Six Tips For Becoming A Better Leader

MFM selected Gannett’s Alison Engel to receive its Distinguished CFO Award. In her acceptance speech, she shared her “rules of the road” for becoming a better leader. I believe they apply to any management position, whether it’s at a TV station or corporate office.

Even though I’ve been known to skip making New Year’s resolutions, I’m always looking for ways to be better at what I do, particularly in improving my leadership skills. It’s one of the toughest parts of any job. In fact, one of my bosses once remarked that being in management is “great, except for the people.”

I’ve been fortunate to know some great leaders; leaders who are highly regarded by peers and subordinates alike. Alison “Ali” Engel, CFO of Gannett Co., is among the best.

MFM selected Engel to receive our Distinguished CFO Award last year for many of the reasons she was tapped to serve as CFO of Gannett in conjunction with the 2015 spinoff of its TV and publishing businesses. As Gannett’s then-president-CEO Gracia Martore commented when Engel joined the company in the fall of 2014, “Ali has strong leadership skills and outstanding financial expertise in addition to experience with the A.H. Belo spin off, which will be invaluable to us as we continue to move forward with our separation plans.”

When the spinoff was concluded last June, Martore moved over to serve as CEO of Gannett’s Tenga spinoff; Engel became CFO of the expanding Gannett publishing business, led by Robert Dickey, former president of the company’s U.S. Community Publishing Division.

As Martore noted, Engel brought some valuable experience to Gannett, including her role in A.H. Belo’s spinoff of its TV and print businesses. She joined Belo in 2003 as director of its accounting operations and was named Belo’s SVP-chief financial officer and treasurer with the 2008 corporate restructuring. All told, she has more than 21 years of financial management experience at diversified multi-unit business organizations and, prior to that, as a CPA at PwC — PricewaterhouseCoopers.

However, as Engel correctly observed in her acceptance speech at our 2015 annual conference last May, “I don’t think you win awards for just getting things done. I believe it is how you go about your job, how you treat your team, how you earn your accomplishments that make the difference.”


With that point of view firmly in mind, she went on to share her “rules of the road” for becoming a better leader. I believe they apply to any management position, whether it’s at a TV station or corporate office.

Lead By Following The ‘Golden Rule’

Engel’s first leadership principle is the Golden Rule: treat others as you want to be treated. “If my team or a person on my team does well, I brag about them to management and celebrate their successes. If my team makes a stumble, I take the blame. The buck stops with me, after all.”

This rule also applies to providing others with the types of opportunities that were important in our own professional development. As she explains, “I try and pass projects and work down to my team; I don’t keep them all to myself. I try to coach, mentor and develop people. My goal is to be the boss that I would want to have.”

Authenticity Requires Humility As Well As Honesty

“If you don’t know, say you don’t know,” is her second leadership rule. “I would rather get in trouble — and I have — for not knowing something I should know, rather than fake my way out of it. I think knowing and recognizing what you don’t know, or what you are not good at, is just as important as what you do know or what you are good at. I have watched many people fake their way out of situations over the years. It is not pretty, and it always come back to haunt them.”

Be Part Of The Solution Rather Than Add To The Problem

“Be a person who finds solutions, not problems, and don’t focus on blame,” Engel advises. “When we have a problem, issue or mistake, we should get the facts, come up with our options, make a decision and move on. If all you do is throw up roadblocks or try and place blame you will never be successful.”

Develop Relationships That Bring Value To Others

In her fourth rule, Engel recommends building relationships that add value. Speaking from her own experiences, she says: “I have worked hard to get out of my office, talk to department heads, work directly with people in the field, get to know my vendors and add real value to my business partners. Newspapers, TV, radio, cable are rapidly changing. We need to be engaged at every level. By building relationships I became a ‘go to’ person for people at Belo on a variety of issues, which helped my career immensely.”

Don’t Worry. Be Happy

“Have fun with your job and with your team” is Engel’s “fifth and favorite” leadership rule. “I get that we are all very serious business people, but these are hard jobs in challenged industries. Take a few minutes to enjoy your day, the people around you, and find humor in tough moments. If you are in a meeting with me I guarantee we will be laughing at some point.”

Participate In Industry Associations

Engel’s final rule, which I didn’t know in advance and was delighted to hear her recommend, was to join and become involved in MFM. In Engel’s case, involvement included serving on several of our committees and ultimately being elected to our board of directors. As she shared with our attendees, the more involved you become in an organization, the more you will benefit from what it has to offer. I am sure this is equally true for anyone who has become involved in the professional associations serving his or her particular discipline.

As this chance to pass along the wisdom of industry leaders like Alison Engel demonstrates, professional organizations like MFM provide great opportunities for exchanging ideas and experiences with your peers. In MFM’s case, our upcoming CFO Summit, scheduled for Feb. 25-26, in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., and our annual conference, Media Finance Focus 2016, which will be held in Denver, May 23-25, number among the many professional developments resources for the industry’s media financial professionals slated for the New Year.

Engel closed her acceptance speech by saying it meant a lot to be the first woman to receive MFM’s Distinguished CFO Award. The leader she became by following her “rules of the road” is a big reason that she was chosen to receive the honor. They remind us that becoming a distinguished leader in our company or industry has much more to do with how we have advanced in our careers than it is about the job titles we ever happen to hold.

If you are interested in seeing the full text of Ali’s speech, we reprinted it as a “Last Word” column in the November-December 2015 issue of our member magazine, The Financial Manager. A digital copy will still be available on our website for the next week or two.

Happy New Year!

Mary M. Collins is president and CEO of the Media Financial Management Association and its BCCA subsidiary. She can be reached at [email protected]. Her column appears in TVNewsCheck every other week. You can read her earlier columns here.

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