Sincerely, Leaders of Color: You need to be a different kind of leader in the bad times

Our eyes are open to the constant battles our organizations are facing. Here are some tips to help you navigate as a leader.

A quote from the author, P. Kim Bui, that says "Your main job during bad times is to give people a sense of context and understanding. … Your second job in bad times is to figure out how to still make (some) progress toward your goals."

(Background photo by Amy Orban on Unsplash)

About this series: Sincerely, Leaders of Color is written for everyone in the journalism industry who cares about creating a more supportive environment for journalists of color to do their best work. Have a question for the team? Drop it here and watch for it in a future column. This column is proudly sponsored by the Executive Program and the Tow Knight Center at the Craig Newmark Graduate School of Journalism at CUNY, and our guest writers budget is sponsored by The American Press Institute.

The number one thing other leaders have been asking me lately is: How can I bring a sense of stability or joy when things are hard?

Currently things are hard. I remarked the other day to a friend that it may be a non-recession/recession, but it sure does feel like 2008 again. That year was the first time I got laid off, from a McClatchy paper in California. Everyone was getting laid off. You could not turn to any part of this industry and not see shrinking and pain.

It feels like most major media organizations have had some form of cuts recently.

We rode high on an increase in readership during the Trump years and then came the pandemic. It does not feel like the bottom just fell out one day, but that the rug was slowly yanked out from under us, so slowly that we almost did not notice. Regardless of how or why, a parade of media layoffs and cutbacks has marched through my social media timelines of late.

I don’t think we can ignore it and “focus on the work.” That kind of advice is only really given by people who have some sense of privilege, guaranteed stability (mental or financial), or who have never known instability.

OK, so back to what you tell your team, your newsroom. My playbook is mostly based on what I wish leaders had told me one of the five times I lost my job. None of it is easy.

How transparent can you be?

Your main job during bad times is to give people a sense of context and understanding. Most of what people need to feel semi-secure is transparency. Remember your team likely has a much blurrier picture than the one you’re looking at, because they are at least one step behind you in how much information they have. Don’t assume that the company gossip mill has reached everyone—or that what’s been whispered has been wholly truthful. This is especially true for people who are shut off from the dominant newsroom culture.

To know how transparent you want to be, you have to know how transparent you can be. For me, this means bluntly asking if information needs to be communicated across the newsroom or if it is not for general knowledge yet. And if not, then why.

Once you have a gauge of what is acceptable transparency to your peers and bosses, then you have a choice: How much risk are you willing to take?

I was in a position once where the whole team was going to be laid off, and management knew ahead of time. At some point, those leaders decided it mattered more to them to be transparent than it was to have 2–3 more weeks of a job. Put plainly, that group of managers said telling the team was worth the possibility that they’d get in trouble, or fired.

So how important is it to you that you hold some things back? How much wiggle room is there? What goes against your values?

Now you know what you are supposed to say and not say, and you’ve decided how much risk you want to take. The hard part is telling people.

A few short guidelines…

  • Do it as close to in-person as you can, while being mindful of timing. If something is going down the next day and it’s easier to call everyone, do so. Even if it’s in the evening or on the weekend.
  • Try to tell people individually. This is more emotional labor for you, but it gives them space to react as honestly as possible and ask questions they might not be able to in front of others.
  • If you don’t know an answer, say so. It does not matter here if you come off seeming not in the know.

How do we get the work done, though?

Your second job in bad times is to figure out what it will take to still make (some) progress toward your goals.

Pretending problems don’t exist or exercising as much control as possible are two gut reactions leaders often have. There is no point in making things harder for people by putting in more rules or a false smile. You might do one or either of these because you don’t know how to process your own panic and you want to control what you can. (More on what you do with your emotions below.)

It’s time to be honest with yourself. Your team will be less productive. Deadlines might not be met with enthusiasm.

Allow time for folks to process the news, whatever it may be. Don’t question requests for time off. If a person is not sick, they might need a mental health day or might be looking for another job. All are acceptable. Your retention efforts will need to be focused on what is best for the person. If they support a family, or have little financial cushion, it’s understandable why they might look with more open eyes at other jobs.

But your mind is racing with more questions: How will the site get updated? How will the newspaper get out or the broadcast get filled?

I promise you, it will.

Everyone has projects, stories, ideas that fill their soul. As a leader, you need to make sure souls are filled. Ask in your one-on-ones if there is any work that is still exciting or fulfilling. Balance that work with the work that is tedious but needs to get done.

Re-evaluate strategies and plans to accommodate for all of the above.

Your pain needs an outlet, but gripes go uphill.

Transparency and soul-filling work will not make things stable, but they might make the day-to-day feel easier for your team. This is a reminder that you need soul-filling work too.

I am always most frustrated by what I cannot tell my teams, and that includes my own frustration. To see your manager out of sorts, upset and angry, will only further destabilize things. People might think things are worse than they are and make poor assumptions. You can say “I don’t agree with this direction” in a calm way … when you might want to shout that it is all BS.

The concept of gripes and complaints going uphill was semi-popularized in “Saving Private Ryan.” Complaining in front of your team sets a culture of complaining and is a fast way to lose respect, on all sides.

Don’t be fake. Be honest. But hold your most extreme feelings for other outlets.

  • You can communicate your frustrations to your manager.
  • Or call your friends to vent, as long as they are outside of the newsroom.
  • Commiserate with peers at your level of leadership.
  • Finally get that therapist. Work out with gusto.

All are great options. I do all of them because I care deeply about the people I work with and hate to see them in pain.

You do not have to be a superhuman at this moment, indestructible and achingly cheerful. Be yourself. Just hold back and release your own pain uphill.

Things suck. But they’re always a little easier if you know what plan B is.

Things are hard, and you may have to do hard things. Laying off parts or your whole team, attending endless goodbye cake or drinks or coffees.

Being laid off so often in my career has taught me to never be complacent. I may love my job and enjoy it 100%, but my resume is always updated. I need a Plan B and sometimes a Plan C.

I decide what my limits are as things start to turn downhill and prepare for them. I try to think about (maybe not decide, but at least think about) what I will do with plausible eventualities. Will you quit if you are asked to do something beyond your limits? Are you also financially unstable enough that you need to look for another job?

Know your values and your limits. And remember we are all doing the best we can with the resources we have.

Some housekeeping

You may have noticed that SLOC has been publishing a little slower lately.

We have decided that it will allow us to write and edit deeper and more thoughtful columns if we move to once a month.

For 2023, we’ll each write three columns, and we’ll continue to seek great guest columnists to bring their voices to this community.

In full transparency, at some point we will need to fundraise (again) to continue this work. If you have ideas or thoughts about funding SLOC or how we can be of more benefit to the wider community, please reach out.

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P. Kim Bui
Leaders of Color

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  • P. Kim Bui

    P. Kim Bui is the director of product and audience innovation at the Arizona Republic. She’s focused her career on leading real-time news initiatives and creating storytelling forms for digital, print and broadcast companies catering to local, national and global audiences. Prior, she was editor-at-large for NowThis News, focusing on original, social reporting and breaking news. She was also deputy managing editor for reported.ly, a digital media startup specializing in social journalism. She’s been a speaker, trainer and teacher on leadership and digital journalism at universities, conferences and gatherings worldwide. She writes a newsletter for emerging leaders and managers, The Middles: themiddl.es


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