What Went Wrong At News International: Executive Derailment In Action.

Thursday, July 28, 2011


The UK is currently deafened by the sound of executives crashing and burning as their careers derail in the unfolding phone hacking scandal – Rebecca Brooks and John Yates to name just two. Robert Kaiser argues that there is an identifiable phenomena of ‘high fliers’ who see their career progress suddenly interrupted when a firestorm erupts around them, as is happening in News International right now. The question is, why do some executives come to such an abrupt end? Is it just bad luck, or is it something to do with the attributes they bring to the job?


For a fuller summery of Robert Kaiser’s work on executive derailment, including advice for those seeking to hire new executives, see our blog article ‘How To Screen Your High Fliers’.


The Wrong Stuff

Bosses who come to an abrupt, and often dramatic, end can simply be the victims of circumstance. It is arguable that the NewsCorp executives who took over after phone-hacking was endemic, such as James Murdoch, fall into this category. However some may be predestined to fail. Robert Kaiser, who has made a specialism of studying executive derailment, argues that a broad consensus emerges that such derailment is largely due to:

  • An inability to delegate efficiently, which becomes more important the greater the executive’s responsibilities (i.e. as she/he is promoted).
  • An inflexibility which, while possibly suited to making sure routine tasks are completed efficiently and to a high standard, becomes a handicap when more creative approaches are needed.
  • Most importantly an inability to inspire and retain good subordinates due to a perception of arrogance, aloofness and ambition. They often also turn on their staff under stress.


Rebecca Brooks – The Danger Of Coming Out Of The Shadow

Kaiser found that many who eventually derailed were also shielded by a patron for much of their career, only failing when they had to become true leaders. This conceivably applies very neatly to Rebecca Brooks, formerly very tightly shielded by Rupert Murdoch.

In the case of Ms Brooks, the editor of the News Of The World from 2000 to 2003, the emergence from the patron’s protection is likely to have been all the more traumatic because of it’s sudden, unexpected nature. Up until the crisis broke Ms Brooks was still under the protection of Rupert Murdoch and was often described as a surrogate daughter to him. Once the pressure mounted, however, the situation changed. While protected from her detractors within the organisation by Mr Murdoch she was in the relatively unusual position for an executive of having to react to intense pressure coming from outside her organisation. Having to act as a true leader for the first time on several occasions she displayed evidence of ‘the wrong stuff’, particularly a lack of loyalty to her subordinates:

  • Firstly she naively admitted to MPs in a much earlier hearing that the NOTW frequently paid bribes to police. The consequences were not fatal as this was before the hacking of the phones of ordinary people was widely known.
  • Once the hacking of Milly Dowler’s phone became news she, in an effort to save her job, went along with News Corp’s closure of the NOTW. While calculated, at least in part, to save her this ultimately made her position untenable. Executives rely on their subordinates to produce good work for them – who in News Corp would be prepared to have Ms Brooks as their boss after that?
  • Once the paper was closed it was apparent that this disconnect with subordinates was not a one-off. Many ex-staff felt little personal loyalty to her as a leader and began talking her down in interviews with other newspapers after the NOTW closed.


    Missing the Big Picture – John Yates and Police Inaction.

    John Yates, ‘Yates of the Yard’, was a previously well thought of member of the Metropolitan Police. His fall is a good example of executive inflexibility and an inability to see the big picture that was exposed when the executive is suddenly moved into a position where such thinking becomes necessary.

    He was regarded as the classic ‘safe pair of hands’ to handle a tricky assignment, such as the Cash for Peerages scandal and the aftermath of the shooting of Jean Charles de Menezes, due no doubt to the attention to detail and inflexibility regarding how things should be done noted above as a sign of the wrong stuff where true leadership is concerned. As such he was called in during 2009 to review the evidence in the hacking case, as evidence emerged that a far wider range of people than initially thought had been affected.

    It was then that his unsuitability to high office became apparent. After only a day reviewing the evidence he decided not to re-open the case, despite the fact that when it was reviewed subsequently it was apparently easy to see that there was much evidence that the News Corporation line that this was an isolated incident was false. His justification for this was that going through all the evidence would have required significant resources and that he personally, and the Met in general, had far more important issues (such as counter-terrorism) to concentrate on.

    This was how he, as an experienced operational leader and head of counter-terrorism, looked at it. When asked to the review the evidence however he was being asked to take a wider view about both the reputation of the Met and more intangible harm that illegal press intrusion into people’s lives create.


    So, to return to our initial question, are Rebecca and John victims of circumstances or classic examples of executive derailment? What do you think? All comments welcome!



    1. Rob Barr says:

      I have followed the phone hacking scandal with interest for most of the last decade. While I recognise the archetypes described in your article I think your analysis is premature. We have only just begun to find out what happened. What we are just beginning to appreciate is the extent of law breaking and intimidation across the whole newspaper industry. What I think we should consider is not so much how the behaviour Senior Executives and Police Officers fit with existing models of behaviour but how they provide an insight into quite how dysfunctional and dishonest the relationships between newspapers, the police and the government were/are. What I anticipate is a better way to dissect the endemic dishonest and illegal behaviour that were features of the banking crisis, tax evasion etc. Rebecca and John are not victims they prospered by denying the dishonesty and dysfunctional environment within which they worked. To accept that they were victims is to accept that they did not know right from wrong. I do not believe this is the case for John but might be for Rebecca.

    2. Hi, if by executive derailment we mean a lack of professional judgement, an organisational group-think, lack of ethics, arrogance and in some cases just downright venality, then yes, definately derailment. I do though offer an appreciative future for even those damaged organisations such as the Met Police and News International. Why not check out our blog as well at http://www.TheOpenChannel.co.uk, which Sarah is associated with, or at: http://steveloraine.blogspot.com/2011/07/week-is-long-timefor-politicians.html

    3. Mike Clayton says:

      There are lots of interesting ideas in here – thank you for alerting me to Robert kaiser’s work. I cannot help thinking that there was something else going on both at News Corp and the Met that helps our understanding of what happened.

      Firstly, Group Think – as people perceive a behaviour as custom and practice, they fear to speak out for fear of being cast out from an in-group. At NoW, that behaviour was, allegedly, the tapping of phones. At the Met, it was the rejection of new evidence. As James Surowiecki says, “… in unstructured, free flowing discussions, the information that tends to be talked about the most is, paradoxically, the information that everyone already knows” (Wisdom of Crowds p.183.

      I suspect this was followed by Risky Shift: as risky behaviour becomes acceptable, the group is emboldened to take ever greater risks – to the extent that behaviours can exceed the limits that even the most risk-taking members might have endorsed at the start.

      best regards

      Mike Clayton
      (Author of Risk Happens!)

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