Managers: Avoid these mistakes when identifying ‘emerging leaders’

Advice from Jill Geisler, Bill Plante Chair in Leadership & Media Integrity, Loyola University Chicago and Freedom Forum Fellow in Women’s Leadership

If ever there was a time to focus on up-and-coming talent in news leadership, this is it. Specifically, it’s time to re-think how we bless certain people as “emerging leaders.”

If the media industry had been doing it right, its management ranks would be far more diverse and better than they are today. 

So, let’s break with the past and review how NOT to assess whether someone is an up-and-comer.

Beware of using these measurements as you determine who is “management material”:

They remind you of a younger “you.”

This is called affinity bias. People hire in their own image and promote in the same way, because personal similarities are a convenient and comfortable heuristic. It’s also exclusionary – and harmful to diversity. Look more deeply for people who offer ideas, skills and life experiences different from yours.

They don’t make waves.

Don’t brand all staffers who question and challenge you or the status quo as anti-management. Listen to how they frame their concerns – with special attention to how they look out for others. If they’re serving as union reps or on committees designed to solve problems, their criticisms may make you defensive. Don’t let that discomfort cause you to write them off as potential leaders; their ideas could elevate everyone.

They’ve pitched themselves for a promotion. 

If you assume that aspiring managers must declare their candidacy, you’re going to miss some gems. You’ll overlook people who have been raised to believe their work should speak for itself (and will be recognized) or who think they have to check every single box on a job description before applying. Don’t expect people to ask for advancement; invite them to consider it.

They are willing to sacrifice anything for the job.

Management is indeed demanding, but the pandemic has taught us some important lessons on burnout, including among the management ranks. We can’t expect people to neglect their personal lives, be the first to arrive and the last to leave, uproot themselves at the whim of corporate leaders, or never admit they need a break.

They meet standards that have existed in your organization for a long time.

Old patterns and habits die hard. Are people who enter the organization through a certain “door” the ones who become managers? Are “word” people rather than “visual” or print/broadcast rather than digital more likely to be promoted to upper management? What about education? Years of experience? All of those standards are built on assumptions that need to be revisited and challenged.

They “look the part.”

Even if you’ve heard about the importance of “dressing for success” or “executive presence,” consider how those terms can be freighted with bias. Whose style is the standard and why? How much latitude does that provide when it comes to how people dress or speak? Who decides? If we’ve learned anything from remote work during the pandemic, it’s that people can lead from wherever they are – and in sweatpants. 

Your boss fully endorses them.

It’s wonderful to have support from above, but it’s not always there. I’ve coached more than a few managers in their quest to redeem employees when top bosses wrote them off because of some mistake, negative interaction, or pure bias. When you know an assessment is unjust, bulk up your strategy, skills and courage to become an advocate for the misjudged. It can be done.

You know my mantra: the most important thing leaders do is help others succeed. It’s time to ensure that journalists we’ve neglected can succeed – as our leaders.


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John Bobel
John Bobel
2 years ago

Avoid the “mini-me” syndrome. No one wants constant knock-down, drag-outs over policies, but no one agrees to everything said and done. You need discussion to move forward and keep in touch with the audience and ahead of the competition.

Jill Geisler
Jill Geisler
2 years ago
Reply to  John Bobel

Spot on, John!

Nicole Brewster-Mercury
Nicole Brewster-Mercury
2 years ago

Jill you’re always dropping gems!