Insiders: Bewkes Fired Griffin Over Poor Communication, Talent-Drain Fears

My first thought when I heard that Jeff Bewkes fired Time Inc. CEO Jack Griffin was a sentence I can’t print here. The second one: maybe he learned something from AOL (NYSE: AOL) after all. According to one Time Inc. (NYSE: TWX) insider, Bewkes moved quickly after warnings to Griffin failed: “It’s not like Jack wasn’t aware of what the issue was but it didn’t get better, it got worse.”

The insider added: “It was a difficult but bold decision to move him out before he becomes a distraction. He was worried about losing talent.” Bewkes was aware some business and editorial executives he considered to be important to Time Inc.’s current push in the right direction were considering leaving out of frustration with Griffin and concern about their positions. (To be sure, Griffin may have a very different story to tell — and if he does, we’ll report it.)

Another insider, who is aware personally of staffers who had reached out to Bewkes with their concerns, spoke of shock and relief mixed with some worries over the way Griffin was fired, saying it was handled badly. It could have waited until a permanent CEO was put in place, instead of a temporary fix that also has people worried about what comes next. But this allowed Bewkes to avoid the inevitable leaks about problems and a different kind of disruption.

Griffin not only failed to acclimate to the Time Inc. culture, he brought in a number of outsiders who also didn’t mesh with the existing staff — including consultants, leaving an impression that he didn’t respect a lot of what he found at Time Inc.. At the same time, veteran Time Inc. staffers were disturbed by the way communications head Dawn Bridges was isolated and then pushed out and the departure of other execs.

Both stressed that the concern about outsiders does not extend to Randall Rothenberg, brought in by Griffin as chief digital officer. Rothenberg, the former head of IAB, has been on the job less than a month and they do not want him to leave. Rothenberg did not reply to interview requests Thursday night,

A Time Inc. executive said bringing in Peter Kreisky as a consultant was a major mistake, and that his “extreme opinions” caused problems. This exec didn’t find fault with trying to change the organization but said the failure to listen to people and the lack of desire to find a “happy medium” was the problem: “There was a schism between the old and the new, and Jack failed to bring that together.” At the same time, people took note that the company he came from, Meredith (NYSE: MDP) was smaller than some Time Inc. divisions,

Some of the present and former Time Inc. staffers who spoke with me and my colleague David Kaplan cited examples of improvements Griffin made but multiple people described being uncomfortable with language that was sexist or racist. He talked about being at a company where he could “read the magazines” — Meredith focuses on women and shelter magazines — and emphasized Time over the lifestyle and entertainment titles; and there was a feeling, said one exec, that the people he brought in tilted toward men.

What does this have to do with AOL? Although the situations are quite different, many of the concerns now coming out are similar to those expressed by AOL staff following the Bewkes swap of Jon Miller for Randy Falco.. It was an often-poisonous situation that was allowed to fester until some of the talent AOL needed to keep slipped away or was pushed — and the unit, with Bekwes’ full backing, spent $850 million to acquire Bebo. He rebounded there by bringing in the more charismatic and team-oriented Tim Armstrong to lead AOL to a spinoff and move it off the Time Warner books.

That Bewkes move came after a failed direction exacerbated by poor leadership at the top. (Yes, I know Ron Grant takes a lot of heat for this as part of the duo.) This one is not about a change of direction, the first insider stressed — it’s about leadership at Time Warner and Time Inc. This time, Bewkes is admitting he made a mistake — and early enough in the process to make a difference.

If he can avoid the issues that crop up with management by committee in the interim — and make the right choice after his own failure finding a successor to Ann Moore, he’ll come out ahead and Time Inc. should, too.

Update: An unidentified person close to Griffin rejected the management style allegations in an interview with the New York Times, saying it was all about entrenched insiders reacting to change: “Jack’s exit had nothing to do with management style and everything to do with the question of whether Time is manageable so long as entrenched interests fiercely resist the change necessary to position the organization for the future.”