Articles about "Leadership"


How to manage a ‘newsroom star’ and keep everyone happy

This is the core message of my teaching: The most important things leaders do is help other people succeed.

So what happens when they indeed succeed, and in a really big way? What’s your responsibility when a member of your team builds a massive fan base, wins coveted awards, or rakes in high revenues for your organization?

Congratulations, You get to manage a star – with all the joys and challenges that accompany that responsibility.

I hope I haven’t frightened you.

Not all stars are problematic, although recent high profile management/star conflicts (Jian Ghomeshi, Bill Simmons, Don Surber) might leave that impression.

How stars wield the clout born of their contributions determines whether they’re what I call “low maintenance” or “high maintenance.”

Low maintenance stars are collegial, productive, interested in the organization as well as themselves, and committed to core values including integrity and quality.

But low maintenance stars aren’t sheep. They may still be tough salary negotiators, seek more staff or tech support, and expect creative scheduling or other perks in exchange for the value they add to the business.

Low maintenance stars also push back against management. In fact, their colleagues often ask them to use their influence to speak up for the team. In the many years I’ve taught leadership seminars for television news anchors and seen feedback from their peers about their performance, it’s clear the anchors’ starring role provides them a platform others lack. They can more safely serve as the “loyal opposition” — questioning quality lapses, system flaws, or unwise management decisions. When they do it effectively, it’s appreciated by both their buddies and their bosses.  Honest. I’ve seen it and I’ve lived it in my own newsroom.

Then there are the high maintenance stars. In that category you find egocentricity and narcissism, and an expectation that they’re exempt from standards that apply to others – from civility to process. They chafe at being edited or even supervised. They specialize in going around their immediate supervisors and demanding to deal only with top-level bosses. The people who work with them live in fear of outbursts and insults. At worst, they not only flout workplace rules of the road, but their off-the-clock behavior becomes a headache for their organizations as well.

The management migraine, as we see in the Ghomeshi story, pulses at the intersection of fair process for an employee accused of wrongdoing, public relations, and transparency with staff and the public. This Toronto Star story lays all that out quite well.

Who’s to blame for high maintenance stars?

The stars themselves, of course, but also the organizations that let them thrive. The high-maintenance stars aren’t really being managed, they’re being enabled. Their co-workers take the brunt of their behavior as long as they can stand it, and feel it’s useless or even risky to complain about them. (Reach back ten years ago to the Jack Kelley fabrication scandal at USA Today to see a vivid illustration of that phenomenon.)

So, how do great bosses manage stars? With these understandings:

  • High performers and high producers deserve managers who reward that success in every responsible way.
  • Managers of stars should always be upfront about what the limits of the rewards will be and what’s non-negotiable.
  • Treating colleagues as servants or punching bags is non-negotiable.
  • Ignoring standards and ethics of the organization is non-negotiable.
  • Star performers often experience insecurity, fearing their success is tenuous. They may overreact to small mistakes — their own or those of others — as a threat to their status. They need managers who help them reframe those situations, calm their fears and find solutions.
  • Staying close to stars rather than keeping a distance is wise. Access to managers enables them to have a sounding board for their ideas, aspirations and concerns.
  • No matter how celebrated or accomplished, high performers still appreciate honest positive and negative feedback from a trusted manager.
  • We get what we hire – for better or worse. If we a bring someone into the workplace because we like their “edginess” or the “in your face” style of their work, and don’t manage them well, we can’t be surprised when they take that approach to their colleagues, managers or the public. We created our own monster.
  • The co-workers of stars matter, too. If the stars’ perks and privileges seem excessive and unfair to their good (if not yet great) colleagues, it can be demoralizing and demotivating. Tomorrow’s stars may leave.

Finally, remember this:

There’s always room for one more star in any organization. Find them, grow them, groom them – then manage them well. After all, the most important thing leaders do is help others succeed.

 * * *

 My work with TV news anchors in our leadership seminars provides me additional insights into “stars” — including some surprises.  I share them in the companion podcast to this column.

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Be a Better Listener in 3 Minutes

I work with managers and non-managers alike who want to become better at listening. I’ve read books on it, written columns, and teach sessions on the essentials of the skill.

And then I met journalist E. S. Isaac of India and got a better education on what it means to truly listen.

During a dinner conversation before a week-long leadership seminar at Poynter, Isaac shared his insights. He grew up in rural Chhattisgarh, in Central India. His parents were illiterate. But his father, Benbarisi Isaac, was his best teacher.

I found what E. S. Isaac said — and how he said it — to be so meaningful that I asked his permission to record and share his thoughts.

I think this will be the best three minutes you spend today.

Who is this wise man?

Isaac oversees Doordarshan Television’s international channel DDIndia.  He manages the sports programming on DDSports, reaching 143 countries across the world.

From left to right, Father, Neha, Isaac (back), Mother, Nikhil, Rekha (front) Outside village home

From left to right, Benbasi Isaac (father), Aaditi Isaac(daughter), E. S. Isaac (back), Susena Kumari (mother), Rekha Sinha (wife), Aalok Isaac( son, in front).
I am standing behind my daughter,E S Isaac.
The photograph was taken on 28th April 1994 by Chanchal Isaac outside their village home

He was one of 15 international journalists selected for The Media Project’s Coaching and Leadership Fellowship initiative. The class met at Poynter the week of September 21.

I served as their leadership guide for the week. But when I got to the session on communication skills, you can bet that I delegated to Isaac.  And I listened. Read more

Businesswoman stressed out

Overworked and overwhelmed? Consider these 7 questions

If you’re feeling swamped at work these days, you’re not alone. I’m not talking “I don’t get to go out for lunch very often” busy. I mean “I’m buried in work, never fully off the clock and still feel I’m letting people down” busy. I hear it regularly from the managers I teach and coach.

It’s a function of the downsized staffing but increased demands and responsibilities in changing organizations.

The story is familiar: to hit budget numbers, the company cuts head count but leaves fully intact the expectation of quality, service and measurable results. (I’ll give CNN president Jeff Zucker credit. Referencing the depressing specter of buyouts and layoffs, he didn’t try to spin it as some great opportunity for the survivors to work smarter, not harder. He said “We are going to do less and have to do it with less.”)

Businesswoman stressed out

But what about those who are doing so much, perhaps too much, these days?  Their leaders often suggest that they do a better job of delegation. They may be right. Even when staffing is strong, managers often hesitate to delegate. For perspective, I looked for my first column on delegation: “Why We Don’t Delegate, but Could.” I wrote it in 2002!

But delegation alone isn’t enough today. Front line managers need to work with their leaders to take a comprehensive look at workloads, workflow, strategies, systems and shifting priorities in changing times. They need to constantly communicate about effectiveness, efficiency and yes, exhaustion.

As I work with organizations that are trying to do just that, I developed 7 questions for leaders and managers to ask themselves. I hope you find them helpful:

1. Whose job is it, anyway? This is a call for clarification of the manager’s role. What are the most important responsibilities he/she should have? What tasks have gravitated to that person because of tradition, or a particular talent, or simply by default? What assumptions underlie the manager’s list of duties, and is it time to challenge some of them?

2. When I feel guilty about delegating, what’s the reason?  Some managers fear that delegating is simply dumping on others, a confession of incompetence and or a sign of slacking off.  Empathy, expertise and work ethic are all commendable qualities of managers, but shouldn’t stand in the way of a rational review of one’s workload.

3. Do I secretly love certain tasks and don’t want to let go? This one is self-evident. If you simply love keeping a hand in certain things, even if they are not essential to your management role, what’s the cost/benefit ratio? Only you and your leaders can assess whether the joy is worth the ripple effect it has on other work and people. It may be. Just be transparent about your decision to keep doing that task – and open to revisiting the impact.

4. What do I have to learn to teach before I can delegate this? Managers often keep doing a task because they’re ill-prepared to train others how to do it. They don’t want to take the time to build an instruction guide or plan, or don’t feel comfortable training others — so they keep doing the work themselves. Admit it: this is a problem you can solve.

5. How can I maintain quality over things I delegate? Concern about quality control often causes managers to avoid delegating. But you CAN keep close enough touch to ensure things will go well. When I wrote about delegation in my book, “Work Happy: What Great Bosses Know,” I highlighted a quote taken from some terrific feedback that a boss in one of my seminars received:

He never rests on his laurels and is always seeking ways to improve our performance, even as resources contract and the pressure on staff increases. He is not afraid to delegate; he stands back and lets you get on with it, but he is always close at hand, seeking updates on how the job is going, asking if assistance is needed.

6. What ambitions of ours are most helpful? When do we get too distracted by shiny objects? Management teams need work together to determine when they are committing to projects without sufficient analysis of the potential impact. It looks like this: We go to a meeting to talk about a new idea, initiative or tool. We’re high achievers, so we attack that idea with 100% energy and attention. We don’t think in terms of tradeoffs of time and effort. We plunge in. And later, we may celebrate it or regret it. Innovation is critical to business success, so I’m not arguing against it at all. But be strategic rather than impulsive on the front end as you choose to pursue opportunities.

7. What can we kill without fear of capital punishment? There’s a reason I saved this one for last. If you, as a manager, want to persuade your leadership that it’s time to STOP doing something, you need to demonstrate that you’ve looked at every other alternative, especially your own performance. The powers-that-be can see that you aren’t whining or not up to the task of management. Rather, you’re a self-managing, high-performing partner. Together, you’ll assess whether a task or project produces sufficient return on the investment of your time and talent.

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There’s one more critical piece of advice I give to managers who want to delegate effectively and help those to whom they delegate succeed. I share it in this companion podcast.

Read more

Modern wireless technology and social media

8 Tips for Techno-Evangelists

Modern wireless technology and social mediaJournalism and technology don’t always go together very well.

I think there’s a natural conflict between the gathering of news and information and the various means of packaging and distributing it. This conflict is especially challenging for newsroom managers. On one hand, they want to focus on the journalism; on the other, they need to stay aware of technological changes and motivate their staffs to try new digital tools.

Newsroom leaders need to be evangelists for change — and that includes technological change. They need to better understand the role of technology adoption within their organizations as the means of gathering and sharing news shifts at an increasing rate.

The rate of technology adoption is critical to the success of news organizations, which is why we are embarking on new research about the topic, starting with a survey of journalists, educators, students and others. Follow this link to participate in the technology adoption survey.

While picking the right tools is important, it is essential for managers and staffs to look at technology adoption as part of a larger process. Here are my eight tips for being a better “techno-evangelist.”

  1. Understand that technology is an ecological issue. By itself, technology adds nothing to a newsroom. However, its introduction changes everything.
  2. A newsroom learns by example. If newsroom managers are not willing to invest time or energy in understanding technology, they should not expect the staff to care.
  3. The key issue in technology adoption isn’t hardware or even software or apps. It’s workflow. Understand how work moves (or how you want it to move) through the newsroom or organization, and you’ll understand what technological solutions you need.
  4. Techno-evangelism means finding a leader who will take risks, become a teacher, shoulder responsibility and be willing to go wandering in the “desert.”
  5. Looking at history can help you prepare for the future. Recognizing a paradigm shift is important; knowing when there isn’t one is more important. Going from hot type to cold type was evolutionary; going digital was revolutionary.
  6. No matter how much you try to be on the “cutting edge,” there always will be something newer and cheaper (or free) the day after the purchase order is signed. Accepting that as part of the “techno-lifecycle” reduces stress and allows you to make better decisions.
  7. No matter how well you plan, the project will take six months longer.
  8. Computers, programs and apps crash. No matter how fast any of it works, no matter how nifty it all looks, technology is just machines, software and technology.

I originally wrote those eight thoughts for a Society of News Design workshop in 1993. Only minor tweaking was needed for this article. Read more

covering an event with a video camera

What breaking news reveals about your newsroom culture

Here’s what a lifetime in journalism has taught me: Breaking news reveals the true character of a newsroom’s culture and quality.

Spot news success happens in cultures with specific systems, skills, values, mindsets – and leadership.

In the healthiest cultures, when news breaks, here’s what staffers can count on:

  • We have a plan. We don’t have to scramble to figure out how to respond each time a big story breaks. Everyone on our team has an understanding of the key roles that need to be filled – both in the field and at the mother ship. We automatically call in and report for duty. We adapt the basic plan by situation and story, and we’re never caught flat-footed.
  • It doesn’t matter if our boss is on vacation. Deputies and team members are capable of making tough decisions and deploying resources because our leader routinely shares information and power. (No one has to say, “What would the boss do?” We know what WE should do.) We know who’s in charge and we know we’re all responsible.
  • Our hardware and software won’t be our weak link. Our organization invests in the necessary gear and the preventive maintenance to keep it ready for heavy duty use at any time. We have backup provisions for power, technology and tools.
  • Our communication works. Okay, it never works perfectly, but we have phone trees, updated contact lists for email, social media and phone access, bridge lines for conference calls, protocols for briefings, and computer files for shared information and resources as the story continues. We minimize ignorance, confusion and duplication.
  • We’re cross-trained and talent-deep. We’re not in a hole because a key player or craftsperson isn’t available. Even our bench is brilliant — and can step in with confidence and competence. We can cover all the bases.
  • We have an investigative and analytical mindset. We assume that everyone will cover the “what.” We’ll get that — and automatically dig into the “why?,” “what the hell?,” “what’s the bigger picture?,” and “what next?” That’s not the exclusive role of people with “investigative” in their titles; it’s expected of all of us on the team.
  • We play on all possible platforms. We understand that people expect the news to come to them, wherever they are, however they prefer to consume it. We do our best to deliver — with quality.
  • The whole building knows the drill. When breaking news demands all hands on deck, people from other departments (from sales to sports to marketing to maintenance) take the default position: “How can I help?” We gratefully tap their talent and plug them into our plans.
  • We know what we stand for. We know that breaking news is fraught with land mines. We know how to navigate them. Because we talk about values in our everyday coverage, the stress of spot news won’t make us stupid.
  • We take care of each other. Our leaders focus on the needs of the next shift, the next day, the next week. They don’t let staffers run on empty, and don’t hesitate to encourage (even order, if need be) exhausted or traumatized teammates to stand down or accept help.
  • We never forget we’re covering human beings, not statistics; featuring their stories, not our selfies; chasing truth, not thrills. We’re documenting history.

And when the story becomes history, we think about how to do things better next time.




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Controlling business puppet concept

5 reasons managers are addicted to “fixing” – and how to recover

I admit it. I’m a recovering fixer. Show me a piece of copy and my fingers get itchy. I crave contact with a keyboard, with a gnawing urge to tweak someone’s writing a little — or maybe a lot.

Then I remind myself of the pledge I took years ago:

“Remember, Jill. Sit on your hands. Coach, don’t fix.”

I adopted that mantra so I’d have to learn how to help my newsroom staff improve their work without taking away their ownership, responsibility, and too often, their pride in performance. I’d have to learn to teach, not just do. Moreover, I’d need to teach in a way that would help people discover ideas and approaches for themselves, instead of just following instructions from the boss.

Now, in my leadership workshops, when I identify myself as a recovering fixer, I ask if there are any others like me in the room.

I’m never alone.

Many of the aspiring great bosses my workshops say they, too, are hooked on fixing. They’re also the ones who play catch-up on all their other daily duties as they hand-polish the work of others. But it’s become their way of life. Maybe it’s your reality, too.

Why are managers so addicted to fixing? I’ve identified top five reasons:

1. Vanity: Your company promoted you to management because you were really good at your craft – a top producer. Now, your supervisory duties are different from the front line work at which you excelled, and it’s hard to give up something you love. So, when a chance to demonstrate your old chops presents itself, you can’t resist.

2. Efficiency: To review a piece of work with the person who produced it takes time. For expediency sake, you just repair it. You hope the employee will learn from the changes you made, as if by osmosis. You’re wrong, of course. But you do it anyway.  Again and again.

3. Quality: You have high standards. The one person whose performance always meets the mark is – you. So, for quality assurance, you assign yourself the task, even though it adds to your list of duties and often lengthens your work days (and nights and weekends.)

4. Responsibility: You never want to let your organization down. You’re dedicated to making deadlines, achieving goals and beating the competition. When anything on your watch isn’t as good as you think it could be, you personally deliver the solution. (Even though others could, should and probably would do their part, if you used the right leadership skills to guide them.)

5. Incapacity: Fixing is the lone tool in your repair kit. You’re capable of critiquing a product by saying, “This doesn’t work for me,” but you can’t articulate the why and how of that assessment in detail. You don’t yet know the right words that describe a path to improvement. You’re talented, but you haven’t learned how to coach. So you keep relying on what you know – jumping into the fray – and you miss opportunities for both you and your staff to grow.

Your addiction to fixing causes problems.

By fixing, you let mediocre performers off the hook. They can keep churning out substandard work because you’ve led them to assume it’s YOUR job to elevate it, not theirs. You’ve created an assembly line where they produce a first draft and expect you’ll doctor it up.

Meanwhile, you’re frustrated, and wonder why they never seem to get better.

On the other end of the spectrum, the high performers on your team resent your interference. They are proud of their work and may feel you’re hijacking it, just to put your own mark on things. Even if you’re making minor modifications, you come across as the “corrections officer” rather than the coach who helps them discover options, try new things, see what they’ve overlooked and enjoy taking good work to an even higher level.

How do you become a coach instead of a fixer?  Here are some tips:

  • Become a student of quality work, including your own. Deconstruct it; take it apart to identify the decisions, the process, the steps that built it from the ground up.  None of us “just does it.”  We operate through a series of identifiable actions with certain assumptions and values attached. If it’s writing, for example, look at a resource like Poynter’s inexpensive e-book “Secrets of Prize-Winning Journalism” that puts the work of top performers under a microscope and asks them questions about how that quality came to life. Familiarize yourself with the answers.
  • Develop coaching language. Once you see distinct pieces, parts, techniques or barriers related to quality, name them. Build your own book of smart, descriptive terms. There’s a famous phrase around Poynter; “Get the name of the dog.” It’s shorthand coaching language for: Stories are made memorable by key details, as in “The firefighter stepped out of the still-smoking house, cradling a dog Buddy in his arms.” In my journey to become a coach, I built my own coaching lexicon. To help writers remember how passive voice can take the life out a sentence, I’d massacre a Bob Marley/Eric Clapton hit by singing, “The Sheriff Was Shot By Me.” They got the point. Have fun; craft a coaching language that works for your craft and for your team.
  • Remember the power of questions. The most important tool a coach has is a question. How can I help? What’s your goal here? Can you think of another way to do this that’s less complicated? What would happen if…?  Being good at asking questions helps people discover their own answers, which you can then applaud and they can then execute. When I made the commitment to be a writing coach instead of a fixer, I started each review of a story by asking the writer: “What do you love about this story?” It turned out to be a very effective opener.  Most writers would talk about a few things they really liked, but often blurted out what they were concerned about, making it an easier coaching opportunity. My “love” question also let them know I expected people to care about every story, every day. For the record, once you make questions your primary coaching tool, you can also give direct advice. But do that strategically and sparingly, so people don’t revert to being dependent on your wisdom instead of their own.
  • Enjoy a new level of satisfaction in your work. Where once it was all about “What I produced today,” it’s now about “My employees’ success.” Your fingerprints aren’t all over the good work. In fact, your input is almost invisible to an outside observer. But you and to your grateful team know the real story. The work, the workers and the workplace are all improved when a fixer becomes a coach.

Remember, great bosses don’t fix the product, they coach the people.

* * *

Coaching also works to help people make better everyday decisions, too. More on that in the companion podcast to this column:
Read more

Joe Maddon_AP

Great journalist or great manager: Who would you prefer for a boss?

I am going to begin this essay on leadership with an extended baseball analogy. I realize that this will make my argument sound “gendered,” and not in a good way, but I’ll take my chances.

There are a lot of good baseball managers out there, and one of them is Joe Maddon, skipper of our local team the Tampa Bay Rays. The Rays are struggling this year with injuries to their pitching staff, but under Maddon’s leadership they have become – with one of the lowest salary budgets – one of the consistently best teams in baseball.

There are lots of reasons for this success. One of them is Maddon. Players like to play for him. He has high standards for his players. He demands maximum effort. But he is patient, positive, supportive, and experimental. And he likes to have fun. In short, he creates the conditions in which his players can be productive and satisfied, proud and happy to be a Ray.

I hope he never leaves here for Boston or New York, but if he should, I have the perfect job for him: executive editor of The New York Times.

But he’s not a journalist, you must be thinking. That’s OK with me. At this moment in time – in the wake of the firing of Jill Abramson – what that paper needs is not a great journalist at the top, but a great manager. I’m coming more and more to the conclusion that you can’t have both, that, in fact, the qualities that make people great journalists (urgency, skepticism, doggedness) make them bad managers. If you think I’m being cynical, come visit me some time and I will open up for you a 30-year file of bad editor anecdotes for you.

Let’s go back to Joe Maddon for a moment. When I began to write this essay, I had no idea as to Maddon’s history as a professional baseball player. A quick Wikipedia search uncovered these revealing paragraphs:

He is a former minor league catcher, who never advanced higher than A ball (the lowest level of minor league baseball), which he played for four seasons. In his four seasons, he never had more than 180 at bats, and the most home runs he ever hit was three for Salinas in 1977.

He worked in the Angels organization for 31 years, including time as a minor league manager, scout, roving minor league hitting instructor, and coach for the major league team.

In short, Joe Maddon had one of the least distinguished playing careers of anyone who ever became a manager in the major leagues. Instead, as a catcher and then a coach, he became a student of the game and of its players. He brought to the task of leadership an emotional intelligence that allowed him to set a standard for excellence, but also to develop relationships with individual athletes to help them meet those standards in their own way.

The great baseball players who became great managers are exceedingly few in number.

My old friend John Harwood says that Jill Abramson is a “great journalist,” and I believe him. And so, I would argue, is another old friend, Howell Raines, who also led the Times. But whatever made Abramson and Raines great as practitioners of their profession, it was not the same stuff required to create a place where people feel that they can do their best work.

About an hour ago, I asked this question on Twitter: Who would you prefer as your boss, a great journalist or a great manager? If u can’t have both.

Not a single person who responded chose “great journalist.” The overwhelming preference was for a great manager, said most powerfully by Bill Schiller, a veteran of the Toronto Star: “I’d opt for a great manager, one who creates the circumstances in which you can do your very best work.”

Of course, there are fine journalists who are good managers. Having known him for many years, I have the feeling that Dean Baquet, the new executive editor at the Times, is one of them. If he succeeds, as I predict he will, it will not be primarily because of his journalism chops. It will because he has the capacity to support and motivate in the most positive ways a habitually cranky and unruly tribe.

We pose the question again for you and your workplace. If you had to choose, what would you look for most in a boss: great journalist or great manager? Read more

General Motors CEO Mary Barra testifies on Capitol Hill in Washington, Tuesday, April 1, 2014, before the House Energy and Commerce subcommittee on Oversight and Investigation. The committee is looking for answers from Barra about safety defects and mishandled recall of 2.6 million small cars with a faulty ignition switch that's been linked to 13 deaths and dozen of crashes. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci)

Leading Into the Wind: a talk on leadership in challenging times

Editor’s note: This article was adapted from a speech presented by Karen Dunlap, former president of The Poynter Institute, at The Centre for Women in Tampa, Fla., on March 27.

This is a 1975 photo of Katharine Graham, left, first woman elected to The Associated Press board of directors, during a board meeting in New York City. (AP Photo)

Mary Barra warmed a seat this week that represented the downside of executive chairs. As General Motors CEO, she was primary spokesperson and target in a Congressional hearing on General Motors’ delay in recalling cars with a flawed ignition system. The ignitions can shut off the engine on drivers in motion and disable air bags.

Barra, who was named chief executive in January after being at GM since age 18, has apologized for the defect that is linked to at least 12 deaths. She said GM will cooperate with government investigations.

Big questions remain about the extent of human loss and corporate misconduct, but in the midst, Barra practices a familiar form of leadership.

She spent her career rising through the ranks at GM and reached the top, as CEO, just in time for what might become one of the biggest smackdowns of a major U.S. company for deceiving customers.

This is what I call “Leading Into the Wind,” a management form familiar to many senior executives, especially those in the news business. Many journalists launched careers driven by the desire to make a difference. They rose in an established, profitable business and reached leadership as almost everything changed.

Let’s define “Leading into the Wind” as taking on the normal challenges of leadership: promote the mission, set the vision, align staff to follow a strategy and achieve goals, help move the right people to the right place, keep the lights and water on and make sure people get paid on time, remind of policies, practices and ethical standards, serve as ambassador and chief cheerleader, provide honest communications AND stand for excellent products and services.

It is doing all that while guiding through gales, often unexpected ones, that rock routines and demand new directions.

Mary Barra fits the category although it isn’t clear what she knew about GM ignition problems.

She also fits another category, one for women selected for leadership just ahead of a crisis. It’s called the Glass Cliff. Some women leaders find themselves promoted through the Glass Ceiling to the Glass Cliff. Slate, described the cliff under the headline, “Condolences, You’re Hired!”

So what do you do when you find yourself Leading Into the Wind? Here are some points I learned as president of Poynter for a decade and what I’ve learned from others. I invite you to join in a conversation by adding any lessons you’ve learned.

Face Forward into the Wind

You are tempted to look back to what seemed like better times, but that’s no way to lead when the winds of change rage. Leadership calls for a commitment to an unknown future drawing on the best of the past, smart colleagues and current findings for wisdom to go forward. I found the need to challenge myself on measured steps forward verses foot-dragging. Leadership means advancing even in harsh and uncertain times.

Move with the Wind

My generation of recent or near retirees isn’t the only one experienced in leading through difficult times. News executives today try to stay ahead of shifts to digital to mobile to wearable devices. Tech company leaders face rapid changes and ever-changing competitors.

Individuals also move with the wind. Jill Geisler, head of Poynter’s Leadership programs and author of “Work Happy: What Great Bosses Know,” said change involves learning and letting go. You see those changes in many lives.

Sheila Johnson’s early education pointed to classical music but she became co-founder of Black Entertainment Television (BET), and learned business skills that she used to become an owner of several professional sports teams, founder and owner of Salamander Resorts and a producer of the movie, “The Butler.”

Soledad O’Brien moved from anchoring to starting the production company, Starfish Media Group, to provide content for various media platforms. Jane Pauley captures the spirit of learning and letting go in her new book, “Your Life Calling: Reimagining the Rest of Your Life.”

Stay Faithful to Your Mission

Ida B. Wells is a model of faithfulness to the mission. She was born in Holly Springs, Miss., in 1862, into the post-slavery era of hope, then repression.

She attended college, became a teacher and raised her younger sibling after her parents died. In her 20s, she was ordered out of the forward section of a segregated train and she refused. She sued the company and won, at least in lower courts.

Wells became editor of Memphis Free Speech and when three of her friends were lynched she urged blacks to leave Memphis. The city daily responded by calling on citizens to retaliate against her. She fled to New York then Chicago and became one of the era’s leading orators against lynching. The title of her memoir captures her mission. It is “Crusader for Justice.”

Clarity of mission inspires us, grounds us as leaders, provides a shared basis to call on others to move forward into the wind.

Step Forward/Take a Stand

One of my favorite pictures is a 1975 image of Katharine Graham heading a table of The Associated Press Board. She was the first woman elected to the board. In the photo, she looks unfazed and comfortable in a room of powerful men.

Graham could have been best known for her dinner parties. Her father, Eugene Meyer, bought a failing newspaper called the Washington Post, built it and passed it to Graham’s husband, Phil. Kay Graham knew the purpose and mission of the Post and stepped up when Phil died suddenly even when she wasn’t expected to lead. She took tough stands and guided the Post to some of journalism’s finest moments, including breaking the Watergate story.

I had to step up to say I wanted to be president of Poynter after serving a decade in the number two position of dean. Leading meant taking stands, large and small, sometimes publicly, often in quiet conversations. Leaders have to do their best thinking and take a stand.

Draw on the Winds at Your Back

Facing tough times makes it easy to forget the winds at our back. Andrew Barnes was one of the winds at my back. He was chief executive of Times Publishing Co. and of the (then) St. Petersburg Times. As chairman of the Poynter Board, he led in my selection as president and was always a voice of wisdom. Faith, family, friends and fitness also provide my lifts.

Barra’s task won’t get easier when she completes the hearing. Heavy winds await. I’ve given my steps for Leading into the Wind. How about sharing your advice? Read more

Robin Tomlin_Poynter

Inside the Thunderdome newsroom: heartbreak and hustle

From leadership literature to commencement speeches, the message is: Don’t fear failure. It’s a gift that makes us stronger and wiser.

But that’s a heck of a lot easier to say — and believe — when you’re looking at failure in the rear view mirror, not while you’re in the midst of it.

As the people of Project Thunderdome will attest, failure is terribly painful.

Robyn Tomlin

Robyn Tomlin, Thunderdome’s editor who has taught at Poynter, calls its demise “heartbreaking.” She made her latest hire only a month ago. Things unfolded quickly after that, she said. A week ago she and editor-in-chief Jim Brady alerted staff to expect bad news.

But they did more. And that’s a leadership lesson in itself — about hustle amid heartbreak.

In past week, the Project Thunderdome offices in New York became a job placement center. According to Tomlin, she and Brady have been on the phones, working their wide network of contacts to let other organizations know about the soon-to-be-available talent on their team.

Staffers on that 55-person team have been conducting sessions for each other on resume writing, salary negotiations, and even doing mock interviews. They’ve encouraged each other to polish up their profiles and portfolios on’s “About Us” page, to make it easier for prospective employers to vet them.

Many of the staff have experienced layoffs before. Some are veterans of the TBD digital initiative Brady led, which shut down in 2011. And though many TBD alums did well after its demise, the transition from joblessness to gainful employment can take a toll on both pocketbook and psyche.

It’s especially rough when the displacement destroys a work group which shared a genuine sense of mission and, according to Tomlin, were carefully hired for their team orientation. That’s underscored in a note Davis Shaver, Thunderdome’s technology strategist, sent to his co-workers today, which read, in part:

Thunderdome is the aggregate of the relationships we’ve made, maintained, and inspired. Thunderdome was an idea, a rallying cry – John and Jim and Robyn trying to tell DFM that we will not go quietly into the night. We weren’t always successful with our efforts, but the fact that we tried, that we were in the business of innovation, that striving inspired DFM journalists, and truly the industry at large. Hence the reaction we’re seeing today.

Thunderdome is the aggregate of the relationships we’ve made, maintained, and inspired. It is our inter-newsroom bonds, and our intra-newsroom communities. It’s Buttry in the field, our educator-in-chief. It’s Tom visiting newsrooms, spreading the gospel of data. It’s Gary, tackling the amorphous hydra that is sports journalism and making connections across myriad markets. It’s Courtney working with Jessica to make those delightful GIFs, Fuentes working with Jason and Daniel to build an awesome content explorer tool. Laura leading her team to think about user centered design, Julie building a kickass breaking news dynamo with the help of people like Karen (who showed us how to write webby headlines) and Kim (who moonlights as the tweet queen behind a prolific journalism chat). These connections… These relationships… That’s Thunderdome to me.

While talking up her “amazing group of people,” Tomlin tells me she hasn’t decided what she will do next in her own career. She’s not sure whether she’ll keep leading in legacy media or try the world of pure plays. Because Thunderdome’s shutdown will happen on a rolling basis, she hopes to guide each person and piece of it to a soft landing.

And, yes, it hurts. In her words, she’s “in mourning.”

Tomlin told me, “We still feel like we’re fighting for the future of journalism. We just won’t be doing it together.” Read more

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And you thought the AP ruckus was just about style

Read Poynter’s Storify of reactions to the AP Stylebook “over”/”more than” revision, and you get a quick class in change management, especially about the emotional impact of change.

I’ve always taught leaders that change involves two key challenges: learning and letting go.

This time, for legions of teachers, editors, and grammar fans, it’s about unlearning. It’s about changing a standard of quality. And that is truly painful. It’s like telling people that effective immediately, the sound of fingernails on a chalkboard is as melodious as a harp.

For word nerds (a term I use with great affection), it’s also about letting go of a part of their expert identity. Those who’ve made a commitment to studying language, memorizing its rules, and protecting its integrity have been correcting and coaching others for years — either as vocation or avocation. They’ve righteously talked or tussled with writers about “more than” and “over” — citing the AP Stylebook as the argument settler. Now the argument is over. Wrong is now right. On this one, everyone’s now the expert.

Expertise is a powerful commodity. In fact, research says that competence and mastery are potent intrinsic motivators. (Watch Daniel Pink’s video — it’s had nearly 12 million views.)

Human beings love to do what they do well. When you tell people their mastery doesn’t matter  — even if it’s just letting go of a lone, longstanding grammar point — you see the reaction. Twitter erupts in lamentations from the experts. There’s also laughter from those who’ve been on the receiving end of “over”/”more than” copy edits, as they’ve miraculously become more competent. What a lesson in the emotions that accompany change.

It doesn’t help that this change simply happened. When change is imposed, resistance rises. When people feel they are part of the process, they adapt more quickly.  Even if they don’t get a vote,  people at least want a voice — a chance for input and insight.

When they don’t get that voice before change occurs, they can get plenty loud afterward. The torrent of comments on Twitter and elsewhere proves that point. It’s creative, clever, rebellious, passionate — and I love it. It’s what wordsmiths do best when challenged by change; they craft their own narratives around it.

I also love the idea that individuals and organizations are talking about what they’ll do next. Will they adapt the AP style? Reject it? Why?  With what process? With whose input?

Imagine that: Another exercise in managing change. Learning. Letting go. Look what the AP started. Read more