2020 RTDNA Edward R. Murrow Awards Celebration

How to be a good interim news director

August 22, 2019 11:00

Remember coming to school and finding out that you have a substitute-teacher?  My recollections include days watching movies and often wondering what the movie had to do with the lesson we were expecting. I’ve had the opportunity to do two interim News Director assignments this summer—a new professional experience for me. One colleague compared it to being a grandparent: You get to have all the fun and then return them to their parents.
It is VERY likely you will find yourself in a temporary leadership role sometime during your career. While there is an element of truth to the grandparent analogy, I came up with six lessons I learned about making the experience meaningful and productive.
  1. Do NOT be a caretaker. If you are already inside the organization, you should be familiar with its strategic plan. Do what you can to advance those objectives. Even if you are not completely familiar with the strategic plan, think about what you can do to set up the team for success going forward.
  1. Communicate, communicate, communicate. The most valuable thing I did was having an open discussion with the boss that was bringing me in before I started. Listen carefully to what they need and be candid about your abilities. Keep the communication frequent and focused. Their needs will change during the time you are in the role and your observations will become more valuable as you spend time doing the job.
  1. Make decisions. Think carefully about which decisions need to come from you and which decisions are better made by team or by the boss. Above all else, make sure decisions are made and clearly communicated. Some years ago, I stumbled across the book Wait! by law professor Frank Partnoy. He talks about the science of making good decisions. Yes, it is a science and it can be learned. Be prepared for some tough decisions with ethical or moral implications. Those can become defining moments of your interim role. I am a longtime fan of Bob Steele and Al Tompkins who helped create this (free) Poynter Institute course about ethical decision-making.
  1. Recruiting is a team sport. Recruiting (and retention) may be the most important responsibility of a newsroom leader.  In good organizations, recruiting is part of everyone’s job. Your boss will likely want to be cautious about hiring and job candidates may be reluctant to accept an offer from an interim leader. Neither are good reasons to avoid recruiting. Some specific ideas about recruiting during an interim leadership role:
    • There is plenty of valuable work you can accomplish well ahead of making an offer—starting with reviewing the applicants. Modern applicant tracking systems make it so easy for candidates to apply that hiring managers are buried with candidates who may (or, may not) read job descriptions. I found two highly qualified applicants who could have easily moved beyond my organization if we had waited to start the discussion. They were right there in the application pile! I also weeded out the obviously unqualified ones. That way the new News Director wasn’t bogged down in dozens of those applicants.
    • An HR professional once told me that “time kills all deals.” If you come across a highly qualified candidate, quickly engage your boss in the discussion. Don’t be shy about pressing the boss to make an offer if you genuinely believe you have found a superstar. Just remember that EVERY candidate can’t be a superstar.
    • Engage with internal applicants. This is especially important if you are part of a large organization that values internal promotions. The fastest way to undermine the internal development culture is to have internal applicants go unnoticed.
  1. Listen CAREFULLY. Identify the players who come with solid ideas and good solutions—even if their ideas are beyond your interim scope, make notes to share. Be prepared for the time suckers who want to unload an epoch history of grievances and respond consistently with a clear definitive statement about your interim role. Buried in those grievances can be valuable nuggets.
  1. Protect relationships and create new ones. Remember that you need your professional relationships when you go back to your original role. Your interim role also lets you create new relationships—perhaps with other Department Heads or corporate contacts. If you are an external interim leader, use your interim role to create new professional relationships.
Whether you are an interim News Director, Executive Producer or some other newsroom leader, you will have an impact on the organization—it’s your opportunity to make that positive.
Steven Ackermann is a Special Projects Consultant for the Reynolds Journalism Institute at the University of Missouri. Steve served on the faculty at the RTDNA Anchor-Producer Leadership Summit and was Vice President for News at Raycom Media.


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