Family business lessons from Katharine Graham

Katharine Graham’s father bought The Washington Post at a bankruptcy auction in 1933. Leadership was passed to her husband, Phil Graham, in 1946 and then, unexpectedly, to Katharine after her husband’s suicide in 1963.

The Washington Post reported on a number of significant stories in the following years. It broke the news of the Watergate scandal, which eventually led to President Richard Nixon’s resignation. It also published the Pentagon Papers, classified documents that described the United States’ political and military involvement in Vietnam.

The Post, a new film directed by Steven Spielberg, details the newspaper’s fight to print the Pentagon Papers, highlighting the roles of Graham and then-editor Ben Bradlee. Though the Graham family sold the paper to Amazon founder Jeff Bezos in 2013, Katharine Graham’s leadership still serves as a model of family business stewardship. Here are highlights from a Family Business Magazine article published just after Graham’s death in 2001:

Consider how Graham handled six common family business challenges.

Learning the business. Most successors have an opportunity to learn their family's business over a long period, working in it and being brought along by members of the older generation. Graham, who had worked at the Post only sporadically as a reporter, had to learn quickly — and in a corporate environment where women were neither expected nor welcomed.

She set about educating herself in every way she could, seeking advice and knowledge from the circle of company executives Phil had pulled together as well as from others prominent in the news industry.

Stepping out of her predecessor's shadow. Eventually, all family business successors have to claim their own identity and establish their own authority. It's rarely easy. Some Post executives were hostile toward Graham and resented her many questions. Then, two years after she took over, she made her first big hire: Benjamin C. Bradlee.

By hiring Bradlee, Graham began to build her own team and to put her personal stamp on the company.

Being a boss. She was “the ideal boss,” wrote Post staff writer Robert G. Kaiser in a tribute to Graham. She wasn't perfect, he wrote — her insecurities could be troublesome, and he thought she was “too easily impressed by people with big titles.” Nevertheless, she was interested and engaged in what her staff members were doing, and she backed them up.

Sometimes family business owners manage employees too tightly and don't give them room enough to do their jobs. But, noted Kaiser, “Katharine Graham gave her employees at the Washington Post the ultimate journalistic gift: absolute independence.”

Practicing stewardship. Graham committed herself to preserving and growing the company for the next generation. And she managed succession beautifully — first by letting her four children follow their own hearts. None was coerced into the business. Two joined the company: Donald E. Graham, her successor; and daughter Lally Weymouth, a writer for Newsweek and the Post.

Don Graham was carefully groomed to succeed his mother, but he also enjoyed the freedom to make his own choices. Although his mother wanted him to join the company after he served in the U.S. Army in Vietnam, he opted to join the Washington, D.C., police force instead. He joined the Post in 1971, gaining experience throughout the company with a series of mentors.

Letting go. Like many family business owners, Graham loved her work and enjoyed running the show. Letting go was not easy, but she did it anyway. She was 61 when her son became the Post's publisher. She stepped down as chief executive officer of the parent company in 1991, at age 73, and as chairman two years later. Don succeeded her in both positions. It was a smooth and carefully orchestrated transition. And Graham found new challenges for herself. She remained chairman of the executive committee of the board and spent five years writing her remarkably candid and insightful memoir — a family business tale if there ever was one.

Graham used the business to implement her family's deeply held ideals. Like her father and her husband, she believed the country depended on a free press and was committed to the paper's independence.

She understood that passing on a family business isn't just a family matter. It's also of critical concern to the community, and sometimes to the country.