This week, Poynter holds its first-ever Leadership Academy — and its first seminar since Sept. 11.
Seminar director Jill Geisler is keeping a daily diary of the week’s events. Her notes begin Satuday night, Sept. 29, as she leaves her home in Milwaukee, Wis., for the commute to Poynter, usually a routine flight.
I followed the rules, arriving at the airport about two hours before the flight. There is no one in line in front of me at check-in. Four Northwest employees are chatting. Check-in is routine. I packed it/I controlled it/Nobody gave me anything/Here’s my driver’s license/Thanks for the boarding pass.
At the security checkpoint, I’m asked for a second time to show ID. That’s new. And the woman doing the screening asks me to say my name. Now I’m impressed. Just the way customs inspectors for international travel, where the agents want to hear a little of your voice, right?
“I thought that was you,” said Security Woman. “Your hair’s different. Haven’t seen you on TV in awhile.”
I explain I’m not a TV news director anymore, I teach at a journalism institute in Florida. Other security screeners move closer. “Hi! Get a big suitcase and stuff me in it,” says Security Man. I tell him we could try it in March. So much for tight security.
5 p.m.: I’m at the gate an hour and a half before my departure time. And I am alone in gate 64’s area. Just me and a banner: “Northwest. On time. Time after time.”
I think about the week ahead. The first Poynter Leadership Academy. We’ve planned it for nearly two years — a big program. Nearly all the Poynter faculty is involved. Fifty news managers from print, broadcast, and online, from the United States and abroad were selected for the seminar.
Ten days ago, I was betting we’d have to cancel. But we polled the participants. Forty of the 50 re-confirmed, some pointing out they need leadership training now more than ever.
And those who canceled? Some were painfully close to ground zero: a New Jersey editor, whose wife blessedly escaped from one of the twin towers, is needed at home and in his newsroom; an East Coast NPR editor, a New York ABC Radio news exec, a producer from WNBC-New York, and a few others whose overtaxed newsrooms couldn’t spare a leader at the moment.
But 40 are coming, many with rescheduled or rerouted flights. Many, like me, taking their first flight since Sept. 11, when something as common as flying became a little unnatural, a little unnerving.
We’ve revised the Leadership Academy syllabus to address the needs and concerns of newsroom leaders in the wake of the attacks on America. We’re ready to give this group a memorable week. They’ve been on the front lines of news development and dissemination — working long stressful hours, telling painful stories, making tough calls. They’ve pushed themselves and their staffs — and they’re tired. They need R and R — rest and reflection.
Still, I know they’ll be torn while they’re at Poynter. Worrying about the homefront, bracing for breaking news. We have a welcome letter waiting for each one at the hotel, promising to keep an eye on the news for them and to build in breaks in the day to allow them to phone home and browse e-mail. In turn, we ask only that they silence their cell phones while we’re in session.
6:10 p.m.: Time to board. I count 25 people on the plane. Even with reduced schedules, Northwest can’t fill the plane. But we’re on time, and on the way to Florida.
4 p.m.: The Great Hall at Poynter is starting to get noisy. What a good sound. People are arriving, picking up their name badges, grabbing a beverage, and greeting one another. The question is inevitable: “How was your flight?” Everyone has an airport story.
The most interesting is also the most problematic. One of our participants, coming in from New York, neglected to bring a photo ID to the airport. She had lots of ID, but none of the government-issue photo variety. No way they would let her on the plane. She’ll join us tomorrow. We hope.
In an opening session, the news managers talk about the role they’ve played in their newsrooms since Sept. 11. They’ve been organizers, team builders, idea people, teachers, and cheerleaders. They speak with pride of people — themselves included–who have stepped up to do fine work under stress.
And they worry about the stress. When do people burn out? When will the bills come due for the extended, expensive coverage they’ve done so well? What might be cut in already strapped news budgets?
6:30 p.m.: We gather for dinner, the first of many meals this group will share. We preview the week for them. They’ll build leadership credibility, learn to be better coaches, review feedback from their newsrooms, explore personality differences, practice collaboration and negotiation skills, hear tips for effective hiring interviews, and get insights into online reporting.
They will expand their understanding of the leadership and diversity in newsroom hiring and news content, get better at giving easy and tough feedback, learn a process for ethical decision-making on deadline, and strengthen their relationship with their bosses. And they’ll draft a personal development plan for their return to their newsrooms.
They have a full week.
7:30 p.m.: Poynter President Jim Naughton steps up to deliver our keynote address. Originally, I had asked Jim to focus on a topic he lives and loves: the role of fun in the most serious workplace. Jim would rather applaud a great speech than deliver one, but he agreed to lead off the Leadership Academy.
After Sept. 11, we struggled a bit with whether “fun” was an appropriate topic in these times. Jim decided to modify his talk, just a bit. The fun was still there. But it was imbedded within the context of quality, hard work, respect for creative and contrarian types, the insecurities of journalists, and the strengths of leaders — and all tied to the needs of newsrooms at this very moment.
The group will have a challenging day Monday. Each of them has asked six colleagues — bosses, peers, and direct reports — to fill out Personal Development Questionnaires. They get candid feedback on their journalistic, organizational, and interpersonal strengths and weaknesses. Our Leadership Academy participants will see those files for the first time Monday afternoon.
9 a.m.: Our 40 newsroom leaders moved forward today by looking back. We asked them to reflect on leaders who have made a positive impact in their lives, and we heard stories about grandmothers, youth counselors, band leaders, editors, news directors, dads, and teachers. When the stories ended, we asked the group to find common themes in what these leaders did or demonstrated.
And the words flowed freely: integrity, vision, values, nurturing, personal attention, high standards, feedback, making people feel they are capable of greatness. All the things we like to call “leadership credibility.” Make no mistake. Management competencies–hiring, scheduling, budgeting, running meetings, building systems–all are important. But no one in our group used any of those terms to describe those leaders who had profound positive impact. As usual, they describe credibility.
10:45 a.m.: Armed with a heightened sensitivity to credibility, the group studied coaching with Poynter’s Senior Scholar Roy Peter Clark. Roy was one of the first people to sign on when I proposed this Leadership Academy two years ago, and he knows I’m counting on him for more than good teaching. He’s promised to keep things lively and playful.
So his coaching workshop featured a piano recital, a spelling bee (won by Ms. Willy Walker, assistant news director of KHOU-TV in Houston), story coaching, writing, and lots and lots of emphasis on the leader as listener.
“Treat the writer as the expert,” he advised. And he reminded them that “one of your roles is to be a researcher. Know the people who work for you. Know their preferences.” Know how to reach each person as an individual and treat people as they would like to be treated.
12:30 p.m.: Lunch at the Institute — and proof that this group is settling into normal seminar routines. They ate. They talked. They sat in the sun. We had set aside a full 90 minutes, thinking they might become anxious if they weren’t able to reconnect with their newsrooms. (Something we discourage during regular seminars, by the way, since we want folks to focus inwardly while at Poynter.)
There was no mad rush to the phones, no desperate logging on to e-mail. Instead, they packed into an optional learning session. Gregory Favre of our leadership team led a session on interviewing and hiring skills. I counted 23 participants in the room. Next door, other managers took a skill session in online reporting led by Broadcast/Online Group Leader Al Tompkins. Just like a normal Poynter seminar.
2 p.m.: We gather this great big group in the Great Hall for a class picture. If these are the faces of newsroom leadership in the future, I think journalism is looking good.
2:15 p.m.: This is the session some have been dreading. They read their Personal Development Questionnaires. Each person selected six colleagues–a boss, a peer and four direct reports– to give them on-the-record feedback about their journalistic, organizational, and interpersonal skills.
This session can be tricky. People tend to undervalue the praise they receive and feel wounded by criticism. They’re human. This group, like others, hears many positives about news judgment, ethics, and journalistic skills. Many already enjoy wonderful leadership credibility.
Still, many in this group hear that their interpersonal skills need help. Though passionate about journalism, some are impatient, some abrupt, some uncompromising. Some avoid conflict and tough conversations. Their employees want more feedback from them, more time with them. One person is told she really needs to get organized. She knows it already. “Consider this,” she said. “I haven’t been able to find my Day Planner for a month.” She helped the group laugh at its challenges.
5 p.m.: The participants need to shake off their stress. On a cool, comfortable St. Pete night, the homerooms and their faculty will hit the town for dinner. And if we do this right, table talk will be about anything but the Personal Development Questionnaires.
Tuesday, we start adding tools to everyone’s leadership kit. Challenges highlighted in the PDQs will form the core of a Personal Development Plan each person presents on Friday. What steps will they take to become more competent managers, more credible leaders? How will they use their PDQ feedback to grow?
9 a.m.: Our 40 newsroom managers begin work today on their Personal Development Plans. I’m here to help.
I am armed with 24 pounds of apples.
We are talking about managing people–folks who have greatly differing personalities. A well respected tool for teaching personality preferences is the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator (MBTI). Each of our participants has taken this instrument. This morning we’ll share their results and start tossing around terms such as extraversion, introversion, sensing , intuiting.
That’s where the apples come in.
I’m a big believer that the MBTI works best when people use it not just to find out about themselves and their personalities, but to have a much deeper understanding and respect for the personality preferences of others.
Among other things, the MBTI identifies whether a person prefers to take in information by “sensing”–that is seeking and identifying practical details of things, those than can be picked up by the five senses–or by “intuiting”–looking for concepts and patterns and abstract ideas.
I give each person an apple. I ask them to write about it. The room grows silent as the scribbling starts. (I nervously but optimistically await the outcome. It should play out exactly as I anticipate. If the exercise works, we’ll have living proof of the differing ways S’s and N’s respond.)
Pens down. I ask several people whose MBTIs identify them as S’s to read aloud.
Bingo. They’ve described color, shape, size, and taste. Real, practical, detailed.
And the N’s? They’ve rhapsodized on autumn, pies, climbing trees, and the Garden of Eden.
We talk about how S’s and N’s have different things to offer the newsroom and how they can misjudge one another (“He’s so focused on the little details.” “She only wants to talk about the big picture.”) We talk about how, when we’re sensitive to differences, we can put them to work constructively. We share lots of learning exercises and a take-home primer for managers.
10:45 a.m.: In homeroom sessions, visiting faculty Jennie Buckner, editor of The Charlotte Observer, and Patti Dennis, news director of Denver’s KUSA-TV, work with their groups on leading through newsroom challenges, from budget and personnel cuts to crisis stories. One of the participants was tied up at that time and missed the session. The boss called to talk about budget cuts. The real world goes on, even during a seminar.
2 p.m.: We spend the afternoon with Dr. Deborah Kolb of Simmons College, author of The Shadow Negotiations. She packs a lot into two hours. “Change creates the need for negotiations,” she tells us.
Our managers know plenty about change, from downsizing to convergence.
To help them get what they need and give something back in return, she advises: “If you negotiate on a single issue…it is adversarial. The challenge is to change it to multiple issues.” And: “Make your deals by understanding where you’re different-not the same.”
Once again, understanding differences turns out to be a key management tool.
5 p.m.: The Irby-que begins.
Kenny Irby, group leader of Poynter’s visual journalism programs, is hosting dinner for the crowd. We break bread — white bread and rolls slathered with smoked pork, beef, chicken, and oh, that sauce. Kenny confesses — no, brags — that he didn’t do up the dinner. It comes from local barbeque legend Big Tim’s restaurant. There aren’t many leftovers.
6:15 p.m.: Poynter Leadership Theater
There’s a lot more than Denzel Washington in the movie Remember the Titans. There are lessons on leadership styles, dealing with change and conflict, building a culture, negotiation, and collaboration. And once again, recognizing and respecting differences–the essence of diversity–is the leadership theme. We watch, we talk, and the group draws parallels between the lessons of a football team struggling with integration 30 years ago and their newsrooms of today.
We hope this evening sets the table for what we know is some of the most challenging teaching ahead. Tomorrow morning we talk about diversity. That means talking across differences: race, gender, sexual orientation, class. Journalists, as other Americans, struggle with these conversations. There’s potential, as always, for anger, pain, and misunderstanding. Will this group of newsroom leaders take risks and talk candidly tomorrow morning?
Will they remember the Titans?
9a.m.- We set aside all morning for the group to discuss diversity issues with Keith Woods and Aly Colon of Poynter’s Ethics group.
And it is barely enough time. Our participants want to talk. Although people often measure their words carefully when talking about or across race, this group has questions to ask, answers to offer, and plenty of stories to tell.
Aly and Keith guides those wide-ranging conversations. Aly encourages them, as journalists, to envision diversity as:
- Covering the undercovered
- Mitigating bias and prejudice
Keith sets up a grid with areas for:
- The individual
- The organization
- The external systems
Keith asks them to think about times when newsrooms fail to include diverse viewpoints and people, when they neglect to pay attention to certain people’s stories, or when their coverage feeds bias and prejudice.
Does it happen because of an individual’s act of commission or omission–a personal bias? Is it due to the organization–low staffing, targeted demographics?
Or, are outside systems at play? For example, does the local college have few minority professors, leaving the newsroom with mostly white “experts” to interview for stories.
And the group members talk about experiences they’ve had on every level of the grid. Keith encourages them to develop strategies for each challenge.
He likes the talk and the questions–because it fits with his major premise: We have to find safe places to talk across differences. More talk can mean fewer incorrect assumptions. To Keith, the single most important question we can ask one another is, “What do you mean?”
Noon-Lunch is Cuban sandwiches, black beans, yellow rice, and conversation.
I’ve pretty much put one worry to rest. I now believe it is possible to bring 40 people to a seminar without diminishing our tradition of personal attention to participants. I credit my fellow faculty for making that a priority as we planned this mega-program. Before sessions, during breaks, at the end of the day, I see my colleagues having one-on-one talks with the visiting news managers.
One editor quietly and kindly tells me he feels that Poynter folks have been looking out for his well-being all week–and he appreciates it.
You are so welcome.
1:45 p.m.-Another sign that this has become a normal Poynter seminar: We’re dealing with the leader’s need to give feedback. We’re talking about difficult conversations, the ones managers too often avoid.
Nothing in this session has a direct connection to Sept. 11. It is all about the everyday challenges of managers. Paul Pohlman helps the group identify types of conversations they have–or should be having–with employees.
He invites volunteers to step forward and practice having some of the most difficult, those that address problem performance. Group members role play the parts. They give feedback to one another. Paul loves it when the participants become the teachers.
The group moves into homerooms. Time for everyone to practice the conversation of their own choosing, being clear, direct, confident, focused, and practicing listening, restating, and summarizing.
4 p.m.-End of the scheduled day. For the groups, a free night–to work on their Personal Development Plans, to rest, or to socialize. My money’s on option three. This is a sociable group.
Tomorrow, first thing, they take up a topic that I swear makes their hearts beat faster: the leader and ethical decision-making. Thursday is also the day they realize they’re headed home soon–to tackle the challenges they left behind. Are they really ready?
9 a.m.-“So be true, when you say I love you….”
Poynter’s resident watchman/greeter/patron saint/Irish tenor Tommy Carden sings the song for the lead-off session of the day–ethics.
“It’s a sin to tell a lie….”
His age-weakened legs may need a walker to keep him steady, but his voice is so potent he needs no microphone. He belts out one of his favorites to a full amphitheater and hearty applause.
Mr. Carden whispers to his pianist, Roy Peter Clark. Roy nods. “This next song,” says our star, “is so special to me that I was too choked up to sing it when I got home from the war.”
He finds his key.
“God bless America…land that I love,” and the journalists join in:
“Stand beside her, and guide her, through the night with the light from above….”
Singing is pretty common at our seminars. This moment is not. A man who fought the Battle of the Bulge leads a chorus of news leaders who know they may soon be editing war stories.
Even the international journalists are sharing the words: “…God bless America, my home sweet home.”
Tommy Carden gets a standing ovation, breathes in every moment of it, and returns to do his smiling sentry duty at the Institute’s door.
And Bob Steele has to follow that act. Not a problem.
“You’ve all taken the Myers-Briggs, right?” Bob asks. “Well, today you get the Irby-Steele.”
It is a quick test. Bob and Kenny Irby want the participants to rate themselves and then their organizations on how well they make ethical decisions. The group complies.
I’ve watched Bob teach ethics dozens of times, often to reporters. Today he has taken all the important material on the process for making good decisions, and is framing it all through the role of leaders. Kenny tag-teams with him as they work through real cases from newsrooms.
They warn about relying on one’s gut or rigid rules and recommend instead moving up to reflection and reasoning. They emphasize the importance of front-end work–talking about issues before a newsroom is in crisis or deadline mode.
The groups return to the more intimate setting of their homerooms to talk about individual cases. I’m observing the self-titled “CFAs”–Control Freaks Anonymous–group. Gregory Favre, Poynter’s paterfamilias of journalism values, is leading the discussion. The group is supposed to form small teams to discuss cases.
“We don’t want to. Let us talk as a group. Yeah. We’ll take the cases together.”
One thing we’ve learned is to enjoy moments such as this in seminars. The homeroom team members know better than we do what they need.
And we do it their way.
Noon – Pizza and ethics go well together. Enough said.
1:15 p.m.-Another lesson from the group. The broadcast news leaders have asked for an impromptu session on enterprise reporting. We oblige and gather outside in the gazebo to share ideas.
1:45 p.m. – Sept. 11 returns to the seminar–in a positive way. In each homeroom, participants show examples of their organization’s best work on those worst days. We see tearsheets and videotapes and hear about leadership lessons learned:
- Break the old rules
- Trust your teams
- Move people out of comfort zones
- Respond to the big story with overwhelming attention and energy
- Use people in non-traditional ways
- Have systems in place that make crisis response easier
- Overcommunicate; talk with each other constantly
- Take care of your people as people, not just employees
- Give sincere, specific praise–and keep it coming
It was one of those afternoons when the groups ran out of time before they ran out of ideas. Some chose to let their sessions run long or continue discussions into the next day.
6:30 p.m.– Tonight, something we’ve never tried as a last night celebration dinner. We’re taking all 40 journalists on a riverboat dinner cruise. We’ve worked them hard all week and they deserve an evening to remember. The night is beautiful, the food is good, and before the evening is over, there’s a new Poynter workshop under way on the dance floor: “Leadership and the Electric Slide.”
Tomorrow, the participants present their Personal Development Plans. We’ve given them freedom to talk about their plans for growth as leaders in any format they wish. So far I’ve heard rumblings about poetry, drama, art, narrative, and even video.
And tomorrow they fill out detailed evaluations of the seminar. After our months of planning, after our week of teaching, we find out how these leaders really feel about the Leadership Academy on report card day.
Morning: Today belongs to the leaders. They present a Personal Development Plan in the security of their homerooms. Each homeroom selects a “storyteller” to report to the group as a whole.
During the week, each group gave itself a name: the Dreamsicles, the Control Freaks Anonymous, and Los Maestros (Spanish for “the teachers”). Each group had a personality, and in a week’s time, a history and culture.
Listen to their reports:
From the Dreamsicles’ storyteller: “We’re a pretty touchy feely bunch. I wish I was in the restaurant business, because we’re gonna be takin’ a lot of people to lunch. Some of us will go to Subway, because we’re big into pleasing the boss. We’re going to have a lot of conversations. We’re going to get to know them (colleagues and employees) better.
“We’ve done lots of self-analysis…Some of us are going to be more outgoing. Some are going to listen more. Some don’t give enough praise, not often enough, not in the right way. We’re going to delegate more. We are trying to do too much (at work.) We are going to get more people involved.
“We’re going to do less talking and more listening. There’s a real skill to listening. (When an employee is in our office) we’re going to ignore the telephone, shut down e-mail, and give a lot more eye contact.”
The Control Freaks Anonymous all sported boutonnieres, a gift from one of their homeroom faculty, Gregory Favre.
Their storyteller was succinct: “There were 12 of us from around the globe. We’re still controlling, but now determined to keep asking ourselves why. We’ve learned to be honest with ourselves, one of the first key points of change.
In our organizations, we’re going to focus on communicating with those above and below us. We’ll take a real good look at what we really want (from employees and as leaders).
We learned from our feedback from our newsrooms that we’re doing most of the things in our job very well.”
From the Los Maestros storyteller: “We chose a name and a mascot — the Golden Retriever. We’re loyal, and we were loyal to ourselves and everyone else in the room. We opened up to one another. We learned to fight our fears a little bit more. Here are some one liners collected from our reports:
· We need more candid and difficult discussions at work.
· The PDQs (newsroom feedback) caused great reflection. We should thank those who wrote them for us.
· Product does not come first; the people come first.
· There’s a little of us in each one of us.
· We arrived with problems, we leave with a toolbox to help solve them.
· Be more of a leader than a manager.
· Get out of the office and into the newsroom.
· Open-ended questions require open-minded listening.
· This week was a journalistic awakening. We view ourselves in a brighter light.”
As I sat in the back of the amphitheater taking notes, I was pleased and proud. For many of these 40 journalists, this was the first week they’ve spent dedicated to themselves and their growth since they were in college. Clearly, they had taken away significant lessons from the week. My Poynter colleagues had guided that journey.
Afternoon: Jay Harris, former publisher of the San Jose Mercury News, delivered the keynote address. (http://livex.poynter.org/lead/leadacad_jayharris.htm). A man walked away from a job he loved on the principle that good journalism was being eroded by an excessive drive for profit margins, Jay talked about leadership.
“Personally demonstrating how to do the best work and pointing to successes of others are enormously important,” he told the group. “You cannot supervise each move of each staffer each day. So you must give them twin guide stars of mission and values to follow in your absence. And your staff must be totally confident that they are your guide stars as well.
“Remember and never forget that your staff will emulate you; that they look to you for a guide to what they should do. If your guide stars are variable standards, situational aspiration, or acquiescence in the face of pressure, those will become their guide stars as well.”
But what he said after the speech, in a Q & A with the Academy class, was even more powerful. The events of Sept. 11 gave journalists a chance to do their best work, but there can be a letdown. How, he was asked, do leaders keep their staffs motivated?
“Nothing,” replied Harris, “is more cathartic for a newsroom than a great story…Define the story going forward and share it with the newsroom: the human, military, the economic aspects. This story changes the importance of international news in ways you can’t imagine. Tragedy is the pivot of history. We need to provide the same level of coverage as we did in World War II, bringing the story home.”
He ended with a personal revelation. On September 11th, he was in South Africa when he learned of the attacks. It was the first and only time in the past six months that he regretted his decision to leave his paper, thinking, “I would give my right arm to have my paper back right now. It wasn’t about the big story. It was about the big responsibility.”
Those words hung in the amphitheater as we presented certificates to each news manager. Handshakes, hugs…and then more than a few tears when Sherrel Stewart, assistant city editor of The Birmingham News, made a surprise move to the front of the room. With Roy Peter Clark accompanying her on piano, and a voice infused with gospel grace, she soared, “Oh beautiful for spacious skies, for amber waves of grain….”
Imagine a group of news leaders singing the words, knowing they are headed home to the challenges of covering America’s biggest story in decades, to the challenges of leading, inspiring, and motivating.
As faculty who’ve come to know the first graduates of the Poynter Leadership Academy, we trust that Jay Harris’s words will continue to guide them:
It isn’t about the big story. It is about the big responsibility.