thought she was right and I started off, I was going to I suppose be the conductor, go yeah, it's not possible, it's crazy, it's just going to be destructive.

The group convinced me that actually the benefits of the clarity of the trade off were such that we should do it anyway and that if we could get there, the idea of a high quality journalism product delivering a great, deeply engaged audience could be a great thing to talk to commercial partners about.

They could get into the mission, they could get into this thoughtful audience and actually it would be a great point of differentiation in the advertising market and sure, we wouldn't be obsessing about users and impacts in the same way but that was game that Google and Facebook were going to win anyway.

They convinced me and then I sort of ... they carried me over the touch line and I carried Meredith over the touch line. It's been okay and our advertising department, I think genuinely we've had a better run of it than our competitors in digital advertising, we're still growing very nicely in digital advertising but with a much more sophisticated thought about the future of digital advertising as well.

That's an example, I think the strategic process which doesn't involve any painful choices, you're bullshitting yourself.

Charles:

Yeah, that's right.

Mark Thompson:

Almost all strategy involves moments of this, not that.

Charles:

It's about choice, actually strategy at its heart, for sure.

Mark Thompson:

I think so. Again, I think the trick is not to think that you should from on high, impose trade offs and choices on an organization. I think in the end the organization will reject that. It'll last maybe as long as you're there, maybe not.

I think the trick is to try, and help the organization to see that ... and yourself because often I end up being the one who doesn't want to make the trade off.

I think it's getting the group to understand the inevitability of the trade off. Once I think you understand the inevitability, as long as the level of trust in the group is fairly high then there's a decent chance of making the trade off without any one group or one part of the group feeling like they're victims.

Charles:

Do you see yourself as playing a role as a starting point? Are you the person who protects the status quo, are you the person who breaks down the status quo, but how do you see yourself as a starting point in terms of the role that you play in [inaudible] a group dynamic?

Mark Thompson:

I often feel that it's like when, sometimes I feel you go around and where you see kind of [inaudible] and certainty you should be disrupting it and when you see chaos and sort of you should be trying to put things back together. I think it's almost that you want to somehow come in and challenge or act in the opposite direction-

Charles:

Add the piece that's missing in fact.

Mark Thompson:

Yeah.

Charles:

Yeah, that's interesting.

Mark Thompson:

The biggest thing to me though is fundamentally about, it's like creating the urgency for change and creating the space in which people can debate and think about change in a way, which feels like it's positive, and creative, and interesting, and full of opportunity, rather than just being a kind of death by a thousand cuts or whatever.

Charles:

You've got storytelling [inaudible] through your whole history right?

Mark Thompson:

Yeah.

Charles:

From journalism through the time at the BBC, obviously to here. You've got change and disruption [inaudible] through each of those lenses as well I think. Running the BBC and running the New York Times, two organizations that at least to some extent are if not owned by the public, heavily guided by the public.

Mark Thompson:

Yeah.

Charles:

How do you differentiate between the stories that the public wants to see and respond to, and the stories that you think the organization thinks they should see and need to see?

Mark Thompson:

I think in both cases, and the complication around the BBC is, in a way, which is both magnificent and also absolutely terrifying. The BBC is for everyone, and I mean in the UK certainly it's for every household, it's a bizarre astonishing sort of claim and duty and that complicates things but, I want to say I think the contract between both the New York Times and the BBC and their public's, their audiences, I think is a lot more sophisticated than you giving them what they want. I think in both cases there is an understanding about challenge and about a kind of friction between what they want, and the content that's going to make them feel reassured and comfortable, and what maybe the most important, the most significant news story, or the most original and challenging drama and that both organizations do well when they're courageous about that duty to challenge.

One example, we in 2017, a reporter at the Times Susan Chira did some, I think very good work looking at the very ugly misogynistic tax being made in social media by people on the left, by people in the Democratic party and on the left, on Kellyanne Conway, who's one of Donald Trump's closest advisors. This reporting in the Times led to a pretty considerable backlash on Times subscribers and other readers, who it turned out didn't think that we should be in any sense defending Kellyanne Conway. In some cases even questioning whether it's misogyny when the tax director is a woman who also works with Donald Trump. I was very proud that we did that, that reporting, and I think the business of putting stuff in front of the audience, which is not immediately to their taste and may even run counter to what they think should be our values and duties.

We've hired a number of Conservative writers, notably Brett Stevens as an example from the Wall Street Journal. I think that sense of our duty about making sure there's a broad range of voices in our opinion page. It would be another example of a relationship, which I think should have quite a lot of friction in it, in a way. Not in a disrespectful or contemptuous way, but I think that the ... A mature relationship between an audience and a media brand has got a mixture of absolutely familiar pleasures, the reliable expected work of the institution, but also of the unexpected, the serendipitous, and sometimes the uncomfortable and the ideologically sort of irregular and contrary. I think all of those are part of the job of a media organization, which takes it work seriously.

Charles:

The two, the most recent two jobs you had, this one and the BBC job, hugely public profile. Both massively dependent upon unlocking creativity in other people and in yourself in order to move the organizations forward, right?

Mark Thompson:

Yeah.

Charles:

You were instrumental in helping the BBC become more digitally centric. You've overseen a massive digital revolution here. Hugely also open to criticism because of the nature of those organizations, right and what they do. The failing New York Times for instance, I think everybody who's ever run the BBC has been under massive public scrutiny and criticism. How do you as a leader show up knowing that you personally are going to get attacked so significantly, so specifically, as the representative of those organizations. How do you hold all that at bay and not make it personal, and give other people the room to do what they need to do?

Mark Thompson:

I want to say, these organizations if you take the news divisions of the BBC and the newsroom here at the New York Times, I mean our guys go out and risk their lives, and sometimes get injured and sometimes get killed. In a weird way I, one of the ways that I think about, although the slings and arrows that you face if you're a leader of a media organization are largely virtual. There's the odd threatened sort of moment where you need security and all the rest but basically this is largely virtual slings and arrows, but there is something about standing up and being counted as a leader of the organization, which gives you maybe a little bit more right to hold your head up with the people who are actually out there doing the real thing. Media is going through a bloody revolution. It should be fairly clear to everyone now that we're going through an extraordinarily disruptive disruption of media and politics, and more [inaudible] and business. You can't be immune from that. Almost everything that you do is a risk rather than a certainty. It's not at all surprising when people want to second guess those risks and that's something I think they have the right to do.

I think the biggest danger that media organizations face is of irrelevancy, of no longer mattering, and although being tweeted at by the President of the United States or shouted at in a parliamentary select committee isn't necessarily always the most comfortable experience. It does suggest at least a certain kind of relevancy, and I think it's part of the job of being a modern media leader. It's true more broadly throughout the whole of media, throughout the entire developed world. All of the public broadcasters, commercial broadcasters. It's true in the digital start ups, and it's true more broadly in tech and in the marketing and advertising industries, and we can see that. We can see the disruption, and we can see the fragility with which these top jobs are held. It's quite a tough time to be a leader.

My personality defect is, I feel very pleased and privileged to have had a chance to be a leader of media organizations in this moment of change. I think it's incredibly exciting and stimulating, and I think one of the things I've discovered, I like most of the things that many of my colleagues don't like.

Charles:

Such as?

Mark Thompson:

Uncertainty. Uncertainty, not knowing how the story ends, and the sense of to some extent doing stuff against the odds.

Charles:

Do you like that because it gives you the chance to write the ending yourself?

Mark Thompson:

A bit of that. I think you get a lot of agency in the end if you are prepared to act and decide stuff, and to move forward. I think you do get, you definitely get more agency, and it's more interesting than stepping onto an ocean liner, which is placidly going across the ocean, and you do your few thousand nautical miles and hand it on to the next person. Little has changed, this is ... It's true in the middle 20th century that people would go for decades of newspapers or even in TV and broadcasting we're really quite modest changes and then suddenly from the, I guess the late 80s, early 90s, onward suddenly the change started happening aggressively though I still think the rate of change has continued to accelerate. I think the next five or ten years we're going to see even more change.

Charles:

What's the difference you want to make? Do you think about legacy?

Mark Thompson:

I think about, to be fairly obvious Channel Four, but particularly the BBC and New York Times, I'm very interested in institutions, and I think the idea of the longevity of the institution is interesting. In both the BBC and with the Times, the obvious point is both of them have this slightly sort of ivy clad quality, this sense that they've been here forever and will persist, will abide forever. It's not true. At least it's not necessarily true. The BBC is a product of the 1920s, and my beloved father who's been dead for many years was born I think seven years before the BBC was created, eight years before the BBC was created, so younger than my father. Times is older, Times comes from the 1850s, but these are relatively young institutions, which in both cases have no divine right to continue to exist. They will exist if the people inside them make the right decisions, put their hearts and souls into the content, continue to think about the audience, continue to deliver great content and great services to their audience, and somehow box clever through this very, very complicated modern media environment. I definitely think about that, and what can we do now to try and maximize the chances of the next generation of leaders, and the ones behind them to also have options, have strategic choices, and have a good chance of securing the future of the institution.

I think more about that than I do about personal legacy. To be honest, history doesn't tend to remember the deeds of individual media executives for some reason. It's lovely, oblivion will very rapidly kind of close over us and probably rightly so.

Charles:

You feel like you were in service to these institutions.

Mark Thompson:

Yeah, and it's not the institution as the institution, it's the ideal.

It's the ideal of the thing and the man who bought this newspaper in 1895 out of Ochs had an idea of a high minded newspaper which would deliver news without fear or favor, and reflect opinion which would be intelligent and courteous. There's a whole set of ideas of, which essentially are around the importance of truth telling and accuracy, and a kind of thoughtful rational approach to helping people understand the world, which I think runs deep, and I believe is more important now than ever. Not least because of the many enemies and the many pressures that truth telling journalism places today.

Charles:

Picking up on that, you talked about storytelling as a fundamental component of journalism, obviously it is. Storytelling is a creative art form. It's a form of creative expression. Where's the line between creativity and truth lie in journalism? Do journalists see themselves as creative people?

Mark Thompson:

It's a somewhat disputed term in journalism.

Charles:

Creativity?

Mark Thompson:

Yes, yeah. I would say anthropologically they clearly are, they are members of that tribe by what they do, what they say, what they look like, they're obviously creatives, in the way the musicians, and actors, and writers of fiction are. They're definitely part of that tribe. Obviously there's a lot of complexity in exactly what's going on. Journalism is not science, it's not like a scientific paper where you make a list of factual occurrences and sort of leave it at that. It likes to find human narratives, human stories out of what has happened, and is constantly at risk of overdoing that, of trying to fit this new event into some pre ordered stereotypical shape. A lot of the world's journalism is very hackneyed and is based on pre existing prejudicial stereotypical stories. In a way at least part of the creativity I think is about the open mindedness to in a sense trying to, once the reportings happened and once one has a sense of what the story might be, of then letting the story in a way reveal itself, tell itself. So that the eventual report is something which is very faithful and comes out of the ... has emerged out of actuality rather than it's one of those. It's a miracle cure, or it's a ... I think the process of trying to tell kind of news stories is itself a creative act, but I also accept that sometimes the determination to force a particular subject area into a kind of story shape can be distorted. I was involved in the 1990s in the, God forgive me, in the development of kind of early reality TV, and you can see this tempt temptation in reality TV. Both very potent, but also sometimes you can go too far into and weirdly particularly where members of the public are themselves very media savvy and in a weird way are very ready to play roles assigned to them.

Charles:

And looking to do so I think increasingly.

Mark Thompson:

Very much so. One thing as I remember coming to this country, to America in 1983, I'd have been 25, 26 and I was making short films. I'd done quite a lot of that in the UK and I came to the US to work on short films in the US as well. It was very striking, the streets of New York compared to the streets of London in the early 80s. New York has always seemed to intuitively know what was expected of them. They sort of strike poses and come up with brilliant expressions, and sort of stuff slightly heightened or exaggerated but your response is where if you took a camera out to a [inaudible] market in west London they'd stare at the camera, or go ... You're much more innocent, what do you want me to say or I don't know. It was something about the sound bite that the guys bumped into people in the street and they would give you bam a really good 15 second sort of thing. It was a much more obviously kind of TV savvy place.

Charles:

Yeah, [inaudible] market reaction would be, is that all right? Did I do all right? Yes, exactly.

Mark Thompson:

I think that knowing-ness which is now ubiquitous of YouTube and Instagram and the rest of that kind of the self presentation in a way, which is stylized and has learned itself from kind of celebrity culture and the selfie stick pose and all of that sort of absolute self consciousness and awareness of media, is the kind of further factor here, the public are not simply a kind of target population of media innocents, they're in some ways co-conspirators with media.

Charles:

Picking up that actually, you wrote a book about the use of language, most of it being politics, but obviously language is in many ways, or is in fact the most natural creative expression form available to us. It requires nothing, no implement, no technology, just us showing up and speaking.

Mark Thompson:

Yeah.

Charles:

As the use of language has evolved, and to your point, as we have become much more media savvy, there are many more media channels available to us. What have you learned about language through your own work and through writing the book?

Mark Thompson:

I think the first thing is the ... One of the things that I think we're all very sensitized to is kind of being marketed at, of a kind of glib use of language, and particularly this is a very good thing, particularly in an organization with 1500 plus journalists and it's, you can't get away with anything which looks like marketing speech. I think the really big thing I would say in internal communications and external communications, and by the way internal is external and external is internal. The days where you could segregate messages [inaudible] are long gone. Is it's got to be real, it's got to be real and it's better to be real and a bit rough and imperfect than kind of over polished. I would say that in practical terms testing and learning ... One of the things we quite often do here if we're doing to do something in the communications space, for example say there's a conversation in the organization about strategy, we tend to do unto a small group and just kind of learn from them and get help from them about what resonated, what didn't. What did they understand, what they didn't understand. I think this is one area where I'm fairly slavishly sort of digital which is test and learn, test and learn.

The old Frank Luntz phrase, it's not what you say it's what they hear is incredibly true. I think it still often en companies appalling lack of understanding amongst senior leaders about how things are allowed to be heard and I think there are often brilliant intuitive leaders who can probably do this without any help at all, I've become very humble about that and want really always to get the reassurance of a group of real, it's not a focus group it's a group of real colleagues, you try a message out and say, well how did that go, how did that work? I think caution is the right thing, and the truthfulness of what you say is really important.

The really obvious point to make is, but it's true, is trying to sugar coat stuff does not work. You're much better off erring on the side of candor and the emphasis of problems and risks, than trying to gloss over them.

Charles:

What are the-

Mark Thompson:

[crosstalk] I think it’s true of Wall street as well.

Charles:

What have you learned about language in the time of Trump? What has surprised you about that?

Mark Thompson:

The ... My book, it was published in 16 and it's quite a lot of Trump in it actually and there's a paper about it, which also caught up on another 12 months of Uncle Donald. Trump is someone who has been battle-tested in the cauldron of reality TV where you have to fight for audiences, you have to fight for interest. You have to keep your interest going week after week in a very crowded market. And he learnt to be very adept about doing that. About things that keep the public's interest up. Which might include suspense, we'll have to see what happens. It might be grudge matches, I love so and so, I hate so and so. No, no, actually now I love so and so and I hate the first one. That sense of changing casts, the people I trust. I used to trust them, I don't trust them any more. That whole sense of an unfolding drama, I think he does very well. And he, particularly was in the early period of the candidacy and the Presidency, brilliant at compression. Of very, very short language. I mean, one of the great rhetorical tragedies of the Trump era is that moment when Twitter increased the number of characters.

Charles:

Mm-hmm (affirmative). After 100 and-

Mark Thompson:

And those Tweets suddenly started getting flabby and started including arguments and things like that. They were initially just these gems of screaming, intense compression. Distillations of prejudice and rage. And magnificent in their way, if you like these things. But obviously one of the weird things that happened to us is he started Tweeting and pointing them at us. And just after I published my book he started giving me this direct stream of abusive and, by the way, entirely fallacious emails about The New York Times Company. Rather than being a neutral observer I've started becoming a victim of the kind of language I talked about.

And obvious point, the first hostile Trump Tweet specifically about The Times as a company, their subscribers are abandoning them, their business is collapsing was, I guess, a couple of weeks after the election. And it arrived at half past six on a Sunday morning, by half past seven, eight o'clock we were on a conference call. What do you do? You Tweet back, is the answer. You Tweet back and by nine o'clock we had a Tweet out there. And really, I mean we tried never to be vituperative or personal. Like everyone else, Donald Trump's entitled to his opinion. If he says things which are factually untrue about us, we've also got the right to point out to the public that he's wrong.

And more generally we've been more open about trying to get our message across. And I suppose one thing that's relevant to say is I guess a few days after that Tweet, I rang up our head of Brand Marketing, David Rubin, and said, "Look. We're under a lot of attack. We're also getting a lot of defense. But I'd love us to be able to get our own message out in our own words. If I could scrabble together 10 million bucks, what could you do in the way of a brand marketing campaign?" And by Oscar's night, February 2017, so I guess, what? Eight weeks later. We launched The Truth is Hard campaign. We launched the campaign. Which is very much somebody saying, this is what we stand for. Which is not that we are the unique purveyors of truth. But that, trying to figure out in a very noisy, polarized world, what is true is hard. We're committed to trying to figure that out. And if you are too, we're a good place to look. That was the thrust of that.

And since then in various guises we've carried on with that campaign. And I think it's helped us. I think that having a way of talking about our mission, which felt relevant to the moment, has helped us.

Charles:

Yeah, for sure it has. Last two questions. How do you lead?

Mark Thompson:

It's changed. I would say I increasingly think of myself as someone who is there to support people around me. And to distribute the thought leadership and the air time to half a dozen other critical leaders in the organization. At least one of whom, Arthur Gregg Sulzberger, is my boss. But a bigger role for him, a bigger role for Meredith, our Chief Operating Officer for our Executive Editor. Our brilliant Opinion Editor. And so on. And for each of them to have a lot of freedom to personalize and inhabit their roles. And my job is more a holding it together role. And obviously also trying to make sure, as the conductor, that the instruments are all in tune and are all following the same rough beat. But with freedom.

And I don't mind at all moments of disagreement or moments where we're a little bit discordant. I think that feels natural. I think one of the things we learned from Donald Trump is that over-glossy, over-coordinated, over-prepped doesn't work in 2018, 2019 very well. That actually people are listening quite acutely for spontaneity or a willingness to say, "I was wrong."

"I was wrong," is quite important, I think, for leaders. Not, "We were wrong." But, "I was wrong." Sometimes we were wrong as well but in other words and one of the things I very strongly feel is if you're not making a lot of mistakes, you're not making enough of the right kind of calls. And I think the classic, defensive, obfuscatory senior leadership behavior won't cut it. One of the weirdnesses of 2018, and I don't particularly want to personalize it. And it's not a company I've got anything personally against. But I think Facebook and the leadership of Facebook have got a curiously old-fashioned way of dealing with big problems. Which somehow tries to push them away and make them somebody else's responsibility.

Charles:

Yeah. People see through that today, don't you think?

Mark Thompson:

I just, I mean frankly it's simply so ineffective and counterproductive it cannot be advised. I mean, I understand the human instinct to do it. I mean, of course. I mean, we'd all rather not stand up and ... But it simply can't be recommended. It doesn't work. It just doesn't work. I mean, it makes things worse.

Charles:

It does make things worse. And I've always been struck by leaders who stood up in the moment and said, "I made a mistake. I was wrong. Let's move on." How quickly that gets forgotten by human beings, both because I think it's human nature to want to forgive and forget and also because it stops being a story. 'Cause they've just admitted it. I don't know if you remember when David Letterman went through his blackmail thing he confronted that head on by saying, "I am worse than anything you can imagine." Right? And the story was dead in two days because people kept saying, "Yeah, but he said it was even worse than that. So what's the story here?" There's no story here.

Mark Thompson:

One of the things I'm quite pleased with, just on the employee survey and there's one question about, I'm encouraged to think of mistakes as being positive in the organization. That's ticking up. It's not as high as I'd like it to be, but something like 65% of people or something like that are saying that mistakes are treated as positives rather than negatives. And I think that business of maximum candor, we don't know what's going to happen, most of our strategies are really hypotheses which we're going to test and may prove to be wrong. The quicker we test them, the quicker we'll find out what's right and what's wrong, so let's get on with it.

I think that spirit and humility about the fact that if you're a leader you are probably more out of touch with any one part of the business than almost anyone else. You are distant. And, by the way, if you're 61 as I am, you're now drifting away from the central demographic experiences of even probably average users. And there's something about recognizing that distance.

Now, sometimes the distance can be useful. Sometimes the fact that you've seen some of these things before can be useful. But there's a real need for a recognition that you learn what's happening largely though the working experiences and judgements of the 20-somethings, 30-somethings, 40-somethings, 50-somethings. And 60-somethings. But out there doing it, reporting, selling subscriptions, selling advertising. And I do a lot of sales calls and I try and talk to subscribers who are unhappy with the delivery of the newspaper. One way or another I'm talking to end users of The Times whether they're commercial partners or subscribers most weeks. So I've got some sense of what's actually happening out there.

Charles:

Yeah, so important I think to have that connection at the CEO level. It's so easy to lose it to your point.

Mark Thompson:

I think you have a battle. I think you have, I mean, the two battles when you become a CEO is one, the company, the machine, wants to kill you with your own calendar. They want to take control of your life and crush you under a calendar. And you have to somehow stop that and just not let them do that. They don't mean to kill you but they will if you don't stop them. I think that's the first thing. The second thing is they want to cut you off from real life and put you in a bubble.

Charles:

Yeah, perfectly succinctly put. I agree with both of those. I see those every day. Last question for you. What are you afraid of?

Mark Thompson:

Oh. Moving too slowly. Moving too slowly. I mean, all the risk, I think, these wonderful legacy media organizations, everyone worries that you're going to move too fast and you'll smash the Ming vase because you rushed it. I think all the risk is on the other side that you're moving too slowly. And that's the thing. If you talk about legacy, the one thing I'd really fear is the idea that you could have saved this thing, you could have saved it if you'd been a bit braver. It's hard 'cause obviously in real life you're trying to find some middle path between craziness, which is going to get rejected and probably is going to blow up. And over-caution. But the biggest single risk I think is, and I think frankly the risk is playing out, honestly, right now in most news organizations in most countries I know. Which is they're not moving quickly enough and they may well get killed as a result. I think it's like a real thing.

The biggest single thing is are you moving quickly enough? And to me the change always feels agonizingly slow. And scary. It's like one of those submarine movies where they've got no, oxygen's running out. But we're doing okay at the moment. We're doing okay at the moment.

Charles:

I wrap every episode with three takeaways. I actually have four for you. Things that I've heard that I think contribute to your success. Let me throw these at you and tell me what you think. One is, I'm struck by the fact that you are clearly in service to the organization. In every job you've had, that has been your primary frame of reference. What does this organization need?

Second that you do that through the lens of what does the end user want from this organization? Which I think, it sounds like it's obvious but I think so many leaders lose sight of what their consumer wants. I'm always interested in Jeff Bezos' reference point, maybe it's apocryphal, that he has the empty chair for the consumer in every meeting. But I think it's easy for leaders to lose that reference site.

Third I think is that you step in and act with real intention. That there is always action involved in everything you're doing. And I think fourth, because I can't separate these in terms of importance in my own mind, you bring an open mind in this. You're willing to, you have a point of view but you're willing to be convinced by other people. I think when you put those four together it creates the kind of dynamic, ongoing change that you've clearly demonstrated you drive in organizations. Do those resonate?

Mark Thompson:

Yeah. And last thing I want to say is I think the other thing is I'm genuinely delighted by fresh ideas. And I think that pleasure comes across. I mean, I can be enthused and excited. I think a lot of senior leaders I meet almost think it's their job to look serious.

Charles:

Yeah. They're playing a role, aren't they?

Mark Thompson:

Yeah. That's right. And I talked about Napoleon earlier on. I think you don't have to be a Field Marshall. I think you can be a child who's delighted when somebody has a fantastic idea. And one practical use case of this is often people come to you with some idea they're very excited about. And I mean, you haven't got a clue whether it's going to work or not. In fact, your instincts typically will be, I'm an old git and my instincts are often very negative. If they're enthusiastic about it I tend to let them happen. And I tend to just ... I'm half tempted to stop them but I mean, I think innovation is largely killed by senior leaders who would be heartbroken if you told them that. Because they honestly look in the mirror and think they're in favor of innovation. And they don't see themselves killing it.

And I think part of the reason I think I'm quite good at letting innovation happen is 'cause I genuinely just get delighted and enthused by the people who come into my room and say, "Why don't we do this?" And I think there's that as well. Because I think an organization needs to feel, in a weird way, that its leadership are enjoying the process. I think enjoying your job and looking like you're enjoying your job is quite important. And particularly in these difficult digital transitional times it can feel like a death march, the whole thing. And I think it's quite important that there's a ... I think you need wells of cheerfulness throughout an organization. But it's useful if the CEO's office is one of the cheery, that's great, we're so excited about that. It's a, I'm talking about it because it's so exciting. That's what we try and do.

Charles:

Well, and I think to wrap that point, creativity is the most human of capabilities. It requires emotion at its heart. Without it there is nothing there. And I think to your point, yes, living as a human being from a leadership standpoint, fundamental. Mark, thank you so much for this.

Mark Thompson:

It's a [crosstalk] pleasure, Charles.

Charles:

I've really enjoyed it.

Mark Thompson:

Thank you.


See ‘Encouraging Courage’ for more on our theme this week.