Publishers have plenty of challenges, but attracting amazing people isn’t one of them. Media houses are often magnets for the talented, the creative, the intellectual, the inspired, and the inspiring. The catch is that, once we’ve got hold of them, we’re not always too sure what to do with them.
At the same time, media houses are often not great at people development. Very few have a structured training and development programme, and even fewer assess vocational development or the acquisition of skill sets. A junior journalist, designer, or advertising sales person will most likely be expected to progress by learning at the feet of his departmental seniors.
If those seniors happen to see it as part of their role to develop the junior (by no means a given), it will probably be by taking him under their wing and duplicating their own attitudes, their skills, and, in all probability, their shortcomings as well.
Reverence for certain skills often means that the idea of balance goes out the window.
A really good journalist with poor media technology or management skills will continue to be respected for his writing, even if his lack of media technology is hampering his development. Worse, out of respect for his writing, he is quite likely to be promoted to the point where other people now look to his for management skills he doesn’t have.
Putting people in roles or promoting them beyond their capabilities doesn’t work, particularly not in times of transformation, major change programmes, and great instability in the organisation.
Weaknesses or lack of skills and attitude become often painfully transparent. At the same time, the success of any transformation process depends mainly on the quality of the people who lead and implement the changes.
Good people are the future of our business. Our staff members are one of our richest and most valuable assets, so we believe the answer is embracing a balanced and structured way to bring their skills up to speed as the company moves forward. This is not only in times of change, but as a long-term process that goes on over years.
The question is: Which skills in which areas? And how to develop them in a balanced way?
We think there are five dimensions to people development. The individual five vary depending on the role, but, for editorial, for example, those five would be:
- Media technology: These are relatively easy skills to learn but may be short-lived, as the evolution of tools and technology can require regular retraining. At the same time, they have increased importance since technology has become an intrinsic part of editorial work.
- Management skills: In editorial, the ability to manage yourself and others is key. It’s also often overlooked to the point where fundamental talents such as the giving and receiving of feedback are not even recognised as improvable skills.
- Journalistic skills: These are more timeless than specific media technology skills but tend to be a lot more difficult to learn and require real talent. The hunger to chase a story, creativity, and self-expression don’t always lend themselves to formal learning, but that doesn’t mean the skills can’t or shouldn’t be developed.
- Social skills: Interacting and working with colleagues and being able to be part of a team has become increasingly important in every business. This includes media. The “lonely wolf” type of journalist becomes rarer as many newsrooms integrate. To function in a team, basic social skills are required and need to be a) asked for and b) developed, if not sufficiently present.
- Personality: If you look over the five dimensions, you’ll notice they are on a rising scale of difficulty to learn and, respectively, to teach. Defining and improving personality is the hardest of all, but anyone who refuses to believe that you can take rough edges off personality (at least in a professional context) could stagnate in that area.
Obviously some of these skills are different depending on the role and business area: Sales staff would have sales skills rather than journalistic skills. The same is true for technology or marketing. But each role would still look at the competence balance across five areas, tailored to the relevant department.
In terms of structure, every skill area has specific levels that need to be achieved. Only by reaching certain levels in all five areas can someone progress in the “competence hierarchy.” By stressing this balance among the five areas, it highlights the need to continuously improve individuals’ abilities across a range of aptitudes.
This itself can be used to decide on a promotion to a higher organisational level, taking over team leadership responsibilities or more senior tasks in the news management.
This approach to people development can also help to end the familiar problem of great people promoted beyond their competence by using only one skill set as criteria for putting someone into a new job.
It has the advantage that it can reduce over-reliance on a gut feeling when assessing candidates for roles. The model puts appraisals on a factual footing, and it is fairer to employees because it gives them a structure to know what it is they need to do to move onward and upward.
It also supports and helps senior employees pinpoint where juniors need mentoring. It also helps HR know where to allocate resources for training and, where appropriate, it can be linked to salary and incentive packages.
But above all else, without a strong foundation of skilled people, what were you going to build your company on?