Saturday, September 25, 2010

Forget teachers-- hell, forget employees, what does it take to fire a CEO?

One of the fundamental tenets of the modern educational reform movement is faith in the private sector. In the last post, I discussed the contradictions in using that faith to justify attrition policies that are pretty much unheard of in the corporate world.

There's a second potential danger in looking to the private sector for answers. Companies are not very transparent. Most go to great lengths to hide incompetence and depict every effort as a success. There's nothing illegal or even unethical about this. If anything, the people who run a company have an obligation to present it in the best possible light.

Though you can't blame businesses for spinning their results, you can get into a great deal of trouble by imitating them. For example, a school system might adopt an innovative system of project management and never know that it was responsible for hundreds of millions in cost overruns.

Occasionally, however, you will run into a corporate screw-up so massive that no degree of opacity, no amount of spin can obscure it. When you encounter one of these, you should take a moment to remind yourself that the snafus that break the surface represent a minute share of the general population.

Which brings us to Jeff Zucker.

Zucker was brought in as president of NBC Entertainment in 2000 after a stint at the Today Show where his most notable accomplishments were moving the studio and introducing the Today Show's outdoor rock concert series.*

His tenure on the Today Show represented one of Zucker's two specialities: making tiny tweaks to a hit then claiming credit for its success. The other speciality was screwing up on an almost biblical scale. Under Zucker, NBC was the first network to ever go from first to fourth place and he came very close to destroying their lucrative late night slate. According to an executive for another network (quoted by Maureen Dowd), "Zucker is a case study in the most destructive media executive ever to exist... You’d have to tell me who else has taken a once-great network and literally destroyed it."

Zucker was grossly incompetent. The cost to share holders is difficult to estimate but it's probably in the hundreds of millions (possibly billions**). His poor performance was widely discussed in the industry.

And yet it took a change of ownership to force him out and he still gets terms like these:
Zucker's contract had been renewed last year to run through January 2013 with an annual salary of $6.3 million and a guaranteed annual bonus*** of $1.5 million. If he leaves by January, he can expect at least a $15.6 million check.
The moral of this story is: next time people tell you that schools should be run like a business, make sure to ask them which business they have in mind.

* Apparently the Today Show has an outdoor rock concert series.

** Here are some numbers from Wikipedia to put things in context:

On December 1, 2009, CNBC reported that a tentative agreement had been reached between Comcast and GE.[26] The deal was formally announced on December 3, 2009.[7] Under the agreement, NBC Universal would be 51% owned by Comcast and 49% by GE. Comcast is to pay $6.5 billion cash to GE. Comcast will also contribute $7.5 billion in programming including regional sports networks and cable channels such as Golf Channel and E! Entertainment Television. GE plans to use some of the funds, $5.8 billion, to buy out Vivendi's 20% minority stake in NBC Universal.[7] After the transaction completes, Comcast will reserve the right to buy out GE's share at certain times. GE will also reserve the right to force the sale of their stake within the first seven years. The deal is subject to regulatory approval.[7]

Vivendi will sell 7.66% of NBC Universal to GE for US$2 billion if the GE/Comcast deal is not completed by September 2010 and then sell the remaining 12.34% stake of NBC Universal to GE for US$3.8 billion when the deal is completed or to the public via an IPO if the deal is not completed.[27][28]

*** I just love the idea of a "guaranteed annual bonus."

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