BBG Watch Guest Commentary

BBG Watch occasionally publishes guest commentaries. This one is from a current Voice of America journalist who prefers to remain anonymous.

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The Andy Lack?

By A Voice of America Journalist

The Andy Lack?

Surely no.

Someone is sorely misinformed.

This must be a joke.

That was my reaction, and the reaction of some of my VOA colleagues, when word leaked a few days before a Broadcasting Board of Governors meeting that the Board was going to offer Mr. Lack the position of CEO of U.S. international broadcasting. Our usually-excellent sources surely have gotten this one wrong, we thought. Or maybe it was some other Andy Lack. Or the Andy Lack’s son. But the Andy Lack? No way the big-time media executive Andy Lack would agree to come here. One thing many of us agreed on long ago was that whoever the new CEO would be, it would not be someone of any stature in the media world. It would be some Ivy-league guy on the make, or a political hack, or a guy on the way down who needed a sinecure, a six-figure job for a couple of years.

Boy, were we wrong. Andy Lack is the real deal, someone who has succeeded at the highest level of the media world, the very kind of guy we thought would never agree to come to VOA.

So, mark us puzzled. Why would a guy with Andy Lack’s pedigree agree to enter the snakepit of VOA’s Mahogany Row? Does he know he can’t fire the incompetent 30-year managers who have driven this agency into the ditch? Does he know what it will be like dealing with a Congress that is disgusted with the agency? Can he even imagine dealing with senior leaders who have no media experience outside a government bureaucracy?

He’s either a genius or a complete idiot. Surely he doesn’t need the money. Surely he doesn’t need to prove anything at this point in his career. Perhaps he has been made big promises by the Board. Maybe he has such self-confidence that he thinks he can keep the agency from going over a cliff (I acknowledge that some believe it already has). But one wonders if he truly knows what lies ahead: demoralized employees, a muddled mission, uncertain funding, miniscule audiences and a funder (Congress) convinced that the agency has been mismanaged and poorly-led. Has he been fully-briefed? Has he looked, really looked, at the audience research? Has he read BBG Watch? What kind of person would take the CEO job when the chance of failure is so great? Does he know something we don’t?

If current VOA Director David Ensor is Buffalo, Andy Lack is New York City. How did we jump that many markets so quickly? We are led now by Peoria and will soon be led by Chicago. How did that happen? Is Mr. Lack rich and bored? Is he languishing at Bloomberg, looking for a way to end his career with a bang? Is he a patriot, committed to returning VOA to its old glory? Is this a last-ditch effort, a move to take one last shot at getting this right before moving to de-federalization or defunding? This is high stakes, because if a guy with Andy Lack’s stature and track record can’t get this train on the tracks, Congress will lose all hope (if, indeed, it even has any left).

Hiring someone of Andy Lack’s stature says good things, very good things, about the desire on the part of Congress and the Obama administration to right the sinking VOA ship. And it says very bad things about their views of the current VOA management. No doubt VOA Director David Ensor and Executive Editor Steve Redisch are right now updating their resumes, looking for a soft landing.

But others should be looking for a new job, too. Mr. Lack has got to clean house. He should show the different audiences who will be carefully watching his first few moves that he is not afraid to act swiftly; he should fire the agency’s top leaders on day one of his tenure, if not before. He should not let them resign. As part of his negotiations over the job, he should insist that he be given absolute power to put new people in the top slots, perhaps even insisting that the current leaders be removed before he arrives. He should bring in people from the outside and he should make room for talented leaders already in-house such as those put in interim positions by the newest BBG Board under Chairman Shell. He should reach down into the agency and elevate proven, courageous leaders. He should remove every senior advisor, division director and newsroom leader. And he should carefully evaluate every one of the more than 40 branch and service chiefs in the agency.

One of my colleagues believes Mr. Lack doesn’t know what he has gotten himself into. “He’ll be here six months, tops, then leave for ‘health reasons,’” this colleague said. That is decidedly pessimistic, of course, but not without reason. I hope my colleague will be proven wrong. But I fear he may not be.

No doubt VOA’s long-suffering employees and its unions wish Mr. Lack great success, and hope he will begin with a bang by announcing the transfer or departure of most of the agency’s senior managers. But he has some adjustment ahead; while he has run large media bureaucracies, he has never run one like this in which senior managers have been in the organization for decades, are almost impossible to fire and are experienced in waiting out VOA directors. I’m reminded of the remark the always-incisive – and often cutting – President Harry S Truman made regarding what lay ahead for incoming president Dwight Eisenhower:

“Poor Ike! When he was a general, he gave an order and it was carried out. Now, he is going to sit in that big office and give an order and not a damn thing is going to happen.”

Still, it should be noted that Peter F. Drucker, in his book “The Effective Executive,” said Truman was wrong.

“Things happened under Ike because his background had taught him a fundamental rule of giving military orders: Don’t just give orders; make sure they’ve been carried out,” Drucker wrote. “Ike trusted the people who reported to him, but he mistrusted communication. When he issued a critical order, he made sure it had reached its destination and was being applied.”

Mr. Lack will make a major mistake if he trusts the people he inherits who will report to him. More than at any time in his career he will need to go around the incumbent, entrenched and calcified senior leadership and talk to the people doing the work, in particular the content-creators, better-known as journalists. He should talk to veteran reporters and to the newer reporters who constantly express frustration with the newsroom leaders who they see as shooting down good ideas. In short, he needs to get down into the weeds, and start chopping down deadwood. He needs to listen, but he should act quickly. He shouldn’t need months to diagnose the problems and identify the problem managers. He has a chance, indeed an obligation, to make impressive, wide-ranging changes to the organization.

This is the time, and he is the leader to do it. If not now, when? If not him, who?