June 13, 2019

When Candi Carter stepped into her first leadership role at WISN-TV in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, in 1993, she found herself working with a small team of “old, white union men.” It was part of their job to assemble a crew for the TV specials she was producing.

Carter was the only young person. She was the only black person. She was the only woman.

“It was my first shoot. I did everything they asked. I filled out the paperwork, I put it on their desks,” recalled Carter. “Then I get to the shoot, and there is no crew. When I got back to the station, I asked what happened. One of the guys said, ‘I prefer if you put the form on my chair — not on my desk.’”

“That was the first time I realized that people don’t necessarily want to follow you, even when you’re the boss.”

Carter went on to win an Emmy for the specials she produced with that small team in Milwaukee. And later she became a producer at “The Oprah Winfrey Show,” CEO of her own media company and executive producer at ABC’s “The View.”

Now, people follow her lead.

In October, Carter will share the leadership lessons she’s learned throughout her career with participants of the Leadership Academy for Diversity in Digital Media. I talked with her about navigating injustice as a journalist of color, cultivating a culture of accountability and what self-care looks like at 50.

Candi Carter will be featured at a Poynter Community Conversation event on Oct. 13. Click here for tickets.

You will be joining the Poynter teaching team at our Leadership Academy for Diversity in Digital Media. Why is it important to you to help train journalists of color in leadership?

Growing up in the industry, I’ve often been the only one in the room. 

What are some of the obstacles you see for journalists of color right now?

I like to talk about three main things:

1) Culture bias: What you can and cannot do about it and how to keep yourself from being a victim of it. A lot of coworkers of color don’t make it in corporate America because they get so wrapped up in the injustice of it. They tend to spiral. There are lots of things we cannot control, but we can create opportunities for ourselves. And a lot of people put their energy in the wrong place. There are things you can do that will help you grow instead of standing still.

2) Diversity and the pipeline and hiring and being at an organization where that isn’t a priority. I like to talk about how you can help build that pipeline and exist in that environment.

3) I’ve seen a lot of diverse people leave high-stress, high-functioning environments because they feel like assimilating is being a sell-out in some way. I give this analogy about … if you’re going to play golf, you have to buy clubs, buy the outfit, etc. If you are a dancer, you need the right shoes, tutu, whatever. If you bowl, you have to have a bowling ball. Why would corporate America be any different? It’s less a function of being accepted and more about figuring out how to compete. You don’t want to be standing on the sidelines of a soccer game because you won’t wear the right cleats. There are lots of ways to distinguish yourself in a crowded field.

What do you do when you find that your team doesn’t want to listen to you, like the men at the start of your career?

I think that you have to figure out how to communicate that “I’m now your boss and I’m not going to tolerate that.”

And you have to be impeccable as a leader. Then they don’t have a leg to stand on. Be a leader in a way that transcends their bias so they can see you as you are. Diverse candidates lose out because they get stuck on the offensiveness of the act without looking at what is really going on.

What’s your leadership style?

My philosophy is … I’ve got to be competent in what it is that we do. I can out-produce anybody. I can out-work anybody. If I can help make something better, I will.

There are certainly people at the top who aren’t competent … if you serve other people, have emotional intelligence, recognize talent, are open to ideas, that will make you a better leader. But it’s an added bonus if you can do the job as well as or better than your team.

What kind of culture do you try to create as a leader?

It’s about creating a culture of accountability. It’s like being on a basketball court. Call your foul if you do something wrong. Human error? Let’s try not to do it again. Operational error? Let’s fix it by tomorrow’s live show. If people can look at things very clean, and take their ego out of it, we can succeed. I want us to be in this together, to serve each other.

You’ve been at this for more than 25 years. What routine or habits do you have that set you up for success?

I try to have a little bit of peace or an awesome workout in the morning. Living a healthy lifestyle, on purpose, keeps me on track.

My husband and I both turn 50 this year. One or two years ago, I cut out sugar and stopped drinking soda. I don’t do a lot of carbs.

I also hired a trainer. I committed myself to working out 2-4 times per week. This costs money, but I also splurge on a gym right across the street from “The View” so I can lay in the steam room for 15 minutes. I have a spa moment 2-3 days a week before I come to work that is very, very relaxing. I feel like I’ve earned that after all these years.

Sounds like you made it.

I’ve been in this business since ‘91, and I’m still learning. The moment you stop trying to be better, you sit still. In my opinion, I’ve never arrived. Until the day I retire, I will continue to learn and seek out new information and opportunities.


Candi Carter will be featured at a Poynter Community Conversation event on Oct. 13. Click here for tickets.


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Mel Grau is the senior product specialist at The Poynter Institute, focusing on Poynter's training experiences and newsletters. She also edits The Cohort, Poynter’s biweekly…
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