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Jean Taylor takes on public media role as both insider and outsider

The former Star Tribune board chair will lead an organization that’s experienced internal tumult, yet it has the potential to make a big impact on political and cultural affairs.

Jean Taylor
Jean Taylor is the next president and CEO of American Public Media Group.
Sarah Pierce Photography

Jean Taylor’s selection as the next president and CEO of American Public Media Group surprised some people, because she’s never been a public media executive. However, Taylor comes to the position with a unique advantage because she’s both an insider and an outsider.

Her long service on the APMG board means she already understands the business model challenges facing the organization, and she knows that the nonprofit needs to do better in diversifying its workforce and programming. Yet she also brings the outsider’s perspective through her solid private sector background, and she’s immersed herself in learning about an evolving media landscape through her Star Tribune board chair role.

When news broke Wednesday that Taylor would become the top executive at APMG — the parent of Minnesota Public Radio — I thought about what she’s experienced on the APMG board since 2013. Beyond budgets, she and other board members have dealt with the sexual harassment investigation involving Garrison Keillor, they’ve seen discord in the MPR employee ranks, and they’ve had to function during a pandemic.

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The board of trustees could have hired a public media executive from another metro area in the U.S. to serve as its CEO. However, Taylor has been on the scene in Minnesota as journalists from MPR and the Star Tribune covered the death of George Floyd, the racial reckoning and civil unrest that ensued, and the trial of Derek Chauvin.

Regardless of the intensity of the 24/7 news cycle, she’s observed firsthand that the employees of APMG and the Star Tribune keep going. As she begins her new job, she’ll do so with the recognition that public media employees have continued to work in stressful news environments to produce programming that’s critical for a functioning democracy. They also have a responsibility to enhance the cultural life of Minnesota residents and those around the nation who hear APMG programs.

Taylor has inherited a tough job from Jon McTaggart, who announced in September that he would step down as CEO, and she will need to satisfy many stakeholders who hold disparate opinions. But her job also holds tremendous opportunity. Taylor begins this new position with a head start because she has board level exposure to the organization’s triumphs and struggles and she has good relationships with the existing board of trustees.

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While most CEOs aren’t chosen from the ranks of their organization’s corporate or nonprofit boards, there are some prominent examples in which top leaders were selected after they served on the board.

From board chair to president

In a series of emails to “alumnae, donors and friends,” the search advisory committee and trustees’ chair kept people apprised of what was happening with the search process. They released the names of three women finalists. Each of them held a Ph.D. and served for several years in leadership positions on college campuses.Like the APMG board, the St. Catherine University board of trustees conducted a national search, beginning in late 2015, to identify and screen candidates for the 11th president of the university.

In February 2016, the search advisory committee referred those three women to the board of trustees for consideration as the next president of St. Catherine’s. They aligned with the historical demographics of a college president of a liberal arts college—a college administrator with a doctorate.

On May 4, 2016, St. Catherine’s board of trustees made a surprise announcement. The board members selected ReBecca Koenig Roloff, who was not in the pool of three finalists, to become the university’s new president.

At the time, Roloff was president and CEO of the YWCA of Minneapolis. Her 11-year run at the YWCA was preceded by a successful corporate career at Cargill, Pillsbury and American Express.

Roloff didn’t have a Ph.D., but she earned an MBA at Harvard, and her bachelor’s degree was from St. Catherine’s. She was well-known in St. Kate’s circles because of her long tenure on the university’s board of trustees—from 1983 to 1995—including the last four as the chair.

When Roloff’s selection was announced, Karen Rauenhorst, then-chair of St. Catherine’s board, said, “Her distinguished career in the private and nonprofit sectors has demonstrated her extraordinary leadership, commitment to inclusion and ability to achieve financial stability through fundraising, while at the same time serving the community.”

A few months before Roloff was named as St. Catherine’s president, I interviewed her for a Twin Cities Business article that focused on women who left the corporate world to work for nonprofits or start their own businesses. Roloff could have been a corporate CEO.

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Instead, she’s in her sixth year as the president of St. Catherine’s. In April, she reported that St. Catherine’s had raised $100 million for its Lead & Influence campaign — reaching an important milestone.“I loved my corporate life. I would never let anyone describe me as a corporate refugee, that would simply be wrong,” Roloff told me in 2016. “But I thought, ‘Why wouldn’t you take another ride? How much time do you have left to do something, and do something interesting?’ ’’

Taylor also is positioned to “take another ride.” After working as the chief executive of Taylor Corp., a company founded by her father, Glen, and learning about the media business following Glen’s purchase of the Star Tribune, Jean Taylor is poised for a new challenge.

CEO in plain sight

Richard Anderson served as CEO of Delta Air Lines from September 2007 through April 2016.

On Dec. 19, 2006, the New York Times published a lengthy story on its business section cover with the headline “An Airline’s Heirs Apparent.” It was an in-depth profile article on the two leading candidates to succeed Gerald Grinstein, 74, as Delta Air Lines CEO.

Delta was restructuring in bankruptcy and Grinstein was looking to exit his role after Delta emerged from bankruptcy. The two CEO candidates were then-CFO Ed Bastian and then-COO Jim Whitehurst.

The overarching message of the story was that it was highly likely that one of these two men would become Delta’s CEO. Even the men’s wives were quoted in the story. On the CEO job, Bastian said, “I’m flattered my name has been thrown into the ring,” while Whitehurst said, “I’d very much like to be CEO.”

I can still remember holding the hard copy of the Times while reading that story in the newsroom of the Star Tribune, where I covered the airline industry for seven years. The Times story seemed too cut and dried for me, because I believed that Richard Anderson could easily surface as a candidate for Delta CEO.

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He was well-regarded for his tenure as the chief executive of Northwest Airlines, and he was working as a key executive at UnitedHealth Group during the Delta and NWA bankruptcies. Grinstein, also Delta’s board chairman, had declined to be interviewed for the big Times story on Bastian and Whitehurst. From my perspective, that left the door open for other CEO candidates.It wasn’t publicly revealed what Delta’s succession plans stated about the CEO position. But it was highly intriguing in April 2007 when Anderson was named a director for Delta’s board.

On Aug. 21, 2007, Delta announced that Anderson would become the airline’s new CEO. “After a thorough search, the board concluded that Richard Anderson possesses the right blend of seasoned leadership, strategic skills, international experience and airline knowledge the company needs to navigate the industry’s challenges and capitalize on its opportunities,” then-Delta Chairman Daniel Carp said in a statement.

Anderson was credited with moving quickly at Delta to secure a merger with Northwest, and then successfully executing that combination. One of his major goals was building an airline that was robust financially, so it could withstand cyclical swings in the economy. Anderson became an aviation industry leader on customer service, business strategy, and international airline competition.

Like Anderson, Taylor was sitting in full view on the APMG board, so the trustees literally knew what skills she brought to the table.

The St. Catherine’s and Delta case studies highlight the fact that executive searches sometimes don’t adhere to a linear process.

MPR reported that Taylor was named to the APMG CEO search committee last October. But she left that committee and “disengaged” from board work when she decided to enter the CEO candidate selection process.

While describing public media’s role during a Wednesday MPR interview, Taylor said she wants the organization’s work to inform and inspire people, bring them together, and strengthen communities. “That’s what we need to drive and make happen, and that’s what I’m really excited to do,” Taylor said to MPR. “It’s a big challenge, to be able to serve the broad community.”

Finding the right person during an executive search process is more art than science. The APMG board of trustees has expressed its confidence in Taylor, who becomes the first woman and third person to hold the CEO job. Many people will be watching her actions closely as she begins this new professional journey on Aug. 23.

After serving eight years as an APMG trustee, Jean Taylor is accepting the CEO challenge with her eyes wide open.