When do you say yes to extra work?

The Cohort is Poynter's bi-monthly newsletter about women kicking ass in digital media.

There’s one bit of career advice I often find myself battling: Do you say yes to all opportunities or pick and choose wisely?

Tina Fey lives by the motto “Say yes, and you'll figure it out afterward.” Others have argued that knowing how to say no is the key to success.

My default setting is to say no to extra work, but I’ve found a lot of success from saying yes — or being pushed into new responsibilities.

Early in my career, I never felt ready for each new promotion or speaking gig I was offered (self-doubt much?), but I thankfully had a supportive boss who saw more in me than I did and knew when to push me into the deep end. Without her, I’d be at a much different point in my career today.

And yet, there are plenty of work tasks that clearly aren’t worth the effort. Moreover, women often get saddled with “emotional” office work like organizing office parties or secretarial tasks like taking notes in meetings. I find myself filling these roles, too — work that takes time and effort, but doesn’t necessarily get noticed by higher ups or have much to do with what I’m being evaluated on.

For journalists, this quandary is especially difficult. Cutbacks mean there are fewer resources and (wo)manpower available in newsrooms, which makes prioritizing and knowing when to say no even more crucial. But, recognizing that there’s a dearth of women in leadership positions means we can’t afford to say no to opportunities that may ultimately lead us to promotions.

I figured I’m not the only one who struggles with this. So here’s a helpful guide:

If you find yourself saying yes too much...

Chances are, when your colleagues or boss ask you to do extra work, they aren’t thinking about what’s already on your plate. It’s on you to know your boundaries and what makes sense to agree to. Revisit your job responsibilities and look at all the extra work you do. If you’re doing a lot outside of your current job description, you might have the ammunition to push for a different position or to say no the next time you’re asked to do a time-sucking task.

Having a handle on all the things you’re responsible for also puts you in a position to negotiate instead of flat-out saying no. If a colleague asks for help with a project, for example, tell her that you’ll need to offload something else in order to assist. You might be able to get rid of some of your less rewarding tasks, or at least start rotating them with others. (Really, shouldn’t everyone share a bit of responsibility for things like office birthdays?) The Muse is helpful here.

If you find yourself saying no too much...

The next time you find yourself about to say no to an opportunity, question why you’re doing it. Is it because you’re nervous or scared? If that’s the case, say yes. Really. I can’t think of many times in my career where I regretted doing something that I was initially terrified of. (In fact, I have this print hanging in my office to remind myself to ignore the voice that so badly wants to say no.)

If you’re somewhere in between...

Awesome. If you have this balance figured out, take a moment to feel good about that self-assuredness. Then share the knowledge! When you see a colleague who’s struggling with too many responsibilities outside her job description, ask how she’s doing and offer some guidance. And if you manage someone who’s quick to say no, push her toward yes by reassuring your employee that she’s definitely capable and that you have her back.

I’d love to hear your advice, too! Email me your saying yes/no anecdotes at katie@poynter.org or share your tips on Twitter with #digitalwomenleaders. I’d like to start sharing more wisdom from the Cohort community, and this seems like a natural place to start.

And remember that for the next few working days, all rules are off. Say yes to help your colleagues, say no when you must, do whatever needs to be done and rest assured that this election is (hopefully) almost over.


Application season is here

We’ve opened applications for Poynter’s 2017 Leadership Academy for Women in Digital Media. The faculty lineup is fantastic — Melissa Bell, Michelle Ferrier (featured in a past newsletter), Raju Narisetti and Vivian Schiller are joining us next year — and I’m pretty pumped about the new and improved sessions we have planned.

Yes, you should apply. Yes, you should practice shine theory and also encourage your badass colleague to apply. And yes, it’s going to be competitive, but it’s absolutely worth the effort.

Applications are open through Nov. 30. If you have questions about the program, here’s an FAQ.

Things worth reading (and watching)

Meet the incredible women behind Black Lives Matter. Ann Friedman, forever on point: “In many industries, the ranks of women start to thin out as they have children and hit the glass ceiling, and so there simply aren’t enough women at the top to mentor those coming up behind them.” I’ve pondered this for a while, but Liz Plank articulated it perfectly: When did 2016 become all about men? A surprising, and encouraging, statistic — women represent a third of senior executives in the federal government. And, oh what a lovely idea this is: I Waited 96 Years.

I’ve been binge-watching “Good Girls Revolt.” The writing in the pilot is a little cringeworthy (lots of stilted “this is for journalism!” lines), but the show picks up after that and feels super relevant. Recommended.

Meet Zeina

I got to know Zeina Karam at a recent Poynter seminar. We met in my office for a one-on-one coaching session, and within minutes I knew I wanted to profile her in The Cohort. Karam, 44, works for The Associated Press, where she serves as news director for Syria and Lebanon. It’s a huge job — not only is breaking news out of that region seemingly non-stop, but she oversees the teams responsible for all video, text and photo coverage.

Karam marked her 20th anniversary with the AP in June. Like many journalists, Karam’s love for storytelling drew her to the industry. “I enjoy writing and the idea that you can be in the field and tell people’s stories for a living,” she said. “Every day brings a new story.”

Earlier this year, Karam was promoted to news director, a position which put her in charge of multiplatform coverage in addition to her print responsibilities. “It’s challenging after being a reporter in the field for so long to let go of writing,” she admitted. “But I enjoy learning new stuff and working with people. I’m working much more closely with the video teams and learning a lot.”

The toughest part of her job, though, is something that many of us don’t have to face. “Safety is one of my biggest challenges,” she explained. “It’s very challenging and difficult to plan for a trip and take things into consideration in terms of how to keep [your employees] safe.” The risk of car bombs and kidnapping are two of her greatest concerns as a manager.

For safety reasons, Karam and her team do most of their Syria reporting from the Lebanon-based bureau. The situation provides some peace of mind, but makes coverage tough. “There are challenges in covering a country from another country,” she said. “You can’t take everything at face value — you have to get multiple sources because you aren’t there.”

“We used to go to Syria in the beginning of the conflict, but as soon as ISIS started kidnapping journalists we had to stop,” Karam added. “We haven’t been to the opposition areas in almost three years.”

Karam also faces obstacles as a female boss, especially as she’s moved up in her career. “I think it comes with its own set of problems, probably because of the culture in the Middle East,” she explained. “People can find it incredibly hard to accept a woman as a manager. They try to talk you down, or act like they know better. I get ‘mansplained’ a lot in my job.”

But she is quick to point out that being a female reporter in the region has its advantages. “There are a lot of situations where you can get more information than a man would,” Karam said, citing access to women and children in refugee camps as a prime example.

Karam’s dream is to someday get back to the writing she loves. “I’d love to slow down, and in a few years, move to a quieter place where I can still be a journalist. You have to get away from wars at some point.”

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The Cohort is part of Poynter’s Leadership Academy for Women in Digital Media. Props to Kristen Hare, who convinced the office to dress up for Halloween, for her newsletter edits and insight.

  • Profile picture for user katiehawk

    Katie Hawkins-Gaar

    Katie Hawkins-Gaar is the organizer of Poynter’s Leadership Academy for Women in Digital Media. She was previously Poynter’s digital innovation faculty member, and taught journalists how to make the most of social media, understand audience engagement, rethink workflows and foster creativity.


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