I’m starting to get a real kick out of these Politico internal memos.
For three years I’ve been reading these things. The first 25 were revelatory. The next 25 made me cry. And recently Politico Editor-in-Chief John Harris told staff that the entire city of Washington, D.C. was in awe of them on account of their exemplary government shutdown coverage.
This morning’s 8:32 a.m. memo is from President and CEO Jim VandeHei.
Subject line: “The POLITICO Culture” (And yeah, it’s good.)
The mission statement (or whatever one calls this) is complete with bold promises to staff, encouragement for managers to praise reporters quickly and only when deserved and take them on “retreat” if necessary. One thing is abundantly clear: VandeHei detests drama. We’ll bold the important (and comical) lines to make digestion easier. Staff,
I wanted to share my thoughts on the culture we are building here at POLITICO.
A lot of us – especially reporters – roll our eyes at long missives about corporate culture or expectations. But, I believe it is essential to think about what made POLITICO great – and what can make it even better – and to put it in writing so everyone can digest and understand it.
Thankfully, we have a healthy culture already. We no doubt hit some rough patches in getting here but I feel companywide the daily ride is smoother, more thrilling and more satisfying than ever.
John Harris and I have spent countless hours thinking through what works best for a media company with big ambitions.
The following document draws on those discussions and the collective wisdom of some of the smartest people at POLITICO, who through example or direct input, helped shape what we are and what we aspire to become. It is written with managers as the target audience – but it applies to all of us.
Please take time to read this and don’t hesitate to pass along your thoughts and reactions directly to me. We will have a number of opportunities in the months ahead to discuss this and other important matters.
The POLITICO Culture
Have a vision – and share it. My job is to set a broad vision of where the company is going – and then help others spread it through every corner of the place.
The top leaders will communicate often and openly with all of you, so everyone knows what we are doing and why are doing it. We know you will run through walls for POLITICO provided you know why you are running and what you will find on the other side. One of the biggest gripes we hear is that you don’t sense clear enough visibility about what’s happening around here. This will never be the case again.
Our top leaders will meet regularly with the entire team to discuss direction and plans – but the most important communication takes place in the trenches, between managers and their direct reports. This needs to happen regularly and consistently. There should be no surprises or abrupt shifts from any of us. And we’ll try our best to communicate the good, the bad and the ugly – so proposed changes don’t catch anyone surprised. If we do our jobs right, no one should ever again say, “I just don’t get why we are doing this.”
Be Candid. Everyone should speak candidly and respectfully with those above, below and beside themselves. Two things drive me nuts: dishonesty and indirection. We shouldn’t tolerate either. People are at their best when they know precisely where they stand, how they will be judged and where they are headed. They get defensive and insecure when their purpose, expectations and direction are hazy. Every manager can set the tone in very specific ways. The first is through regular written and in-person reviews. These reviews will be blunt: you should praise only those things authentically worth praising and communicate clearly the areas where those under you need to improve and how they can go about improving. Everyone at this company should know how they are doing in the eyes of their bosses. If they are great, they should know we see greatness. If they are weak, they should know where we see weakness. You aren’t doing anyone a favor by averting tough discussions. The second is through interaction in the office. There is no tolerance for office drama and problem ducking. Litigate differences in person, bluntly but respectfully. If a problem arises, confront it directly and don’t waste the time and energy griping about it with others. And then move on. At the same time, we should be equally quick and candid in praising when people get things right – or go the extra mile in trying. Never underestimate how much people at every level of every organization appreciate recognition for the work they do.
Celebrate high-achievers. You have heard us say it a million times: this place isn’t for everyone. People who thrive here are highly talented, self-motivated doers who are brimming with passion and a desire to win. We can never have enough people who want to and can get big things done – and do so optimistically and respectfully. They should be praised, financially rewarded and retained at all costs. We want to know who fits this category – and our plan for keeping these employees motivated and happy. The flip side is true, too. We have learned the hard way that people who whine, project negativity or are complacent hurt the company, no matter how talented they might be at an individual task. We have made tremendous progress on both the editorial and business sides in wringing that out of the joint. It has been among our proudest achievements this past year. We did this – and will continue to do this – by being supportive, fair and honest in our dealings with one another, even when it’s tough. It is a manager’s responsibility to set the can-do tone, teach it to those below and live it. All of us just want to feel in the loop, appreciated and part of something important and big. This doesn’t happen through osmosis – it happens through regular engagement.
Take risks. Complacency almost killed our industry – and it will kill us if we ever let it take root and spread. We need to constantly push ourselves to roll the dice on everything from the voice of stories we write to the business ideas we pursue. We need to encourage everyone to think creatively about his or her job and ways to experiment, boldly but not recklessly. This comes through instigation by managers and setting aside time to discuss what can be done better, smarter and more innovatively. At the same time, celebrate failure. Yes, you read that correctly. People will only experiment and take risks if they know they will not be punished for failing. This doesn’t mean overlooking bone-headed moves. But it does mean a common understanding that not all experiments, even wise ones with high degrees of success, work. The trick is learning from each risk taken – and smartly applying what’s learned to the next challenge, so we can be the innovators.
Enjoy the ride. We work for a hot brand doing important work with some of the smartest people in the world. It should rarely be a drag. You are helping solve the future of journalism – and should take pride in this mission. We can never emphasize this enough: people want to know their work has meaning. It does at POLITICO. We want to make this the best place to work in journalism, where high-achieving people thrive, get rewarded and take on new challenges. We will focus our energy, not on internal drama or frivolous bull sessions but on taking calculated risks, pushing ourselves and celebrating our success. This is one area where business-minded people do a much better job than journalists who are more accustomed to solitary adventures of the mind and skeptical of feel-good exercises. We all work too hard to not feel good about what we do – and toast those times we get it right. We can do a few things each year as one big company. But, as we grow bigger, individual managers should take on this responsibility and push their peers and bosses to find appropriate moments to celebrate successes, or head off for a retreat or do whatever you think works best to reward folks for the hard work they are doing.