How to own a big job at a young age

From The Cohort, Poynter's newsletter for women kicking ass in digital media

Colleen Murphy is a senior editor at Bloomberg Tax. She is also a graduate of Poynter’s Essential Skills for Rising Newsroom Leaders seminar (Poynter is accepting applications for the fall session now).

I’m 25, and I’ve always felt older than my age. In high school and college, I felt out of step with my peers. Since graduating from college, I’ve settled into a social group, but still bristle when friends or acquaintances make well-meaning remarks about my age.

“You’re so young.”

“I forget that you’re only 25.”

“You’re like, basically a baby.”

I also turn bright red very easily when I’m embarrassed, which doesn’t help.

The consequences of being born in 1994 carry over into the office, where for the first time in my life I sometimes feel like I might actually be too young. I’m one of the youngest editors in my newsroom — not formally a manager, even though I assign stories and direct reporters every day. That is a challenging dynamic on its own, and it is made more complicated because I lack the authority that can come from age, prior experience at prominent national publications or a weighty title.

Still, being a young leader comes with its share of opportunities. Sometimes it requires an internal pep talk, but here’s how I’m turning this insecurity into a source of strength.


This article originally appeared in an issue of The Cohort, Poynter’s newsletter for women kicking ass in digital media. Join the conversation here.


Remember that you belong

Making certain decisions — like waiting to publish a story to get more reporting or setting an aggressive deadline — still makes me nervous sometimes. That uncertainty can deepen if I’m ever met with resentment from reporters. Who am I to tell them what to do, when they’re the same age, or older, than I am? Do I really have the authority to make this call, without consulting with my boss? What if my decision is wrong?

I try to remind myself that I’m doing what I’m supposed to be doing — I was promoted for a reason. Top editors trust my instincts. I can make big decisions, even if reporters don’t always approach me as a decision-maker. I have good judgment, even if I’m making a hard call on an issue I haven’t dealt with much before.

Keeping track of my personal successes helps me keep this uncertainty from building up. I keep a document on my desktop listing stories I assigned that performed well with readers, breaking news I directed, extra projects I tackled. I use that list to add concrete details when I’m completing my annual review. Having this list of wins to refer back to in moments of stress is really reassuring.

My boss also encourages us to flag accomplishments for him. It felt a little bit awkward at first, but now I do this regularly.

Advocating for myself has been helpful when I’ve sought raises or more responsibility. I recently got a raise, so I know it pays off.

Alisha Ramos, founder of the wildly successful newsletter and lifestyle brand Girls’ Night In, has written about how she feels uncertain about her age sometimes, too. She said in a recent issue of her newsletter that she has to work harder to prove herself worthy of her big role, which she has at a relatively young age (29). Because she’s “five feet tall with dimpled, chubby cheeks,” people — mostly men — don’t always take her seriously.

“As I approach 30, I’m trying to take up more space, feel more comfortable as a leader, and do it in my own way, regardless of the constructs and boundaries we as a society tie to age,” she wrote.

It’s comforting to know I’m not alone, especially since my role is unique in my newsroom. Like Alisha, I remind myself that I’m allowed to be a leader. (And remember, the best way to fight imposter syndrome is to carry yourself with the confidence of a mediocre white man.)

 

Work as a coach

I may be the same age as some of the reporters I work with, but that can be an asset. I’m more relatable, which allows me to lean more into the coaching part of management.

Reporters often come vent to me instead of to their direct manager — and I hope those interactions show them I’m someone they can trust to do more than just rework the structure of their stories. By being a person reporters can trust with their challenges, I’m able to work as a coach rather than just an editor.

Instead of waiting at my desk for reporters to file stories, I check in with them multiple times a day, offering source ideas and talking about the structure of their stories. I never want them to feel like I’m apathetic about their work, or like I’m too busy to pay attention.

I switched to editing after two years of reporting, juggling deadlines and sometimes inconsistent or confusing feedback from editors. I know what it’s like to be a reporter, and I try to channel that empathy into all of my interactions. I encourage them when they’ve had successes, and make sure they know that I’m also touting their achievements to senior editors in the newsroom.

When I’m explaining changes I made to a story, I remember a tip Poynter faculty member Cheryl Carpenter shared during the Poynter Rising Newsroom Leaders seminar this spring. While it can feel tempting to breeze through edits so that I can move a story along in the process, I try to wait for reporters to respond before I move on to my next point. Cheryl said sometimes managers need to remember to take a deep breath in conversations like this, so that they take time to actually listen. I don’t want reporters to feel like they’re being steamrolled in the editing process — I want them to understand the changes I make and to know what they should do next.

Of course, the pressure of publishing stories quickly can sometimes mean the process isn’t as collaborative as I’d like. But I try to let reporters know I’m pulling for them.

 

Find ways to grow

As women, we all know that extra tasks can end up falling onto our plates at work.

But I’ve found that, within reason, accepting extra projects can be a way to build allies across the newsroom. Those connections are critical as I’m starting my career, and each time I succeed at an extra project, it boosts my confidence at my day-to-day job.

I’ve helped edit a podcast, launched a daily newsletter, led workshops to train reporters, volunteered as a mentor in a year-long program at my company, and managed an intern. I also conducted a keynote interview at a recent conference, which was a great chance to step out of my comfort zone.

I’ve found it can be best to reach for more — while also being conscious of my growing value to the newsroom.

 

View it as a give and take

Being among the youngest in my office means that I am always surrounded by people with more management and editing experience.

I talked with Bridgit Bowden, special projects reporter at Wisconsin Public Radio, about her experience as a young woman in the workplace. I met her during the Poynter seminar this spring, and was struck by her poise and energy. Bridgit is 26, and has already led impressive, ambitious projects (like this one, which involved more than 500 interviews).

Learning from more experienced reporters has been useful so far, Bridgit said, telling me a story about an older colleague who taught her to write records requests. She taught him how to tweet.

“Even though you may have different skills from other people in your newsroom, you can use that as an advantage by sort of offering a trade,” she said.

I definitely still feel uncomfortable in my role sometimes, but I’m learning more every day and I know that nerves can accompany growth. Rather than waiting until I feel like I deserve the shoes I’m filling, I’m speaking up and reaching for more.

 


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