What to do when you don’t know what to do

Featured in Poynter's Cohort newsletter

Editor’s Note:
This column was first published in the newest iteration of Poynter’s Cohort newsletter on March 5. The Cohort has grown and changed over the years, but our core mission remains the same: to facilitate an honest, helpful conversation about personal and professional growth between women in digital media. Our priority is to elevate diverse voices by featuring different columnists in each issue. Join the conversation by subscribing here.

We start with Adrienne Green, the managing editor of The Atlantic magazine. She is a graduate of Poynter’s Leadership Academy for Women in Digital Media, and she returned to Poynter last week to teach the first of three academies in 2019 (we announced the second class today).


 

In late 2017, I began a new job as the managing editor of The Atlantic magazine. It was a big, complicated, exhilarating job: I was the youngest person on my team, at the time the only person of color, and was making the unlikely transition from a gig on the web to a 160-year-old print publication.

Soon after, I was accepted into Poynter’s Leadership Academy for Women in Digital Media. The timing was perfect. I got to spend a week connecting with brilliant women in journalism and had time to think about the mistakes I’d already made in my first few months on the job. Throughout the academy, I reflected on what kind of manager I wanted to be, and what kind of manager my team needed me to be.

I left St. Petersburg with a sense of enthusiasm about my career — ready to project all of the confidence injected into me by these women, armed with a well-scoped set of goals. I was going to diversify our culture! Write the stories I want to read! Bring in new writers!

But I was met with the toughest and most frustrating year I’d experienced so far. Needless to say, I didn’t fully reach those goals.

When Katie Hawkins-Gaar asked if I wanted to come back as a guest faculty member at this year’s academy, my first thought was: What could I possibly have to share with this group of amazing women? (Imposter syndrome-y, I know, but it happened.) My confidence was blown, and I wasn’t sure how I could get up there without a “testimony”— no big raise or seismic culture shift that I could point to as my own.

Skeptically, I assessed my job and asked myself: What do I actually do? Broadly, I create structure, manage breakdowns and figure out answers when none exist. I remembered all of the conversations I’d had over the years with bosses, mentors, and friends about never feeling like I fully knew what to do. I’d tried to project confidence even when I didn’t feel it, to be a disarming force in a time of big change for our newsroom and the industry, and figure out where my personal goals slotted in along the way.

As a young black woman in her first leadership role, I often felt like that was an impossible task. I spent months doing the opposite of “leaning in.” I avoided some difficult conversations and second-guessed the bolder suggestions that I wanted to make, all the while feeling relatively unseen.

At some point, my mentor (who also happens to be my boss) admitted plainly that it was OK to not know. That sometimes being humble, showing some vulnerability, deferring when necessary and admitting that I don’t know could actually be my greatest strength, and the key to building trust with a new team.

That concept brought everything full circle. I nervously agreed to do the Poynter workshop and titled it: What to Do When You Don’t Know What to Do. I thought it was better to put insecurity on the main stage, instead of perpetuating the unflappable, always elegant, ever-confident, Superwoman image that women are asked to project.

 

Industry-wide, there are so many things that are changing the standards and conditions for what it means to do our jobs in the newsroom well. We’re constantly leading in a time of professional uncertainty — covering a president who is hostile toward journalists, noting layoffs around the country, reporting on #MeToo while managing its impacts on our colleagues, the “pivot” to whatever’s new and shiny… Sometimes it feels like not knowing what’s next is more of the constant than the surprise.

I wanted to talk about what it takes to keep up with that. How do you maintain openness with your colleagues, and remain flexible enough to adjust your priorities, to clear the table and begin again, or forge ahead under wildly new conditions?

Here are a couple of strategies that worked for me:

Knowing everything is an impossible bar to clear

Long ago, I asked one of The Atlantic’s most storied writers, Jim Fallows, for some advice about what he wished he’d known early in his career. He said, “Get comfortable with (and not abashed, self-conscious, or embarrassed about) a lifetime of self-education in fields you don’t start out being expert in. Any one person can know only a few parts of the world or topics with any detail. But the point of being a reporter is non-stop, open-ended, sequential self-education in new fields… (Don’t worry too much) about what the ‘business model’ will be. No one knows, and journalism has never been designed for people looking for predictable work.”

Over the years I’ve learned that instead of trying to be certain about everything, it’s fruitful to just ask the Big Dumb Question. At The Atlantic, that has resulted in popular stories such as Is Democracy Dying?, Is Google Making Us Stupid? and Why Are We So Angry? It took a minute for me to realize that sometimes our biggest wins are simply reflections of our greatest curiosities. And if you believe that, being open about what you don’t know IS the job, in fact. And the next step is always talking to the people who might know more.

Gather your personal board of directors

Just like companies gather folks with different backgrounds to help them make decisions about their future, so too should you. These are the folks you call when you want to bounce around your lofty project ideas, or discuss new job offers, or need advice negotiating. Your board of directors should be made up of a mix of people with different professional experiences, amounts of industry capital and levels of closeness to you as a person (not just as an employee).

For me, that’s worked out in three ways:

1) Mentor(s) inside of my newsroom who can advise me on how to navigate our specific culture.

(Courtesy Adrienne Green)

This is Matt Thompson, now the editor-in-chief at the Center for Investigative Reporting. He was my first boss at The Atlantic, and someone I’ve consulted about all the big management challenges along the way.

 

2) Industry peers who can be gut checks for life outside of your organization.

(Courtesy Adrienne Green)

These are three of the women in my cohort of Poynter’s women’s leadership academy. From left, Jessica Morrison, Everdeen Mason and Kristyn Wellesley (I’m in the back).

 

3) People who know the REAL you, who will remind you of who you are when you feel lost.

(Courtesy Adrienne Green)

These are my best friends from college (Kent Harris, Markita Briggs, me and Jade Shephard), who forever guide me back to myself and let me know when I’m making decisions that don’t sound like me. They are basically Angela Bassett in Black Panther screaming, “Show him who you are!”

Absorb the change

It’s cliché but true that the only constant thing about change is change itself. Managing difficult changes can make us feel out of control. But sometimes if you’re not sure what to do, and the path seems unclear, that’s an invitation to build the path. Instead of longing for the golden time before change happened to us, we can make it an expected part of the process. Hopefully, eventually, everyone else we work with will come to expect it, too.

A big part of overcoming the feelings of frustration and disorientation is remembering that sometimes we can actually be our own best thing (thank you, Toni Morrison).

 


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