Jun 18, 2013

Why I’m Leaving Forbes

Earlier today, I posted what was my last “Drucker Difference” column at Forbes.com. The piece was pulled down shortly thereafter. We are running it here on the Drucker Exchange in its entirety.

– Rick Wartzman 

Forbes

As much as any enterprise I can think of, the online operation at Forbes is a great example of what Peter Drucker called “the corporation of tomorrow.”

By tapping an immense web of outside contributors, the publisher has found a way to expose its readers to a wide variety of interesting voices and viewpoints. And in many cases, it has been able to pull in expertise on specific topics that its own staff doesn’t necessarily possess. For instance, I am arguably better positioned than a Forbes management writer to tie Drucker’s timeless wisdom to what’s happening in the world today because I run the Drucker Institute and, therefore, am hyper-focused on this one area.

“The corporation of tomorrow,” Drucker asserted in a 2003 lecture, “will be a place that finds the outside organization that does a specialist’s job the best because it does nothing else.”

The upshot, he said, is that a forward-looking business will increasingly have “contracts here and minority participations there and know-how agreements. It is a network. It is a confederation. And so you have to learn to work with people whose values are different and whose goals are different, and whom you can’t control.”

Unfortunately, that is not always so easy to do—as I myself recently discovered.

My relationship with Forbes began in April 2012 (when I brought “The Drucker Difference” over from Bloomberg Businessweek, where it had run for about five years). Under the terms we agreed to, I would contribute an original column every other week; in between those pieces, I’d post a selection from the Drucker Institute’s daily blog, the Drucker Exchange—a terrific way to extend these insights to Forbes’ broader audience. For all of this, I’d be paid a small sum.

For more than a year, everything went swimmingly—until, a couple of weeks ago, when I was hit with a nastygram from someone at Forbes, informing me that “it has come to our attention” that some of what I’d been filing had already appeared elsewhere (namely, on the Drucker Exchange). If I wanted to continue being paid, I was told, I could “only publish original material.”

I replied right away, saying that there had obviously been some kind of misunderstanding; this had been our deal from the beginning. “Thanks for clarifying,” came the response. “You have done nothing wrong.” Nevertheless, it was made clear that the agreement I had struck 14 months earlier had veered outside the bounds of what was permissible, and I now had two choices: stop posting articles from the Drucker Exchange—or “you could always be moved to unpaid status.”

Since then, I’ve been stewing. It isn’t about the money per se; having achieved only modest popularity on the Forbes site, the most I ever made in a month was $270.16, based in part on the number of views I received.

So why, then, do I feel so frustrated—angry even—about Forbes demanding that our arrangement be altered midstream? As I’ve reflected on this, five broader lessons have come to mind.

First, and most fundamentally, you have to stay true to your word or trust is easily lost. Workers—even outside guns for hire—“do not function if the environment is not predictable, not understandable, not known,” Drucker wrote.

Second, organizations must have policies and enforce them. But smart management must know when and where to bend (and honoring an existing accord, formed in good faith, should surely qualify for such treatment). “Exceptions,” Drucker observed in Management: Tasks, Responsibilities, Practices, “can never be prevented.”

Third, to have a fulfilling work experience, all parts of the job have to be right—the task itself, certainly, but also the larger scene that one is part of. “If other aspects of working are unsatisfactory,” Drucker wrote, “they can spoil even the most achieving job—just as a poor sauce can spoil the taste even of the best meat.”

Fourth, today’s knowledge workers are highly mobile. “People have no hesitation to change jobs,” Drucker noted. They tend to work for a particular outfit “because they want to, not because they have to.”

Fifth and finally, we mobile knowledge workers are likely to bolt if we don’t feel as if we’re in a genuine partnership. (I, for one, am going to be taking “The Drucker Difference,” as well as regular selections from the Drucker Exchange, to Time.com in the next couple of weeks. I hope you’ll continue to read me there.)

“The secret of an alliance,” Drucker explained, “is that you start by asking your partner: ‘What are you trying to achieve? What is important to you?’ You don’t say, ‘This is what we want from you.’ Rather, you ask, ‘What do you want from us?’”

Forbes’ corporation of tomorrow is still developing, and I hope it will evolve to better value its confederation of contributors.

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