Is your staff willing to be excellent?

By Daniel Varitek

In Kenna Griffin and Mark Witherspoon’s pre-convention panel on Editorial Leadership, much of the conversation was geared towards news. Struggling Editor-in-Chiefs hungry to calm their newsroom chaos, and curious journalism majors lapped up Mark’s insight on what makes a successful student publication. Unfortunately, I was neither a struggling Editor-in-Chief nor a journalism major.

Walking into that panel, I was looking for leadership expertise and insight on how to instill passion and drive in a completely volunteer-based team. Being a business-minded Marketing major, I wanted the nitty-gritty on how to be the most successful and thoughtful leader possible. What I found out was — it’s harder than I thought.

On any given day, you might catch me browsing through LinkedIn, reading success stories from Silicon Valley entrepreneurs, or “10 Things a Great Leader Never Does” articles from some 500+ connection guru I’ve never heard of. And while I find all of this interesting, I take it with a grain of salt. At the end of the day, it’s never smart — nor possible — to mimic someone else’s life path. It’s always been my goal to blend this leadership advice into my own style and practice. That’s what’s most effective.

Despite me not leading my own team at The Signal (which I plan to do in the near future), I have had years of experience managing completely volunteer staff teams. For the past two years, I’ve run a global eSports network with a remote staff team of over 75 people.

One of the biggest problems we’ve faced is getting people to do their work. When you don’t have the budget to pay everyone, and when you sometimes only see your staff in-person a few times a week, work can slip through the cracks. Assignments are at risk of going unfinished, and deadlines may be delayed. I don’t have to tell you that this is a frustrating experience.

This is the same problem I’ve seen Christina, our Editor-in-Chief, discuss at length in the newsroom. Writers may not finish their articles on time; News Editors may not be able to juggle their busy schedules; and work slips through. How can you inspire your colleagues and coworkers to excel?

This topic was discussed at length during Kenna and Mark’s panel. It begins with empathy. Giving individual attention to your team members and empathizing with their struggles can mean a world of difference. When you care not just about someone’s work, but also their wellbeing and personal success, an idle work ethic can begin to turn around. Mark described this as “serving your staff.” Take time to individualize your meetings and set a job description that is ambitious but achievable.

Failure is to be expected, because we’re always learning together. Mark calls failure an educational opportunity — learn from your failures and what got you there. But the biggest mindset to take away from failure is to never do it again. If a reporter’s story flops, figure out why and work hard to make sure it doesn’t happen again.

But Christina posed an important question during the panel. At what point should empathy stop? In an environment where we often juggle friendships outside of the office, but work relationships inside the office, the line between the two can blur. It may be okay to miss one deadline because your dog passed away, but don’t let your empathy be abused. I have a newspaper to run, and regardless of personal struggles, the work must be done.

This is a battle I, and the rest of our team, face weekly. I empathize with the difficulty in managing a schedule full of work, school, personal relationships, and a student newspaper. I juggle this, too. But if you can’t find the time to meet deadlines and accomplish what you promise, you must not care enough. An employee that consistently misses deadlines is as good as no employee at all.

I’m eager to take Kenna and Mark’s insight on leadership and teamwork back to the newsroom. A leader is very much responsible for his or her team’s shortcomings, and I plan to put this thought process into practice. I’m ready for my team to be excellent.