- Hollis Johnson/Business Insider
- Heather Dietrick is the CEO of The Daily Beast and the former president and legal counsel of media company Gawker.
- At the end of its tenure, Gawker was engaged in a lawsuit with the former professional wrestler Hulk Hogan that ultimately led to its demise in 2016.
- Dietrick said facing Gawker’s staffers to tell them the company was filing for bankruptcy made her a better leader by teaching her how to lead with empathy.
In June 2016, Gawker founder Nick Denton decided he was going to declare bankruptcy and sell his media company. A Florida jury decided that Gawker’s post of a sex tape featuring Terry Bollea, better known as the former professional wrestler Hulk Hogan, was an invasion of privacy and caused emotional distress. Gawker was facing $140 million in damages.
Denton called an all-hands meeting of Gawker’s roughly 200 employees, and decided that his president and general counsel Heather Dietrick would be the one to break the news and explain the legal reasoning behind the decision.
“Honestly, it was scary,” Dietrick said in an episode of Business Insider’s podcast “This Is Success.” She told the room the news. She noted that the company’s style of all-hands included plenty of audience participation, “and for the first time there was like utter, utter silence and mouths agape.”
The ensuing meeting, she said, helped make her a better leader in Gawker’s last days, as well as in her current role as the CEO of the media brand The Daily Beast. It taught her how to lead with empathy.
She was looking at the silent, shocked employees. “And so I – this is in slow motion for me at the time – but I’m thinking, how do I advance this conversation?”
She knew that underlying their silence was fear – and she was afraid, too – and that’s why she then placed herself in their particular positions and began answering questions she imagined were running through their heads: “Like, what does this mean for me personally in this role? What does this mean for my family? What do I tell my spouse about this? Why would I stay? How do various parts of this bankruptcy work?”
This broke the ice, she remembered, and employees began asking follow-ups. Dietrick remembered the meeting lasting for hours. The meeting had become a conversation, “and by the end, smiles and everyone’s full of energy and back to work,” she said.
“And I knew that because of this mission that the company had built, everyone was standing shoulder to shoulder and this would work, that we would keep everyone there and working,” she said. “And I couldn’t say just, ‘I hope you stay and do your job.’ I needed to say, ‘I need you to do your job better than you ever have before because we need to show this field of potential buyers that this did not get us down. We are still growing or putting out excellent stories.’ And we did it. Probably three people left in the six months before we sold the company. And people were working harder than ever. And we were growing and it was really, really phenomenal.”
Gawker Media ended up becoming the Gizmodo Media Group and was sold to Univision. Many of the former Gawker staffers stuck with Gizmodo brands.
It was not an easy transition, or an easy final six months of the company, by any means. But Dietrick said the staff was able to stay as positive and focused as possible. Today, former Gawker staffers have gone on record saying how much they’ve admired her leadership.
She said she did her part by making herself available to talk through all concerns, “and if someone came and had a doubt, I would put everything completely aside and say, ‘Yeah, let’s talk through this. If it’s five minutes or two hours and, you can trust in me that we’re going to save all these jobs and get you to get this company to where it needs to be.’ And we did that, luckily.”
Subscribe to “This Is Success” on Apple Podcasts, Stitcher, or wherever you listen. You can find the full McChrystal episode below.