Ziggin' and zoomin': Find yourself some metaphors for leadership success

My nearly two decades at The Philadelphia Inquirer had barely begun when I first heard the phrase that, in many ways, expressed both the newsroom’s strategy—and its essence:

Zig when everyone else zags.

The idea was simple. Don’t cover the story as everyone else is covering it; find an angle that helps the reader or viewer experience the story in an entirely different way.

(One of my favorite zigs is a story by education reporter Linda Lutton at WBEZ in Chicago. During the height of that city’s gun violence in 2012, when journalists were doing thousands of stories on the victims, the shooters and police efforts to stop the bloodshed, Linda attended a teenager’s funeral with the principal of a high school that had seen 27 of its current or former students shot—in just one year. Her story inspired a two-part series of This American Life.)

For us at the Inquirer, editor Gene Roberts’ “zig” mantra was everything you want your leader’s communication to be: clear, actionable, inspiring. It helped us develop a common newsroom language. And with every “zig” we successfully executed, the mantra—and the strategy it represented—buried itself more deeply in our approach to our work.

It also, as it sometimes does, took on an even larger meaning. At the Inquirer, “zigging” eventually applied to the very culture of the newsroom that Roberts and his staff created.

Do you use mantras or metaphors to help you manage your staff—and yourself?

Meeting journalists from newsrooms around the world, I hear some metaphors repeated often. The “full-court press,” a defensive strategy in basketball, describes a newsroom’s response to a big story; a “tick-tock” is a story that recreates an event in great detail, chronologically, along a timeline.

A number of other metaphors are borrowed from visual arts, like filmmaking. And why not? They’re intended to help us visualize strategies for good storytelling:

Zoom in. Get up close to a character or scene, focusing on small details that will help bring the person or place to life.

Turn the camera around. Instead of reporting on the action in front of you (for example, the debate among members of city council), turn your attention to another, more interesting, subject (an angry person in the gallery, the stoic stenographer, a veteran security guard.)

Widen the angle. Add context to the story by placing the action in its proper relationship to what else is going on.

All of these metaphors—and other successful ones—work for several important reasons:

  1. Their meaning is clear. The staff of the Inquirer understood “Zig” and “Zag.” Our familiarity with cameras lets us appreciate what it means for a writer to “zoom in” or “widen the angle.” Mantras or metaphors that confuse are highly unlikely to catch on.
  2. They are consistent with other messages. The Inquirer when Roberts was teaching the newsroom to zig was an underdog, a newspaper scrambling for credibility in a town where the Philadelphia Bulletin was the respected paper of record. So the whole idea of bucking the trend, being the rebel—zigging when the others zagged—was consistent with our self-image.
  3. The idea they represent has merit. Many a catchy slogan has been created to help sell an effort that ultimately failed. Most of those efforts, and their slogans, are long forgotten. “Zigging,” and the idea it represents, lives on; it still suggests a viable strategy for succeeding in the multi-platform newsrooms of 2014.

And while mantras and metaphors can help rally a staff behind an idea or project, they also can be highly personal. Individuals adopt them to help make sense of their leadership, their editing, their reporting.

Marissa Nelson is senior director of digital media for CBC News. Recently we were talking about the challenges of leading her staff through major changes, including a significant reduction in personnel. She told me about her “mast.”

“I picture myself at the helm of a ship,” she said, “and I’m standing with my back up against the ship’s mast. It represents the values that are most important to me—integrity, empathy, fairness—and it reminds me that as we move forward, I need to be true to those values no matter what challenge we face.”

I asked her what role those values played in her management of the downsizing. She said she tried to bring empathy to the process, to remember that the situation was taking a human toll on her staff, and that she needed to deal with each person individually and with compassion.

In addition to standing for her values, Marissa said the “mast” also helps her from a strategic point of view, reminding her as the department moves forward to stay focused on the division’s goals and not to be buffeted off course.

Marissa’s story reminded me of several metaphors that helped me in my attempts to be an effective leader.

One of them helped me deal with the sense of depression I repeatedly experienced about three weeks after accepting a job with increased responsibility. Eventually I realized why. The depression coincided with my realization that no matter how hard I worked, I couldn’t get my arms around the staff and its work. I could not control things.

Today I look back and realize it was actually good that I could not control everything—how are people supposed to grow if they’re manipulated like puppets? But I do remember the metaphor I used to describe my strategy for managing this “uncontrollable” operation.

I set out every day to touch it.

Each day I would try to engage my staff in ways that made a difference. Maybe I’d visit a bureau. Maybe I’d meet with a group working on enterprise. Maybe I’d have a difficult conversation. Or maybe I’d spend the morning with a colleague on the business side.

That was my daily challenge: How could I touch the organization in a way that would move us forward? If I chose well, I actually was having far more impact on the quality of our work than if I had assigned and edited every story.

The touch metaphor helped me.

Another metaphor helped me, like the “mast” helps Marissa, remember that values can play an important role in guiding a staff through difficult times of change.

For me, the metaphor was a bunch of rocks.

It was more than 20 years ago that I heard a Wharton professor describe how successful CEOs traditionally guided their organizations through times of change.

“Companies moved from periods of stability,” he said, “into the white water. And the best CEOS successfully guided their organizations through the white water, back to periods of stability.

“Ladies and gentlemen,” he continued, “I need you to know one thing. For the rest of your careers, there will be nothing but white water.”

The professor didn’t know the half of it. In 1993, there were no iPods or tablets or smartphones. In fact, it had only been a few months since World Wide Web software had been placed in Public Domain. Imagine anyone suggesting today that we will return to periods of stability.

While last two decades of white water have given us many technological wonders—our ability to create and share journalism has never been greater—they also have made it difficult, if not impossible, for newsroom leaders to promise their staffs some once-basic things. Things like raises, promotions and even long-term employment.

So what can a leader promise a staff?

Values. You can promise your staff that together you will create journalism that is fair, accurate, independent and benefits the community. You can promise that together you will learn things that will benefit you now and if you go elsewhere. You can promise that together you will do work that has meaning.

And here’s the metaphor—those values are the rocks on which you cross the white water. I picture those rocks and remember the values I hold most dear.

Not everyone responds to metaphors; some people want facts, figures and a well-organized spreadsheet. But for as long as journalism has aspired to be a watchdog, shine a light and give voice to the voiceless, metaphors and mantras have served its leaders well.

Get ziggin’.




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