A Fuzzy Personal Brand Didn’t Help Jill Abramson Duck the Axe

Personal brand Jill Abramson New York TimesJill Abramson, the first female Executive Editor of The New York Times, was summarily fired this week. That made news on the front page of the Times and has the media pundits out in full force as they analyze why she got the axe.

The Times coyly stated that it was “an issue with management in the newsroom.” The Times wouldn’t let its sources on a breaking news story get away with that non-response.

Funny how publisher Arthur Sulzberger clammed up when it was the Times in the news. That’s not what a Times reporter would write about the ouster of a high-ranking executive in a Fortune 500 company.

Abrahamson Lacked a Clear Brand

Investigative reporter Ken Auletta in a profile of Abramson when she was appointed executive editor less than three years ago, wrote, “…many in the newsroom considered her to be intimidating and brusque; she was too remote…”

According to a report by Slate, though,“ By the time she left, media critics would report that staffers deemed her “polarizing,” “bitchy,” and “not approachable.” But to many women at the New York Times, Jill Abramson was everything.”

She had earned their respect by appointing women to important positions in the male dominated newsroom. And no one could quarrel with the eight Pulitzer prizes the paper won under her leadership.

So who was Jill Abramson? Someone who was “bitchy,” with the temerity to confront her boss about her compensation package, or a woman who was highly respected for her news acumen and appreciation for the contributions of women reporters?

The story is still unfolding and the Times is in full damage control mode, but it seems clear that Abramson didn’t have a clear personal brand with the man who mattered the most: her boss, Arthur Sulzberger.

As Ann Friedman reported in New York Magazine, “Women are sometimes advised to keep a low profile and let their work ‘speak for itself.’ But in Abramson’s case, eight Pulitzers did not speak loudly enough. Revenue growth did not speak loudly enough. Successful new digital products did not speak loudly enough.”

What is a Personal Brand?

A brand is what an individual (or company) wishes to be known for. Jill Abramson no doubt wanted to be known for her drive to make the Times the best newspaper it could be as evidenced by the eight Pulitzers the paper won under her leadership.

But how we want to be perceived and how others perceive us is not always in sync. You can’t have a viable brand if you don’t understand your positioning. That’s how an individual or organization is perceived in the minds of its target audiences.

In Abramson’s case the only target that counted was Arthur Sulzberger. He was known to be frustrated with her management style. He resented her pushy side in questioning her compensation. Dean Baquet, her successor as Executive Editor, complained about her to Sulzberger, which reinforced his own problems with Abramson.

Until recently, Abramson seemed to be tone deaf about her brand and positioning. She had hired a coach to help her smooth out her rough edges. But it was too late.

It’s painful when you see yourself one way and then discover that other people have a very different impression of you.

How do you find out if this is the case for you? Consider asking one or two trusted colleagues for feedback on your professional skills – but also your personal style.

What you hear may surprise you. If so, it’s time to work on your personal brand so the way you want to be seen and what you want to be known for are crystal clear in the minds of your target audiences.

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  1. I think many high-powered women are seen as bitchy, when they just are trying to get the job done. On the other hand, there is such a thing as diplomacy and, as a woman in business, formerly in the corporate world filled with me, I know I had to tone down my assertiveness and approach certain situations with kid gloves. I’m not saying I liked it, but in order to survive amongst the sharks, it was necessary. And that is why I work for myself and have done so for the past 15 years.
    Ms. Abramson was smart to hire a coach, but maybe she was a bit too late.

    • Laurie — I know what you mean as I worked in the corporate world for many years, too. It’s very hard to strike that balance between being assertive so your views will be heard and respected, and going “over the line” and appearing as bitchy. I hope it becomes easier for the young women who are just starting their careers.

  2. Asking for feedback can reveal so much, but too often, people are anxious over what will be revealed. When I taught college composition, I learned a lot from the anonymous instructor evaluations students filled out at the end of the semester. I carried the practice over to my high school teaching as well. Sure, not all students took it seriously, but most of them did. I would often think I came across one way, but once a handful of responses noted otherwise, it was the kick in the pants I needed to put a plan of action in place to improve.

    • Jeri — It can’t be easy to read evaluations that aren’t favorable. No one likes negative feedback but, as you say, it’s the way to improve.

  3. Hi Jeannette. I admire both Jill Abramson and Dean Baquet. Under Jill’s leadership both Award performance and Financial performance were good but there is no doubt that Dean has the more clear and consistent personal brand.

    • Paul — I agree about Dean Baquet. He was very well respected. Ironically, he was ousted at the LA Times when he refused to cut the news staff. Sort of a revolving door but that’s how it is in most companies these days.

  4. This was an interesting article – since I’m Canadian I don’t really follow the Times but it seems to me that Arthur Sulzberger may come to regret letting her go. Anyone who can improve the fortunes of a company the way she did should have some leeway – since she had hired the personal coach it would only have been a matter of time for her management style to change. Maybe not the best decision the man ever made.

    • Lenie — It is ironic that eight Pulitzer prizes were trumped by her personality deficiencies. I wonder if he had warned her about the consequences if she didn’t shape up. This is still an unfolding story and time will tell.

  5. Very interesting situation which does seem to occur in most workplaces. I witnessed a co-worker call her supervisor a “bitch” at work this past week. Unfortunately women still struggle to align themselves in the workplace. I think some women find it difficult to compete in the workplace or are not competent to be in management positions. They may appear to be “bitches” or do they act like “bitches” under the stress of being pushed into positions of leadership that they are not ready for?

    • Laura — good question. I’ve experienced both men and women who were so insecure in their abilities that they became tyrants. It was a way to cover up their deficiencies. But eventually rule by intimidation grows old and most of these leaders don’t last.

  6. Hi Jeannette: Excellent post. I think most of the time, we women are lucky in this respect, as our female friends and colleagues tend to tell it like it is. At least … in my world, they do!

    Obviously Abramson was not an approachable type to whom people felt they could be frank and honest. That spells alienation and peril as a leader. The best leaders are also good listeners.

    • Doreen — You make a good point — that the best leaders are also good listeners. As I said in my post, Abramson seemed tone deaf about her personality issues. She was a smart woman. She must have known that her style grated on people — especially her boss. So eight Pulitzer prizes later, she was still out.

  7. Very interesting post! It’s always been odd to me (I’ve got a post in the hopper about this) that the new confidence seems to be wrapped up in how people view themselves. Psychologists might suggest that you never realize a full understanding of who you really are until you factor in how others see you. That was the case for Jill, I think. There are many factors that contribute to how one is paid…it’s just not performance! I had a boss tell me once…you can be the best at what you do, but if you are a cog in the wheel, that will bring you down. I listened to that!

    • Jacquie — Your boss was so right. Most times when someone gets fired it’s not because they weren’t doing their job well, it was because of personality clashes or they simply didn’t know how to navigate the politics of the organization.

  8. I have been around many people that were absolutely useless at their jobs. Bringing nothing to the table except the fact that they were master political players and full of charm. The fact that they lacked character had little to do with anything. They remained at their jobs for a long long time. On the flip side, as you point out, doing your job well is only part of employment; getting along with others is another. Being a hard ass is good only in certain situations and with certain people. Some respond well to it and give their best as a result. Others begin to shy away and everything then suffers. I tend to think this may have been the reason for her dismissal.

    • Tim — how true. The charmers are often the “empty suits.” But doing your job well isn’t enough. You’ve got to understand and learn to navigate the political terrain.

  9. Jeannette – There are so many views that need to be please when building a brand that sometimes it can be difficult to keep up. Sulzberger seems to feel that Abramson isn’t representing the brand the New York Times wants to portray. As you said she was taking note of this but it was a little to late. 🙂

    • Susan — She was a smart woman or she wouldn’t have made to the elite position of Executive Editor. But when she got there she didn’t understand how to manage people and and how to manage her boss. You wonder how she could have been so tone deaf.

  10. Personally don’t know Jill Abramson so it’s difficult to know what she’s like. Sometimes I think having a personal brand is given too much importance. You can have the best brand in the world, but if you are bitchy, intimidating and brusque you will come across problems, to put it mildly. It seems in this case it wasn’t even enough to pull in Pulitzer prizes and raise revenue.

    • Catarina — As Jacqueline pointed out, the fact that she was all the things you say was her personal brand in the eyes of the only person who counted — her boss, the publisher.

  11. Interesting post Jeannette although fundamentally, I have to say I disagree with your point that Ms. Abramson had a “fuzzy” brand. It seems to me she had a very clear brand and was crystal clear in her vision for the Times. To be described as “polarizing,” “bitchy,” “unapproachable,” is, in fact, a brand. It just may not be the brand that equals a successful tenure in that particular culture. Ultimately, her demise seems to come down to her hiring a lawyer and confronting what appears to be a gender pay gap. While the real truth around her firing may take some time to be revealed, when discussing personal brand or executive presence, we need to keep culture and mindset in mind and, as you aptly put it “the political terrain.” Understanding the explicit and, more importantly, implicit cultural expectations of an organization around personal brand and executive presence is crucial. And then asking oneself, what adjustments do I need to make in order to succeed in this culture? Can I make these adjustments without feeling I’m selling out on my values and authentic self? For many women and people of color, this is not an easy answer. I’ve had clients who say they feel they must leave their “asian-ness” “black-ness,” or femininity at the door in order to succeed within their work culture. And of course, for many women, it’s the double-bind of being told to be more assertive but then being described as “bitchy” when they do. There are no easy answers to this dilemma and the solution rests on the shoulders of both organizations and individuals.

    • Thanks for your insights, Jacqueline. I appreciate your point about suggesting her brand was that she was “bitchy,” etc. On the other hand, her brand among her woman staffers was as hero for achieving her position and then promoting women to positions of authority in a male-dominated organization. I agree with your points about understanding the culture and the “way things are done around here.” After 17 years with the organization she should have had a firm grasp on the culture and understood her boss, who has been the publisher of the Times since 1992. That’s what makes her firing even more puzzling.

      • It’s possible Ms. Abramson was very aware of “the way things are done around here” and made the conscious choice not to change her presence. For whatever reason, we may never know. It may be that she was given a mandate to be a change-agent and felt this was the way to do it. Certainly eight Pulitzer prizes under her watch speak for her work. I’ve worked with female clients who were hired under the remit to “be a change-agent” and then when they tried to do just that, were labeled as too aggressive. We may never know the real reason she was fired. However, I hesitate to “should” on her and am concerned to hear that language used around the firing of a professional who, for all we know, was simply fired because she challenged the status-quo in terms of lack of equality in compensation.

        • Since her firing, Arthur Sulzberger has been in full damage control mode. He’s issued a couple of statements detailing her compensation (convoluted) and claiming she had a compensation package “comparable” to her predecessor. Investigative reporter Ken Auletta has asked for documentation but hasn’t received it.

  12. Hi Jeannette,

    Well, I don’t read the New York Times and I don’t keep up with what’s going on really. I know, I guess it just doesn’t pertain to me so I prefer sticking with what does.

    I would have to say though that the brand should be the New York Times and with that many Pulitzers under her watch and revenue I would have to say she did a dang good job. As far as the stigma of being “bitchy” and “unapproachable”, that’s probably just her style and it’s obvious that a lot of people didn’t like it. I would have thought though that her boss should have known about that before hiring her so maybe he didn’t do enough of his homework.

    Either way it sounds like everyone has their opinions about it and I guess she needs to stick with that coach and polish herself up a bit or maybe she like the rough edges, who knows. It will be interesting though.


    • Adrienne — you make a good point. She had been with the Times for 17 years, and was managing editor before her promotion to executive editor. So why was the publisher so surprised at her behavior? There may be more to this story than we know about.

  13. I watched a commencement speech Jill Abramson gave subsequent to the firing and was captivated by someone who came across as smart, capable and funny. I have to say my immediate response to her firing was, if she had been a man, would she still have a job?

    Men can be cantankerous, brusque and all sorts of miserable but maintain their positions if they perform. Having watched two female provincial premiers get torn down by their own caucuses in less than a year after they took power I have to wonder if traditionally male dominated sectors are simply not ready for female leadership. In one instance one of the premier’s male colleagues said by way of explanation, “She’s not a nice lady.”

    • Debra — well said and I agree with you. Arthur Sulzberger surely was familiar with Jill Abramson’s personal style. She was the managing editor before her promotion and he no doubt had plenty of contact with her. Didn’t reporters complain if they were bothered then? Apparently not, because he gave her the job. Agree totally about the double standard. A man is called assertive; a woman is a called a bitch≥