Why Arianna Huffington leaving the Huffington Post is good for company culture

Arianna Huffington's decision to leave Huffington Post may seem bad for the company at first, but it could actually have some very positive effects.

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Credit: Daria Shevtsova

It’s always a big deal when a businessperson steps down from a leadership role of a company they helped build — particularly if that company bears their name.

So it is with Arianna Huffington, co-founder of The Huffington Post. She’s been with the Post for 11 years now but will leave the publication in the coming weeks to focus on the next challenge: her startup Thrive Global.

“I really thought I could do both,” Huffington said, “but as we started building [Thrive Global] up, I realized that it really needed my full attention. It is important to know when one door closes and another opens.”

This is a conundrum that was also faced recently by billionaire investor and visionary eccentric Elon Musk, who helped birth SpaceX, SolarCity and Tesla.

The latter two companies are now talking about a merger — a move that would help them move forward together toward a shared goal. Ambitious though it might be, the plan has met with a tepid response from investors and Wall Street in general.

Whereas Musk seems eager to test his ability to preside over two rather different multibillion-dollar companies, Huffington is going in a completely different direction, and it might be the right choice for the culture of both of her ventures.

By choosing not to divide her attention between two major business endeavors, she has effectively ensured that both companies can grow and thrive in their own way, and continue to develop distinct and cohesive cultures.

How will company culture thrive?

Huffington is doing both her new startup and the company that bears her name a favor here. With her decision to remain focused on just one challenge at a time, both of the projects she helped start can grow in new and exciting ways:

  • The Post will continue on with new publishers, editors, managers and policies. Her absence will be keenly felt for a while, but the culture that grows in her absence will be all the stronger for it, thanks to new perspectives, ideas and leadership philosophies. We speak of diversity across a workforce as a positive thing, but a diversity of leadership may be just as important. Huffington is giving the Post that kind of diversity.
  • Thrive Global will be receiving a seasoned and passionate leader, as well as the benefit of hindsight and a strong idea of what to do and what not to do. The company will be free to explore what works and what does not, but it will inherit the best of what HuffPo’s existing culture has to offer — while still being able to move into uncharted territory.
  • Perhaps most importantly, both of these businesses will be able to retain their respective personalities, branding and culture. Huffington wouldn’t have been the first to lead multiple companies, but she would have run the risk of having the two companies become blurred in the public consciousness, to the point where one may be permanently associated with the other. Not a bad thing, necessarily, but we see again and again what happens a company fails to achieve its own identity — or when a company spreads itself too thin.

Don’t divide to conquer

We have yet to see how Musk’s dual stewardship over Tesla and SolarCity will play out, but for our money, Huffington is the one that got this right. It’s hard to imagine companies as different as HuffPo and Thrive Global “growing up” with the same leader at the tiller. No matter how strong her leadership may have continued to be, both companies have radically different mission statements and exist to pursue very different goals. They deserve distinct leadership and culture as they grow into the companies they were meant to become.

That’s the takeaway here, and it echoes Huffington’s words from earlier: She’s going where her “full attention” is required. She’s kicking the Post out of the nest, and now she has the distinct pleasure of watching it fly on its own.

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