Haarsager on NPR changes

Dennis Haarsager posted his response to the speculation about CEO Ken Stern’s departure from NPR this past week. It doesn’t present a “smoking gun” version of events. However, in the comments to his post, Haarsager lets loose three priceless notes that illuminate these events more than any other account to date:

  • “…Mr Stern chose the time and day when he left the building.”
  • “…no malfeasance or misfeasance should be imputed.”
  • “…transparency is an important ideal; [Stern’s] privacy is a right.”

These quotes are very important to understanding the events.

First, he blows the malfeasance idea out of the water. When the news hit about Stern’s departure, I know folks around my shop assumed there was something sinister about the change. Had there been embezzlement? Sexual harassment? Physical confrontation? Why else would the termination be so abrupt? Well, it wasn’t something like that. (And those with personal experience of Ken Stern couldn’t imagine such a scenario anyway.)

Second, Haarsager notes the mutually exclusive issues of transparency and privacy. We observers want transparency in these affairs, but the departed — Stern — has a right to privacy. Personal privacy trumps corporate transparency in this case, and rightly so.

If you’ve ever been in a managerial position, you know there are things you can and can’t talk about when it comes to hiring candidates and terminating employees. Indeed, mostly you can’t say anything. Even if you’re mad at the employee, even if you’d like to give them a swift kick on the way out the door, you say nothing. To say anything negative is an abuse of your power and opens the company up to lawsuits. Besides, the employee is gone now — it’s time to look ahead.

Third, and most importantly, the departure was abrupt, but the timing was Stern’s choice. In other words, Stern could have played this game entirely differently — even leading to a multi-month golden parachute process, I suspect — but he chose to go out this way and at this time. This tells us a tremendous amount without giving details (an excellent balance of transparency and privacy, I think).

Consider how most CEO departures play out: there’s usually a transition period, often a significant one. The Bill Gates departure from Microsoft has been in the works for more than 2 years and he even left the CEO role several years prior to that. Many nonprofits have written succession plans, allowing for smooth transitions either over time or in emergency situations. And even when a CEO departs to “spend more time with his/her family,” there’s at least some degree of hand-off, like a consulting gig with the company until the new CEO is seated. But not here.

So the fact that there’s no transition, that the change was so abrupt and surprising, and the fact that Stern more or less set the timetable speaks volumes. And not to Stern’s credit. In my experience, even if you’re disgruntled, you don’t walk out and cut all ties with the company instantly.

So Haarsager’s statement that the reasons for Stern’s departure were “multivariate” is probably the most accurate, albeit the least satisfying. And from what I’ve gathered privately, it really isn’t all about the new media angle (though that’s one of the variants to which Haarsager is likely referring). But the way this went down — the suddenness of it — suggests much of the problem existed inside the CEO’s office. It didn’t have to end this way.

Personally, I’m ready to move on — we’ve got so much to do in public media. But I’ll continue to update the articles list as needed.