Low ego and listening: how the expectation of leadership in news has radically changed

"The current environment creates specific challenges for leaders at the top," writes Lucy Kueng in this excerpt of her book 'Hearts and Minds'
Christina @ wocintechchat.com on Unsplash

Christina @ wocintechchat.com on Unsplash

12th November 2020

This piece is an excerpt from the book ‘Hearts and Minds: Harnessing Leadership, Culture, and Talent to Really Go Digital’. The book includes quotes from nearly 100 interviews and four focus groups with senior executives. Quotations are anonymous so interviewees could speak candidly about organisational issues, particularly challenges and pain points. You can find the book here and download a PDF version for free here. You can buy a printed version in this link.  

Digital transformation needs strong leadership, and often different leadership. Leadership is where the transformation of the inner organisation has to start. 

If the top leader isn’t driving the transformation, not simply in terms of strategy but also in terms of building a culture, setting norms for how people interact, showing what needs to be prioritised (and what not), then everyone else can down their change tools.

Leaders right at the top have always needed a sophisticated skill set, but those competencies and knowledge were primarily about I.Q.. These are still critical to steering a strategic course in a structurally challenged sector. Yet for deep transformation hard skills now need to be overlaid with soft ones. If leaders demand that those in their organisations make fundamental changes, they need to show they understand what they are asking for, and that they are also undertaking a personal change journey:

Those at the top of news organisations are frequently also top journalists. Journalists’ role is to know more about things, and those at the top are meant to know the most of all. The pace and scope of change in the industry means that now, journalists who are top leaders must suddenly be able also ‘not to know’ - to listen to and learn from younger colleagues and audiences. As an interviewee put it, this cuts across decades of cultural conditioning:

‘It is difficult for news leaders to admit they don’t know. … They have been hired and promoted all their lives because they know. To suddenly come to a place and be uncertain and not know to feel incompetent … ignorant – it’s difficult’

“We trust you to do that” – pushing power down

The current strategic environment creates very specific challenges for leaders at the top. 

First, strategy has inevitably become emergent. Tight strategic plans confer security and allow planning, yet the industry’s strategic environment is turbulent, and that turbulence is multifactorial. Prediction and planning are having to yield to a more iterative approach, based on trial and learning.

Second, as digital technologies push further into all core activities, it is no longer possible for those at the top to have expertise across all dimensions of the business. They will need to cede a degree of decision-making and agency to those that have the visceral understanding of new specialisms. As an interviewee put it:

‘Some of the best ones … are the people who’ve kept their minds open, who’ve kept their ears open, who have asked for help, … that open-mindedness and that flexibility to see one’s own weakness and … gaps and then to fill those gaps is a really good model of leadership'

Be a coach, not a boss. Ask, don’t tell

Now ‘command and control’ gives way to ‘we trust you to do that’. Leadership at the top is discernibly shifting from a focus on the single individual who does the analysis and decides what happens, to leaders who draw on the expertise of their team and engage the talents in the organisation.

Eliminating ambiguity is important. Less clarity means less buy in. As an interviewee put it:

‘A strong sense of purpose and strategy, a story with everyone aligned to it … that makes people clear about what they're doing, what they shouldn't do, … what they should invest in, what they shouldn’t invest in … it raises discretionary efforts. … people get a sense of where they’re heading’

But top-level messaging also needs nuance. Communication is a balancing act. Leaders need to confer absolute clarity on what the core goals are and why, but also make it clear that these concrete goals may change. They need to train the organisation to be comfortable with ambiguity.

After a decade of furious digital adaptation, many leaders are now gun-shy of simplistic messages that ‘this is the future’. They strive for communication that is clear but subtle, and to build information networks to ensure they hear important signals from inside and outside reach them:

Transparency is seductive, but some have found too much openness can backfire. “It sounds good to say, ‘we don’t have the answer, we’re placing strategic bets on these areas’,” one interviewee said. “But that scares a lot of people … they translate that into ‘they don’t know what they’re doing’.”

This is a difficult judgement call. Honesty and transparency create trust, but they can also create fear, which brings with it a whole new set of leadership challenges. Some ideas need time to mature. In this case, leadership communication needs to be more measured:

You need the right people at the top table

The layer below the top person is disproportionately critical for transformation. We tend to think of top leadership as a singular entity, probably reflecting discourse in the tech space (which increasingly bleeds into the media space), which is in thrall to the cult of the heroic leader, be it Mark Zuckerberg, Elon Musk or Jeff Bezos.

Yet the highest performing top leaders do not lead alone. They work in tandem with a team of leaders. Members of this team are leaders of their own areas, add depth and perspective to joint decisions, and act as a check where needed on ego or ambition. The top leader needs to be right, and the top leadership team needs to be right too. As two interviewees put it:

‘If the top team is aligned and knows what they’re doing - that raises overall performance measurably, … there’s a downward delta too. Performance will suffer if it’s not functioning well and going in different directions. … People think “oh my god, we’ve got to change 10,000 people in 10, 20 locations”, but you don’t. All those people report to a small set of top people who cast a long shadow’

‘Submarines are under the water and do untold damage, quietly torpedoing everything you are trying to achieve … They nod along but actually they're undermining you and will shoot down everything you try to achieve. You can bring them into a ‘safe learning environment’, but that only gets you so far. If somebody can't shift their mindset, you have to do something’

Many of those teams have been put together historically over years – they certainly were never explicitly curated for the task of transforming a legacy to a digital business in a volatile environment. As leaders realise their top team needs to be top calibre, the challenge of curating the top team becomes pressing. The biggest challenge is area leaders who don’t buy in. This matters so much because people at the top who don’t buy in give a ‘free pass’ to those lower down to do likewise.

The uniform recommendation is fast, unilateral action: the longer you wait, the higher the price – strategy implementation is hesitant, big decisions are fudged, transformation is slower.  “Get rid of blockers as soon as you can … It’s never going to change with people like that on the team,” one interviewee said. 

The first step is to expose the issue:

‘The biggest thing is call it out … that’s not how some people work, they like to just ‘plant seeds’ … I haven’t got time for that shit …. let’s have it out now’

And don’t waste time with moderate responses:

‘You can keep it going for years, eking it out, ignoring it or giving it a special, ‘well they don’t need to integrate, it’s fine’. … it’s easier to make exceptions, hive people off and create jobs that aren’t real jobs, I’m not interested in that. I have a commercial imperative’

Many news executives spoke of the struggle of getting the top team digital enough. The default move is to add one or two ‘digital bodies’ – the risk here is that the rest of team then think that they can relax on all things digital.

As digital technologies started to transform businesses, new top digital roles emerged. These were bedevilled by a lack of clarity: about purpose, about the skills needed to fill them, and about how they would dovetail with existing roles.

Two problems are at work here. First, there is no textbook answer. The roles you need in your team depend on who you have already, what they know, what your ambitions are, what new expertise they demand, and often who is available in the market. A compounding issue is that top teams are perhaps subject to the vagaries of fashion more than any other part of the organisation. 

The default signal to show you are across an emerging issue is to recruit a new individual for that issue in the top team. That may indeed be the correct response, but to ensure it doesn’t end up as a political role without real capacity to deliver, they need to be designed after close analysis of what this job needs to deliver, and ensuring it has enough resources and authority to do that. Otherwise ambiguity and turf wars can result:

Two top team roles are proving especially difficult. The first concerns data. As an interviewee put it:

‘We had a long debate about where data should sit… We went through a whole process of trying to hire someone, not at board level but one level below, and we realised that we weren’t going to get the calibre or quality of people we needed, so it went up’

The second is a new role: the Chief Revenue Officer/ Chief Customer Officer. This is often the publisher role reincarnated. This individual connects and drives the totality of revenue streams, not just advertising. Increasingly the prime focus is the subscription engine, and the allied data and tech activities around that. It’s a complex and demanding job:

‘It’s gone from a kind of global ambassadorial bag carrier to someone that absolutely owns the conversation about the business, and gatekeeper for what other parts of the business can get … They need to be credible hybrids. … super smart but also with a kind of consultancy mindset’

Digital transformation is a big challenge for middle managers

There is a different leadership challenge in the middle of organisations. Those heading teams, units or departments need to know how to lead as well as how to do their ‘day job’. This is new. Occupants of these roles often rose to them after successfully managing the news agenda, not managing people. Previously leadership ability didn’t bring kudos and you could rise to the top without it. Now things are different:

‘You have to be a business person as well as a journalist, as well as a people manager, as well as a skills changer as well as a mentor … it’s really hard to be a leader now, because you’re leading a different ship to the one you boarded when you started out’

Strategic performance management systems like KPIs and OKRs are increasingly common, as are agile and project management processes. This has added a layer of explicit accountability to middle management, who are increasingly tasked with hitting goals, with career progression contingent on this. As one executive said:

‘One of the big reasons this has been so successful for us is because of structural changes three years ago when we required desks to be wholly accountable for their work and for their staff, so they couldn’t hand things off anymore, as with “I’m only responsible for like this one element”. Now it’s “No, you’re responsible for all of it”. … because of that, people had to start leading and managing their teams better because the buck stopped with them’

The further organisations progress with their transition, the greater the pressure on those in the middle to be good leaders. This is a muscle that must be developed. As with leaders at the top, those in the middle need to move from individual to collective responsibility, from command and control to consensus:

Mentoring and feedback are both bedrock and starting points. Better feedback is pretty much a universal demand – from leaders in the middle, and from those they are leading. And a culture based around feedback and mentoring needs to start at the top. Here’s how an executive put it:

‘We suffered as a business with not giving feedback, avoiding the difficult conversations, we all did that …. So, we are really focusing on coaching, mentoring, open dialogue, respectful dialogue. … we’re doing a lot of training on how to coach, how to mentor at different levels. … I need to know how to have open conversations, difficult conversations’

This type of leadership training is not about digital skill acquisition, but rather about change and performance management. However, the need to develop leadership skills may be self-evident, but can be a daunting sell to journalists. “Every newsroom I’ve worked in has tried to implement manager training,” says one of the executives interviewed. “People are very hesitant but that shifts as they see the benefits … a well-operating team … knowing people's strengths and weaknesses and how they are as individuals.”

Five key points from this piece:

  • Making an organisation truly digital first involves activating a system of interlocking elements – leadership, culture, talent, structure. All are critical, but leadership is first among equals. ‘Mediocre’ leadership will muddy the focus and dilute results. Progress will happen (the strategic environment means some degree of transformation is inevitable), but it will be slower and deliver less than the resources invested might have done, and the risk of burnout for those pushing the change is high.
  • Leadership requirements are stringently different at different levels of the organisation. To start at the top, we are almost entering an era of the anti-leader. Great top leadership is increasingly about listening rather than speaking, being candid about personal knowledge gaps rather than demonstrating a comprehensive expertise, and, critically, about empathy and approachability. These have become as strategically central as strategic ability itself (more so as a result of the Corona crisis). We have reached the stage of digital transformation where resources are seriously being clawed away from legacy areas, and digital systems and processes are decisive for a sustainable future. Leaders need to make their own digital transformation journey apparent, and to be accessible enough that key messages from the middle, bottom and periphery of the organisation can reach them.
  • The calibre and cohesion of the top team is disproportionately critical, especially for business model transformation. This team needs to have the right roles, the right people in those roles, and those top leaders need to be highly aligned. When top team alignment and performance is optimal, transformation is accelerated, and outcomes boosted. Conversely, a subpar top team – not digital enough, key areas not represented or not listened to, too much infighting - brings very high opportunity costs, slowing transformation and damaging the ability to implant new cultural values.
  • Leaders in the middle of the organisation increasingly carry the burden of achieving OKRs and KPIs - and they need support and training to do this. Previously they didn’t need to be good leaders of people, now they do. But how to be a good leader needs to be learned. Few are naturally gifted, and management was not what they signed up for when many leaders chose journalism as a career. Investment in skill building here, especially in performance management, project management, feedback and mentoring, will pay huge dividends. Good leadership is learned, not innate.
  • Leadership signalling has always been disproportionately important, and this requirement has also been heightened as a result of the COVID-19 crisis. Levels of uncertainty and insecurity are high, and people seek clarity. A leader is never not communicating. What he or she does not do is just as important as what they do. Parse and prepare all leadership messages really carefully.