Leadership in crisis | Crisis management leader | CEO of Washington Post - Vani Kola

Hello everyone, this is Vani Kola Managing Director at Kalaari Capital. This Leadership In Crisis initiative is so that we can learn from the crises of other companies and leaders and apply those learnings to our own startup journeys. In this episode, I want to talk about Katherine Graham, when she was the CEO of the Washington Post.

The Washington Post is known and respected all over the world over and has won 69 Pulitzer Prizes! But when Katherine Graham took over The Washington Post in 1963, it was a struggling newspaper. She had no real-world experience in leading a company and the odds were not in her favour. 

Early Life

Her journey of personal transformation from a reluctant and inexperienced leader to being tremendously successful and respected by the time she retired has always inspired me, personally. What I took away from her journey is, that it’s not your, “Experience and Skills that determine your success as a leader, it is much more, the intangibles in terms of your personal values such as your perseverance, your vision, your grit and your integrity, above all else, that truly makes you a leader.”

She was one of the most successful women who emerged as a corporate leader who had to undertake Leadership In Crisis, and one of the first women, CEO of a Fortune 500 company, She led Washington Post, for 30 years, transforming it from a local newspaper to a successful national paper and a highly respected international brand. In my formative years, I was really inspired by some of their very well-known journalistic pieces, involving the Pentagon Papers, as well as the Watergate scandal. But today’s episode is about her remarkable personal journey. She was thrust into a position of leadership by a family tragedy. And she took up the role, very reluctantly yet became one of the most successful and admired business leaders of her time.

She had been a socialite and a housewife, all her life, until her husband’s death. And in 1963, she had a choice to sell the paper, or take on the leadership role that was available to her. She had no experience whatsoever in running a business. And in fact, had never worked, other than doing a brief stint as a journalist. In the very much male-dominated world at the time in corporate, as well as in media, the odds were not in her favour. In a very conventional sense, she was probably the most unlikely leader, to be chosen, and many expected her to sell the paper or to make a terrible mess of it. Of course, contrary to all of that, she became a legend who brought tremendous success displaying her Leadership In Crisis.

Leadership In Crisis

Her journey is one of personal transformation where she went from being a reluctant and inexperienced leader to being a tremendously successful and respected leader. She did this by: 

  1. Assembling a great team. 
  2. Building a strong culture with high journalistic integrity.
  3. Onboarding exceptional advisors to help her plan long-term goals.

My Learnings:

Under her way of leadership in crisis, the first lesson I draw from her journey is the importance of building the right team. She was very pragmatic in assessing her limitations, and she knew she was inexperienced. She also knew that she didn’t have the support of the current team at the company. She understood and valued the need to build a strong team, so she began by bringing Ben Bradley as a chief editor. And that started the process of recreating the team that believed in her vision and was motivated to succeed.

Today, we talk about company cultures, a lot. And this was something that in her time was not as much discussed, but the second factor of success was really setting the tone and building a very strong value-based organization and leadership culture. She fundamentally believed in editorial integrity as the main purpose for any newspaper to exist. So time and again, she was able to make the short-term trade-offs of voting for the integrity of her editors vs short-term shareholder concerns. I think this is true for many businesses even today. Do we focus on keeping customers’ needs ahead or do we focus on valuing our suppliers, when there may be short-term financial interests that may point in different directions? This is really the role of a strong culture, a strong value-based organization plays a role. The only reason, the post became one of the top three brands in the country had to do with her ability to time and again, allow for breakthrough stories to be the core of her brand, even when there was significant lobbying and significant threats and dire implications of financial loss.

The second lesson, the culture of a company, which is always from the example of the leader, truly gets tested in times of crisis, and it provides a moral compass to the decision the business makes to focus on the long term, versus simply the here and now because she excelled in providing that soul for the company.

The third lesson is the role of having the right advisors. Often advisors are picked by startups for the marketable value. She offered Warren Buffett to buy 10% of our company and invited him to the board. Most people advised against it with predictions of a hostile takeover or was contrary to advise from many, she not only invited Warren Buffett, as a shareholder, but he also became a mentor and a deep ally on the board. Of course today, Warren Buffett is famous, but at that time, he was not as well known and as revered as he is today. Nonetheless, she saw his acumen and realized that he can be a great mentor to her. In many of her core initiatives, he continued to play significant roles in giving her advice, including a very smart move of buying back shares of the company, which enhanced its value of the company. Her controversial, and the unconventional act of buying back, millions of shares, when the company was at a low in fact, help the company, create much more shareholder value in time.

So despite her lack of experience, and despite her own self-doubts, and the many cases that she had to face. She was able to learn along the way and transform the company into a leveraged and highly valuable outcome for her shareholders. In the process, she also created a benchmark of a brand that’s respected even today. Between the time taking the company public in 1971 and stepping down 22 years later, in 1993, she built immense shareholder value. Not bad for a woman that most didn’t believe could hold on to the business, even for a few months, let alone a few decades. Not to mention the many Pulitzer prizes received under her vanguard.

Building and scaling your startup can be daunting to any of us, not just at the professional level, but even at the personal level and founders face many instances where they have no experience and no clue how to deal with it. Moments of self-doubt and anxiety, are a core part of the existence of every startup leader by hope, like me, you derive some lessons and inspiration from Katherine Graham’s journey to the potential and possibilities in each of us to overcome our limitations to create something of value. Ultimately, trust belief is at the core of any leadership journey. And with that, mountains can be conquered oceans can be crossed.