Many media companies today are planning more or less fundamental change programmes. They might be about paid content and digital subscriptions, mobile-first workflows, data-informed decisions, structural and technological changes, and, more often then not, a combination of these topics.

Yet when it comes to appointing the team to lead and implement these programmes, they often begin the discussion by saying, “Who can we spare?” Often the people chosen are the ones whose absence will cause the least disruption in the daily newsroom activities.

Doing a thorough search internally while considering external options is key.
Doing a thorough search internally while considering external options is key.

When we talk specifically about transformational change programmes, we are talking about an investment into the future to at least survive, but hopefully to provide sustainable growth of the company. With this attitude, you might want to plan and staff the project in a different way.

This means the best people available need to be leading the initiative if it is going to work, and these people must be committed in terms of spirit and time. When in comes to spirit and mindset, the “selected ones” need to fully embrace the change and the new concepts, and need to be good, respected leaders and good communicators.

As it relates to time commitments, projects of this magnitude can’t be managed after 5 p.m. when the day job is done. This is not fair to the person and not fair to the project. Getting the core people out of the day job (and not only on paper) is an important prerequisite.

This combination of qualities is very rare in most organisations. Additionally, the team sizes are usually between five to 10 people, so where do we get the rest from?

It is often a good idea to encourage applications from every level of the organisation so you can find young people far down in the hierarchy who have the leadership potential. If you make the effort, you can find people who turn out to be brilliant but didn’t come forward on their own. They didn’t want to raise their hands, they were scared or didn’t have enough self-confidence, or they didn’t think their opinions mattered.

Many organisations have dedicated “high-potential” programmes. What better way to develop and test people you can find than a transformational change programme? Once, a project team member from a U.S.-based media house told me that being part of a project was more valuable and educational than any MBA programme.

And if you can’t find the right people in-house, hiring dedicated external staff is necessary. This can be painful and expensive, and it is really a lot of work to recruit, assess, and evaluate, but it is absolutely worth it. When a media house in New Zealand started its re-organisation programme a few years ago, the CEO hired people just for the project team. Most of them are still there, some in leadership functions or involved in other projects.

We have learned now that change is constant. And, there are always projects requiring skilled people to run or participate in them. So identifying them internally, developing them, or hiring them from outside is always a good investment in the future.