Swati Sharma landed her dream job as deputy editor of Atlantic.com. Megan Greenwell is now editor-in-chief of Deadspin. Dhiya Kuriakose designed her own job — twice — and is now senior director of development strategy and syndication at Condé Nast Entertainment.
All three women participated in Poynter’s Leadership Academy for Women in Digital Media, and they credit much of their success to the lessons they learned from their cohort. Here are their tips for jumping ahead, giving back and making magic along the way.
Figure out what drives you (and don’t keep it a secret)
“Think about what your story is and learn to say it in a few sentences,” said Sharma. “I figured out the thing that guides me is a sense of morality. A lot of our evils in society are due to ignorance. I believe the way that you combat that ignorance is through journalism. That is why I’m a journalist. I want to find new audiences. I want to reach people where they aren’t being reached, and I want to tell stories that aren’t being told. That’s my story. To be able to tell you that very clearly, I couldn’t do that before. When you lack that kind of clarity, how do you figure out what you’re doing in life?”
For Greenwell, she learned she wanted to be the one setting the vision for an organization. “I wanted to be very careful to think of my next job in terms of the skills I used, as opposed to the title. But I knew I was looking for upper management,” said Greenwell. “I was very clear about that and told everyone. It was scary. But people started sending me aspirational opportunities.”
You can do mini exercises to help you find clarity in your career. List the three most satisfying and joyful parts of each job you’ve had. Next, list your favorite skills to use. Greenwell recommends working with a partner to look at the data points and identify patterns.
Switch to a “this-woman-is-amazing” worldview
“There’s something about hearing how great you are from your peers that makes a difference,” said Kuriakose. “I went home literally glowing after my program. I started looking at everything I was doing with a ‘this-woman-is-amazing’ worldview. It opened up the possibility to me that there were bigger things out there and gave me the confidence to recognize I already had what it took to make the possibilities a reality. I didn’t have to work somewhere 10 years before I could have my dream job. I could have it now.”
We can’t all walk into a room full of women and have them sprinkle confidence dust on us. But you can practice shifting your perspective. Find a personal board of directors made up of people who tell you the truth — and consult them about your growth areas when assessing your career. Savor positive feedback. Don’t brush it off to focus on the negative. And, as Sharma emphasizes, face your fears and fake it until you make it.
“We all struggle with imposter syndrome, with not having self-confidence,” said Sharma. “If you convince yourself that you can step up, you do step up.”
Discover the power of saying no
After gaining confidence and clarity about their values, skills and goals, Greenwell, Kuriakose and Sharma practiced saying no. In the years since participating in Poynter’s leadership academy, they each declined good job offers, opting to wait for dream-job opportunities.
“You don’t have to say yes to everything,” said Sharma. “There was a point where I thought you should just keep progressing and keep moving. But I said no to a job offer that didn’t feel right. And then the opportunity to be the deputy director at the Atlantic came up, and that was exactly the right opportunity for me. I never thought this would be a job I could get. Especially as a young, brown woman, I didn’t think I’d be able to have this job or have it now. But Poynter helps you feel like you can take control of a big media organization.”
“If I didn’t have this program, I would have taken the first job I got. But I didn’t,” Kuriakose echoed. “I said ‘nope, that job is not going to be the thing that drives me.’ I waited, and it got me a job that was significantly bigger and shinier and ended up being the perfect fit for me.”
Even when Greenwell had been laid off and unemployed for six months, she held out for something that matched her goals of working in upper management. “I said no to a bunch of different opportunities because I had learned to think more strategically, to not take jobs out of panic,” said Greenwell. “I took time to find the right thing for me. I call it my period of discernment.”
Once you know your worth, you’ll realize you’re worth waiting for the right opportunity. Need help with this disciplined pursuit? This book will help.
Ditch the notion you’re going to have a linear career path
“My presentation was called ‘Carving Your Own Career Path,’” said Sharma. “Spoiler alert: there is no set career path for journalists.”
Kuriakose agrees: “The goal post can keep moving, and it should. We work in an industry where the job I have now didn’t exist when I was 12. The job I’ll have when I’m 45 doesn’t exist yet. That’s exciting.”
Greenwell also depicted this idea in her presentation, documenting the reasons she moved from job to job. The takeaway? Getting to editor-in-chief is not as much a straight path as much as it is a series of curlicues.
Recognize you are not alone
Reliably, one of the most powerful revelations at Poynter’s teaching academies is the realization that you are not alone. Other people experience the same struggles, even if they’re in completely different locations, jobs, or organizations. “It’s fulfilling,” said Sharma. “You realize you don’t have to be so hard on yourself.”
“The thing that made this program transformative to me wasn’t the people who spoke, even though they were amazing, but it was the women sitting with me being vulnerable, honest and open,” said Kuriakose. “Those are the friendships and network that I’ve taken forward. I thought, that’s what has to happen in my presentation. I have to create more space for those conversations, laughter and questions.”
Vulnerability is the key here. You have to let yourself be seen to actually feel seen. This can seem impossible in the fast-paced, hard-nosed media industry. But you can seek spaces where it feels safe — and powerful — to let your guard down. Sign up for one-on-one coaching online with other Poynter and ONA women’s leadership academy alumnae (both Greenwell and Kuriakose are coaches here).
Give back and help change a generation
Each of the participants-turned-instructors felt a need to pay their experience forward, whether that’s returning to Poynter to teach, hiring a more diverse staff, offering to coach peers, mentoring aspiring journalists or sharing information with their network.
“I never concern myself with getting things back,” said Sharma. “But giving back, you realize how much you can support each other. It’s as easy as talking to people. Sharing salaries. Sharing great people to hire and people to avoid.”
“In 2016, all anyone wanted to talk about was Facebook video. #Metoo was not a conversation. Salary negotiation was barely a conversation,” said Kuriakose. “It’s only been two years since I’ve been at Poynter, but the industry is completely different. Programs like this are a part of it. And part of it is that there are more and more women in leadership. Slowly, it’s starting to change.”
“I feel like especially with the #metoo movement, more and more women are realizing they have to have each other’s back,” said Sharma. “That’s the exciting part of this program, watching that happen in real time.”
Poynter’s 2018 Leadership Academy for Women in Digital Media is sponsored by Craig Newmark Philanthropies, McClatchy Foundation and Participant Media.