Opinionista Styli Charalambous 22 March 2021

The job of leaders is not to have all the answers – but to ask the right questions

The year 2020 started as a year of hope and excitement. The documentary Influence that we had helped bring into the world was screening at the Sundance Film Festival in Park City, Utah. Held in January every year, it was my first stop before heading to New York to join a cohort of classmates from all over the world as we kicked off the inaugural Media Innovation and Leadership Course at the Craig Newmark Graduate School of Journalism at the City University of New York.

First published in the Daily Maverick 168 weekly newspaper.

The programme was founded to equip media leaders with the skills and thinking required to take the industry into the post-great disruption era. A mix of MBA-style classes infused with product and technology sprints, the plan was to do four in-person bursts over the year in New York supplemented with a ton of reading and a final capstone project. A certain pandemic had other plans and, after just one visit to New York, we pivoted to weekly online sessions that became our two-hour shelter in the Covid-19 storm, each Thursday afternoon. Having just completed the course, I can reflect on some of the biggest learnings from a year of geeking out on media issues and learning with and from some of the brightest minds in the business.

By the end of the first week, it was clear how much there was to learn and how the news industry had fallen behind in developing leaders. Successful efforts in strategy, innovation and organisational design do not happen by chance; they take hard work and much thinking – conscious effort that needs to be carved out from daily firefighting.

We learnt about the fabulous term “ambidextrous organisational design” as a way to address the Innovator’s Dilemma, first posited by Professor Clay Christensen. We would come to learn that the news industry’s story of digital transformation was a classic example of how successful business operations hijack the resources and bandwidth of any new ambitions, especially those that may be remotely competitive activities.

Leaders have to create a culture of innovation where anyone is capable of the next big idea, not just the executive team. To do this, we must have a clear vision and mission to direct organisational efforts. Without these clearly defined and mapped against audience needs, it is likely that teams will lose focus and be dragged into muddy waters. Setting a strategy and goals are worthless without measuring progress against those efforts, and data is key. But we must measure what matters, and what matters is how we are fulfilling our mandate to serve the public and achieving impact with our work. We need diversified revenue streams that align with our mission and the potential to grow.

The business of journalism does not require putting men on the moon and, even if it did, there would be textbooks for that. There is much we can learn from other industries or from the leaders in our own field when it comes to building a culture of innovation, building new revenue streams or new functions. Too often we think that our business problems are unique and that makes us special. Spoiler alert: we aren’t.

Product design thinking is new to the news media but has been the basis for launching many tech products and services into the stratosphere. Christensen, again, prompted us to ask what is the “job to be done” by this product? And for whom? Working backwards from audience needs, testing hypotheses and iterating is the most effective framework to reduce the risk of new project launches. Whether it be launching newsletters, membership programmes or designing homepage layouts, to create value we must first service a need.

Diverse teams can create a beautiful cacophony of thoughts, words and voices. But to do so requires more than a legal tickboxing effort but one where the culture permeates inclusivity. The industry has much work to do in this space but, with committed leadership, it can get there. It has to. Although, this is one area the American media industry is definitely not leading in.

After this year of study, I now realise the only thing that awaits us on the other side of change is more change. It is incumbent on us to build organisations that are robust, can drive multipronged efforts and be led and managed by flexible thinkers who are constantly inquisitive. And, finally, it’s not the job of leaders to have all the answers, but rather to ask the right questions. DM168

This story first appeared in our weekly Daily Maverick 168 newspaper which is available for free to Pick n Pay Smart Shoppers at these Pick n Pay stores.

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