August 9, 2013

This week’s announcement of a pending sale of The Washington Post was a big surprise. Anxiety over new ownership is probably most unsettling for the paper’s employees, followed by its loyal readers, and then by industry partners such as advertisers and public relations pros. For the rest who have been following the story, it’s a little uncomfortable to consider the end of an era in American and journalism history, and a changing of the guard at one of our long-term brands.

And then Amazon founder and anticipated future owner Jeff Bezos did something so ordinary, so common-sensible that it feels extraordinary in today’s business environment. He sent a memo to the employees of The Washington Post. In it, he acknowledged the upcoming change and recognized the uneasiness that comes with these sorts of things.

“You’ll have heard the news, and many of you will greet it with a degree of apprehension. When a single family owns a company for many decades, and… when that family has done such a good job — it is only natural to worry about change.”

Bezos went on to explain to the employees what it was that he valued about the paper – things he valued enough to want to buy it. He was upfront with them that there would, in fact, be change. And he did so in a way that was direct, sincere and yet full of empathy and humanity:

“So, let me start with something critical. The values of The Post do not need changing.”

“There will of course be change at The Post over the coming years. That’s essential and would have happened with or without new ownership. There is no map, and charting a path ahead will not be easy.”

The memo was so remarkable that it was published by the Associated Press and reprinted in The Washington Post.

Is it hard to imagine new leadership sending a memo to employees that is not just about the financial reasons for this purchase? I believe it is, because delivering this sort of direct and thoughtful communication is often overlooked today, particularly during major transitions (refer back to my June 27, 2013 blog post Candor When Uncertainty is Certain). His honesty makes him relatable; his candor earns respect. People feel confident about his intentions.

“[Jeff is] an absolutely truthful man… He’s direct and decent, very smart and funny.”

– Don Graham, CEO and Chairman of the Washington Post Company, Katherine Graham’s son

Bezos is practicing candor in a way that will likely help this transition be smooth, successful and well-received. If candor was at the table more often, we would see the notion of change lose much of its fear, apprehension and difficulty.

I am a daily reader of The Washington Post and am eager for its continued success under Bezos’ leadership. I believe he is off to a great start.