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Tips From The Top: One On One With Celeste Headlee

I spoke to award-winning journalist Celeste Headlee about her journey and best advice

Adam: Thanks again for taking the time to share your story and what you have learned from your journey to date. First things first, though, what is something about you that your fans don’t know?

Celeste: I struggle to do all the things I advise them to do. I find it difficult to listen to others at times. I sometimes avoid conversation when I know full well it will lift my mood and make me healthier. I interrupt and turn conversations to myself. Being a good conversationalist is not something you achieve and then stop worrying about, like riding a bike. It’s something you have to work at every day. Also, I love comic books and have a huge collection of Legos and tin wind-up toys. 🙂 

Adam: What failures, setbacks or challenges have been most instrumental to your development and success?

Celeste: The biggest failure was my inability to make myself heard by management when I was being bullied at work. This is a situation I described in my book, and it’s an event that led directly to intense research into conversation. I prepared carefully for my meetings with managers and still was ineffective in making my concerns clear or articulating the problem. I allowed others to trample me in those discussions and I came away from that experience determined to understand how and why conversations go wrong, and the best methods for talking about difficult issues in a respectful but productive way.

Adam: In your experience, what are the common qualities among those who have been able to enjoy success in media and broadcasting?

Celeste: It depends on how you define success. Financial success is quite separate from achieving a high level of skill as a broadcaster. Let me address the latter category. A good broadcast journalist is curious and always seeks to understand how things work and how they impact people. Remember that radio is people talking to people about people. So, to be good in this field, you need to care about people. While some measure of confidence and ego is necessary, it’s also vitally important that a broadcast journalist be somewhat humble. You must be able to admit freely what you don’t know and seek out the expertise of people whose opinion is informed and credible. You also have to not just tolerate edits but welcome them, since a good editor will make all of your work better. 

Adam: What advice do you have for those interested in breaking into or advancing in the industry?

Celeste: The best way to become a reporter is to start reporting. But seek out input from others and don’t dismiss criticism out of hand. Also, make sure that you’ve got your facts straight. Getting things wrong can seriously damage your reputation, so it’s best to triple check everything. High quality work is always better than lots of work. If you can’t do a job right, don’t take the job. But don’t sit at your desk. Get up, get out, and see things with your own eyes. Talk to people who live in the community you’re reporting on. Find the original sources. 

Adam: What can anyone do to become a become better broadcaster?

Celeste: Become a better listener. Far too many people get into this business to prove how smart they are, or how much they know. But great broadcasters are adept at bringing out the best in others. Become an expert in finding out other people’s areas of expertise, what areas they speak about eloquently, what makes them special. 

Adam: In your experience, what are the defining qualities of an effective leader? How can leaders and aspiring leaders take their leadership skills to the next level?

Celeste: Much like the last question, the best leaders are those who can bring out the best in those they lead. Solid research shows that groups of people can make better decisions than even the most intelligent expert, so a great leader knows how to collect the wisdom of their team and employ it for the good of the group. A great leader doesn’t pay lip service to employee feedback, but really hears and considers outside opinions. And a great leader recognizes the unique skills and needs of their team members and finds ways to take advantage of the former while accommodating the latter. A great leader is a great listener. 

Adam: What are your three best tips applicable to entrepreneurs, executives and civic leaders?

Celeste: You cannot lead through email. While digital communication is fine for straight-forward interactions, there is no replacement for talking with someone in person or calling them on the phone. Don’t isolate yourself behind your computer and meet only with senior managers. Learn to welcome edits and input. Criticism is hard to hear but it’s an incredibly powerful tool for innovation and growth. Always remember the core mission. A team works best when they feel they are working toward a common goal. Be specific about what it is your team is trying to do (no generalities like “serve customers with integrity) and make sure that goal is predominant in all activities and meetings. 

Adam: Who have been the biggest influences in your life and why?

Celeste: Personally, my biggest influence was my grandfather. He is a legendary figure in American music and incredibly important, and yet I didn’t know he was famous until after he died. He was a humble man who dedicated himself to doing the best work he could. Even though he was a composer who worked at home, he got up every morning and put on a suit with suspenders and wingtip shoes in order to write in the back room of his room. That’s how much respect he had for his work.Professionally, there are too many influences to name. Cindy Carpien of NPR taught me about high standards and work ethic. My editor, Laura Bertran, taught me about storytelling and through line. Another editor, Jacob Conrad, taught me not to get caught up in my head and over complicate my stories. And the inimitable David Candow taught me so much about writing for the ear and not the eye.

Adam: What is the single best piece of advice you have ever received?

Celeste: That you don’t know if you’re good at something until after you’ve tried doing it. I never intended to be a journalist or broadcaster and didn’t realize I was good at it until after I tried it. 

Adam: What are your hobbies and how have they shaped you?

Celeste: Walking. I love to walk with my dog, taking my pace down to a human level, noticing the woods around me, stepping away from the drive to be constantly productive.Gardening. It is an incredible feeling to plant a seed in March and see it grow to a thriving, healthy plant by June. I work in an industry that offers no easy answers or closure. Problems are often intractable, justice is rarely done, and I’m often left feeling frustrated and confused. It’s so relaxing to connect with something as simple as a plant that needs just water, soil, and sunlight. 

Adam: What is one thing everyone should be doing to pay it forward?

Celeste: Mentor someone else. Brad Montague from Montague Workshop says “Be who you needed when you were younger,” and that’s the ideal mantra for someone who wishes to give back. More importantly, doing something kind for someone else every day. Make it a daily discipline to complete a random act of kindness. If you get to the end of the day and realize you haven’t done this yet, you can still send a note to a friend you haven’t spoken to in a while, or send a small gift to someone for no reason. It’s crucial that you make it a habit to think about others’ needs and challenges and not become absorbed in your own problems. The more serious your problem, the more important it becomes to devote a little time to someone else, unless doing so would overwhelm you or exhaust you. 

Adam: Is there anything else you would like to share?

Celeste: Before every significant decision you make, ask yourself, “Is this the hill I want to die on?” Is this worth fighting over? Do I want my name associated with this decision? Get into the habit of taking a break before choosing between your options and making sure you’ve considered consequences. 

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