On squeezing too tight

The better part of three decades ago, in my waning days of business school, I was looking for my first job in publishing. To that point, I had made a small career in energy and environmental consulting, but I really wanted to work for a publisher.

At the time, Daniel Burke, who passed away yesterday, was the COO of Capital Cities, which at time owned a set of newspapers as well as Fairchild Publications. He had graduated from Harvard Business School, so I wrote to him asking for advice on how I might find work as in newspaper production.

Shortly after I wrote, I got a call from his assistant, who arranged for me to fly to New York. When we met, Burke’s first question was “How can I help?” I started my pitch, and about halfway through he stopped me, laughed and repeated the question.

I laughed, as well – he made that seem both possible and natural. I said, “I need a job in publishing.”

Burke leaned forward and said, “I get dozens of requests a week to work here, but no one has ever asked me to work in production. I don’t have a job for you, but I wanted to see what someone who wants to work in production actually looks like.”

I probably looked as dispirited as I felt at the moment, but if he noticed, Burke paid it no mind. He went on to tell me something that have stuck with me ever since.

Burke told me a bit about his own career, and how he had moved from knowing all of the details of running a single business, to most of the details of running a set of businesses, to some of the details of what was already a pretty big publishing operation. He talked about how it can be both frustrating and scary to be at a distance from an operation or a decision.

And he said, “You’ll face this someday too, and when you do, resist the temptation to squeeze too tight. The people you rely on will know more than you do, and you’ll have to trust them. Let people make mistakes where you can. It helps you learn, and it helps them learn.”

And with that, he sent me off to Red Bank and Kansas City to meet with the staff at the newspapers they owned there. I didn’t get hired (though I did eventually land a job in magazine production at Time Inc.), but Burke’s advice has stayed with me.

We all have opportunities to influence publishing aspirants. His passing is a useful reminder of the importance of making the most of those opportunities.

About Brian O'Leary

Founder and principal of Magellan Media Consulting, Brian O’Leary helps enterprises with media and publishing components capitalize on the power of content. A veteran of more than 30 years in the publishing industry and a prolific content producer himself, Brian leverages the breadth and depth of his experience to deliver innovative content solutions.

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