How to be an excellent leader in news [infographic]
The topic was a draw: “Great journalists are often terrible managers. How do we fix this?” read the title of a workshop at a popular journalism conference. It attracted not just victims of bad leadership but a considerable number of high profile leaders, who were not just fishing for compliments.
While there is plenty of bad leadership around in all industries, it is safe to say that leadership skills in the media profession are particularly underdeveloped. The reasons are structural. First, in most newsrooms, people get promoted for their skills as journalists, not for their potential talents as people managers. Second, the increasing pressure to become a personal brand themselves absorbs much of the energy leaders should place on developing their reports. Third, professional leadership development is not a priority in environments shaped by 24/7-pressure, financial constraints and pronounced professional pride. "There is almost an anti-management ethos in the industry”, observes Lucy Kueng, author of Going Digital – A Roadmap for Digital Disruption.
Luckily, things have improved - a little. While there are still plenty of big egos roaming the world’s newsrooms, many of them understand that management skills are not only for wimps. Truly great leaders are rare, but decent leadership and management is a craft that can be learned and taught. The following is not a manual, but a compilation of advice gathered at the Reuters Institute’s leadership events, through research and decades of personal experience in the industry and beyond.
1. Listen more than you talk: to your team, to your customers, to visionaries in the outside world. Of course it is important to get your points across, to be visible in the increasingly competitive space of experts who seem to know it all. But finding out what is really needed and who needs your support, getting the first inkling of something that is about to go wrong, understanding how changes in the world will affect your industry, all this you will only find out once you shut up. Reporters are usually good listeners, but they tend to lose that skill once they dive into commentary and essay writing – and winning the power struggles in the newsroom.
2. Communication is key: It is ironic, that in an industry that is making a living off communication, the craft as such is often underdeveloped. Journalists detest to communicate with their audiences (too time consuming), leaders don’t communicate their message (shouldn’t people know this by now?), they avoid to communicate with their reports (could end up being difficult) and different parts of the organisation don’t communicate with each other (we don’t understand each other anyway). But a lack of communication is the major source of dissatisfaction and distrust within organisations and beyond. So tell the outside world how you work, tell your team what is expected of them, and please do care. And remember: the most important part of communication is listening.
3. Look beyond your industry: Yes, journalism and the media are unique in their function to be vital for a healthy democracy. But if you find yourself at the same conferences surrounded by the same media people all the time, you should get suspicious. It can be incredibly helpful to learn how other industries have tackled challenges that affect many alike: attracting young customers, finding talent, managing digital transformation, handling internal communications, putting a price-tag on services. Looking for best practice within the industry should be something you are doing anyway.
4. Journalism comes first: The mission of media organisations in a democracy is providing for a public good. This should guide your investment decisions, your product choices, your hunt for talent. In a digital organisation, you will have a lot more non-journalists on board. Value them highly, but make sure they understand journalism and what the organisation is in for. If some new trend emerges – be it video, podcasting, virtual reality, newsroom analytics – think about how it can improve the journalism you are producing. This said, of course the people come first, those who make the journalism and its distribution happen.
5. Get to know your audience, and think about them: Let’s face it: Quite a few projects in journalism are pursued to impress other journalists, particularly the competition. But they are actually not appreciated that much in the outside world. One way to meet your audience is through metrics. Get them to register, look at what they value. But it is also important to find out where the gaps are, who you don’t attract with your products. Think about if it is worth pursuing them. Read relevant research about audience behaviour, for example the Reuters Institute’s Digital News Report, to find out if you are on the right track. And don’t only analyse data and research. Meet your audience in the real world. You might be surprised.
6. Scrutinise your incentive structure: Who do you value, who do you single out, who do you celebrate, who do you promote? Is it the award-winning reporters, the data scientists, the editors, the investigative team or the brilliant columnists? Don’t ever underestimate the signals you send. This will be closely watched by your staff and set the pace for what is important in an organisation. Because people want to be valued, they care about being acknowledged. And they get frustrated when they are not seen. And it is not just about money. The effect of a bonus evaporates fast – and even faster, if someone else got a bigger one. It is about feeling needed and having a perspective in the organisation.
7. It is (almost) all about talent: Hire the right people, and your organisation will flourish. That seems to be a no brainer, but it is easier said than done. When looking for new talent, it is tempting to rely on the usual suspects, brilliant people who are known in the industry. But make sure they are a fit for the team. Try to understand people’s motives when you hire them. Develop talent within the organisation. It conveys a message if the interesting jobs only go to external candidates. Aim for diversity in the newsroom – diversity of gender, age, social background, views. And not only hire diverse candidates to polish the statistics, but support them when settling in.
8. Understand technology – and use it as a tool, not a replacement: Artificial Intelligence and machine learning will change the world as we know it. You need to understand the forces behind these technologies, as they will impact everything. But as with all technologies, don’t look at them as a force of nature you have to put up with. Use them as tools to achieve your goals. AI can help you understand your audiences better, support you in hiring decisions, augment your products or be at the heart of new products. It can’t make the kind you choices you need to produce great journalism. That’s what you need value judgements for. And it can’t replace conversation. Keep it mind, that algorithms are a condensed, data-informed version of the past. They will never produce innovation.
9. You will always be a role model, good or bad: It it is important what you do than what you preach. Your team will watch closely how you act and adjust. Your actions are very important in setting the culture and pace of your organisation. If you talk 'journalism first' but act 'money first', they will understand. If you talk team play but always put yourself in the limelight, they will notice. If you talk flexibility and family first but always prioritise work over caring commitments, people will know what is expected of them. Then again really bad leaders can actually be good role models, because people will learn how not to do it.
10. Make yourself redundant: That doesn’t mean you should delegate everything and retreat into enjoying the perks of your job. But one of your major goals should be to develop people so one day someone will be ready to take your job. That makes it easier for you to move on. Be proud when one of your rising stars is hired by the competition. It just tells you that you did it right. And they might come back even more loyal. Remember, this is not about you but about the organisation. Too many teams, whole companies have failed because everything was centred around one person. Always remember: Power is attached to your role, not to yourself. You don’t own it. You just borrowed it for a time.
Interested in developing your media leadership knowledge and skills? See more about our various media leadership programmes, for both senior and experienced leaders, and new and aspiring leaders.
Alexandra Borchardt is Director of Leadership Programmes at the Reuters Institute and former managing editor at Sueddeutsche Zeitung.