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September 8, 2022updated 07 Oct 2022 7:15am

Good journalists can make bad leaders: Eight media leadership insights to change that

By Charlotte Tobitt

Great newsroom leadership can provide an inspiring and diverse culture for journalists to do their best work. Yet many journalists still complain of working in toxic newsrooms where managers use blame and bullying to encourage staff to hit page-view targets.

In 2014, Poynter Institute academic Roy Peter Clark wrote that “the qualities that make people great journalists (urgency, scepticism, doggedness) make them bad managers”. In the same year, Columbia Journalism Review journalist Ryan Chittum noted that “what makes for a great reporter doesn’t necessarily make for a great boss”.

More recently, Stanford University fellow Soo Oh wrote that journalism has a “huge management problem”, while the American Press Institute found newsroom managers were becoming burned out, meaning they “can’t adequately guide a staff or preach a balanced life if they can’t attain it themselves”.

Two new books on leadership from media bosses have been published this week. Say Thank You For Everything: The Secrets Of Being A Good Manager by Jim Edwards (pictured, right), the former editor-in-chief of Insider’s news division and founding editor of Business Insider UK, concentrates on tips for individuals on how to be a good manager in whatever industry they are in, drawing on some anecdotes from his media career.

Edwards also spoke to Press Gazette for our Future of Media Explained podcast about leadership this week.

And Passion To Lead: Advice For Inspirational Leaders by Julio Bruno (pictured, left), who stepped down as chief executive of Time Out Group in October 2021 after six years, explores in a more memoir-based style how to rise to the top and also motivate others.

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[Read more: Time Out CEO Julio Bruno on ‘big slap’ to business of Covid-19]

Both offer invaluable insights that can be applied within news and media organisations (although they have very different views on the usefulness of the Myers-Briggs personality test).

Here we have compiled some lessons from both men that we think could be particularly useful for our readers.

Eight media leadership tips

1. Say thank you

There’s a reason Edwards put this tip in the title of his book: he has worked in toxic newsrooms and has learned that showing some appreciation for employees’ work makes a big difference.

“If you’re working on a team and your boss appears to genuinely appreciate the effort you’re putting in, that takes away a huge level of workplace anxiety, I found,” he told the Future of Media Explained podcast.

2. Have a separate promotion ladder for ‘rock stars’

“I think the main problem is that managing people is a completely different skill from whatever work you’re doing,” Edwards told the podcast.

As an example, he pointed out that Liverpool FC striker Mo Salah would not be promoted to manager because of a stellar performance on the field in the hope he “can somehow delegate [his] talents to everybody else”.

Instead, he suggested, companies should have a different route for promotion for their “rock stars”, which will see them rewarded and feel valued with a new job title, for example, but not give them managerial responsibilities if that is not what best suits their skills.

3. Avoid having days where you are ‘busy being busy’

Bruno warns against falling into the trap where you are “busy being busy” almost for the sake of it, and still managing to accomplish nothing that day.

“Do we stop and think about what we are doing, and why?” he writes in his book. He urges leaders to always have a personal plan to follow and “internalise your goals so that you know you are not just spinning plates and there is a method in your approach”.

4. Adapt to ‘The Great Reassessment’

Much has been written in the past year about employees making changes in their careers prompted by the reflection afforded to them by the Covid-19 pandemic as well as sudden changes like widespread furloughs and redundancies. This period has been called variously “The Great Reassessment” and “The Great Resignation”.

In his book, Bruno argues this means now is a good time to ensure workers get training in skills they feel will make a difference to them, thus fostering a sense of loyalty to the company that they may not feel if left to stagnate.

“In today’s post-corona world, where companies worldwide are rethinking their work practices, company culture and employee loyalty, there is an opportunity to train employees with new skills that will help them make better contributions to their companies and feel empowered at the same time,” Bruno writes.

“This will help with loyalty, which, now more than ever, is a difficult quality to establish in a disconnected workforce.”

More generally, Bruno argues, companies “need to adapt to this new way of thinking about work in the knowledge and information economy we live in”. Some ways of doing so, he says, will include training in new skills for remote leadership, avoiding death by email or Zoom meetings, adapting talent acquisition away from location-based models, and a renewed focus on company culture including creating a sense of belonging and purpose in society.

5. Data vs intuition

Both Edwards and Bruno discuss the importance for leaders in knowing when to follow their gut and when to follow the data.

Edwards writes: “There’s a difference between having good data and applying judgment to good data. That’s your job: to apply judgment.”

And Bruno says: “Knowledge is being replaced by information and disinformation, but there is no quality prerequisite to those bits of data… We have something in our toolbox that (so far) machines do not have: intuition.”

6. Diversity helps your business be better

Edwards confesses in his book that he used to believe the “meritocratic myth” that if you set out to hire the best people you will naturally end up with a fair and diverse selection of people that covers a multitude of backgrounds.

But he says he “became suspicious of it when I saw how it panned out in real life”, in part because elite colleges have their own flawed systems for selecting students and often end up with a largely rich, white intake.

Speaking on Press Gazette’s podcast, he said: “I’ve worked with plenty of people who graduated from Oxford and Cambridge and a lot of them are terrible. Graduating from Oxford and Cambridge is no guarantee of anything. Some of the biggest idiots in newsrooms graduated from those colleges… simply graduating from one of these institutions does not make you good.”

He added: “You can’t even say if I hire from these schools, I’ll get the best people because a lot of them are not the best. Some of them are the worst.”

Instead, he said, managers should recruit via a variety of methods including actively approaching people with more diverse backgrounds instead of waiting for them to apply for jobs – they may not see themselves at your organisation or it may not be on their radar at all.

“You’re going to need to work harder to get the best people – and that involves actively reaching out to the people you want, not simply waiting for them to show up on their own,” Edwards wrote in his book. Hiring good people should be a manager’s number one priority, he said, and this includes a drive for diversity.

Bruno also makes the point that a more diverse company is a better one, as well as arguing this is good for retention: “Representation matters, and this is a crucial reason to spend time finding the best candidates everywhere. Employees see this, feel this, and are prouder of their company when they know it is a fairer, more equitable company. It is also a fantastic retention tool because people want to work for companies that care.”

7. Help staff prioritise

A common mistake managers mistake, Edwards says, is not realising that staff generally say yes to every task you give them – but don’t let you know when they are overloaded. It is important to also take tasks away from them so the important stuff gets done.

He told the podcast: “A really common situation is you go to your people and you say, ‘Hey, can you do this thing? Can you write this extra story? Can you investigate this thing?’ And the default position of most people in a workplace is to say yes to their boss. You, the boss, are in this position of constantly asking for more things, more tasks, more projects, whatever it is, and everyone feels they have to say yes because that’s what they’re being paid to do.

“It’s actually very unusual for bosses to go around and take work away from people, and often employees do not feel comfortable saying to their boss ‘I’m overwhelmed, if you give me this work, I can’t do it all’. Something’s gotta give. So a mistake as a manager is to never prioritise your people’s stuff.”

Equally, Edwards said, managers have to know when to pull the plug on a project that isn’t working: “Actively noticing when you’ve got a line of business or an employee working on something that no one cares about, and then changing that person’s role, moving them to something else – that’s a thing that managers often forget to do.”

8. Qualities that define a leader

According to Bruno, they include: believing in yourself, being both vulnerable and strong, being honest with yourself and transparent in your interactions, being passionate, and being curious and eager to learn from everything and everyone.

And chief executives in particular, Bruno says, must be “extremely good at communicating, persuading and bringing people along”, which could include both agreeing with people and being a “master persuader” to get them going a different way.

“One thing I have learnt is that you need to listen much more than you ever thought you might,” he says – adding that his other key lesson is to know “how to leave your ego at the door”.

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