It’s been over a month since I wrapped up my 2022 Columbia Journalism School Sulzberger experience. The Executive Leadership Program, which started in January 2022 and ran for 21 weeks, “trains leaders of the world’s most respected news organizations and promising media start-ups to lead innovation and solve strategic business challenges in a time of rapid transformation, uncertainty, and opportunity.”
The program not only lived up to my expectations but also demonstrated what it truly means to live through rapid transformation, uncertainty and opportunity, thanks to COVID-19 and the Omicron variant. What was supposed to be an in-person two-week experience at Columbia University quickly pivoted into a virtual experience, employing every digital trick in the deft hands of Corey Ford, the program’s director. As a result, we fellows experienced the digital transformation of the Sulzberger in real-time and what would become a real-world lesson in venture design.
The Sulzberger project I explored during the program was around new revenue models and business structures that accelerate business transformation and sustainability for ethnic-owned media. Without burying the lede, I came away from the program with several tools for thinking about challenges in terms of how we frame problems, attempt to come up with solutions, test and iterate. This process allowed me to walk away with a different approach to the usual “spaghetti test” that most of us usually use: seeing what sticks.
It would be hard to condense everything I learned from the program into this blog post. Still, these are my top five takeaways from the program that I have immediately placed into practice in my course of work at LMA:
1. Are you solving your problem or the users’ problem? Of course, it’s normal to see issues from your perspective. But when you take time to interview your users, empathize with their challenges, and test some prototypes, it allows you to get closer to your users’ problems vs. yours. For example, in trying my theories around developing frameworks for how one might support ethnic-owned media, I created more ideas that revealed even more gaps in my thinking.
2. Create explicit norms that embrace asynchronous learning. A lot of LMA’s work specifically focuses on collaborative learning. But all too often, that way of learning can come at the expense of maintaining a fixed schedule of ongoing linear discussions, such as Zoom meetings, etc. But rather than wait for these scheduled meetings to share learnings, Sulzberger exposed me to various ways we must create pathways to asynchronous learning. Some of those tools we already know, like Slack. But having been exposed to new tools like Notion, Loom, and Miro, we have the opportunity to enhance our collaborative learning approach at LMA even more with this nonlinear learning style.
3. Feedback is a gift, not a demand. It’s hard not to respond to feedback. It’s harder not to hear feedback and think it’s a demand. Part of the Sulzberger process forced us to listen to feedback on our pitches but recognize that feedback isn’t a demand. When we strike that balance between both sentiments, receiving feedback is a gift.
4. Fail fast. We all love our own ideas, and often will wrap ourselves and our beliefs against failure. It’s human nature to do so. But in our rapidly changing world of media and journalism, we don’t have the luxury of time, which is why failing fast is so important. The ways the fellows embraced failing fast came in many shapes and sizes. Some experienced rapid change, and their initial project ideas went to the wayside to support real-time challenges. Failing fast speaks to a leadership capability everyone in our industry needs to become more comfortable with, sans judgment that failing equals failure.
5. Let your flag fly free. It was hard not to be intimidated by my colleagues in the room, from large global publishers like Conde Nast to prominent national publications like The New York Times, The Washington Post, and the Los Angeles Times, to some local heavyweights like the newly launched Baltimore Banner. Guess what? Everyone has problems and challenges. What made the experience so worthwhile was ensuring that we all could fully bring ourselves into the room. And when we did that, the learning process was multiplied by that sense of trust and mission. The leadership journey can often be lonely. Still, when you place your vulnerabilities front and center, others feel compelled to drop their guards for collective advancement. What comes with that freedom and transparency is humbling respect for our work.
I don’t believe anyone in the Sulzberger program would say that the experience wasn’t demanding, consuming, or exhausting. But it was worth it. Fully embracing the program while continuing to do my job took a supportive community: from my fellows in the Sulzberger program to everyone I work with at LMA.
The program couldn’t have come at a better time for me at LMA; we launched Word In Black months before starting Sulzberger and, in spring, launched the Knight x LMA BloomLab. The combination of both these initiatives has led me — with the frameworks I learned during Sulzberger — to think of what might be a new product or service for this continued learning about the needs of ethnic-owned media, and understanding that when we have a robust framework, perhaps we can build better structures that withstand journalism’s storms. That is even more powerful.
My thanks to everyone who supported me during my Sulzberger experience. I learned much from my “fellow fellows,” Corey Ford and the guest speakers. And special thanks to the Knight Foundation, including Jim Brady, Jon Belgrad, and Karen Rundlet, who graciously provided me a scholarship to attend the program.