Believe it or not, Trump’s chaotic White House has one important lesson for journalists

August 2, 2017
Category: Business & Work

Searching for positive leadership lessons in the Trump White House has been a challenge for me. It’s not about politics. I just disapprove of publicly embarrassing (and threatening) your staff, using lewd language and self-aggrandizement.

For starters.

But then I started thinking about the president’s use of social media. Maybe that, I thought, could actually point to a positive leadership habit, something I call “mixing it up.”

“Mixing it up” amounts to changing the rhythm of your day, choosing to engage in an activity that counters the effects of doing too much of the same thing.

Too many meetings to attend.

Too many stories to update.

Too many reports to produce or approve.

You know what happens. All of those meetings increase the pressure you feel to make decisions. All of those edits start to numb your creativity. All of those spreadsheets start to look the same.

You need to mix it up. There are lots of ways to do it — and lots of other parts of your life where you’ve experienced it.

Go to a rock concert and hear the band take the decibel level down with an acoustic guitar and a “slow” song — all in order to vary the rhythm and avoid metal monotony.

Read a good piece of writing and wait for the author to break a series of long sentences or paragraphs with a short, crisp interruption.

She’s mixing it up.

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How do you “mix up” your day? Before I share some ideas for how to do it, let’s agree on a couple of ground rules:

  • Your “mix-it-up” activity must contribute to the work of the organization. Taking off two hours to stream a movie in the quiet of your office might help you relax, and there might come a day when you need to do that. But the goal of “mixing it up” is not simply to de-pressurize your day; it’s to engage in an activity that, because of its departure from your other duties, helps you expand your productivity.
  • Your “mix-it-up” activity cannot do damage to the organization’s efforts. This is one of the problems with the president’s tweeting, right? He might find it satisfying, but it’s affecting the ability of others on his staff to do their jobs. If your “mix-it-up” activity makes you inaccessible during a time of day when your contributions are essential, you might reconsider that activity — or at least its timing.
  • Everyone on your staff needs to “mix it up.” Once you appreciate the value in engaging in activities with different rhythms, it’s important to share that wisdom with those who work for you. No matter what their job, the work they do every day can beat them down over time — unless they find ways to mix it up. And you, as their supervisor, can encourage them to do that.

So now, let’s suggest 10 rhythm-breakers:

  • Edit something. If you no longer work on the front lines, taking on a manuscript or a video or an audio report can accomplish a number of things. First, it keeps you connected to the content and the staff that produces it. Second, it helps you reinforce your standards. Finally, it demonstrates that in your newsroom, no one is above any level of work. (A caution: While editing something occasionally has value, creating a schedule that depends on you to do it, whether for an hour or a whole shift, is dangerous. If editing is not your job, make sure you don’t turn it into your job. If you do, no one will be doing what you’re being paid to do.)
  • Write something. Some managers break the rhythm of their schedule by writing a column — sometimes weekly, sometimes occasionally. They say it helps connect them with their audience, especially if they follow up its publication by engaging readers or viewers in person or on social. (Another caution: Don’t lose sight of how much work goes into a good column. A good monthly column beats a mediocre weekly one every time.)
  • Get social. Speaking of engaging the audience, many managers are mixing up their routine by connecting with their audience on Twitter, Facebook or other social platforms. Some talk about stories their newsroom has produced. Some engage over an issue in the community. The best partakers in this rhythm-breaker are supporting their newsroom’s social strategy and bringing their first-hand experience with social to their newsroom’s conversations about how to increase engagement. (And they’re not making it harder for the staff to do its job.)
  • Read something. For a politics editor, setting aside 30 minutes to several smart articles about a current political issue is not a waste of time — and it should not have to wait until you get home. If your day is spent conversing with reporters and editing their work, the chance to spend a half-hour learning someone else’s point of view will not only break your day’s rhythm (a good thing in itself!) but it also can enrich your ability to collaborate with your staff. Read something every day and you can get much smarter in a hurry.
  • Visit another newsroom department. If your job calls for you to interact with one group of people all day, go find another group of people. If you’re on a local news desk, go hang for 20 minutes in sports or features. If you’re a reporter in local news, use your visit to sports to dream up a story you can do with someone there. The best journalists aggressively seek out different points of view — they make it more likely you’ll address the widest possible audience.
  • Visit another department in your company. Get a cup of coffee and wander into accounting or sales or IT. Introduce yourself to someone you don’t know and ask what they’re working on. Share what you’re working on. Listen for connections. Chance are, the two of you are working in support of each other’s work — and if you’re not, you might help each other discover how you could.
  • Visit another world. Take a break from your routine and schedule an hour for lunch once a week (or at least once a month) and go with a colleague to a part of your city or region that you’ve never (or rarely) visited. And just talk with people. Learn what they care about, what they’re proud of, what they’re angry about. You’ll probably come back with a story, and no way you — and your newsroom — won’t come back richer for the experience.
  • Sit in on a meeting. Despite their reputations, a lot of interesting conversations take place at meetings—especially when you don’t go to them all the time. If you’re a line editor, ask to sit in on the meeting of a task force working on the web site’s redesign. Or a new digital subscription model. Or election coverage. The point is to do something you don’t routinely do, and get smarter along the way. (You might even contribute to the meeting a good idea.)
  • Take a walking meeting. If you’re scheduled to meet with someone this afternoon, tell them to bring a coat and meet you outside the building. Meeting while you walk can completely change the dynamic of your conversation (and offer a bit of exercise, too.) You’ll be surprised at how far and how fast you walk — especially when the conversation is productive.
  • Call an old colleague. Or mentor. Or mentee. Someone with whom you can talk freely outside your current world. You can use the conversation to seek advice, vent, test an idea. Even in a time when social and email make it much easier to stay in touch, we lose track of important relationships and people who make us better. In the midst of a day filled with meetings, calling a familiar voice can have tremendous value.

That’s 10 ideas. There are literally hundreds more. The important thing is to break up your set list with a different, but productive, rhythm. Don’t let your routines sap your creativity.

Just #MixingItUp, Mr. President.

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