Breaking: Why Chris Licht Had No Chance at CNN

Last year, I was critical of the team at Discovery for how they “decisively” swooped in to kill CNN+ as soon as they took over the network. CNN+ was almost certainly a bad idea (after all, who wants to pay for MORE news?), but the way in which they killed it communicated loudly that they didn’t understand how to lead a change.

First, we have to understand that organizations don’t change. People do. We can have the best strategy and the greatest execution capabilities, but none of it matters if our people don’t change.

Second, we must acknowledge that communications is 90 percent action and 10 percent words. All the written and spoken communicating we do has only a tiny impact compared to the actions we take. This is something overlooked almost always by those who lose at change, and Discovery’s start at CNN was no exception. By killing CNN’s prized project without first listening to people at CNN about their thinking, they communicated a number of things very loudly:

  • They didn’t care about what people at CNN thought. “We’ve got this, you don’t” was the message. They may have said “We’re excited to have you on the team,” but the 9X louder communication said, “We don’t value your ideas.”
  • They showed a lack of natural curiosity, not wanting to understand the thinking behind CNN’s strategy. Who knows what valuable insights they could have learned from their former competitors, even if the big idea seemed a loser.
  • They discouraged upward communication. How does killing a project without even asking about it open the lines of communication from your new acquisition?
  • And most important, they pulled the rug out from under Chris Licht, who was fired on June 7. He had not even started as their newly installed leader of CNN when Discovery killed CNN’s project. This communicated: “Chris Licht is not his own person.” Even if Licht was consulted on the decision, the timing and impact were awful. It had to be a terrible way to enter a leadership position for Licht, in addition to following a beloved predecessor. Licht made lots of his own well-documented mistakes; we all do as leaders, not least when we’re trying to overcome such disadvantages.

So Discovery, by being “decisive” and not waiting a few months to learn, now finds itself 14 months behind on the change journey at CNN and with less insight than they might have gained about running a global news organization if they had stopped and waited. They are late, less informed, and (by all reports) behind the change curve with their people. The leaders at Discovery need to now:

  • Change their own mindsets first. Its chairman immediately took blame for Licht’s troubled tenure. That might seem like a good start. The question is: Does he understand it’s his mindset that’s off-base, or does he think it’s just the person of Chris Licht that was the mistake? (Hint: He should start by looking at the former.)
  • Slow down. Recognize that speedy decisiveness is often our superpower as leaders, but during non-crisis change it can be our kryptonite. In addition to leading changes at numerous organizations for more than two decades, I’ve studied scores of companies going through change, and my biggest “aha” is that the very few successful change efforts almost all had one thing in common: They started by sincerely listening, by pulling their people to the change, by getting alignment first, and only then moving forward.

Let’s change ourselves first before we fall further behind.

Let me know what you think. I look forward to being in touch.

Al Comeaux

Primed for Change Community

Join Our Newsletter

You’re invited to become part of the Primed for Change community! Each month, I will send you some of my thoughts about how we can win at change with the goal that together, we can change the face of change management forever. Join today and immediately receive a PDF of one chapter of my book as my gift to you!

  • This field is for validation purposes and should be left unchanged.