Did Business Analyst & Best-Selling Author Jim Collins Get It Wrong for Publishers?

By Michael Foy, President of Publishing Search Solutions


In my last article I cited Jim Collins studies of how great companies can recognize when they’re losing their way and how to get back on track. His conclusions were published in his book ‘How the Mighty Fall; And Why Some Companies Never Give In’. In it, he revealed the tell tale stages of a decline. The subject of this post concerns the first of those five stages or Hubris. Excessive pride can be the first sign of trouble for businesses in various industries as Jim suggests but I submit that the publishing industry in recent times may be a special case.

Is it believable that publishers would experience excessive pride as their first sign of a decline? It seems that there are other more contemporary indicators that a course correction is needed. Armed with this hypothesis I sought the opinions of executives who offered some well considered observations on what they see as the early signs of a decline. Here’s some of what they said.

Publishing tends to still operate in arcane ways. It can be easy to fall into arcane, or legacy thinking, when strategizing or even pricing. One needs to guard against it constantly.

Instead of pride some cited a tendency to ignore signs of a changing environment. Publishers have been more vigilant lately on how consumers drive content delivery changes.

The Internet came up many times as another potential pitfall among executives in businesses that sell ad space. Some Publishers have created strategies to compile more content to make up for reduced advertising income.

In the education market, Common Core was cited as an obvious challenge. This program shrunk the Supplemental market and made it more competitive. To cope large publishers have re-invented themselves in some cases by selling off non performing arcane parts.

Nowadays, skill sets to get books discovered is paramount said one executive. A teamwork approach coordinates the multitude of skills necessary for success.

Digital was confirmed to be a major challenge in the non-fiction trade market. Exceptions, however, were the ‘How To’ books where consumers were less interested in going digital.

Most agree that our industry is in a correction and that we’re only now becoming ‘smart’ about publishing as a business. On occasion I’ve been happy to facilitate that progress by importing ‘smart’ candidates and placing them on a rewarding career path in publishing. The trick is to find, vet and attract those candidates from either inside or outside the industry.

In spite of Jim Collin’s thorough work on determining the stages of a company’s decline, hubris was hardly cited at all as the reason for Publishers’ difficulties. But whether it’s pride or something else that threatens a Publisher’s success some remedial plan is needed. To execute that plan Jim Collins verifies in his studies that one must have the right people in the right seats. Then one must continue to add the right people to grow and build on that success. After all publishing hasn’t and won’t go away. There’ll always be a need for content to inform, educate or entertain.


How Formerly Mighty Publishers Fall, But Sometimes Recover

By Michael Foy, President of Publishing Search Solutions


As many of you know I’m a big fan of Jim Collins and his studies of how good companies become great, how some can choose greatness, how others weather the test of time etc… I’ve written articles on how these findings apply to Publishing Companies where I distill the lessons down to actionable strategies for our industry in times of change and disruption.

I recently read ‘How the Mighty Fall; And Why Some Companies Never Give In. After collecting and analyzing data over the course of years, a common pattern of decline revealed itself. This pattern can be broken down into five stages but overall the study showed that if a great company grows its revenues faster than it puts the right people in the right seats to sustain that growth it will fall.

For the sake of this article let’s picture a hypothetical Publisher that has experienced the pinnacle of their particular market. With historic and consistent success such a Publisher is vulnerable to the first stage of decline. And that stage is Hubris.

Not too many Publishers would be guilty of Hubris after dealing with recent digital headwinds in their markets. Conversely, those publishers that have dealt successfully with those or other difficulties may be even more vulnerable to this first stage. Hubris is apparent when the feeling that success will be automatic infects the decision makers. They take short cuts without adhering to the principles that allowed the organization to thrive in the first place. This leads directly to the second stage or Overreaching.

Overreaching entails growth into new areas that a Publisher cannot deliver with excellence. It’s described in Jim’s book as the Undisciplined Pursuit of More. It can take the form of an unwise acquisition or risking too much of the company reserves to expand too quickly. Not all acquisitions or expansions are bad, however. It’s just that a Publisher shouldn’t divert so much capital, particularly human capital, from the core business that one damages the original driver of success. Even if that success is being challenged by disruptive technologies one shouldn’t completely abandon the business’ core. Modify it? Yes. But don’t discard it. When Publishers change to meet the demands of the times and they dilute their human capital assets with the wrong agents of change they may feel the need for more discipline, more beauratic procedures. The right people who didn’t require rigid rules to support the Publisher’s goals before then tend to leave. See my article on ‘Do Publishers Have the Right People On The Bus’ for more of who the right people for our industry are.

The third stage is Denial. This occurs once one has started down the road of overreaching and returns on investment prove unpromising. Often due to unsupported faith that everything will work out, a Publisher will put itself at risk by continuing to support a losing venture. Evidence of this stage is when good news is amplified and the negative is discounted. Inevitably, the Publisher’s market share erodes. A typical reaction is to reorganize to no productive purpose.

Grasping for Salvation is the fourth stage. In many ways it’s very similar to stage two. The difference is that by this time in a Publisher’s decline it has realized its missteps. Oftentimes it tries to correct by repeating the overreach mistake with new ill advised ventures as opposed to rational and measured action plans.

The final stage is Capitulation to Irrelevance or Death. Going bankrupt or being bought out are the typical outcomes when poor decisions have depleted cash reserves enough so that an organization’s options have narrowed to an inevitable death.

All very gloomy but the good news is that stage five can be replaced by Recovery and Renewal. It can happen if the decline is recognized in stage one, two or three and even some times in stage four if one still retains enough resources to break the cycle of grasping and instead rebuild one step at a time. As recoveries go, a remarkable one occurred with the giant company Xerox which was losing hundreds of millions of dollars annually. Anne Mulcahy took on the top post when it was deeply mired in stage four. By making hard but sound decisions backed by empirical evidence, instead of grasping at straws, Anne turned the loss of over 350 million dollars in 2000 and 2001 into profits of 1 billion dollars by 2006. And she did it by reinstituting the original Xerox culture and employee model in spite of some very loud voices to blow it up and declare Chapter 11.

Talk about putting the right person in the right seat in the nick of time. But if you’ll recall the Jim Collins’ conclusions in the second paragraph of this article, all of the stages of decline can be avoided if one puts the right people in the right seats to support growth. For any organization, hoping to sustain a successful business model during growth, the process for finding the right people has to be a priority.

Are you familiar with a Publisher that started a decline but turned things around?


Who Likes Recruiters?

By Michael Foy, President of Publishing Search Solutions


Who does like recruiters? Candidates? Hiring Managers? I’ve been on both sides of that equation and now I am a recruiter. With the benefit of over twenty years of experience I now know that the answer to the question depends on when and how one avails oneself of a recruiter’s advantages.

Let’s tackle a candidate/recruiter relationship first. As an example I’ll recall a time before I joined the recruiting profession, a time when I came to them for help. I think my experience was fairly universal, sometimes comical and perhaps instructive on what a recruiter can really do for a candidate.

When I graduated college I took the summer off but not before contacting a recruiter to at least generate some interview activity. Naively, I thought of him as somewhat of an agent. He actually reinforced that misperception by, among other things, convincing me to take no other action in pursuing my first professional employment gig. That’s something I never ask any of my candidates. Getting a job is a job and it is unfair to limit someone to just one source of job leads. But at that time I thought this is great. I can just leave my fate in the hands of this professional of the job securing arts. In blissfull ignorance I did what most early twenty-somethings do with time on their hands. I went to the beach, socialized, took long rides and generally lollygagged a couple of months away. At least I had the foresight to check with him periodically. His response was always about the same. “You’ve got a good resume for a new grad and I don’t see any difficulty in getting bites on it. It’s just that there’s nothing yet.” Okay, I thought, even though it made me feel a little like a game fish.

Through June and July, I was satisfied with that type of answer and went back on my merry way in wasting time. But by August the light started to dawn on Marblehead. The recruiter had mentioned lots of possibilities to me but without any interviews to show for my faith in him, I decided to abandon that relationship and do my own searching. Ultimately, I landed a position for September. That was about the time he’d called me back to ask if I’d like to interview at three different companies.

The moral here is that recruiters typically do have a great many more connections than candidates. But not all their connections are looking at the same time a candidate is. Also, a hiring manager’s requirements are usually so specific it’s rare that a recruiter has just the right opening for a person in waiting. As an old mentor used to tell me, recruiters are paid to fill the jobs of our clients first, finding jobs for candidates is a happy byproduct. That said, if a candidate receives a call from a recruiter (as opposed to the other way around), expectations of a match can be much much higher. So it’s always a good idea for a candidate to be on a recruiter’s radar.

Next, let’s talk about approaching a recruiter as a hiring manager. From a recruiter’s perspective this is a more straightforward relationship. They’re paid to do a talent search, that in many cases has already been proven to be challenging, and to find the best match. As a hiring manager I had occasion to work with search firms. There were some good retained firms that were periodically paid to be focused but they usually took longer than I liked. And there were some good contingent firms that typically worked more quickly than a retained firm since they weren’t getting paid until the placement was consummated. The trouble with some contingent firms is that they tended to forget about you. From their point of view they’re not being paid by the hour so for difficult searches they’ll put in an initial effort but then move on to the next client if the talent pool didn’t yield immediate results. That was doubly true if they didn’t have an exclusive with the hiring company.

The bottom line is that one needs the right tool for the right job. The type of opening will dictate whether a contingent or retained effort is appropriate. I have often counseled hiring managers about what’s best for their particular needs. Sometimes the answer isn’t obvious. It can even be counter-intuitive.

Have you had any interesting experiences with recruiters? I’d love to hear about them.



Has the Type of People that Publishers Need for Success Changed?

By Michael Foy, President of Publishing Search Solutions


The answer to the title of this article is: Yes! But also no!

It’s yes because up to date technical skills have become indispensable. And it’s no because core personality traits still make for the most desirable employee.

For the sake of simplicity let’s assume that hiring managers are good at detecting positive core personality traits. Things like loyalty, passion, commitment etc… I know that’s tricky but that’s a subject addressed in an earlier article I wrote titled Do Publishers Have the Right People on the Bus, http://oreil.ly/ZKUmnk. For now let’s concentrate on what skill sets modern publishers need to compete and succeed.

Have you noticed the ascendancy of marketing these days? From my perspective of finding talent to strengthen my client publishers, I’ve frequently placed executives with some kind of marketing experience over the last few years. Not surprisingly these most desirable prospects have had titles like Director of Marketing and Vice President of Marketing. On the other hand, they’ve also had surprising titles like Editorial Director, Publisher, Managing Director/Business Development, Publishing Director, Database Marketing Manager etc… The point is that marketing plays a part in almost everyone’s role at a publishing company these days. Those shrewd companies, big and small, that cultivate this new paradigm have taken advantage of opportunities previously left on the table. And they’re increasing their market share.

So how do employees other than those in marketing departments contribute to getting the word out? Social media is part of the answer. Gaining market share can be correlated more and more to how prevalent one is on such vehicles as Twitter, Facebook, Pinterest and Instagram. These sites and others are a great way to generate buzz amongst a following that you’ve grown and hopefully cultivated with compelling content. The object here is to create evangelists for your product or service. Evangelists in this context means people who are impressed enough with your product or service that they will sing your praises to people connected with them on social media. In effect they are a passionate (and unpaid) promotional team. Movie studios, like Lionsgate that put out The Hunger Games for instance, are masters of this. Needless to say that putting out a compelling product or service is a precursor for success.

Creating evangelists for publishers is best done with a team concept. So let’s create a team where everyone is cognizant of this goal and is willing to contribute to it. For instance there are some excellent editors out there but unfortunately some of those same editors are reticent to apply any of their time and energy to marketing functions. But who can better articulate positions on a publisher’s content than them? I know of at least one executive who recounted how people on his editorial staff had to be coaxed to write blog posts. Happily, however, they soon recognized the value of their posts when shown the impact it had on the publisher’s following and ultimately other metrics like market share and revenues.

So the bottom line is that there is at least a different mind-set that separates today’s productive employee from those of even just a few years ago. One may already have them on staff, ready to flower with just a little redirection. Or an organization may have to add people with the proper mind-set and talents to facilitate a successful business model for a modern publisher. But at least in that case a hiring manager can screen for those candidates that wouldn’t need to be coaxed.


Contact Me for questions or comments

Do Publishers Have the Right People on the Bus?

By Michael Foy, President of Publishing Search Solutions


I know from talking to many of my clients that most have read Jim Collins’ book ‘Good to Great’. I have also been inspired by his research into what makes great companies great. Many of you will recall a blog post I wrote on applying the lessons of Jim’s more recent book ‘Great by Choice’ to publishing. Thus inspired I recently read his earlier book ‘Good to Great’ for the first time. In ‘Good to Great’ Jim Collins’ and his research team discovered that the great companies didn’t ask what product or which strategy first. They asked who. Who do we need on our (company) bus for a successful business journey? Company owners Hewlett and Packard, for instance, consciously built their future by hiring outstanding people even before they knew what they’d be making, what direction they’d be driving. Whenever they found these people they hired them even without a specific job in mind. Hewlett Packard became one of the great American success stories and outperformed the stock market by many times. They were one of many cases that emphasized having the right people above all else for an organization to achieve greatness.

So that begs the question who are the right people? More specifically, who are the right people for the publishing industry if it is to thrive in a marketplace disrupted by the digital revolution. I’ve had a lot of conversations of late about what constitutes the right person and have tried to document the most well considered and proven profiles for success.

Several times I’ve heard from hiring managers that someone with a willingness to experiment is important. These days, for marketing programs, that means more than just plying social media. Understanding and employing tools with acronyms like SEO (Search Engine Optimization), SEM (Search Engine Marketing) and PPC (Pay Per Click) are needed to make up a comprehensive strategy to exploit new opportunities in mobile devices and other digital channels.

Thinking quantitatively has been another common theme in conversation. Content specialists that rely on more data as opposed to anecdotal evidence to justify new products are in demand. Not a few people have said that they prefer to recruit outside of the normal publishing talent pool for people who think in numbers. Indeed, I’ve had to expand my reach beyond the industry to identify talent that suits clients’ newest needs. This goes for positions like Technical Project Manager, Software Developer, Digital Product Analyst to name a few.

Given the discoveries in ‘Good to Great’ one can project for publishing that an entrepreneurial mindset with content expertise and digital know how should be the target for recruitment efforts. Easy, right? Not exactly. And not cheap if you’re targeting these people from other industries. But certain publishers have recruited younger prospects with some skills that can be trained up. The new hires enter a publishing industry in the midst of experimenting with new business models so adaptability has to be one of their personal attributes. But they should also be excited at the prospect of re-imagining a venerable industry. Jim Collins posits that when you have these kinds of people the question of motivating and management largely goes away since they are by definition self motivated.

Importing technical skills is essential but I think it’s important to note that the case studies in ‘Good to Great’ showed that technology by itself didn’t drive success. For example, the mandate to put at least one robot on assembly lines at GM failed to staunch the loss of market share to Japanese car makers in the 80s. By contrast the great companies applied carefully selected technology to accelerate their growth strategy already in progress. So even though technical skills are important, core personality traits are even more important according to the research in ‘Good to Great’.

So, if personal attributes combined with creative and digital skills define the right people for publishing, how do we find them? Some have tried an impersonal automated approach to locate these special people. Take a minute for a little thought experiment to see if this approach sounds right in vetting people with the proper personal make up. Some of my hiring clients have definitively said that this method misses some desirable prospects. Some companies do personalize their recruiting by tasking their Executives with it but is this an efficient use of their time and skills? It takes time… lots of time to tap the best prospects. To do it right one has to identify candidates whether or not they’re applying to ads or putting themselves out on job sites. But having the right people for your bus is vital so shouldn’t the method to land them be as thorough and efficient as possible?

Contact Me for questions or comments


Great by Choice… Publishers too.


By Michael Foy, President of Publishing Search Solutions

I don’t think its news that most publishers are struggling with the same changes that accosted the Music industry a few years ago. Shrinking demand for traditional products coupled with very specific needs for digital content. Challenging times are testing most sectors of the economy and companies of every type are looking for new models of operation. Why then are some companies thriving? That’s the subject of a book I read recently called ‘Great by Choice’ by Jim Collins and Morten Hansen. The subtitle, I think, is even more provocative: Uncertainty, Chaos and Luck—Why Some Thrive Despite Them All.

To make its case the book relies on data compiled over nine years. Several case studies are featured comparing the methods of successful companies to unsuccessful ones in the same market. For instance they contrast SouthWest Airlines and PSA, Progressive and Safeco, Microsoft and Apple and so on. The companies they featured weren’t just successful they were better performers by orders of magnitude or as they called them, 10Xers.

So what’s their secret? According to the book it’s a set of practices that’s virtually the same as the ones that enabled Roald Amundsen to beat Robert Falcon Scott to the South Pole in December of 1911. In short they are:
1. 20 Mile March
2. Bullets, then Cannonballs
3. SMaC, Specific, Methodical and Consistent

Let’s break down these three points. When the authors cite a 20 Mile March
they allude to Amundsen’s practice of progressing no more and no less than 20 miles everyday no matter the conditions, good or bad. The most adverse condition of course was the weather. Scott would hunker down during bad weather and push well beyond 20 miles in good weather. On good days when Amundsen hit his 20 mile goal he didn’t press on. Instead, he opted to keep something in reserve for any unknown difficulties that lay ahead. For companies its not 20 miles but 20% growth for instance. Its challenging to achieve 20% growth year in and year out. But it can be even more difficult to refrain from expending resources when market conditions permit unprecedented growth. Savvy investors know to invest in a company that has a steady growth rate as opposed to one that swings wildly back and forth from say 5% to 50%.

The second point about Bullets, then Cannonballs refers to new products or services. One shouldn’t bet big on new products, or cannonballs, until one has tested the market first with smaller bets that leaves the company less exposed. The analogy comes from old sea battles where sail driven ships square off with two sizes of projectiles. Since bullets are cheaper its smarter to use them first until the range has been determined before firing off the more expensive less abundant cannonballs. Companies that didn’t use bullets first can be called great innovators, hitting the market with sexy new but untested products. Innovation is a key to success but surprisinly the most successful companies weren’t the most innovative. They were typically ‘one fad behind’. According to this research, first to market with the riskiest digital offering shouldn’t necessarily be the goal for publishers. Did you know that Amazon didn’t pioneer online bookselling?

The third point is called SMaC. It stands for Specific, Methodical and Consistent. Basically, it means determine a specifically defined process and if proven successful stick with it. Fly only 737s for example was part of the specific process that Southwest Airlines maintained to remain successful for decades in spite of market shocks like deregulation. Even after 9/11 Southwest didn’t cut one job or cancel any flights. Are there times where change is appropriate and necessary? Certainly, but most successful companies changed their methods very little compared to their competitors. For publishers, maintaining core successful practices while adapting to the digital age is the current challenge.

The digital revolution is a market shock to publishers like deregulation and 9/11 was to Southwest and the airline industry. Resources are being depleted but there are oases of success in the industry too. Whatever segment of the market you happen to be in you know who’s doing well in spite of the Uncertainty, Chaos and Luck as cited in the book ‘Great by Choice’. Do you think they’re practicing the 20 Mile March, Bullets Before Cannonballs and the Specific, Methodical and Consistent approaches that are common to all successful companies? That’s a rhetorical question.

How Can A Recruiter Best Help In A Talent Search?

By Michael Foy, President of Publishing Search Solutions

On occasion, when I’m approached by a new client for help in filling a challenging staff vacancy, it occurs to me that they’ve had different experiences with Executive Recruitment. They may not know what to expect or how I work with them to ensure the need is filled. There are those that assume that I’ll merely funnel resumes, that they’ll be completely divorced from the process and others that think its best to outsource all communications through Human Resources. To be sure I work with HR to facilitate the process and can partner with them to land a great prospect but invariably the best results occur when the hiring manager is involved. Only they have the intimate knowledge of who will work out best in any given role and thus its their timely feedback that ensures a successful search. So what’s the best way to tap a recruiter’s skills? Let’s talk.

An experienced full service recruiter doesn’t funnel resumes or people to the hiring company, he or she attracts and qualifies talent and presents only those that fit the need. When the process works best the recruiter and hiring manager(s) huddle after each possibility is presented to determine what’s strong about a candidate and what’s weak. Once candidates are judged promising by the hiring managers the recruiter will continue to build interest in those prospects for the hirer’s company and position.

There are three phases of a talent search.

The first is the Research Phase where the ideal profile is discussed with the hiring managers. With that information I’ll determine what segment of the talent pool to target. The initial list can be as many as 50 people.

The second phase is by far the most time consuming. It’s the Phone Campaign. This is where I call the people on the list, qualify them as candidates or network to others they know that could fit the position. The original list of 50 can oftentimes swell to 150 during this time. Upon identifying the first promising prospect I’ll seek feedback from the hiring manager and either set up an interview or adjust the search if the prospect doesn’t fit the hiring manager’s perception of the need.

The third phase, or Landing the Candidate, is where I continue to advocate for the client through the interview process with the prospect. This includes checking references and ensuring that the prospect is receptive to an offer in the end.

So when I originally talk with hiring managers about filling a vacancy its not about people as much as it’s about the process to find the best people. In large part I’m requesting their input throughout the talent search so I can best help them. In that kind of relationship it’s a near certainty that the vacancy will be filled with the person best able to succeed. At the end of the day success is measured by making a match between candidate and client that excites both parties. And that’s what makes my job fun.