The news hits you like a thunderbolt. There’s a corporate reorganization. An offer is on the table or, even more definitively, your company is being sold. Countless thoughts race through your head, not the least of which is, “what does this mean to me?”
But you have even more to be concerned about. Whether you are a top newsroom leader or a mid-level manager, your team is looking to you for information, for guidance and for the answer to that critical, personal question — not so much for you, but for themselves.
Leading through major events, such as a big corporate departure or the sale of your company, takes time. And, if they’re not managed carefully, they can sap energy and ambition.
I’ve had my share of experience with transition. Over the years, I’ve led teams at individual newsrooms through three sales processes. I was also chief content officer of Journal Media Group and led our team of more than 700 journalists through our 2014 spinoff from The E.W. Scripps Company and our 2015 sale to Gannett.
It is important to note that transition can take many forms, and the sale of an enterprise is perhaps the most dramatic of them:
- A new approach to newsgathering requires changes in processes, systems and workflows.
- New platforms require a rethinking of how stories are reported and distributed to current and emerging audiences.
- Leadership changes at the company or corporate level mean not only a new boss, but potentially a new set of priorities.
- The sudden departure of a key newsroom player puts an important initiative in jeopardy.
- A career change means moving to a new job in a new city.
In his book, “Managing Transitions: Making the Most of Change,” organizational change consultant William Bridges describes transition as a psychological process that people go through by internalizing and coming to terms with the new situation that change brings about.
Bridges’ work in helping leaders navigate change prompted him to develop a three-step model for the transition process. While change is a constant, he writes, “the transition process by which people get through change is well-mapped.”
He describes that process in three phases:
- Ending, losing and letting go.
- The Neutral Zone.
- The new beginning.
Transition begins with an ending. It’s a time of loss, particularly of the old ways and the old identity. Depending on the nature of the transition, it can be quite painful.
After the newsroom I led in Tallahassee, Florida was sold to a new owner in 2005, I remember breaking down and crying one morning as I dealt with the reality that I would have to leave a staff and a community I had grown to love if I was to continue running a local newsroom.
Letting go is necessary to move forward. Perhaps the best way to deal with the first phase is to recognize that sense of loss and encourage people to express it. There’s a reason we have rituals around the death of a loved one, and the transition process is not unlike moving through the Seven Stages of Grief.
Leaders can best demonstrate emotional and psychological support by demonstrating empathy and being available; one of the biggest mistakes I made in 2005 was retreating to my office, in some respects counting the days until I had to clean out my desk. In doing so, I let my team down and failed do my best to help them begin their own transition.
Transition continues in a murky period that Bridges calls The Neutral Zone. Far from a construct out of “Star Trek,” it’s a period with enormous positive potential. It’s a time where the old isn’t firmly in the rear view mirror but the new isn’t completely in place.
Perhaps the most important aspect of leading through The Neutral Zone is being proactive in your communication, providing support, attention and feedback. This is also the best time to introduce learning and development initiatives aimed at helping people move from what they are letting go of to what they need to embrace. It’s a tricky balancing act, particularly when you are leading through a situation when your own role isn’t quite clear.
My former team has been there. Last fall, just after Gannett announced its bid for Journal Media Group, the company’s editors gathered for their annual meeting at the conference of the American Society of News Editors. In a session facilitated by our friends Michele McLellan and Vikki Porter of the Knight Digital Media Center, our editors developed this list of insights to guide newsroom leaders charged with leading teams through uncharted territory:
Personal and professional development (for staff and leaders)
- Focus on growing your individual brand or value.
- Use this as an opportunity to blaze a trail and make a mark for yourself.
- Do soul-searching about what you want to be professionally and about what changes you are willing and able to make.
- Continue to progress and move forward. Do not fall into paralysis.
- Be in the now and help staff be in the now.
- Be genuine, trustworthy and honest. Continue to have open conversations. Share what you know and can share. Include staff in discussions about the transition.
- Acknowledge the fears and concerns people have.
- Have a lot of individual conversations as well as group discussions.
- Focus on quality journalism.
- Consider the readers' perspective and how they are perceiving the change.
- Develop allies in the rest of your organization.
- Keep celebrating innovation.
- Remember that local leadership makes a difference. The quality of our work is dependent on us, not corporate.
- Help staff grow skills to help with their future.
- Don’t wait for permission. Examine coverage areas and parts of your organization that need to changed and change them.
- Do reporting projects and coverage initiatives that help community, build skills and keep people engaged.
The new beginning is just that — and for the JMG team, started with the close of the Gannett deal in early April 2016. Though many questions about the combined operation remain, we’ve learned that treating change as an event and transition as a process helps leaders act boldly to usher their teams through uncertain times. I couldn’t be more proud of how our newsroom leaders led their teams through the process.
Mizell Stewart III is a news executive at Gannett and former Managing Director and Chief Content Officer of Journal Media Group. He joined Poynter as an adjunct faculty member this year.