General Manager Taran Swan was experiencing some problems with her pregnancy and saw the need to depart from the Miami headquarters eighteen months after the launch of Nickelodeon Latin America. She cannot travel for six months and must come up with a plan in order to run the channel from her New York home. She is looking into who among her team may be appointed as an acting head for the meantime.
Linda A. Hill; Kristin C. Doughty
Harvard Business Review (400036-PDF-ENG)
August 15, 1999
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Taran Swan at Nickelodeon Latin America (A) Case Answers
Swan, general manager of Nickelodeon Latin America Channel (NLAC), can’t fly to her team’s location for the next few months due to a medical emergency. As the external business environment is uncertain, it is crucial that her team have a leader to set the direction for the channel. Secondly, the success of her channel depends on the deal with an affiliate-user, that is getting delayed. In this situation, my recommendation is to appoint an interim leader and involve her in the deal-making process.
Taran Swan is responsible for launching and establishing the channel in diverse and vast geography. From her prior experience, she knows that this task is mired with uncertainties. In an uncertain business environment, her choices of “differentiation” (Porter (1996)) as a strategy, and ”team structure” as a format for her organization are in alignment, as proposed by Daft (2005).
Swan took care of pre-launch activities (Polzer (2003)) while creating her team. She hired individuals that fit the specific roles. For eg., she hired Valerie McCarty as publicity head because of her experience in public relations and Donna Friedman for her “brand loyalty”. Along with it, she created required formal positions so that people know their responsibilities clearly.
“The most effective teams are those … that establish effective ongoing processes for conducting their work” [Daft (2005)]. Farkas (2001) suggests four aspects of team processes: a) decision making, b) participation, c) influence, and d) conflict. Swan took care to establish appropriate team processes. Swan made sure that all departments participate in decision making, all opinions are heard. This resulted in the culture of consensus-based decision-making, as evident from Tuesday morning executive meetings. She asks questions to engage all teammates, thus, ensuring that no member had undue influence. She handled professional conflicts before they escalate into personal conflicts, as in the case of Rita Herring, who was handling affiliate sales.
Swan’s leadership style was to give strategic directions and let the teammates figure out the detailed tasks. Along with delegation, she held people responsible for their actions. After a thorough inquiry, she would let teammates take chances and decisions. This style of Swan’s leadership is evident in her handling of Nick En Vivo and Ayuda a tu Mundo campaigns. She took care that the “big bets” culture of her team is maintained when new members join the team. For example, she worked closely with newly hired Rey Del Valle to make him aware of her team’s culture. At the same time, she was quick to replace a person that did not fit in her team’s culture.
Swan created an effective team with her leadership. Moreover, her attitude had rubbed on her teammates too. They were also asking questions, setting targets for themselves and working collectively to achieve those targets. The unforeseen medical complication of Swan complicated the situation. As she cannot be physically present, there is a leadership crisis in her team.
To address this issue, she has few alternatives. She can adopt a “virtual team” approach, in which she could collaborate via online communication. The benefit is that she would still be able to lead her team. However, there are already signs of stress in communication channels, as many members travel frequently to their respective hometowns. With additional constraints, communication breakdown may lead to ineffective decisions by her teammates. Another alternative is to change the structure of her organization to a more vertical chain of command. Although she can give direct instructions and monitor her teammates, the change in structure and functioning style of the team may result in misfit culture for her strategy. Lastly, she may step aside and appoint an interim director in her absence. As her team is functioning well, it is possible for them to keep the momentum going with the least changes in authority. However, the risk is that the new leader may not be able to lead in an effective manner.
My recommendation is to appoint an interim director. It is evident from several examples that Swan’s teammates have imbibed the team culture. She can remotely work on Cablevision/TCI deal along with an interim director. I think Donna Friedman would be a good fit to lead the team in Swan’s absence. I recommend her as she demonstrated her ability to work outside her team (during pre-launch activities), took team culture very seriously (organized “Grow Down” campaign) and took initiatives for correcting team processes (started weekly Nickelodeon Initiative meetings).
Daft, R. L. (2005), ‘Designing adaptive organizations’, Ch-10.
Farkas, M. T. (2001), ‘A note of team process’, Harvard Business Review.
Polzer, J. T. (2003), ‘Leading teams’, Harvard Business Review.
Porter, M. E. (1996), ‘What is strategy?’, Harvard Business Review 74(6), 61-78.