Yale Curriculum: Agora SA Case
Wanda Rapaczynski '84 faced a tremendous challenge. She had traded in her career as a vice president for Citibank to take the helm of an upstart media company in a country that had been under Communist control only a couple years before. Rapaczynski left her native Poland when she was twenty, but returned in 1992, three years after the collapse of the Polish dictatorship. Through an old friend, she ended up at Gazeta Wyborcza, which had been created by Solidarity when the trade union was legalized in 1989. It was her job to bring a focus on profitability to a paper that had never taken advertisements, while at the same time not compromising the values of its founders, who were dedicated to a free, independent Polish press.
The story of how Rapaczynski helped convert an underground newspaper into one of the biggest media companies in Eastern Europe — Agora SA — became the first case taught in this year’s Integrated Leadership Perspective, a required course for all first year students in the Yale integrated MBA curriculum. The ILP has been designed to bring together lessons from the various Organizational Perspectives first-year students take as part of the core curriculum. The Perspectives teach future managers to approach business problems through the eyes of a variety of constituencies, such as the Employee, Customer, Innovator, or Investor. The Agora SA case (written by the Yale SOM Case Research team) fits into ILP perfectly, as the issues raised — from how to change the mindset of employees, to how to convince foreign investors to fund expansion projects, to how to navigate a government bureaucracy where corruption is prevalent — require an integrated approach, drawing on all the Perspectives. In this way, Rapaczynski was also a fitting person to anchor the first case taught in ILP. "She’s the embodiment of what we’ve been talking about," said Dean Joel Podolny, who taught the case.
ILP is led by Sharon Oster, Frederic D. Wolfe Professor of Management and Entrepreneurship. In addition to Oster, the course is taught by more than ten senior faculty, who add their expertise to a particular case. The cases taught in the course offer what Oster likes to call a high proportion of the "raw to cooked," meaning that unlike traditional business school cases which present a tightly controlled universe, these raw cases provide students with unfiltered data, news stories, and analyst reports that force students to approach problems more like they would in the real world. In the Agora SA case, students were pointed to the website created by the case writers, which offered a vast array of information about Agora, publishing in Eastern Europe, and the post-communist Polish economy and society, including the company’s fight against a blackmailing bureaucrat, which created a national scandal. Unlike other courses where students might be asked to approach the issues with an emphasis on a particular Perspective, in ILP, the focus is on leadership. "Each case presents a leadership moment," Oster said. "You need to understand how the leader acted and, just as important, how the leader should act."
Rapaczynski built a media empire essentially from scratch. Agora publishes not only Poland’s dominant newspaper in Gazeta Wyborcza, but has also moved aggressively into radio, magazine and book publishing, billboard advertising, and the Internet. By the time she stepped down as Agora CEO last year, the company was eyeing expansion into other Eastern European countries. Her story is a testament to the qualities that made her an ideal manager for a country in transition from controlled to market economy. As Podolny pointed out, Rapaczynski earned a PhD in psychology before attending SOM and working at Citibank. She brought this collection of experiences to Agora. "We talk a lot about how leadership is personal," he said. "Who Wanda is can be linked to how she leads. The experience and values of the individual become critical to how the organization executes on this vision."
Rapaczynski, who visited SOM on March 26 to discuss the case with students, argues that her personal qualities and experience are just the starting point for how she managed the company. She said she needed to learn the ins and outs of a new industry; to assume her skills would just translate from American finance to Polish newspapers would all but guarantee failure. A more critical need was to change the ingrained culture at Agora. Until the end of the communist regime, most of the Agora core had worked for underground publications, more concerned with avoiding jail than monitoring a balance sheet. Rapaczynski introduced an internal stock program aimed at getting all employees invested in the success of the company. She brought in foreign help, both in terms of funding for the company, but also to train employees how to run a for-profit media company. "People were just beginning to learn the ways of business," she said. "We’d have meetings that people treated like a debate. People would argue for three hours about a host of topics. No one took notes and two weeks later nothing we talked about got done. People had to learn how to have a proper meeting."
But it was by understanding the dedication of employees to creating an independent voice for Poland that Rapaczynski proved best able to take an underground movement and create a hugely successful company. "The values are the values of the team who founded the company," she said in an interview for the case. “These are people who have sound values and something that sets a moral direction. All we did was hang onto this basic integrity and translate it into specific things."
This sentiment underlined the key to her leadership. ILP cases demonstrate that the best leaders can synthesize a variety of information streams and find solutions where others might just see contradictions. "What she understood and communicated was that the independence provided by the creation of economic value would enable the organization to live its values," said Podolny.