Leadership lessons from 2014

I’ve been lucky in my career to work with some pretty inspiring leaders. I’ve found myself reflecting on the lessons from some of those people recently given the time of year and, more importantly, because one of them, Pat McGovern, died in March this year and one of the others, Alan Rusbridger, announced he is leaving his long time post at the Guardian.

Pat McGovern was a remarkable person. He had some unusual quirks as most great leaders do, and you couldn’t help but wonder if those things that made him unusual were fuel for his accomplishments.

A good example of that was his notorious holiday handshake. I loved that he did that, as painful as it was for himself and for the hundreds of staff members he spent a few minutes speaking to directly, one on one. But it showed a deep commitment from him which everyone valued and respected.

As Harry McCracken wrote,

“His emotional and intellectual investment in the company he founded was boundless. Why would he not love traveling to IDG offices to talk with IDG employees about their work at IDG?”

Pat also had some strong philosophies underpinning his approach to working.

Pat used to say, ‘the specific wins over the general’. He understood the Long Tail before that became a thing.

He didn’t want big, centralized command-and-control systems and preferred to keep decision-making with self-contained business units that were focused on a particular market or customer base. He was happy to put money behind people he believed in and let them run their business…unless they started losing his money which never lasted very long.

He used those concepts to build a global network of 350+ businesses.

Alan Rusbridger’s recent announcement is still pretty fresh, and I don’t think any of us understand the extent of his impact, yet. But I can speak to his influence on me.

When I first started at the Guardian in 2008 I was under the impression that Alan’s presence was more directive than what I later learned to be the truth.

Yes, he was very good at achieving the results he wanted and was clear about what he expected. And there was never any doubt about who was in charge.

But he achieved that state by supporting those whose ideas and intentions would lead him in a direction that interested him rather than directing everyone’s actions. And with an unending collection of interests and an insatiable curiosity that meant the many explorers he surrounded himself with were expanding his influence in all those areas and, as a result, the power of the Guardian brand.

Alan was very loyal to his people, and that loyalty was given back to him.

I recall an eye-opening chat with one of his long time lieutenants as the initial hacking coverage by Nick Davies began to unfold in the pages of the Guardian.

“Alan is putting himself out there pretty far with this one, and I’m not sure we know how to back him up. That’s the problem with visionaries. You don’t always know what you’re following until you get there.”

By the time Edward Snowden got through to Glen Greenwald, Alan had created the window through which others could see where he was taking the Guardian. He had the kind of support needed not just to execute the journalism he envisioned but, more importantly, to act as a truly independent voice in the world.

Similar to Pat, it was a philosophical underpinning to the meaning of his work in the world that he was able to apply every day. His 2010 Cudlipp lecture is a classic in that regard.

“There is an irreversible trend in society today which rather wonderfully continues what we as an industry started – here, in newspapers, in the UK. It’s not a “digital trend” – that’s just shorthand. It’s a trend about how people are expressing themselves, about how societies will choose to organise themselves, about a new democracy of ideas and information, about changing notions of authority, about the releasing of individual creativity, about an ability to hear previously unheard voices; about respecting, including and harnessing the views of others. About resisting the people who want to close down free speech.

As Scott said 90 years ago: “What a chance for the newspaper!”

Alan’s strategy for the Guardian meant that the Snowden revelations and other stories of that scale were possible in a way that the digital era had not yet seen. For that we should all be thankful, regardless of your view of the Guardian.

I’ve had many encounters with people who dislike the Guardian yet willingly admit they want it to exist. Alan’s accomplishments are so great that competitors and enemies alike respect and admire him.

I imagine John Wooden was a similar type of character in his world in his day.

There are several other people I’ve worked with who I use for inspiration from time to time, too, people in various stages of careers that I believe will be extraordinary if they aren’t already – Chad Dickerson, John Battelle, Emily Bell, to name a few.

Of course, reducing the contributions of these or any other individual to a word or some forgettable listicle-style chunks of knowledge is antithetical to the type of leadership they’ve all offered. Simplicity and clarity should never be confused with vapidity.

But the short version of the key observations here is worth amplifying:

  • Being committed to your team makes them happy and committed to you.
  • Distributing authority and enabling your best people to do what they do expands your influence as they expand theirs.
  • Grounding your vision with a philosophy that others can apply in their day-to-day jobs creates a network of support required for executing the more risky things a leader wants to achieve.

Now that the tech and media worlds have begun maturing in the era of Life After Jobs it’s worth understanding the styles employed by some of the people who lead from behind the scenes instead of from the stage.

In that respect, you won’t find many role models better than either Pat or Alan.

When the technology/editorial walls come down magic happens

The Guardian’s home-brewed analytics platform called Ophan featured on Journalism.co.uk this week. It’s well worth the read if you are a publisher.

While the detail on what it does is useful to understand, the conditions that made it possible to create such a thing are also important.

There is often an uncomfortable gap between the technology teams and the editorial teams at news organizations. That cultural mismatch often gets expressed through the tools used internally at those organizations.

Editors hate the pace of change for the small things that they need like approval buttons and copy&paste features, things that will make them more effective in their jobs. Equally, developers hate the lack of understanding of the things they are trying to accomplish, things that could solve much bigger challenges for the entire company.

It can be two sides of the same coin that just can’t see each other.

Magic is possible, though, when developers listen well and bend the path to fulfilling their vision in order to accommodate realworld tactical needs of the editors.

That’s what happened when Graham Tackley was given the freedom to create his realtime analytics platform at the Guardian alongside Chris Moran. Graham had ideas about some new tools that would give editors insights on what’s happening on the web site in realtime. And Chris had experimented with Yahoo! Pipes in Hack Days to look at referral traffic in a different kind of dashboard format.

The project was initially about technology. But it adopted bigger ambitions as it started answering questions for them. Chris told me, “We realised how useful it would be to others and started listening to more editors around the building. They had interesting questions, too.”

The project was explicitly endorsed by the CEO Andrew Miller, the Chief Digital Officer Tanya Cordrey and Graham’s manager Shanon Maher. They all knew the project mattered and needed to be handled differently. Creating that space for Ophan to happen was a brilliant investment – it didn’t cost much and it wasn’t hard to do.

Of course, Graham’s time was in high demand, and the effort required to evolve Ophan would have to come from somewhere. So he was careful not to spread himself too thin and applied his time wisely in order to progress it without failing the day-to-day needs of his colleagues.

Similarly, getting it adopted internally would require time and patience. Chris worked closely with Graham and fellow architect Phil Wills to shape it into something that could be demo’d in meetings, bringing on one editor at a time and eventually informing the daily publishing process.

It didn’t happen overnight, but it did happen in the end. Ophan became business critical at the Guardian. You can see why in the Journalism.co.uk article.

Ophan tells editors the stories they need to hear about what’s happening on the site in language that is relevant to their jobs in ways that are enjoyable to use.

The Guardian editors don’t have to think about how Ophan works. It just does. And it makes them better at their jobs.

The lesson here is more about attitude than technology. Graham says straddling the technology/editorial divide helps him to write better code. “When I work this way I have a much better understanding of what’s important and what is not.”

Yes, Graham is clever, but he did something unusual with his talent. Rather then solve a hard problem for the sake of solving problems, he listened.

“We never planned to create our own real time analytics system. But we just kept talking to people and implementing the next thing that would make a difference. And here we are today.”

Google’s crowdfunding solution for publishers is not really that at all

When Google announced that it had a “crowdfunding tool for publishers” my twitter feed lit up. Crowdfunding journalism a subject that I think about a lot (1, 2, 3).

I was dubious as one who works at a news org tends to be any time a technology company says it can fix publishing as if it were a surgeon merely exacting a remedy on torn tissue.

There are certainly structural issues in the world of journalism and the wider publishing market, but incremental advances in the way display advertising works are only going to shore up Google’s own flaws. Reversing its own display performance declines disguised as a solution to the woes of an industry that were arguably a result of Google’s dismissal of that industry in the first place is a sign the company has truly failed to listen.

At a more fundamental level, swapping one display advertising solution for another is not the answer publishers need from Google.

It’s worth saying that being a fast-follower of the tech titans is not a bad strategy for publishers to use. But if you’re applying that strategy you must also recognize where departure is necessary.

Not viewing ads is a far cry from funding articles via the crowd.