Politico’s VandeHei Memo: ‘Celebrate failure, Don’t Overlook Boneheaded Moves’

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.