How to be a low-key leader
The Cohort is Poynter's bi-monthly newsletter about women kicking ass in digital media.
A few years after starting my career, I was promoted to assistant features editor at a daily newspaper. And...I didn’t love it. Maybe I hadn’t had enough time to report and write, but it wasn’t the leadership role I imagined when I applied. It was management.
"Did you fill out your time card?”
"Did you guys really go and drink at lunch (and then talk about it in the newsroom so you’d get tattled on) (and not invite me)?”
"Is your story ready yet? How about now? Now?”
It felt like adult parenting, and I was barely able to keep up with my own newly acquired adultness. I eventually got the hang of it and learned not to let those things drag me down, but it was an excellent lesson in the difference between management and leadership.
I haven’t tried to be a manager since, but I have continued evolving with my career in challenging and fulfilling ways. And I’ve realized that choosing not to be a manager isn’t the same as choosing not to be a leader. I like to think of myself, instead, as a low-key leader. Low-key leaders, unlike capital-L leaders, may not have titles. But they can still use their voices to impact their workplace. Here’s how:
Don’t just build relationships on your team.
Most of us spend most of our time with our own teams. If, like me, you’re lucky enough to work with great people, it’s easy to stay in that bubble. Don’t do it! People in leadership with a capital-L naturally work across departments.
Low-key leaders have to work harder to get to know people in other departments, but the rewards are worth it: new relationships, a better understanding of different parts of your workplace and the opportunity to tell your own story.
Use your voice, but be smart about it.
Capital-L leaders are expected to have something to say in meetings, for projects, whenever there are two or more employees gathered. There’s also, in most workplaces, that one person who has something to say about everything. I can easily become that person, so I try and take the advice I give my 9- and 6-year-olds. You already had your turn. Now listen. Don’t comment on everything (again, something I’m always working on), and when you do have something to say, make sure it’s really damn good.
Be as generous as you can with shine.
Katie has written before about shine theory. Managers who apply this are invaluable. But you can low-key shine, too. Offer specific and genuine feedback and praise when the time is right. Champion other people’s good stuff. Definitely champion it to the capital-L leaders. And look for people who deserve shine but aren’t always getting it.
Don’t underestimate what you can do in your current role and how it might help you move into a new one.
Last year, I started traveling and reporting on big changes in local newsrooms. This year, that’s resulted in a brand new (and very exciting) job for me. But it started with one story. Then another. Then another. You don’t have to move into management to keep moving. Look for the direction you want to grow in and point yourself that way.
Look for low-key ways to make your workplace better.
Organize a lunch with like-minded coworkers to brainstorm how you can work together on some of your newsroom’s challenges. Be the voice that helps rally support for a colleague when they need it. Openly ask questions and push assumptions.
I have remained a reporter on purpose, but I haven’t given up a seat at the table (even if sometimes I have to scooch my way in). That early experience with management taught me a few things I don’t think I would have realized otherwise. The most important one is this: You do not need a title to be a boss.
Now go get ‘em.
<3 <3 <3
Things to read:
You’re about to meet a great mentor in the profile below. After you read about her, check out this smart advice for mentors from the Harvard Business Review. (“Shout loudly with optimism, and keep quiet with cynicism” seems like a best-life recipe, too.) Teen Vogue has a writing prompt about sisterhood right now. Viola Davis’ Oscar speech was stirring to watch. It’s poetry to read. And file this for when everything is terrible.
If you’ve attended many journalism conferences, you’ve probably run into Benét Wilson. She is a capital-B boss – as a business woman, a leader in journalism organizations and a mentor for young journalists. Benét covered education, economic development and agriculture before turning to aviation. We chatted via email about how she’s learned to use her voice and her time.
"The best advice I ever got was from my dad,” she said. “Be nice and acknowledge everyone you meet going up the ladder, because these are the people that will help you climb higher and also the ones that will help you up in case you fall.” You can read the full interview here.