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Do publishers have the right people on the bus?

A classic text provides some helpful and timeless advice

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 an article 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’, Collins and his research team discovered that the great companies didn’t ask what product or which strategy first. They instead 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 or 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 is the most important element 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, and 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 80’s. 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?

This post originally appeared on Michael Foy’s Publishing Search blog. It’s republished with permission.

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Comments: 10

  1. “Importing technical skills is essential”. Too many publishers, large and small, now rely on outsourcing, very often inappropriate outsourcing. I recently translated a book for a Swiss publisher who insisted on relying on a “design” company that a) did not have the latest version of the software and b) sent me the raw MS of the book to translate before they had completed the layout! Nor would they let me translate straight into the Indesign version, causing wasted time and energy on all counts. They also chose an editor who was English monolingual! In a more recent example of mismanagement, a leading French company signed a contract with our company, only to CANCEL it a week later, claiming they had decided not to translate the book at all!

  2. 1. The most important investment you make is in your people. That is an old maxim but seldom adhered to by management. I would suggest one have a product in mind before starting a business. At the start of WWII General Marshall passed over the highest ranking generals in the army and brought in new blood that could fight a new kind of war.

    2. The e book revolution is now some 20 years old and is hardly a revolution at this point in time, it is just a matter of doing one’s business.

    3. I will take a talented acquisition editor over a number cruncher every time. You have to know what is going to be the trend not what was the trend.

    4. If you have been working in publishing for the past 5-10 years you are knowledgeable regarding digital know how. You do not need content expertise as much as market expertise. A good acquiring editor has foresight and is a manager of risk capital that is put up by the company – s/he is an entrepreneur.

    5. In publishing the technical skills mostly lie in production and production people are usually ahead of the technology. In short, they are the consultants to the developers.

    6. How you find the talent you need depends on what level you are seeking to fulfill. The only guidelines are hire honest people who like to work hard and smart. If entry level, always hire the highest GPA and the person who wants and needs the job you are offering. If in sales, always ask the question: Are you a lucky person?

  3. What you’re missing here is people with customer-oriented experience–essential as publishing moves away from B2B sales and fulfillment to B2C marketing and sales.

  4. The three most important elements you identify are willingness to experiment, an entrepreneurial mindset and adaptability.
    – The willingness to experiment is not just for SEO or PPC — it should be a willingness to experiment with content. Articles were great for Gutenberg, but today’s content comes in infographics, podcasts, video and reader polls — and of course, comments. Tomorrow it will be something different.
    – An entrepreneurial mindset is essential to overcome corporate groupthink. Entrepreneurs are action-oriented and process-averse. They are impatient and want results immediately. Without this mindset, great ideas will die in meetings and planning sessions.
    – Adaptability is why we exist as a human race — and it is generally found in older workers who have succeeded over time. They started with dial phones and Pong, and have embraced crowdsourcing and Vine. Younger people may be internet naturals, but they lack perspective.

    I find the right people for my bus through my personal network and LinkedIn. All I have to do is put the word out, and the right people find me.

    Larry Bodine
    Editor-in-Chief, Lawyers.com

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