How a Poynter training changed one faculty member’s entire career path

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Eleven years ago, Tony Elkins took a Poynter training that changed the entire trajectory of his management career.

“I was a different leader pre-Poynter than post-Poynter,” Elkins said of his 2013 experience at what was then called Poynter Leadership Academy. “The skills I learned really opened my eyes to how I could be a better manager and a better journalist.”

Now, he’s a faculty member at Poynter, teaching some of the same skills he learned in that leadership academy to new and rising newsroom managers. I talked to him about Essential Skills for Rising Newsroom Leaders, a five-day, in-person training being offered twice this year at Poynter’s headquarters in St. Petersburg, Florida. Elkins, along with Poynter’s Fernanda Camarena, will be leading the workshop.

Our conversation follows, and has been edited for length and clarity.

Barbara Allen: Tell us about how you got your start in management and where the interest in leadership came from.

Tony Elkins: I spent most of my early career in design. I was promoted to various manager roles, eventually becoming an assistant managing editor, overseeing fairly large teams. I really tried to find ways to become a better manager, but I was starting to understand that I didn’t have the skills. As a manager, I was never invested in, so I really didn’t know how to lead. That began my journey to find ways to become a better manager. My newsroom got a new executive editor, Bill Church, and he invested in my training at Poynter and got me into human-centered design. And through learning about and becoming a design-thinking facilitator, I understood and learned how people work and approached it more from an empathy perspective. And that kicked off the second part of my career.

Allen: You said that you realized that you didn’t have management skills. Was there an aha! moment for you?

Elkins: I had a couple of eye-opening exit interviews where I heard that I was standoffish, that I wasn’t engaging. But when I was promoted, there was no, “Now you’re a manager and here’s how you should approach people!” There was none of that training. Another thing a lot of people have talked to me about — I experienced it, and we just had a column about it (“Young newsroom managers are often unprepared for leadership”) — was that no one prepares you for losing all your work friends and the people you hang out with. I thought that as a manager, a hard wall goes up. But it shouldn’t be a hard wall. It should be a wall that you can walk back and forth through.

Allen: Why do you think this training is so important right now?

Elkins: Journalism’s one of the few industries that punishes you for doing a great job by making you stop doing your job. So we take great reporters, or illustrators or visual artists or editors, and we make them managers because that’s one way for us to promote and pay better. But when you go from whatever your job is to leading a team — now especially with reduced training budgets and reduced staff — the news media just doesn’t tend to invest a lot in people outside of hard skills. A lot of organizations don’t have career paths. Internal training is disappearing. So I think when people come to us, it’s important that we deliver these skills to them. Poynter has great hard-skill training in other workshops, but Essential Skills is really more about enhancing your people skills. If you come to this workshop, you’re going to learn more about how to interact with people because our industry hasn’t typically prepared new managers for that. We just say, “Congrats, you’re promoted.”

Allen: What’s not intuitive about leadership? What’s something people are likely to overlook once they’re in a top spot?

Elkins: I think it’s knowing what the actual roles of a manager are when it comes to dealing with people. First, there are different ways to lead. Do you know what your leadership styles are? Do you know how to retain and then recruit staff? Even if you’re the greatest manager, you’re going to have turnover. Recruitment and retention are things that (new journalism managers typically) are not taught.

Something that we teach in Essential Skills is delegation. Most people don’t know how to delegate, or what delegation even is — it’s not about just giving your work away or giving work to other people. It’s more about building other people in your team to have skills that you want them to have. 

Another thing that we do is really try to figure out what you’re good at, and then how to use those strengths to make you a better manager and build a better team.

Allen: Give me one talking point about conflict or difficult conversations that people might not realize.

Elkins: I think people don’t realize it’s something you can practice. That’s an exercise we do in our workshops: We give people the opportunity to practice how to deal with what we used to call difficult conversations, which we now call fair conversations. That’s any conversation that has a point of conflict, or where there’s two people with different expected outcomes. We’re filled with fear, apprehension and anxiety going into them — and while there’s no way around that, you can prepare yourself. We’ve had numerous people come back to us — they’ve gone back and had these conversations with either their employees, their bosses, co-workers, or peers — and they come back and say, “That went better than I expected because I was prepared for it.”

Allen: What’s the right way to deliver feedback, and what’s an example of the wrong way?

Elkins: Something we have to train people to understand and overcome is that we tend to focus on negative feedback. From personal experience, I can still tell you the one big piece of negative feedback I got when I had my first 360-feedback session from my employees. It’s really easy to focus on those negatives and forget all the positives. You will receive feedback from your peers and managers, and other people that you work with. But we teach you how to look at it in a way that builds you as a manager and not just focus on the bad things.

Allen: What’s one key to establishing credibility as a leader?

Elkins: Having clear expectations and goals. I think that’s difficult in our industry because we don’t always have clear expectations of what we’re supposed to deliver. If you’re on a breaking news beat, there may be breaking news one day where you have to write 10 posts and then you won’t write any stories for a couple of days, or you work on an investigations team that takes longer to produce, so you don’t have daily deadlines. Sometimes, creating clear goals and expectations gets lost in that. So the key is to set clear expectations and goals with your team, and then have clear lines of communication where they understand what’s expected of them — and you build up the skills in them so they can meet those expectations. 

Allen: What do you want people who are thinking about applying to know? What’s your message to them? 

Elkins: I think the most important thing is to invest in yourself or invest in your team. We are going to learn things that aren’t taught inside the newsroom and that are really difficult to learn on your own. You can watch YouTube videos or take different online classes, but what we offer is a mix of experience and the chance to interact with people. That’s really where the true learning comes from — hearing from other people and having the space to explore that in conversation, through in-person dialogue.

Allen: Why are you so personally passionate about teaching Essential Skills?

Elkins: I started at Poynter almost 10 years to the day that I graduated from leadership training at Poynter. I was a different person before Poynter and after. The skills I learned really opened my eyes to how I could be a better leader and a better journalist. Just having the exposure to this training will influence the decisions you make for the next 10 years. One of the biggest pieces of information coming out of this is that I wasn’t alone. I was not the only one dealing with my problems. The cohort you’ll meet in these workshops — and in any of Poynter’s in-person workshops — are one of the biggest pieces you take away. You will form connections with your peers and gain an understanding that you’re not alone. 

That’s something I love to see and what I’m passionate about: facilitating connections in the room, seeing people interact, building lifelong friendships and relationships, and helping each other. It’s just wonderful to be in that room.

It gives me so much joy and energy to see that happening, and to see people taking this training back to their newsrooms. Hopefully we train one person and they go back to the newsroom and maybe they inspire two or three more. That keeps building, and it’s how we change these old systems and frameworks that journalism was built on.

Essential Skills for Rising Newsroom Leaders will convene twice in 2024 at Poynter — once in May and once in December. Applications for both programs are open now. The deadline to apply for the May session is March 26, and the deadline for the December program is Oct. 22.

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