Best Boss Series: Dmitry Shishkin, Digital Editor, UK

Dmitry is responsible for developing and implementing the BBC’s digital strategy for 40 non-English foreign language new services. Originally from Moscow, Russia, Dmitry has worked in various editorial and leadership roles for the digital part of BBC News over the last several years. These roles have required liaising between editorial, product and strategy teams in a complex, matrix environment in order to drive innovation and develop new ways of reaching audiences, increasing engagement with news across the world and, crucially, driving digital culture change in newsrooms.

Tell me how you define a successful leader.

A successful leader is a great manager with a vision, someone who takes their team on a journey of purpose and meaning, by the end of which all the team members become stronger. Sometimes the leader has to lead from the front, but sometimes a quiet style of leadership, a so-called leadership from the shadows is needed, too. A combination of strategic and tactical skills, an ability to be effective at both macro- and micro- levels is a rarity these days, and for me, this is the core competency.

Another thing is certain – a leader is always authentic (including publicly demonstrating their vulnerability) and stays true to their own beliefs and core values.

When in your career did you find you really began to be an impactful leader and what gave you proof of this?

I probably started to feel like a leader at work by my mid-20s, even before I had my first big managerial role, as it’s something that I always thought comes quite naturally to me. I was a boy scout very early on in my teenage years, and that movement is all about one key maxim – it teaches you to take responsibility for your own actions and its impact on others. Leadership at work is very similar, you proactively take responsibility and aim for something big, taking people with you.

The war in Georgia in August 2008 was probably the first time I felt a huge deal of responsibility and pressure from the expectations people had on me as a leader. It coincided with the start of the Beijing Olympic Games, so my team and I were completely overwhelmed editorially and managerially. I knew I needed to be there for them, offering any type of support and leading from the front. Later, the feedback from the team – and audience – was very good.

Share with me your greatest leadership success/experience.

It always pleases me to see a long list of candidates applying to join my team, to me, it’s a good indicator of people actively seeking you and the culture you are building.

Professionally I have been having “the best year of my career” for the last 10 years running – each year keeps on being better, harder, more fulfilling, than the previous one. I often start my public talks saying that I have the best job in world’s journalism today.

I have just been leading on the biggest, most complex and most challenging project of my career – over the course of the last 2 years, I’ve been responsible for a huge digital investment that the BBC World Service received to expand into new markets and boost our existing digital and video editorial capacity. We have launched 12 new editorial teams, with their own websites and social media, and several new TV bulletins, in just 9 months. My work stream created several hundreds of roles in dozens of places, from Jakarta to Miami, and the annual budget was around £17m. I’ve never been responsible for anything as massive and I am delighted we delivered what we set out to do.

Recall your biggest managerial challenge. Tell me how you handled this. What did you learn that you might do differently next time?

At the age of 31, I got promoted over more senior and experienced colleagues to the second highest post in the department of about 110 people. I had to learn how to be in a higher position than people who used to manage me as a 19-year old trainee and resetting these relationships was not easy. Coaching, which I then got for the first time, helped a great deal.

Another tough experience for me was having to take part and partially lead a big restructuring. We ended up being in a compulsory redundancy situation where my HR manager and I had to go through a paper exercise actually scoring people according to their skills. It was a list of 20+ people, whom by that time I had been working with for many years. It was a very difficult, alien situation to me, and thankfully, we had some volunteers to leave, later on, so no-one was actually let go against their wishes, however, I was prepared to have those conversations.

Going back to the expansion project I mentioned earlier, we have learned a lot in the last two years and I would indeed do several things differently. For instance, I wish I was able to influence the hiring process globally better, given budget constraints and salary structures around the world we had a challenge of attracting the right kind of talent in the digital sector. I have certainly learned to not take too much on at the same time as being spread too thinly always comes back to bite you in the end.

Who has been your greatest mentor(s)? Where they a colleague or did you hire a professional coach? What about this person or the experience had the biggest impact on your growth?

My first boss in London, Leonid Osokin, was the best manager I have ever had. Sadly, Leonid passed away unexpectedly, but his leadership style stayed with me ever since. I try to model myself on him, his kindness and openness.

The biggest impact came from the now former Vice-Chancellor of Open University Peter Horrocks. I learned a great deal observing Peter, especially in the area of leadership and moving organisation through tough times, and I still miss him.

Common opinion states that in order to succeed in business one has to be ruthless. A quick survey of world’s most domineering companies seems to support that view. Do you think it’s possible to be very successful in business and still be a nice person?

I can’t talk about business per se, as my career has been a public service one to date (with some pushing targets and delivery culture, though). If we talk about “business” as a professional occupation in general, then there is no doubt in my head, that the times of “tell, sell, yell” are all but over, and that collaboration and inclusion are the names of the leadership game now. Being direct, being demanding – yes, going over people’s heads, side-lining them, undercutting them – no.

Let’s talk about managing pressure – how do you control your own emotions and temper when things don’t go to plan? Not lashing out at those around you is a skill – what are your tips?

I learned not to jump into replying to heated emails immediately, I tend to sit on some of the more complex ones a bit, thinking them over. Ideally, I try to keep emailing to two hours a day, one in the morning, one in the afternoon. I am also trying to have at least one walking meeting a day, walking and thinking helps a great deal to add something extra to your day.

Being a great believer in a good work/life balance, I encourage my team to always try and step back from complex situations and assess them from a different angle. The nature of digital transformation work is that we are involved in a “marathon”, not a “sprint”, and burnout is a very real challenge.

I constantly keep reminding my team that they are in this for the long haul, so they ought to pace themselves.

I am vociferously against presenteeism culture at work – I do not check who and when comes and goes, if it was up to me I won’t even track holidays time either – we are all grown-ups and we all should self-regulate, when it comes to the amount of work and the level of effectiveness.

At times we all hit a low point. How do you motivate yourself?

I go for a walk, I listen to music for a bit, I go around our floor and chat to people from other departments and this all takes my mind off something that might temporarily upset me. My three biggest hobbies – travelling, cooking and reading always uplift me. Family support is a huge factor, that goes without saying.

A technique I learned in the last few years, which works very well for me is called “letting go”: you deal with a difficult or unpleasant situation by fully accepting it, really living through it, feeling it to the core, acknowledging your feelings and then letting them go. It really works and it truly changed my life.

What are your top three book titles that you were most impactful for your leadership development?

I read a lot, probably around 40+ books a year, half of them non-fiction, the other half – fiction.

A thorough study of the nature of leadership by Rob Goffee and Gareth Jones “Why Should Anyone Be Led by You”. Everything in this book makes sense, it’s practical, very digestible and clear.

Joe Navarro’s “What Everybody Is Saying”. Navarro, a former FBI agent, specialises in non-verbal communication. We all know how important non-verbal comms are, but only having read this and a couple of his other books, I started actively and attentively watching my own body language and that of others. It’s absolutely remarkable how easy some of the signs are to grasp and how much better your conversations become once you start really paying attention to those signals and acting on them.  

I highly recommend Conversational Intelligence by Judith Glaser – this book is all about how conversations with people can lead to developing higher levels of trust, demonstrate integrity and empathy.

As a bonus, I’d suggest – even to the non-football fans amongst us – a book called “Leading” by Sir Alex Ferguson, the most decorated and successful football manager in British history. Since retiring, he took on a job of lecturing at Harvard, among other things, and I found his thoughts on leadership and success as well as failure incredibly relevant to me.

Most large organisations today have a strict bonus and pay raise policy, which makes it difficult to reward people even when you know they truly deserve it. Have you found a way of dealing with this?

It is widely accepted that pay is not what motivates at least three-quarters of people. On the other hand, peer recognition, personal development and growth do. This is something I am dealing with on a fairly regular basis – we do indeed have a strict set of rules regulating pay rises, exacerbated by a recent freeze on public service pay. Things are changing though and the BBC as a whole is running a whole set of initiatives addressing issues like gender pay imbalance. While I am not able to offer someone a 20% rise, for example, there are indirect means of motivating your staff. In my case, I offer international travel (every member of the team is able to do 3-5 overseas trips a year) or external training. There are also internal attachments, which benefit staff by offering new skills.

A true leader is always fair – there will be situations where your staff will not be happy with your decisions, but they will accept it if you consistently behave in a transparent and objective and impartial way.

Some managers believe in strict hierarchy and the “do what I say approach”, sighting cultural norm as an excuse. What are your thoughts on this?

This is just an outdated approach. I tend to agree with Reid Hoffman, LinkedIn co-founder. In his book “The Alliance” he offers a new paradigm of relationships between a company and its employees. Where in the past many companies used to call themselves families and offered longtime security, it’s almost always not the case anymore, so a mutually beneficial contract agreement (referred to as “a tour of duty”) between the two parties is a very pragmatic way of looking at it. It fits into a paradigm – “come and make our company stronger and by doing so you will have increased your own market worth for when you decide to move on, which you will”. It’s so clear and effective.

I also enjoy surrounding myself with people stronger than myself. Yes, hierarchically I am leading them, but they know more about their individual areas thus making our unit much stronger collectively. I am absolutely fine with people leaving my team after 2-3 years too – they have come, brought value, increased their own worth, got promoted, done. It’s natural. When you have a relationship like that, you can’t expect people to just do what you tell them, you won’t have hired such people in the first place, and they would not have come to work for someone with such commands.

Tell me how you decide what to delegate and to whom.

As Will McNight from 3M famously said, “hire good people and leave them alone.” I strongly believe in empowering people, giving them space and time to evaluate a task and deal with it themselves. As my team works in a typical matrix environment, where we influence lots of people in order to get the result we need, almost always without direct authority, I prefer to decentralise as many tasks and projects as possible. I’d say that my team collectively runs around 25 projects of different sizes and durations, and they are all run by those reporting to me.

Years ago I made the mistake of micromanaging someone who was underperforming. Instead of confronting them, I started breaking their day in small deliverables – I thought I was very practical, but I learned that such approach is counterproductive in the long run. You want people adapting and taking decisions for themselves – as long as the task is done in time, I don’t care whether you are in the office for 8 or 4 hours a day.

Team building has become a buzz word in the corporate world, yet many still not see the value in applying it to their group or organization. What are your beliefs and or successes around team building?

I am all up for “away days” when you get your team out of their regular environment to discuss strategy, review projects, reset the agenda together, away from the regular surroundings. I have just come out of a series of away days this week and it sets an incredibly reinvigorating tone to the team dynamics.

Another really fun thing is our WhatsApp chat and was mainly used as a place for sharing local logistics from the places around the world the team frequents on business. It builds a friendly rapport with the whole team and allows us all to share interesting things with each other. It is important to remember that the people that you work with have their own experiences, emotions and memories, and so sharing things like travel and food is always a good way to bond. We tend to visit 10-15 places around the world fairly regularly and who would not want to know about cool places to eat, right?

In other words, team building happens every minute of every day, if this is in place, then organising a raft building exercise is an added bonus.   

How do you decide to be available to your team (i.e. text/Email/voice call/video call)? How do you determine the best way for them to contact you that does not interrupt your workflow?

I do not respond to my emails after hours. You do it once, then it becomes a habit, then your team members start doing the same and then suddenly you have an exhausted group of people who are not able to switch off. Of course, there are urgent situations, where everyone needs to pull their weight, but we are not a newsroom output department and we are not brain surgeons either. An overwhelming majority of our tasks and projects last weeks and months and that adds a real dose of realism into the way we approach work.   

I am available on the phone or email of course, but this summer, for example, I am going to delete my work email while away – glancing over it will still mean that I will not switch off. I advise my team to do exactly that, too. I’ll appoint a deputy and they can deal with anything that’s coming up, those acting up moments are very useful as experiences. I used to love it when I’d be given a chance to deputise for a week or two and as I have five people of the same rank, then every one of them could have a go.

Practically, in the office, when I need to concentrate in a huge open space area, I’d either put my headphones on, indicating that “I am busy” or go with a laptop to another floor where no-one knows me. If I am sitting with everyone, then it’s assumed that people can just come and ask for whatever they might need. I work from home on Fridays and naturally every member of my team has a chance to work from home one day a week, modern tech makes it extremely easy to manage.

How much do you value transparency of information at work? To what extent do you share information with your team?

I share as much as I can – the point here is to understand what level of details people need. One of the traits of bad bosses is their desire to hold onto information and there are still people who take “information is power” statement way too literally. Your team members are on your side, and sharing is of paramount importance. Having a full understanding of the complexity of situations brings people together and allows for a better flow of ideas, helping to solve difficult situations together.

How do you best separate work like from personal life – for a healthy balance?  What are your biggest challenges around this? How does this impact you personally?

I used to be quite bad at letting work things go after work – logging in in the evenings, spending about an hour a few times each week working. Then, when you realise, that work does not actually ever end, you get smarter about managing your own time. For example, as I tend to spend Fridays at home, and my Mondays-Thursdays are almost always block booked from the morning to the evening, I have found a useful way of managing my workload by delegating tasks to myself for Fridays, in 30 or 60 mins chunks – reviewing reports, commenting on non-urgent email threads, scheduling calls etc. It completely changed my life, I find it incredibly efficient. I used to miss lunches too, but now I have blocked an hour Monday to Thursday in my diary as a recurring item, and I might not use the whole hour, but with the intensity of my work, only being organised helps to sustain it in the long term – I advise everyone around me to do the same. Why would you want to have a team of hungry, exhausted people?!

Burnout is real so it’s important to find time to reset.

Explain how you work with HR for recruiting and interviewing.  What works for you and how do you handle the interviewing process for vetting candidates?

I have probably been recruiting people as a hiring manager for the last 15 years and I genuinely love it.

Over the course of time I came up with a system that works for me – I tend to never shortlist more than 3 or 4 people for a vacancy, so the shortlisting bar is pretty high all the time. I like to be flexible and appoint “also suitable” candidates, who could be offered the same role too as a result of the interview process. I encourage shortlisted candidates to always come and talk to the prospective panel members beforehand, asking them about their priorities and views as part of their preparation.

I had witnessed a few meltdowns during the interviews and know that people often underperform due to stress. It’s important to remember, that the interview is a two-way street, where both parties have as much to learn from the process.

It’s not only us looking for the best candidate, it’s also about candidate assessing us as employers.

How do you respond to employees/colleagues who are diagnosed with mental disorders, e.g. depression or anxiety?

I have not had a first-hand experience to properly answer this particular question, but as many other managers around me, we always deal with people and their problems, which we must always prioritise over anything else.

Flexible working arrangements, anti-presentism culture, complete transparency, regular catch-ups – all of these things contribute to building trust, and when you have trust, then people feel comfortable to open up. I am always there for anyone who is experiencing difficulties.

Sometimes an employee is not working out despite your best efforts and you know that this relationship is not serving them or the business. At which point do you decide to part company and how do you go about it?

BBC has a very specific set of guidelines on how to deal with complex cases to do with poor performance so there is not a lot of leeway.

However, I like to give people chances to improve and you’ve got to manage their performance fairly and consistently, and not a lot of people are willing to do so. Setting quantifiable objectives, evaluating them, giving people feedback – all of this would improve almost all difficult cases. Same goes for annual appraisals – when you see you direct reports regularly, giving them feedback for their work, then the annual meeting becomes just another biweekly catch-up (I try to see all my direct reports fortnightly).

What would you like to be remembered for when you retire?

I like to surround myself with people stronger than I am – in the future, when all my current team members are running their own companies, projects, if they remember me as a fair boss, who gave them space to flourish, I’d feel extremely fulfilled.

Empowering others to be the best they can be is an integral part of my life.

The Best Boss Coaching Project brought to you by Talent Investors is here to promote excellence in the workplace. Throughout 2018 we are speaking to people from across the world, and across different industries, regardless of the companies’ size or their job title. Over the course of 52 weeks, you will be introduced to 52 bosses, from 52 backgrounds, answering 20+ questions. All designed to motivate you to lead, and grow effectively. We are here to provide wisdom from, and recognition for those every day other people’s lives better.