Episode 127: Resilience

Show transcript:

Welcome to The Broad Experience, the show about women, the workplace, and success. I’m Ashley Milne-Tyte.

This time…

“Even if his father had lived I think I still would have worked this hard, because I think it’s important first of all for me to have my own identity, I feel like I have a calling and a purpose in the work that I do, but I also think it’s good for a boy to see his mother go to work.”

Coming up, resilience in life and the workplace.

So as you know this show is usually built around a particular theme, and I find guests who can speak to that theme. But sometimes I’ll do the reverse. I’ll meet someone or hear someone speak at an event and she’s so compelling I want to build a show just around her. That was the case with Dana Canedy.

I heard Dana speak earlier this spring at an event for women journalists. She gave a great talk where she imparted some of her hard-won wisdom about careers and how to stick it out in the workplace over time. She’s had more ups and downs in her life than most of us have probably had. She was the first person in her family to go to college; she realized her dream of becoming a journalist and spent years at a top newspaper, The New York Times. She also lost her fiancé in Iraq in 2006. Their baby son was just six months old.

She wrote about her fiancé First Sergeant Charles Monroe King, and that searing loss in a book called A Journal for Jordan – that’s their son’s name. She wrote to process her grief and to have a memoir for Jordan to read when he was older.

That book is now being made into a movie with Denzel Washington slated to direct. Her son is 12 years old and Dana left her job at the New York Times last year to become the administrator of the prestigious Pulitzer Prizes. We met in her office soon after this year’s winners were announced.

“I’m the first woman, the first person of color and the youngest person in the history of the Pulitzers to be in this role. And the Pulitzers have been around for 102 years so for more than a century it’s always been run by older, white men. So we just announced the winners last Monday, that’s the first time it’s ever been done by a woman or a person or color. So that feels kinda cool.”

This was her first free-ish week after weeks spent reading and judging all the entries. I started by asking her about something she’d said when I’d heard her speak at that event back in March. 

AM-T: “One thing that struck me close to the beginning of your talk, you said, ‘You have to empower yourself. You will be underestimated and misunderstood. It’s not personal. Do it anyway.’”

“Well, I think there are gonna be challenges in any life or any career, personal or professional, and it takes a while to do this but you have to be comfortable rolling with the punches. When something comes at you, you have to find the wherewithal to respond to it, whether it’s being passed over for a promotion or a personal tragedy like I had in my life. So it’s really important to find the fortitude not only to endure it but also to get back to place of comfort and joy eventually. It’s not an easy thing to do. And I’m able to say that because right now I’m in a relatively good place in my life, but having overcome those things, when you’re in the middle of them it feels horrible, just horrible. But you have no other choice other than to figure out what is my support system, what do I need to get through this, who are my advocates, what can I do to empower myself and what don’t I have any control of? And once you figure all that out it’ll empower you to act in a way that’ll help you with your circumstances…but the number one thing to realize when you’re trying to empower yourself, things that seem overwhelming and they’re never gonna end, I promise you they will. Life is cyclical. And when you feel stuck you’re really not. You may be stuck in the moment, but things change.”

She says you need good people around you all the time – people who can bolster you or offer counsel and advice during your worst times as well as the better ones. She’d only been back at work after maternity leave for two weeks when Charles was killed.

“Ugh…uh…it’s still, after all this time, really hard to talk about. But he…he was blown up in a Humvee with one month left to go before his tour of duty was over. Everybody – so that’s a whole different kind of having a village than in the normal course of your life. Anyone who reached out to me I would accept that because I needed all the help I could get. I had a six-month old baby and my life had taken this horrible turn, but in a general sense, your community, your village if you will are the people you can count on. In my case some were reporters, other folks, women who were foreign correspondents or done work I’d really admired became part of my village, my sister, you have to have that, a group of people you can rely on…nobody can do this alone.”

Dana grew up in a big family in Mississippi, the eldest of five kids.

AM-T: “Your dad was in the army, and your mum was a homemaker, right? So how did you get into journalism?”

“I’ve been writing since I was 12 years old. I believe very deeply that God just gave me this talent for writing and I was supposed to be doing just what I am doing with it. I can’t even tell you, through God’s grace I’ve been able to build a career writing as journalist and advocating for journalists through my role heading the Pulitzer Prize Organization. So it’s just something that’s always been a part of me. And my teachers in junior high and high school saw I had an interest in reading and writing and English and they encouraged me to pursue that as a career and I did.”

She has always loved her work – even when the people around her sometimes made things difficult. But she was so determined to succeed she didn’t let them get her down. She says try not to focus on the negative stuff, whatever it is. She’s had her share of weird situations and offensive comments, and she’ll talk about that more in a minute. But at the end of the day she believes…

“Excellence trumps everything. If you are all about the work and really producing at a high level you will get noticed. I am a black woman who came to New York in a newsroom that was overwhelmingly white, the most competitive newsroom in the world, and I was able to rise to the top there. So really anyone can do it by having a strong work ethic, really doing excellent, excellent work over time and building good will, and then once that happens it’s the foundation for everything else. You can’t really complain, you can’t really achieve, you can’t really expect to be promoted until you’ve done the work, consistently for years – there are no short cuts to that.”

That said, she says there’s no getting away from the fact it may take you longer to get where you want to go.

“…especially if you’re a woman and a woman of color it may take twice as long. And that is so painful and so incredibly frustrating but you can never show it. I’m not advocating don’t stand up for yourself. But I’m saying you have to go in with a positive attitude every day and say, what can I accomplish today? And sometimes that’s hard and sometimes it isn’t.”

I wondered if it took her longer.

“Oh gosh yes, no question about it, absolutely…it took me longer to get there and then longer to achieve the things I wanted to achieve when I was there, yes. But so what? Now I’m running the Pulitzer Prizes. And I wrote a book and it’s gonna be a movie and I accomplished a lot at the Times.”

So what? I heard her say that a few times during our conversation. Yes, she hit roadblocks. But overall she’s delighted about where she’s been and where she is now. And she WAS overlooked at times. Quite literally, at least once.

I asked if she could share an anecdote…

“Oh gosh, there are so many of them I wouldn’t know what to choose…whether it’s being in the headquarters of a Fortune 100 company to interview the CEO and I’m the only one in the lobby, and the receptionist came out three times looking for the New York Times reporter and walked back into the office. Because she literally didn’t see me. She thought, this cannot be her. She walked out the third time and I thought, this poor woman’s gonna wear herself out if I don’t say, ‘I think I’m who you’re looking for.’ So whether it’s something like that that’s a little thing, or people have made comments that are inappropriate, sometimes I’ve addressed them and sometimes I’ve just let them go. It depends on your mood of the day, who it is that says it, if you have the energy, if you’re tired, or how big a deal it is. And I don’t think I’d want to reveal too many specifics but there have been some really bad, painful moments, and in some cases it involved going into the office of someone really senior and saying, we have to deal with this. And other times I thought OK, I’m going to file this away as a mental note about something someone said, keep it in mind but not react. That’s the other thing – no matter what you’re feeling you can always give yourself time to react. You don’t have to react in the moment. You can walk away, you can call someone and get advice, you can wait until you’ve calmed down or you can react in the moment. But if you do that make sure you can do it in a calm, professional way.”

And that is easier said than done. But Dana says it is vital. Because otherwise the situation can backfire on you.  

“What I always say, and I saw someone really have a meltdown in the newsroom once…is you can start out right and end wrong, meaning something can happen to you where you’re the victim but depending on how you handle it, all people may remember is how you inappropriately handled something. So even when something happens to you, you have to handle it in such a way where you maintain the high ground.”

She told me a cautionary tale from her years in the newsroom.

“There was a male reporter who was known for yelling at people so much I think his nose bled one time, he was yelling at someone so loud – he was known for this but because he was a superstar they let him get away with it for a while, years in fact. A very junior level editor was editing him…he was on the phone in one of our bureaus at the time, and whatever he said to her, which was inappropriate, set her off and she was screaming, shaking at the top of her lungs. And everyone in the newsroom stopped to watch this. No one to this day remembers what he did or said…they remember her reaction. So that’s an example of starting out right and ending wrong. She ended up reprimanded just as he was, when she didn’t have to put herself in that position.

When something is painful walk away, go to the bathroom and have a cry if you like…whatever it takes. But never lose the high ground, never lose your sense of self and professionalism. Because particularly when you’re a woman and a woman of color in my case, people will remember that.”

AM-T: “Yeah, you talked about emotions and handling emotions at the office. And you said, there’s nothing wrong with crying at work.” 

“Yes, in my last role at the New York Times I had a senior role in personnel, so people would come to me for career advice all the time and I’d say without exaggeration I probably had 50 people cry in my office in the last four years there. And luckily the office was situated so their back was to the door and no one could see, and I always had tissues, always had candy…but I used to say to people and I say to my son, crying is not a sign of weakness, it’s a sign of pain and can be very cleansing. However, when you’re a woman at work there are many negative connotations to crying, so I would say don’t do it if you can avoid it, go to bathroom and have a good cry, not publicly if you can avoid it, but if you can’t [avoid it] so what, live with it, don’t put too much weight on that. But I’m not at all suggesting people shouldn’t feel whatever they feel or they should shove it down…it’s just that your coping mechanisms often have to be private. A chat with a girlfriend, a walk around the block, a cry in the bathroom, whatever. But when you are confronting the situation, when you’re dealing with it, you have to have conviction, confidence, and you have to speak in a clear way about what you’re trying to communicate even if you’re faking those things.”

AM-T: “It’s interesting, I was speaking to someone once, we were talking about crying in the workplace and she pointed out that men will very often not cry in the workplace but they will get incredibly angry. And she said that’s just emotion coming out in a different way…you had a great story about a guy losing it in your office and how you reacted. I think herbal tea was involved.”

“Oh, yes. I think I have so many people drinking tea now. He was my boss, and he would come in and throw phones and kick desks and curse, and I loved my job and I thought, this guy is not stealing my joy. So I‘d come in on a Monday morning with fresh flowers on my desk, and one day he came in and he was just ranting, going crazy. And I fixed myself a cup of hot mint tea and the louder he got the more I sat back in that chair and took a sip, and he looked at me like a toddler, throwing a tantrum, ‘don’t you see me kicking and screaming?’ And it completely changed the power dynamic. Because he wanted a reaction out of me and he wasn’t getting it. So now I tell people all the time the more upset someone gets the calmer you should become. And in that way you change the dynamic of what’s happening in the room. You can even say to people, including your boss, listen, clearly you need to gather yourself, I’ll give you a minute and I’ll come back.” 

We will be back in a moment.

The same irascible boss who screamed and swore in Dana’s office that time, he asked her to work on a big breaking story once just as she was about to fly off to be with her mother, who was about to have a biopsy. He knew she had that trip planned. Dana said no – and he was OK with that. She says she’d put in years at the paper by then. He knew she’d worked 37 days straight during another huge story. She says doing her time has given her some leeway – in more ways than one.   

“I was once painting my nails in the New York Times office and a twenty-something reporter came in and she looked beside herself that I was doing this. And I looked at her and said, well you can’t. You have a good 20 years before you can be seen with a bottle of nail polish, but I have worked through hurricanes, a space shuttle explosion, the presidential re-count, murder cases, you name it, I’ve been an editor, they know what I do and how long I’ve been doing this, so if I need to touch up my nails I’m gonna do that. I would never have done that in my 20s and 30s…they get to know about your personality and your quirks. I was known at the Times as the girly girl, but that was after 20 years of delivering.”

And she says to help her deliver she often had mentors and also sponsors along the way – those people who put their reputations on the line by recommending you for various projects. But she says as an employee…

“You have to earn that. People used to walk into my office and say, will you mentor me? And I thought, why do you want me to mentor you, and the answer was because they thought I could do something for them, right? But I chose to mentor only the people I saw were doing the work, could use the guidance, not because they saw me as I was a stepping stone to get them to something else. People who would say hey, could you read the rough draft of my story, and tell me what you think, how could I make this better? That would get my attention more than someone coming into my office and saying, can you mentor me?”

AM-T: “Which not everyone necessarily understands, right, because people, they’re told they need a mentor, and they start looking around, and asking people…”

“Yes. But someone can become your mentor without you saying, can you mentor me? Just going in and asking about the work, or asking how did you get to where you are? Or listen, I made a mistake, what would you have done differently? To the extent that the person you’re asking those things of is receptive, they’re becoming your mentor without you even asking. The people I considered my mentors throughout my career, I don’t think I ever said, would you be my mentor. They just were.”

One skill she picked up along the way largely on her own – negotiation. This is a bit of a teaser for the next show, but Dana is adamant that we should do it.  

“Whenever someone offers you to job and they put the compensation package in front of you they never expect for you to take it. They always expect that that’s the start of a negotiation. So ask for at least 25% more than they offer you, and if you end up with 10 percent more you’re still ahead of the game. On occasion they won’t budge, and you’ll end up taking the package and that’s fine. But I think women and people of color are so grateful, their inclination is to just take these jobs. No, don’t do that. Push for more.”

AM-T: “And when did you start doing that. Were you good at it from the get-go?”

“No, no. And then what happens is you find out people are making more money than you and that motivates you to do it. I’d say in last ten years I’ve become better at it. But you can’t expect the answer will be yes, and you can’t be offended if it doesn’t work out in terms of getting more compensation. But I’d say more than half the time you will get what you asked for or something that was better than what was put on the table.”

Like more vacation time or the ability to work from home some days. We will talk much more about this in the next show.

Dana has been a single parent for 12 years now. And in her case, that means being prepared for emergencies. Really prepared. It also means not letting on at work when things go wrong at home.

AM-T: “You touched on this idea of how much do women talk about their families and kids at work…which can be quite controversial…I think you said that you have layers of backup, right?”

“Yes. So when you say talk about family and kids, it depends about how you talk about them. If you’re talking about lack of daycare or complaining about the nanny didn’t turn up…that’s one thing. If you’re saying hey, look at my kid’s birthday party, that’s something else. There’s nothing wrong with sharing who we are. We shouldn’t hide that we’re human beings and we have lives. If you were going skydiving you’d show those pictures off so why not show you spent the weekend at your kid’s football game?

But it’s different when you’re talking about the logistics of managing being a working parent. And this is true whether you’re a man or a woman, though it mostly falls to women, I believe. But I didn’t ever want to give my employer an excuse to discount me, so the things I didn’t talk about ever were if my nanny was late or didn’t show up or if I had some childcare issue. And one of the things I did, and I could afford to do this, a lot of women couldn’t, was I had a backup nanny. So I had a primary nanny, and he had a backup nanny if the primary nanny couldn’t be there. Because I didn’t want a group of senior people in a room without me whispering: you know, we’d love to promote her but she’s always having childcare issues, or her work habits are inconsistent. So you have an obligation I believe to take care of all that – to make sure when you’re there you are present as an employee. Now the employer has an obligation I think to make sure there are reasonable accommodations for working parents, maternity, paternity leave, etc. but when you’re there to work your time is theirs, that’s what they’re paying you for, and I believe in that.”

AM-T: “What does your son think of what you do?”

“He thinks it’s pretty cool…he’s proud, and even if his father had lived I think I still would have worked this hard, because I think it’s important first of all for me to have my own identity, and I think I have a calling and a purpose in the work that I do, but I also think it’s good for a boy to see his mother go to work. It’s good for him to learn a work ethic from me…he’s seen me go to work when I have the flu, unfortunately he’s seen me miss a few of his basketball games, I go to as many as I can. He’s seen me come back exhausted, come back and just fall on the couch. I think that’s good, it teaches him about work ethic. We also have balance though, we take some cool vacations, we laugh a lot. But I do think it’s not gonna be unusual to Jordan, my son, for a woman to be in a position of authority when he is in the workforce, because he will have seen that his whole life.”

AM-T: “Yeah, it’s interesting, I was reading one of the notes your fiancé left for his son, and he talked about being…being a good man and he did talk about being a provider. And of course you are the provider but you would have been a joint provider anyway.”

So…our plan was to do this together, obviously. Because his father died in combat a good portion of Jordan’s college will be paid for, and I tell him, ‘Your father is still taking care of you. He’s still contributing.’ I don’t mind being the primary provider, that’s OK, it’s an honor. He took care of us in the ways that he could. And whether it’s providing for my son financially, for his needs, or providing for him mentally, emotionally, I was gonna do that anyway, I’m his mother, and I’m very much a mama bear, I love him to death, he’s the best part of my life. So it’s an honor to take care of him. I wouldn’t have it any other way.”

Finally, one thing I took away when I first heard Dana speak was how much she enjoys mentoring other people and generally encouraging young women just starting out. She does it as much as she can. 

“There’s a news literacy program and I invited a school of girls in for the Pulitzer announcement last week, and before that I did a Skype session with thousands of students across the country. I wanted them to know I’m accessible, I’m no different than you, I started out in the same place as you, so you can do it. That cost me nothing, it gave me great joy and God willing I was able to reach someone who maybe got more confidence because of that, or during a difficult period later in their career they’ll remember that I said something. If it touched someone that would mean a lot to me. Why not help eachother out?”

AM-T: “Yeah, you said that was one of the most meaningful things to you now.”

“Oh my gosh, I’ve done it my whole career. Or at least during the last 20-something years.

Before that I was just figuring out what I was meant to be doing every day. But I think it’s important, it really is. And believe me, when you extend yourself to people you get more out of it than they do.”

Dana Canedy.

She heads up the Pulitzer Prizes and she’s the author of A Journal for Jordan, an adaptation of which will be coming to a movie theater near you sometime in the next couple of years.

That’s The Broad Experience for this time. As ever I love to hear from you. You can find me at ashley at TheBroadExperience.com or tweet me or find me via the show’s Facebook page. I will be posting show notes and a transcript of this episode at TheBroadExperience.com.

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I’m Ashley Milne-Tyte. Thanks for listening.