Blog Article

The media sector: escaping from Gollum

Posted by Stephen Welch

Stephen Welch

A few days ago, we left Bilbo Baggins (and by extension, media companies), stuck with Gollum getting tied up in knots and not knowing how to succeed and escape.  Read on to find out what happens next and how it is relevant for media companies.

Scene 5: escape

In fact Bilbo escapes via the power of a ring.  Not an engagement ring; an enablement ring.  Who knew there was a connection between Baggins’ annulus and businesses’ enablement? But it is true: he finds the tools and resources to be successful. But we see too many media companies without the tools to be successful: they are plagued with odd structures, complicated processes, and inappropriate resources, which all make it difficult for even the most motivated employees to be successful; or the most successful to be motivated. There are just too many obstacles for them to overcome and this acts as a brake on performance. Because, like the mountain and its internal infernal (a reference to my previous blog on this topic: )  labyrinth, many media companies are complex, and their people do not feel enabled and struggle to deliver success.

Scene 6: the next generation

Our last parallel between the story and the sector is the vexed issue of succession planning and talent management. Back in the real world, the Financial Times talked about this at length recently. In our allegory, we see some emerging challenges around succession planning in many areas, such as after the Town is desolated by the dragon, the dwarf leader Thorin Oakenshield’s failure to identify a successor and the ridiculous talent management practices which only emerge later in Tolkein’s next book “The Lord of the Rings” where Bilbo is succeeded by his own nephew (nepotism, literally) and Gandalf, after his death, is succeed by … himself. Memo to Rupert Murdoch and Roger Ailes: Tolkien was way ahead of you.

As the Financial Times article highlights, these responses hardly indicate that boards are working hard to develop a new generation of digital leaders. The media sector has always had specific challenges, from the prevalence of controlling families to the need for CEOs to understand both commercial and creative imperatives. But if succession problems persist, they will have costly consequences, weakening investor confidence. The challenge for media boards and investors is to improve internal succession planning”.

I agree. The challenge is indeed to improve succession planning, and talent management more generally, so that high performing individuals are given a chance to develop their skills and career. This means not only making it easy for them to do so but having clear mechanisms so that media companies do not have to always look outside for new talent. We know from our research among the World’s Most Admired Companies that the best tend to promote from within. But too many media companies don’t, and then, are surprisingly surprised when things don’t work out. Hmmm.

In summary, then, our observation is that many media companies need to go on an unexpected journey, to be shaken out of their comfortable hobbit-holes and transformed into something heroic and different. This journey is in four scenes:

  1. The invasion of their home by dwarves: in this case online media literally barging in and ‘eating their lunch’. Media companies need to go on a journey to transform, but without encountering the goblin of centralization. But if you know the path, it is easy.
  2. This transformation is not just in terms of their operating model, but also in terms of how their sales teams work: this is dark and dirty work, and full of riddles and traps (and preciousss egos). But if you know the answers, it is easy.
  3. Enablement helps. There is no magic ring answer but rather some key lessons from others in how they enable their people for success.
  4. Succession, talent management and career planning are important. This is where we need to divert from the Book’s stupid Tolkienesque HR practices and listen instead to Financial Times who agree who agree with us that leadership development has a role to play in financial success.


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