Everything I know about leadership I learned from losing my job

A few weeks back, I was tapped to stand in for my boss, Robyn Tomlin, in giving a leadership talk to college journalists in NYC. Not really knowing much about “talking about leadership”, the best I could offer at the time were lessons from my own career. Let’s face it, I’m no Robyn Tomlin.

Right before I was to give this talk, I heard the first inklings that my job – and the jobs of my staff – were in doubt. This worry hanging over my head undoubtedly influenced the advice I gave that day. At the time, I honestly sort of thought I was BSing a bit. Over the past couple of weeks, since the news of Thunderdome’s demise became public, I’ve found these off-the-cuff lessons to be truer than I had imagined:

You don’t need to have a plan mapped out to make a great career.

All our best laid plans often can’t stand up to the realities of the business. Everyone who joined Thunderdome had their reasons – and for many (myself included), that reason was a dedicated to the mission of making local news sustainable. We had plans – and none of them included an early shutdown. Now, they’re all rolling with the punches, sticking together and aggressively going after what they want to do next.

Take risks, because they are worth it even when they don’t work out.

Twice now I’ve taken risks – with my career and that of my spouse – to move to a new city to pursue a job that sounded awesome. Neither worked out, but I wouldn’t take either decision back. These risks changed my life and have given rewards beyond increments of time on my resume. I think most of my coworkers would agree – we are all far better for this experience.

Lead from where you are, no management title required.

The Thunderdome staff has never been short of leaders at every level – be it on projects, new products or in the newsroom. These past 10 days, I’ve seen so many people inside Thunderdome step up and be leaders in the midst of all the insanity. I’ve seen them take control not only of their own careers, but also helping support, guide and push their colleagues onto new paths. I couldn’t be prouder of how they’ve rallied together and kept high spirits in the face of a lot of public pain.

Relationships matter, so give all you can, all the time.

I can’t begin to describe how comforting it was to experience the outpouring of support for the Thunderdome staff in the hours and days following the news of our layoffs. Our web of former coworkers, friends, ONA buddies and journalists-we-know-from-Twitter was there to catch us when we fell. I’m still working on answering every email, tweet, Facebook message, text and phone call that offering support, drinking money, connections and job leads that made their way to me and my staff.

These networks don’t just materialize in times of trouble – creating relationships that matter lies in the little details of how we conduct our personal and professional lives when we aren’t in need. It’s filling in for people at the last second for professional obligations, Skyping with that class, helping with that project, listening to that bad-day rant, inviting that person to sit at your table – and following up, always following up. Being nice matters. Giving of yourself and your time matters. When it is your time to be in need, it all comes back around.

All in all, I don’t really know if I told those kids much about leadership, but I hope they took these few pieces of advice to heart. Thanks, everyone, for all you’ve done for us.

Here are my (absolutely horribly designed) slides from that leadership talk. It doesn’t make as much sense without the notes, but you can see those on the slide files if you are so inclined.

 

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