November 27, 2023

CEO at Smith Welcomes Donald Graham Back to Van Munching Hall after 14 Years

CEO at Smith Welcomes Donald Graham

As CEO at Smith’s first-ever featured guest in 2009, Donald Graham offered a glimpse into the state of the newspaper industry amid the Great Recession. Almost 14 years later, Graham returned to Van Munching Hall to reprise his guest appearance and talk about what’s changed since then.

On Tuesday, Nov. 14, Graham, former publisher of The Washington Post and former lead executive for The Graham Holdings Company, sat down with Dean Prabhudev Konana of the University of Maryland’s Robert H. Smith School of Business to discuss his triumphs and times of turbulence across his five decades in the journalism and media industries.

Speaking to a sold-out audience of UMD students, faculty and staff, Konana extended his appreciation to Graham for making his second appearance at the event and to those in attendance for creating an “awesome” atmosphere for the discussion.

The hour-long discussion began with Graham sharing a story about his mother and CEO predecessor, Katharine Graham, who held the title of publisher from 1969 to 1979 and chairwoman of the board from 1973 to 1991. During her tenure, she presided over significant turning points in the publication’s history, including the Pentagon Papers and the Watergate scandal. Through her work, she helped lay the foundation for the publication’s sustained success and served as a trailblazer for women in executive positions.

“When my mother took our company public in 1971, there were, in the Fortune 1000, 999 male CEOs and her,” said Graham. At that time, when people speculated whether she would sell the company, she remained focused and “just knocked it out of the park” as CEO.

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Donald Graham, who joined The Washington Post as a reporter in 1971 and took over as publisher in 1979, imparted his leadership lessons and wisdom from his experience overseeing the publication’s transition to digital media. One important insight he shared with students is to develop strong writing skills “no matter what you do.”

Leading The Washington Post through the launch of its online version and later serving on Facebook’s board of directors, Graham witnessed firsthand how technology can change the business landscape. However, customer demand drives innovation, he said, and good leaders have the ability to take all of these factors into consideration when determining the correct path forward for their organization.

“I’ve seen a lot of great leaders. I think the very best leaders develop a sense of clarity about where the organization is going,” said Graham.

Graham also cited the importance of seeking out advisors, mentors and trusted subject matter experts early into a career. In Graham’s case, that mentor was Warren Buffett, who served on the Washington Post Company’s board of directors from 1974 to 2011.

Buffett bought roughly 11% of The Washington Post’s shares in 1974, believing that its assets far exceeded its market value. Upon stepping down from his board position, his company, Berkshire Hathaway, held 1.73 million shares and a valued stake of $750 million on the New York Stock Exchange.

According to Graham, the main takeaway from Buffett’s actions is to invest in the long term. Everyone can apply that advice to their own careers. “The smartest thing you can do is start saving now,” said Graham.

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About the University of Maryland's Robert H. Smith School of Business

The Robert H. Smith School of Business is an internationally recognized leader in management education and research. One of 12 colleges and schools at the University of Maryland, College Park, the Smith School offers undergraduate, full-time and flex MBA, executive MBA, online MBA, business master’s, PhD and executive education programs, as well as outreach services to the corporate community. The school offers its degree, custom and certification programs in learning locations in North America and Asia.

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