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Don't Copy Your Predecessors When Taking Over the Top Job

By Jeffrey Trachtenberg

Taking over a top job from an admired veteran can be a tough assignment.

Gina Centrello discovered that when she was named president and publisher of Bertelsmann's Random House Publishing Group after the abrupt ouster of literary icon Ann Godoff in January 2003.

Unlike her predecessor, Ms. Centrello hadn't risen through the publishing ranks as a book editor. Her success at the group's Ballantine imprint flowed from her marketing and sales prowess -- and her relentless focus on the bottom line.

Bertelsmann had picked Ms. Centrello for the top job because of her strengths. But, notes Stephen Mader, an executive recruiter in Boston at Christian & Timbers LLC, "many times when a leader is pushed out, the rest of the trees start to fall."

At Random House, writers loyal to Ms. Godoff, outraged over her dismissal, were following her to a rival publishing house. How could Ms. Centrello keep top editors from fleeing, too?

Ms. Centrello knew better than to try to replicate Ms. Godoff's editing talents herself. "I was asked to direct the division and make it profitable," she says. "I didn't see why I should change from being a publisher. It's what I am."

Instead, Ms. Centrello moved quickly to hire a respected literary figure as the editor in chief of Random House imprints. Her choice of Daniel Menaker -- a 26-year veteran of the New Yorker magazine and a Random House senior editor before he became an executive editor at HarperCollins -- signaled that she planned to respect the editorial independence of her staff. Meanwhile, she gave salary raises and new titles to some of Random House's top editors.

"Gina made it clear that she would be available when editors needed her, but that agents would send us their big projects while she set the group's priorities," says Jonathan Karp, who took over Mr. Menaker's job last spring when the latter was given broader responsibility. "She reads the books that we're most excited about, which lets her make decisions without each one being a referendum on her relationship with specific agents."

Meanwhile, Ms. Centrello wasn't shy about asserting herself on business matters. She told editors that more attention would be paid to profits -- including the size of book advances -- and the various formats in which books are sold.

Ms. Centrello also had the tough job of convincing two rival imprints -- Random House, the home of John Irving, E.L. Doctorow and William Faulkner, and Ballantine, best known for its paperbacks -- to break down decades-old barriers and work together. In the publishing world, editors at hardcover houses have always had more stature within the industry. But Ms. Centrello told Random House subordinates that their future at the book-publishing company depended on their willingness to set aside old prejudices. Today the two staffs hold joint editorial meetings, review acquisitions together, and even put titles on each other's new-book lists.

Increased cooperation throughout the group means that books that might have once left the Random House umbrella can find another home. These include a coming biography of Merian C. Cooper, a creator of "King Kong," which wasn't right for Del Rey, a science-fiction publisher, but will be issued by sister imprint Villard Books. "It's a much more blended family than in the past," says Bruce Tracy, Villard's editorial director.

Ms. Centrello's innovations are also allowing writers to reach bigger audiences. This summer readers will be able to buy a cheap, rack-size paperback edition of the Robert Kurson bestseller "Shadow Divers" from Ballantine, in addition to a fancy paperback from Random House. "We can sell it at places like Safeway and the airports," says Anthony Ziccardi, director of sales and marketing at the group. In the past, Random House authors were primarily published in pricey paperback editions.

Publishing isn't the only arena where top executives in new situations have found that playing to their strengths is smarter than trying to re-create themselves.

Lawrence Stevenson, a seasoned retailer who became CEO of auto-parts-retailer and service-provider Pep Boys in May 2003, says he knew little about the business when he took it over and still has a lot to do. But instead of trying to master arcane details about brake pads and radiator hoses, he hired a top merchant, added a new chief information officer, and focused on building the company's marketing and merchandising strengths. The stock of Pep Boys has about doubled since Mr. Stevenson took over.

"The board's view was that they had a tremendous amount of industry-specific knowledge about auto parts; what was needed was someone to challenge the things they were doing and build a strong team," says Mr. Stevenson. "I wasn't going to turn the company around on my own, but I could build a team of senior executives who would have the core skills needed to supplement the ones that existed here."

Pat Cook, the CEO of Cook & Co., an executive-search boutique based in Bronxville, N.Y., applauds that strategy. "Being who you are and recognizing you have talents that an organization needs at a specific moment is the right approach," she says.

Article from CareerJournal Online – January 2005