The change agent Featured

8:00pm EDT March 26, 2008

Five to 10 years ago, most journalists didn’t want to admit that there was a problem in their industry.

“For a long time, people didn’t want to change,” says Susan Goldberg, editor of The Plain Dealer. “Newspapers were profitable, and people wanted to do what they had spent decades training and doing every day.”

Journalists started out with one product — a newspaper, but that’s not enough these days.

“The bottom line of our business is not working anymore,” Goldberg says. “The business model of a traditional metropolitan newspaper is broken, and that has become increasingly apparent even to the most hidebound traditionalist that our industry is in trouble, and we need to change.”

With buyouts, layoffs and consolidation, all of those traditionalists are starting to listen, and the industry is finally adapting. What started out as just a newspaper has grown to include audio, video and a Web site.

“We’re in all kinds of businesses that most of us thought we’d never be in when we started out 30 years ago,” she says. “Understanding and appreciating that change and getting others to buy in to that change has been the most challenging part of my career.”

The first step to driving change in your business is to explain it repeatedly.

“You need to just tell people why and explain over and over and over again until you’re bored silly with your own message,” Goldberg says. “I don’t think you can explain it enough, and you have to explain it in different ways.”

She says to have both small and large meetings as well as give speeches, make PowerPoint presentations and hold multiple sessions with people.

“You need to show them, and you need to be very transparent of why you’re wanting to do the things that you’re doing,” she says. “The more you can talk about why, the more people are going to understand, and they’re going to know it’s not some capricious or whimsical flavor of the month. That’s how you get people to buy in, but you can’t just explain it once and say, ‘Oh, people get it now,’ because they don’t.”

You also have to make your message relevant to people.

“You have to try to tailor the message and use examples that are going to relate to the people you’re talking to,” Goldberg says.

With any change — both large and small — you’re going to have people who resist, and it’s important to deal with them, but after you’ve tried communicating and reasoning with them, and they still don’t get on board, move on.

“At some point, you just move on to places where you can more profitably spend your time,” she says. “At some point, the business is going to pass those people by, and they will become more and more marginalized in what they’re able to do. I guess that’s their choice, and they’re short-circuiting their careers, but I’m not going to spend all my time trying to convince somebody to do something that they don’t want to do. They have to make their own choice and deal with the consequences of that choice.”

As a leader, Goldberg also points out that there are far more important tasks for you to handle.

“I’d rather spend my time encouraging and leading the people who do want to try new things and getting us organizationally to move to where we need to be as opposed to spending all my time trying to convince a couple of holdouts to do things differently — that’s just not a good use of my time.”

Whether you’re leading change in an organization or simply making day-to-day decisions, recognize that you will face challenges, and sometimes, you may choose the wrong solution. Despite failure or success, you have to keep moving forward.

“There are very few career paths that lead in a straight line,” Goldberg says. “They do tend to wander around and sometimes get off track. That ability to pick yourself up and dust yourself off and start over is a very important skill, and sometimes, it will be what gets you from Monday to Tuesday, but Monday to Tuesday eventually stretches out over decades.”

HOW TO REACH: The Plain Dealer,