Of course it had nothing to do with newspapers, but it had everything to do with organizations that function dysfunctionally. And newspapers have plenty of company.
The professor spoke to us during one of those retreats from the daily grind—a chance to break away, think, assess and come back refreshed…until the circulation director walked in with a complaint about the production director who told me the newsroom never makes deadline. And I was back in the grind again as the good advice I received during my week away swiftly circled the drain.
But the business professor’s advice stuck. And it has stayed with me both in and out of my business life. He encouraged “the left-column conversation.” And if there were more left-column conversations in newspaper organizations, we would be making a lot more progress.
Here’s how it went. The professor showed a slide with a conversation in the right column. The conversation was between a sales manager and a production manager at a toy manufacturing company. The sales manager was excited about the new toy scheduled to come out of production in time for that year’s Christmas season, but the production manager was having all kinds of problems getting the raw material and making the assembly line hum. There was history between these two managers. They did not like each other. So instead of sharing his problems with the sales manager, the production manager just nodded and hoped for the best.
Production of the toy was never completed and the company suffered through a miserable year, putting it on the brink of bankruptcy.
In the left column, the professor showed the conversation the two should have had. Had the production manager shared the difficulties in that department, the two might have jointly agreed to approach the CEO and develop a solution—either get the assembly line working, or reduce the sales projections.
This led to a new phrase in my newspaper management quiver: “Let’s have a left-column conversation.”
It was a signal to the people in the conversation that we had to drop our defensiveness, loosen our grip on the power we thought we had, agree to end blaming, pause the “history” button, and get to the root of the problem. A left-column conversation meant we were going to focus on accountability—with an honest exchange about the tension that inherently exists in an organization with multiple departments, personalities, deadlines and ever-present pressure for profit. I agreed that no one would ever be faulted for telling the truth in such a conversation and I stuck to that.
It took a while for this to sink in. And some folks never quite got there. There were issues of trust and job security and performance. It is frightening to acknowledge you’re not perfect. But those who crossed the Rubicon found a place where solutions are born.
Think of the great scene after the “Failure is not an option” proclamation by Ed Harris in “Apollo 11.” Engineers of varying background gather in a small room with facsimiles of the items available to the astronauts on the disabled spacecraft. They acknowledge that there is no room for wishing or blaming. They need to get the astronauts home alive. And—spoiler alert—they do it.
Everything leading up to that moment in the movie is a left-column conversation—from the depressing data the NASA staff shares, to the failure to properly equip the astronauts for such an emergency. But it is honest exchange of information that leads to a life-saving solution.
Newspapers are no different. We are filled with extraordinarily talented people possessing specialized skills in sales or digital platforms or investigative reporting. But we tend to stay in our safe silos and protect what’s ours because “that idiot couldn’t possibly understand what we do here.” And so we navigate down hallways passing without a word of communication between departments while our problems get worse.
Isn’t it time for the leaders of your newspapers to have the left-column conversation about what prevents our industry from breaking out of the patterns that have held us back as the world has changed? We conduct business largely in the same way, partly because much of it works, but also because we are afraid of the consequences of accountability in honest conversation.
Tackling tough problems is one of the signs of great leadership. Left-column conversations are the best way to define the problem. What are you waiting for? Failure is not an option.
Tim Gallagher is president of The 20/20 Network, a public relations and strategic communications firm. He is a former Pulitzer Prize-winning editor and publisher at The Albuquerque Tribune and the Ventura County Star newspapers. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.