Our podcast: Authentic Leadership. Episode 3 - Authenticity and perseverance: "It became clear it wasn't about me"
In this episode of our Authentic Leadership podcast series we look at how one young, woman leader found the courage to negotiate an array of challenges in the newsroom and how the stories we craft for ourselves can help us persevere through challenging times.
Host: Ramaa Sharma is an award-winning Digital Leader, Consultant and Executive Coach. Until recently she was the Senior Digital Editor in BBC News, driving digital transformation across the division of 8,000 journalists. She also worked with the BBC News Board to help facilitate a more diverse and inclusive newsroom. Prior to that Ramaa spent a decade of her career presenting and reporting across multiple BBC platforms, before moving into digital leadership. At the World Service, Ramaa pioneered the first ever digital leadership and social media courses for editors and executives on the World Service Board. In her time Ramaa also edited a number of award winning editorial and digital projects.
Guest: Yvette Dimiri is Head of Growth at Stears Insights which provides in-depth, data-driven stories and analysis on the major topics affecting Nigeria. After graduating in political science from the University of Chicago she returned to Nigeria eventually leading audience engagement strategies at daily finance title Business Day.
Embracing who you are | Open hostility | Rationalising attacks | The power of stories and relationships | Living out one's truth
Embracing who you are ↑
Ramaa: If I asked you, what does authenticity mean to you, what would you say?
Yvette: It's actually a word I think a lot about. And there are a couple of different definitions, I guess I'm interested in. The first one is I think it's from Brené Brown. She said something around just the daily practice of letting go of who you think you're supposed to be and becoming or embracing who you are. Right? I like the daily practice bits because it really is like a daily choice, a very sort of action oriented word for me in my life. I also think of the word courage as being pretty close to authenticity in the sense that just looking at the root of the word courage, which is, you know, heart. So what is it? What's in your heart? Right? And your ability to live that out. Yeah, that's kind of how I think about it. I really think it's a journey. It's been a journey for me. I expect it to continue being a journey.
Ramaa: Yeah. And I think you've embodied that quite early, because I remember when we first spoke about this question and you mentioned that, you know, when you came back from university, actually, there was an act of courage to leave your family business and join Business Day. Tell us a little bit about that.
Yvette: Yeah. So this is why I think that Brené Brown's definition really rings true to me. So just like letting go of who you think you're supposed to be or who you think other people think you're supposed to be. I am very close to my family. I feel lucky in that sense. And so I made a conscious choice to move back to Nigeria after my university studies. And I thought the road ahead was family business, work with my dad and carry on the legacy from there. But it became very clear to me through the things that gave me joy and also how I felt, you know, in my family business, how I felt every day working there, it became clear to me where I was supposed to be, like where my where my heart wanted to be, at the very least. And so, you know, I think it took me about maybe three to six months to figure out how to say it to him, not because he wasn't going to be supportive, but just I also wanted to make sure and I wanted to clearly communicate my choice and why.
Yvette: And so that was a really important act of courage, just because also where I chose to go, which is media, which is where I am now, I really had no experience. I had no proof that it would work out. But it was such an important move in my life. And in retrospect, I'm glad I did it.
Open hostility ↑
Ramaa: And then you got to Business Day and that was an extraordinary experience, wasn't it? Tell us a little bit about both the challenges and the opportunities you had there.
Yvette: Yeah, Business Day was such a formative experience. I came in at a really important time in the business's history. They had already begun the digital transformation journey when I got there. I came in, I kind of inherited a team that was tasked with completing this mission. And it was really, really hard. It was really hard. I never worked in a newsroom. So obviously that dynamic was interesting and fascinating and energising and all those good words. And also, I think my own identity was also something about my identity in that newsroom that was always an interesting dynamic. Like, I've lived in Nigeria for maybe when I started, maybe like just a few years throughout my entire life. And all of a sudden I was with all of these Nigerians who were like, 'Who are you? Are you Nigerian enough?' So that was always an interesting dynamic for me there. Being a woman was another interesting dynamic that I had to contend with on a daily basis, as well as being young and one of, actually, the youngest leader in the boardroom or the management setting at any given point in time. So lots of different dynamics. And on top of all of that, a very challenging task in and of itself to get done. And so, you know, there are a whole bunch of stories we could get into. But when I think about it, I would definitely say that obviously the good outweighs the bad in terms of experiences I had there. Challenging, nonetheless, but yeah, very formative.
Ramaa: So let's talk about this experience. We'll come to the good for sure. But let's talk about those challenges. I mean, when did it become obvious there was some resistance because of, say, your age or your gender.
Yvette: Yeah, there are a couple of different moments I could point to. So I had done a study tour, went to Oslo and Stockholm and all these different newsrooms across Europe that were also, you know, probably actually at the tail end of their own digital transformation journey. So I went to just meet with the newsroom leaders and talk about how they did it. And it became very clear to me that there was one immediate change I wanted to make. And that was actually the physical proximity of the newsroom and what was then the digital services team at Business Day. We were literally very far apart. It was a big office building and we're very far apart. And back then, you know, pre-COVID, there were a lot of studies that showed that you usually don't talk to people who are more than like 50-plus metres away from you in your own office. And communication was a really key part of that journey. So I said, everybody's going to move to the newsroom. And with that, the second order of effect of that was that people would be displaced, so to speak. Some people would have to give up their seats. And so when the recommendation was made, I started to hear remarks, right? Comments like, ‘oh, who are you? Who are you anyway? You're so-and-so's girlfriend. Just like a leader's girlfriend.’ And maybe I just showed up there by virtue of my relationship to that person. Obviously false. I started to hear ‘I've been working longer than you’ve been alive’. And, you know, just comments that were really targeted at belittling the recommendation and not really actually engaging with at least the intellectual part of what I was trying to accomplish. So, yeah, then I knew that it would be an uphill climb. There was also an interesting moment in the cafeteria when I sat down, somebody else was there, another woman. And she was just asking me if I was married. And I said, no, I wasn't. And then she just got up and left. It was a very bizarre moment. But I started to realise, okay, you know, there are going to be some cultural hills to climb, so to speak.
Ramaa: Yeah, and these feel like quite personal attacks as well. It's not really attacking, as you say, the professional message.
Yvette: Yeah. But I think those are, you know, if I'm playing devil's advocate, that's how you crush someone's spirit, right? There are things in all of our lives that are like… somebody put it to me, he used the example of Velcro, you know, the material that sticks to you. So if there are some thorny bits in your life that are open for people to attack, there's always the opportunity for that Velcro to stick, right? And how you handle that is really important.
Rationalising attacks ↑
Ramaa: So tell us, how did you handle that?
Yvette: It's obviously a combination of talking to people and reading things, etc. But at some point, I remember it became clear to me that none of it was actually about me. And that was a really liberating moment for me. And I think it's, I hope, actually true for anybody who's going through something similar. None of it is actually about you, or what you're trying to accomplish. It's almost always about the fear in the other person, and what's going on in their mind, and the meaning they're attributing to what you're trying to do, what it means for them. And so being able to really dig into that, having that imagination and that empathy about ‘what could it be that this person is resisting?’ That those are much more useful questions to ask then ‘Why me? Why would you say this? What did I do to you?’ You know, those were my initial questions. So I was really liberated by that revelation. So to speak, to have, then I began to have conversations with my colleagues. Many of them had been journalists for decades and really began to dig into what their fears were. And those were very important conversations for my leadership journey.
Ramaa: I think what you say is really, really powerful, because it's, like you say, it's quite a desperate attempt to try to undermine you and your work. And at the same time, there's a part of you that will feel, ‘well, that's quite unfair that you're saying that, actually, that you're bringing up my age or you're bringing up my gender, you're behaving in this way because I'm not married.’ How did you sort of, did those two things sort of come into your mind? Like, right, ‘I can focus on, well, what they're saying versus, actually, I need to call this out, or I need to report this, or actually, this is not good.’
Yvette: Yeah, that's a good question. I think by nature, I'm definitely non-confrontational. I prefer to avoid confrontation at all costs. And I think that's because in most parts of your life, you're kind of rewarded for harmony. You want to create a harmonising situation in your family, with your friends. If, like, your children are not performing well in school or one of them, you don't kick them out. Whereas work, it's different, right? You sometimes do have to ask people to leave. And you're really focused on productivity as opposed to harmony. And so I really had to kind of clue into that. And that, by the way, is still an ongoing journey because I am a recovering people pleaser, I like to put it. But remembering the objective of why I'm in the workplace in the first place, right? What are my objectives? is very important. Yeah, that was the important part.
Ramaa: Yeah, it sounds like that focus really helped you keep the eye on the prize, so to speak.
Yvette: It did. And there were a lot of early wins that I had with my team and with the entire newsroom. And those, I really, I knew that I had to make those the focal point of the conversation. So here is where we're succeeding. We tried this thing and look what it did, right? ‘You can do more of this. We can do more of this. Look how, look at the things we create when we work together.’ So I'm really proud of the work that we did. And also just, shifting the focus oftentimes to the work and the impact of the work, I also found helpful.
Ramaa: Do you ever feel tired?
Yvette: All the time. Yeah, it also didn't help that my commute was really long to the office. But it was exhausting at times to keep going. I remember a particular moment, I think it was a meeting among senior managers, and a comment was made to me by one senior manager or from one senior manager that I should really just sit down. That what I was doing wasn't important because it wasn't revenue generating. So this was early in the journey and it wasn't revenue generating. That moment was extraordinarily demoralising. One that I don't think I'll ever forget. But just like persevering through moments like that, I think I could only do it because I'm a storyteller. So I think often about the story I want to tell at the end of the day about the work that I did and how I left a place, etc. But I think definitely the exhaustion came from handling days like that.
Ramaa: You're not feeling supported by your senior managers. That's huge.
Yvette: Yeah, it is huge. I mean, there were definitely days where I had a lot of champions in the room, but unfortunately, the ones you tend to remember, are the ones that kind of almost break you.
The power of stories and relationships ↑
Ramaa: So where does your resilience come from? And this optimism that you share as well. It's amazing.
Yvette: Yeah, So, like I said, stories really matter in my life. They actually have this incredible way of keeping me going. I just keep showing up because I want the story to be a good one. And most of the time I've been pretty lucky in that sense that it's worked out well. I think definitely I get that from my mother. She's definitely a fighter. She just keeps going. She never settles. I get that from her. But I'm fortunate enough to be in this profession, in this industry where stories matter. And I just channel that to my advantage.
Ramaa: That's wonderful. So, I mean, you talked about some of the things that it gave you. These challenges help to also form your leadership style. Tell us a little bit more about the things that the lessons that you learned and then why then you decided to move on as well.
Yvette: The first thing I learned was the value of relationships. So I got the job by virtue of just, you know, I had created a product many years ago, a newsletter for women in the city. And I got the attention of one of the senior managers. And we just started talking and essentially said ‘I could create similar products for you. Here's what I can do. You've seen what I can do. You know, we can do this at scale together.’ And so that opportunity, that ability to use relationships to get your foot in the door was very life changing for me, and it's carried on throughout my life. So grateful for that relationship in particular and what it did for my career. And then I think running a media business is really difficult. And I was really lucky to have very, very close conversations with the publisher of Business Day and just to understand what it's taken to run this organisation for 20 years. And few people get that opportunity upfront or up close. And I think for me and my dreams of what I'll be doing in the next few years, I remember everything he said. I remember everything he said. Yeah, I mean, there's a lot more, but I think those two are…
Ramaa: Are you able to share a few words of wisdom?
Yvette: Yeah, I mean, one was very vague, but intentionally so. So I remember he told me that we were talking about what it means to create high quality content. And he told me that after a few decades in this business, he's also learned that it's a bit more than that. And he left it intentionally vague because obviously I was privy to all the conversations, commercial conversations around what it takes to keep the engine going and actually have the revenue to actually create high quality content. And so just seeing that dynamic, learning that dynamic from him, how much time he spent being the front-facing part of the business and making sure that the engines were running. Yeah, it was just such a treasure for me.
Ramaa: And so what made you want to move on from Business Day?
Yvette: Yeah, great question. I think for me, I was really drawn by the opportunity to start from scratch, at least almost from scratch. So Stears at that point in time was really just about to professionalise its newsroom. So previously, it was a volunteer group of writers. And so they had just raised funding to really give this thing a go. So I saw it as an opportunity to really shape an organisation in a way that I hadn't, you know… I had just limited opportunity in Business Day. I mean, of course, I think I had some impact. But yeah, it was just that opportunity for impact for me.
Living out one's truth ↑
Ramaa: Wonderful. And I'm thinking about your authenticity journey. Where does it fit in to that and where you go next?
Yvette: Where does it fit in? That's such a good question. So I think for me I'm just extremely proud of the work that we do at Stears. And I had the opportunity to really shape what that product should look like. More from at least the experience of using the product and the actual content itself. And so being able to live out that truth, I guess, like this is what I think high quality content should look like. That was expressive for me. And that's sort of how it fits into my authenticity journey. And I also think I've always struggled with, you know, I love the newsroom. I love the energy of the newsroom. I'm not a journalist by training. But I love to enable really great content. And so I think Stears also was an important part of really letting me see what my role is in media, in the media landscape. So, you know, I see it now sort of like media management or at least some kind of enabling function.
Ramaa: And I'm just thinking, what would you say to a young Nigerian woman who wants to join a newsroom? Probably at the age that perhaps you did. What advice would you give her?
Yvette: Buckle up! It's definitely, it's going to be a journey. Extremely rewarding, but sometimes very tough as well. I would say, just keep showing up because people there ultimately, I found that we all want the same things in terms of the success of the organisation, the reach of the work that we do, the impact of the work that we do. And finding a way to meet people eye to eye to understand what they care about. It's a real leadership journey, but one that will, I think… if you can cultivate those skills in the newsroom more than I think anywhere else, just that ability to understand where people want to go and what your role is in helping them get there, I think is very valuable for the rest of your life.
Ramaa: Brilliant. Yvette, you're a breath of fresh air. Thank you so much for joining us on the podcast.