Well, the predictable has happened. Roger Corbett is the new chairman of Fairfax. No surprises there, and most of what could be said about him has already been said.
For a summary on the conventional wisdom on the situation, see this this piece by John Durie on The Australian website reprising what everyone has been writing for days – that the dysfunction may not be over because the members of the Fairfax family did not get what they wanted. Durie also makes the by now very trawled over observation that Corbett, while bright and battle scarred, lacks media experience.
For a more negative view, indeed perhaps the worst that can be said, remember this sledge by Eric Beecher, publisher of Crikey, which portrays Corbett as arrogant and completely at sea with new media and the threats it poses.
Yet some would argue that Corbett is a fixer of businesses, and that he will be exactly what Fairfax needs.
So what do I think? Let’s be clear. I have never met Corbett, or spoken to him so far as I can remember. I have never worked for him. I am dependent on what others say, and the distillation of this has already been chewed over by numerous commentators who are doubtless talking to the same people that I am talking to. I won’t pretend to add anything new.
What I can say is how I will judge Corbett – how I will come to a view about whether he is the right man for the job, or not.
Nobody, however brilliant, can have all the attributes necessary for a job like Chair of the Fairfax Board. The mark of good leaders is that they gather around them people who have whatever attributes and abilities they lack. That is, they must have the self knowledge to know their own shortcomings, and they must go out of their way to compensate for them.
Secondly, good leaders are not afraid of criticism. They make sure that they have people around them who will tell them when they are wrong, who will offer alternative points of view, and who will argue vigorously. The stronger the personality of the leader, the greater the need for fearless internal critics.
Now, Fairfax is notably lacking in new media nous at the top. Brian McCarthy is at sea with new media. Corbett shows no signs of being across the ways in which ALL institutions must change in an age when almost anyone can publish, and reputations are built and destroyed online.
So if Corbett is the right man for Fairfax I would expect to see him encouraging some brave hiring, perhaps of people from outside the mainstream, who are at the cutting edge of new media applications, particularly social networking.
Given that there is nobody on the Board who knows much about journalism, I would expect Corbett to be trying to compensate for this lack, too.
Then I would look for the critics. I hope to see Corbett opening himself to those who disagree with him, and who have the strength of character to argue and push their point. If, in six months time, there are only “yes people” at the top, then we will have to sigh and turn away from our hopes for the Fairfax empire.
All this adds up to a continuing need for board renewal, but also some refurbishment to senior management. If we don’t see it soon, then I fear Corbett will have been a mistake.
Lastly, there is vision. Is that too much to hope for from Corbett?
Probably. Vision is hard for companies with as many problems as Fairfax. But let’s watch, wait and hope.